The A to Z of Gerard Woodward

26 September 2010

From art, along the M2 to Zennor. Find out all you need to know about Gerard Woodward in this A to Z.

by Gerard Woodward

A for Art - I was an art student for a while. I painted giant spiders, made fairground machines and constructed a miniature refuse tip in my studio, with tutors' names painted on scattered bits of rubbish. Flies buzzed over rotting banana skins. Not long after this I was thrown out.

B is for Bechstein. A grand piano that filled half of our living room. It was also the name of a cat we had, who was black and white, and is sorely missed

C is for other cats - Baxbr, Scipio, Slasher, Gravely Headstone, Golem, Cheetah, Watlington, Baxbr Hedgehog

D is for Dickens. I lived for a while near Chatham, in Kent, which has a Dickens festival. Every year the town would fill up with Dickens characters, a very disconcerting experience, meeting Bill Sikes coming out of the Co-op, or Mr Bumble in the post office. I read all his novels while I lived there, and realised that Chatham, and its people, are actually very Dickensian.

E is for Enfield, the London borough where I grew up, the northernmost borough of London.

F is for Falmouth, where I failed to be an art student, and where I got married. Also, where I started writing. Although I've been writing continuously since I was eleven, I started my post-juvenile writing career in Falmouth, after bumping into Peter Redgrove in The Kings Head. I had just written a few poems about Cornwall and he invited me along to a poetry workshop. This started a surge of writing whose wave I'm still riding.

G is for getting up early. I'm not very good at it. I once set myself the task of getting up earlier by five minutes every day, until I was waking up at five in the morning. But I was too tired to do anything.

H is for Howards End. The first novel I studied in depth, for my A level. Before then I just thought novels told stories, I didn't realise they did all these other things as well. It was a complete revelation.

I is for impossible things. It is good to imagine as many of these as you can, at least six before breakfast.

J is for Janus, Juliette, James and Julian. Don't ask me why I gave all the children in my first three novels names beginning with J. Well, you can actually, it was because I wanted to give them an unusual, idiosyncratic twist, and to suggest that the naming of the children was really an act of self-aggrandising self- expression on the part of the namer, their mother.

K is for Kriegsgefenangepost. Prisoner of War Post. Nourishment centres around the correspondence between a prisoner of war and his wife. While researching the novel I read a great many such letters. I have to say I never came across any quite like the ones I had to write for the book. Unfortunately.

L is for LSE, where I studied social anthropology, after my disastrous time at art school. Three very happy years spent immersed in books very few people have ever read, hopping on and off the paternoster lift (now gone, sadly), and boozing in the Beavers' Retreat.

M is for the M2, the poor, parallel cousin of the M26. I spent a strange year working as a storeman in the only service station on the M2, which was the first (and so the oldest) service station in Britain. I tried writing a novel about it but it didn't work. I may try again some day.

N is for Max Newman, mathematician and World War Two codebreaker, who worked with Alan Turing on codebreaking and , after the war, developed the first digital, stored-programme computer based on Turing's ideas. He taught for many years at Manchester University. For two years I ran a snack bar in the Mathematics Department at Manchester, in the Max Newman room (since demolished, although there is a Max Newman Lecture Theatre in the new building).

O is for oranges. My wife recently said she loves the way I eat oranges. I have a variety of orange-eating techniques, and am not quite sure which one she meant, but I do love them. I often eat several a day, especially late at night, which is bad for the old acidity.

P is for phases of the moon. When I was about 45 I realised I didn't fully understand the phases of the moon, especially why there was a moon some nights and not others. I studied the subject thoroughly and am now an expert. I didn't even realise before that the full moon always rises just as the sun sets, in the opposite part of the sky, so they face each other across the world, one of the most beautiful sights in nature. And it happens every month - sometimes twice a month!

Q is for Raymond Queneau, and other Oulipians, for their wondrous inventiveness, silliness, inquisitiveness, and their proof that powerful things can be made with the most trivial and commonplace ingredients.

R is for ruminants. We live now surrounded by herds of cattle. Dairy farming is very cruel to mothers, but milk is such a lovely thing. I can't look into the eyes of a cow without lamenting the disappearance of the mighty and fearsome Aurochs. The creatures that occupy our fields are their brainwashed, lobotomised descendants.

S is for sport. I wish I could get excited about it, but I can't, not really. Occasionally cricket and football will produce something beautiful and dramatic, and there are delights of anatomical poise in gymnastics and athletics, and gladiatorial confrontations in tennis, and endearing eccentricities in things like curling and fencing, but on the whole - what a bore.

T is for Elizabeth Taylor - the novelist. I don't think there is a page in any of her books without something wonderful on it.

U is for Urbia, the place that is surrounded by suburbia. For the last few years I have lived a very long way from any form of urbia, and quite miss it. If I visit a city now I crane my neck looking at the buildings, and stand around haplessly in the middle of the road, watching those mechanical cows they call cars, and when they honk at me I shout "Yah, blow thy trumpet, thou riderless chariot…"

V is for vending machine. You can ask me anything you like about vending machines, I'll know the answer, (as long as they were made before 2001). To this day I can't pass one without checking if it needs refilling.

W is for watching. I can watch things for hours on end. Anything, doesn't have to be interesting. I just like watching things. Though if what I'm watching is culturally recognised as a thing to be watched (birds, for instance, or practitioners of a particular sport) I tend to lose interest. I'd rather watch things people don't normally watch.

X is for X-ray (obviously). I was a porter in the x-ray department of a North London hospital, and had some of my weirdest and most wonderful experiences - far too many to list here, and far too complicated to describe. Ok - one short example - me and some porter friends stole a bunch of small squeaky toys from the children's ward, kept them in our pockets, and only communicated by Sooty-style squeaking, as we went about the wards. This went on for weeks. Oh how the patients laughed.

Y is for yellow. I like yellow. Sixteen years ago I owned a house, and painted the living room a bright, daffodil yellow, with black skirting boards and door frames.

Z is for Zennor, a little village in Cornwall with a mermaid in the church.

Find out more about Nourishment.

 

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