This month’s Early Career Writers’ resource pack is all about characters and we had been planning to share some of our favourite folk from books. Then lockdown hit and we added a twist: which fictional character would National Centre for Writing staff most like to be stuck with for several months in a lockdown situation?
Alice Kent, Communications Director:
I’m going to cheat and say Geoff Dyer. He tends to be my answer for all the lists we do in the office. Which is justified by the fact that he is the answer to most things. I think I can choose him as a character because in most of his books from Yoga for people who can’t be bothered to do it to Jeff In Venice, death in Varanasi the central character is a fictional version of himself. He would be the perfect lock-down companion because on first discovering his writing many people find that it’s like making a new friend. I can’t recommend Out of Sheer Rage enough – particularly for procrastinating writers wanting to feel that they are not alone. He has also written an entire essay on the need for his elevenses to be exactly right and so in between Zoom meetings we could plan together the perfect mid-morning coffee break. Thinking about elevenses led me on a Dyer-esque diversion into the cultural history of elevenses – apparently in 19th century America elevenses usually involved a little whiskey…and well if we’re in this for the long haul…
Chris Gribble, CEO:
I think if I had to be sequestered with someone for the entirety of lockdown – apart from the two maladjusted and ungrateful cats that are currently tolerating my permanent presence until such time as they can work out how to lock me in the bathroom and have the place to themselves – it would have to be someone of ingenuity and wit, someone not just determined to see the bright side, but to organise and arrange that bright side into existence.
So, Flora Poste from Cold Comfort Farm it is. Stella Gibbons makes Flora irresistible in her combination of ruthless cynicism, charm and capacity to say one thing and feel another. Her sheer will to power is infectious and I think it would offer a great bulwark against the roiling waves of busyness, indolence, resolve and lassitude that have been my experience of lockdown to date. I think Flora would approve of social distancing and request it be extended indefinitely for the sake of good manners, peace and quiet and general ‘neatness’. In addition she would ensure I happily cleaned and cooked around her in order that her stay be as comfortable as possible. I don’t think I’d be bored by Flora’s company, but she might struggle with the indoor life and being restricted to one hour a day outdoors. I sense she would not expect the rules to entirely – or indeed partially – apply to her, and this would cheer me as it might assuage my guilt at the minor infractions I have myself committed. (come on, don’t tell me you didn’t forget something and go back to the shops the next day at least once. Was that extra Easter egg an actual necessity?)
I associate Flora Post with a light-hearted but steely jollity; as belonging to a world where everything would be alright because she would make it so. Sitting down to write this, I went back to the opening page – I remember it making me howl with laughter at school – and it brought me up short: ‘The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.’ No wonder she was determined to make things alright.
Sarah Bower, Programme Manager:
The character with whom I would most like to endure lockdown is Kirsten, the morganatic wife of the King of Denmark in Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence. She is witty, resourceful, irreverent and full of good, practical common sense, and not averse to eating hazelnut cake in the middle of the night if the mood takes her. She has, shall we say, a colourful love life which would give rise to a fund of tall tales to while away long lockdown evenings. Her currency is court gossip and she wastes none of it, so I like to think she’d be able to bring her parsimony and ingenuity to the outer reaches of my food store cupboard and come up with unexpected recipes, for cake obviously. She is also an articulate proto-feminist and about three hundred years ahead of the curve on the abolition of slavery. Music and Silence has long been in my top ten favourite books, and largely because of Kirsten. It would be great to have time to get to know her better.
Róisín Batty, Communications Assistant:
In Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet, 92-year-old Marian Leatherby is the near dialogue-free guide through an ‘institution’ for the elderly; where the residents’ homes are shaped like cakes and igloos, sweets are poison and the women are haunted by the story of a winking medieval Abbess, disguised as a Knight Templar. I love Marian’s gumption, her irritability towards her friends, family and sometimes the reader, her fondness for sweet treats and how her emotional reactions to events are a secret between you and her only – whether the events are real or not, it doesn’t matter. I feel increasingly akin to Marion in lockdown and I can think of no better companion (nor one as experienced in using the mind to escape confinement) as her.
Perhaps it’s her ever-present humour or the chance to admire her gigantic, ornamental hearing trumpet or (more likely) the total freedom to explore her different versions of reality, Carrington’s Marian Leatherby is the ideal companion in quarantine for a daydreamer like myself and proves that the surreal landscapes we create can offer us answers to the confusing situations we find ourselves in.
Peggy Hughes, Programme Director:
How do I love Olive Kitteridge? Let me count the ways. Is it her honesty (brute)? Her humour (sharp)? Is it her curiosity about people (‘What is your life like, Betty?’, she asks a sad, Trump-voting woman, because, despite chasms in opinion, she is hungry for people and never not on the cusp of falling for them)? Her willingness to look at life’s hardest bits beside the people enduring them and be unafraid to carry their fear for them? This difficult, curmudgeonly octogenarian, the impossible, irritating Oliveness of her: she gleams, even when she’s only on the edge of the story, a cameo in some other person’s crisis. It is all these reasons that make me require Olive to be at work in my world, but it’s also that my annoying querulous older women, fully alive, fully themselves, don’t often get to grow old yet glimmer on a page. Yet here they all are, played by Olive Kitteridge of Crosby, Maine, a force undimmed.
Meg Rumbelow Hemsley, Development Manager:
I would like to have Mr Bones from Paul Auster’s novel Timbuktu. A sad but great book. And I think a dog is a perfect companion for lock-down. I might give him a bath before he comes in the house though.
Simon Jones, Digital Marketing Manager:
It’s hard to pick just one, isn’t it? I’ll go for Hari Seldon, though, the scientist and mathematician who appears in what is essentially a brief cameo in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, but whose intelligence and foresight permeates the entire book series. Seldon uses mathematics to predict his civilisation’s downfall, but rather than succumb to despair he instead takes steps to lessen the suffering, ushering in a new golden age. The Foundation books are about the triumph of science over chaos, about how rationality can better society – much as Covid-19 has demonstrated that political slogans, inflexible ideologies and small-minded thinking do little to help humanity survive a pandemic.
Aside from sharing his practical optimism, Seldon would transform the endless Groundhog Days of lockdown into debates about the collision of ethics, science and human nature. As with Chris’ selection of Flora, Seldon was a character I obsessed over when at school and he shaped much of my teenage thinking – to the point that I subsequently ended up naming a character in one of my books after him – so the opportunity to reconnect with him in adulthood I would relish.
Vicki Maitland, Programme Assistant:
I’d pick Lizzie Bennet as my literary lockdown companion. Not only is she smart and funny, but she loves a good book and has a strong sense of independence so I wouldn’t have to worry about being around her 24/7. What’s more, if I was isolating with her, I’d likely be isolating with the rest of the Bennet family, which would be an endless source of entertainment. I can imagine us rolling our eyes at her mother and sisters, before retreating to her father’s study for some peace and quiet with a good book. [Editor’s note: I’m pretty sure choosing the entire Bennet family is cheating, but I’ll let you have it – these are strange times]
Flo Reynolds, Programme Officer:
The character I’d like to be stuck with in lockdown would be Janina Duszejko, the narrator of Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk. Janina’s irascible but compassionate voice is one of the chief joys of the novel and a masterclass in writing character in the first person. In lockdown I think we’d have a great time together, mostly keeping ourselves to ourselves in her remote Polish farmhouse, but coming together in the evenings to eat her delicious soups, and to discuss horoscopes and the works of William Blake. Blissful!
Who would your perfect lockdown companion be? Let us know!