Kirsty Gunn: Scary how artists are near-sanctified by devoted pilgrims

It begins in  the imagination, in studios like that of designer Patricia Niemann, who works with antlers. Picture: Shannon Tofts
It begins in the imagination, in studios like that of designer Patricia Niemann, who works with antlers. Picture: Shannon Tofts
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We’ve all got stories to tell. Family histories to write down. Friends and relatives whose lives are extraordinary, each in their own way, and all of whom could be recorded in some fashion. Memoir. Personal History. Interview. Biography.

It comes under the heading Life Writing, a term first used in America for a kind of literature that was personal, autobiographical. A fact and account-led narrative that might have all the drama and pull of a novel or action film or of theatre even, with its speeches and reflections and introspection, and yet taking place quietly on the page, a story rising up from the memories of the teller of the tale.

At Wolfson College in Oxford they even have a Centre for Life Writing, founded by the incomparable Hermione Lee who was the college president as well as being a well-known writer, herself, about other writers such as Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather and Elizabeth Bowen. Her studies of those authors and their work really do reach deep into lives, not just as a set of biographical facts, but as accounts of experiences, of how they work upon the imagination.

Her own autobiography, “Body Parts”, is about that very process – “Essays on Life Writing” is the sub-head. Now run by novelist, critic and professor of world literature in English, Elleke Boehmer, the centre hosted a conference last week on the subjects of literary celebrity and political persona, put together by a most interesting young scholar from Germany, Dr Sandra Mayer, who is herself a visiting fellow at Wolfson and someone deeply engaged in the phenomenon of life meeting words, or more specifically, in what happens when words and life come together in the person of the writer him or herself.

Sandra has been getting together discussions around these kinds of issues since 2016 when she hosted another conference, Art and Action, that explored the connections between writers and political outcomes, and the event at Wolfson was an opportunity to explore further those themes of cultural history and the impact of writing-related activities via oganisations such as PEN International, as well as the effect of writerly fame and notoriety upon our ordinary reading lives. 
READ MORE: Kirsty Gunn: A potent and important literary form you should get into

We all know about, and maybe have been to, one of those events for a “literary celebrity” as they’re now called, where the queues snake around the block and the wait afterwards in the signing tent just as long... WeIl, I was in Oxford to talk about that. Though not as someone who knows what it is like! Goodness knows I can’t ever see that happening! But as one who has been close enough, at readings and events and so on, to see it in action. Those “Big Names”, as they are also called, on stage for their “performances”, as they are now billed... it’s like seeing a movie star come to town. And quite something – the move from the old-style “Reading” to a writer in the spotlight holding forth at the microphone in front of a vast spellbound crowd, giving insider information and a first-hand account of the latest work. So very far away from the activity of sitting alone at a desk inventing a story, or writing about something that happened once in the peace and quiet of recollection. In fact, it can be hard to believe it’s the same person, the private individual individually honing his or her craft, and the superstar in the headlights, voice echoing on the PA system. Nothing like being a writer at all, you might say.

Or is it? As Professor David Marshall, a media and communications scholar from Australia, put it, this kind of “embodiment” of art is becoming more and more a feature of contemporary life. Actors becoming models to sell perfume. Painters’ and sculptors’ lives spread across the social pages of newspapers and glossy magazines. Are people actually coming to the literary event because they’ve read the book being presented, David pondered, remembering Umberto Ecco and his global bestseller “The Name of the Rose” and the sort of crowds that author “pulled”, as he put it. Or, he wondered, were people there for something else, to come close to what he termed the writer’s “prestige”? The critic and novelist Gabriel Josipovici has described it similarly, in that wonderful journal, the PN Review, as a sort of pilgrimage – where the pilgrims take away from their journey, instead of a bit of rock from a shrine or a relic, a signed copy of the writer’s book. It’s interesting, for sure, and to my mind more than a bit scary. Culture is shifting to the virtual, the commercial, as we leave our quiet rooms to create vast online, economic exchanges and public experiences at every turn.

READ MORE: Kirsty Gunn: The life lessons of the natural world

For how lovely is that quiet room. How lovely it is to go there. In Caithness, the studio and showroom of designer Patricia Niemann is such a place. Quiet and creatively designed to show the wealth of fine, fine contemporary gold jewellery and textiles she imagines, draws and then makes, it is nestled in the turn of the road at the Berriedale Braes – that thrilling hair-pin turn ascent that has you tilting between sky and sea as the A9 just about manages to still cling to the coastline of our northernmost county. “I love it here,” says Patricia, who first came to Caithness from Bavaria in 2000 when she took up a residency at North Lands Creative – the glass workshop and education centre that has long been a feature of the Caithness arts scene. “The place and the people. The drama is all in the landscape here...”

Her latest pieces couldn’t be more different from the exquisitely wrought necklaces and brooches in gold, glass and semi-precious stones upon which she has established her international reputation. “I am working now with red deer antlers,” Patricia told me last week. “I don’t change or cut these, but gently manipulate them to create performance-oriented pieces.” It’s performance of a different kind, this, the way in which her work comes to speak to the world.

Some things may happen by person and celebrity, but it all begins in the private room of the imagination. In the quiet places of our country, the sometimes hard–to-get-to places, that are just as important as big cities and towns where celebrity culture and crowd-thinking can sometimes seem to reign supreme. Quiet is also who we are. Not only in our minds, but in this country we inhabit.