Wednesday, 11 March 2009

From Penny Lane to Botany Bay - in 25 writers (or thereabouts)

So there I was thinking about Adrian Mitchell (last post) and then Juliet Wilson tagged, bagged or flagged me with one of those meme thingeys (and it looked interesting) and sent me off down a whole other avenue. I know some of you have done your versions already...but here's mine (and I wish Mitchell had been one of my 25 influences but I've only come across him relatively recently so he can't...which is a shame). Anyway...

The mission - 'to name 25 writers who have influenced me'

Influence. Hmmm...interesting word. Do we ever really know what influences us in anything we do (never mind our writing)? Sometimes it is fairly clear...other times less so....and also there are some writers we might wish were our influences when really, in all honesty, maybe it's someone much less highbrow/cool/enigmatic that actually got us to change our ways, or try something different or think in a different way. I've worked quite hard to try and make this an honest list but that might mean it is a bit of an odd mixture (and, of course, I might still be completely wrong on all counts). I have used the word 'writer' in its widest sense (writers don't just write books) and I've worked through influences chronologically (as I came across the writer in question). It was just getting too messy otherwise...such is my life...such is all life really...

Stage A - Primary School

The writers I read most in the primary years were probably Enid Blyton, Dodie Smith, Roald Dahl, Hilaire Belloc...and some others I can't remember so well (I wrote a bit about children's fiction back here). Did any of those writers really influence me though? I suppose so but nothing jumps out. I watched a lot of TV too but more than anything I remember sitting and listening to my older sisters' 7 inch singles (as I may have mentioned before) so the influential writers from this period that I'm going to pick out are:

Lennon & McCartney (1) - and as the song that has stuck with me the longest from that time in terms of lyrics is 'Penny Lane' (and that was 90% McCartney, it says online somewhere) then I guess it is mostly the second half of that writing partnership that I should name. “Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes...” - as a child I loved that...and I still do. I think I would call it poetic too (here are the rest of the lyrics). Plus Penny Lane went on to be a character in one of my favourite films too ('Almost Famous'...but you knew that...).

Also my favourite book was 'Ballet Shoes' so I might pick out:

Noel Streatfeild (2) – as well. I read 'Ballet Shoes' so many times that it must have influenced me somehow, somewhere! I liked the idea of the girls being free of their backgrounds and parents, I think, and I liked all the stuff about theatres and plays and writers. I was less interested in the bits about car maintenance...and nothing has changed there.

Stage B - Secondary School

Harper Lee (3) – I was talking about 'To kill a mockingbird' not that long ago (here) and I'm sure most of you have read it (at least once). I can remember the feeling of sitting in the classroom at school and just loving that book with all my heart (well, except for the bit that loved some unsuitable teenage boy who wasn't worthy of me, no doubt). But Harper Lee - to write so well and say so much, to bring a world to life so effectively, to write for the greater good – now there's something to aim for!

Robert Frost (4) – I was just talking about him recently. We read a lot of poems that I liked at school when I was about 15 but the apparent clarity of Frost's work rung several kinds of bells with me back then. The poems we read were plain and straightforward and yet...not that at all (and I try to work more or less in that vein, I think). I also liked how he wrote about the world he knew – perfect detail, no pretensions, just writing well about what was around him.

Neil Young (5) – whilst in later years I became a fan of many other singer/songwriters of the 1960s and 70s (Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Carole King...not Dylan and Cohen like so many other poets), Young is one that I remember listening to particularly as a teenager. I must have listened to the song 'Old Man' so many times (when I was about 15) that I nearly wore a(nother) hole in my brother's copy of the 'Harvest' vinyl LP (1972...but I listened to it in about 1981 or so). I liked it so much that I think I went and got my own copy (for some huge price like £3.29) and now we have it on CD. I still love 'Harvest' as an album and the words are a great part of that. “Doesn't mean that much to me/To mean that much to you” and other lines I sang over and over and over and I think they may nearly have worn holes in my head too! How did they influence me? Hard to say...they just made me aware that I loved songs and words with a kind of crazy passion. Again Young writes about his world...fairly simply but at the same time perceptively and creatively.

Siegfried Sassoon (6) – mostly people mention Wilfred Owen when talking about First World War poetry but we didn't read any Owen at school (and like Lee Hall...if you listened to that radio documentary recently...I got most of my classic literature from school, not home). A poem we did read at school though was Siegfried Sassoon's “At the Cenotaph” and it made quite an impression on me. Here it is:

At the Cenotaph

I saw the Prince of Darkness, with his Staff,
Standing bare-headed by the Cenotaph:
Unostentatious and respectful, there
He stood, and offered up the following prayer.
“Make them forget, O Lord, what this Memorial
Means; their discredited ideas revive;
Breed new belief that War is purgatorial
Proof of the pride and power of being alive;
Men’s biologic urge to readjust
The Map of Europe, Lord of Hosts, increase;
Lift up their hearts in large destructive lust;
And crown their heads with blind vindictive Peace.”
The Prince of Darkness to the Cenotaph
Bowed. As he walked away I heard him laugh.

By Siegfried Sassoon

“Blind vindictive peace” - strong stuff and, again, saying something fairly loud and clear (and well). And it rhymes...bang, bang, bang, at the end of the line. I like that kind of rhyme...not very fashionable, but I like it. Bring the beat back and all that.

Stage C - Sixth form

We lived in London when I was at sixth form (aged 16-18). I was a bit of girl in from the wilds...very out of place at a fancy school in South Kensington where nothing looked or sounded or tasted like Middlesbrough any more, that was for sure. I was saved from certain disaster by my two English literature teachers. They were fantastic and they taught me about:

William Shakespeare (7) – well, just because he's the biggest of all cheeses that's no reason not to mention him is it? Reading 'Hamlet' with these two lovely teachers was, quite simply, heaven in a classroom. They really made us understand (well, me anyway) what was so special about the words on the pages and why they mattered so much. We learned about the humour (even in the in the tragedies...), the strong characters, the timeless themes, the way the words can sound beautiful when read aloud...

T.S.Eliot (8) – we studied 'The Wasteland' with the same teachers. It was probably the first modern poetry I ever read so it had a huge impact and I loved it at the time (when I was about 17). I got very excited about the whole patchwork nature of it and the big, strong, powerful, booming words. I didn't write poetry back then (not at all...I thought I was going to be a news reporter or something...) but I liked the idea that poetry could be like this, could be so dark and domineering and completely on its own road.

Gabriel García Márquez (9) – in my Spanish A level studies we read 'El Coronel no tiene quien le escribe' ('No one writes to the Colonel')which I have written about here before. Of all the writers (in Spanish) that I read in those study years I think Gabo (and this book in particular) is the one that got most into my head. He's very good on detail...and I like detail. This book presents politics, poverty, bitterness, sadness...all in a little story about not very much at all...about whether a man has any coffee in his pot.

Lawrence Kasdan & Barbara Benedek (10) – writers of the film 'The Big Chill' (1983). I first watched this film when I was about 17 (and didn't like it that much then to be honest). A few years later I watched it again...and then again...and then again. It is so perfectly written (and the music is good too) that I'm not sure I could ever try to write a screenplay seriously because what would be the point? I can quote pretty much the whole film. It's specialist subject is really just people and how they behave...which is kind of my specialist subject too...sometimes. Again the detail in the writing here is phenomenal – no throwaway lines, no moment wasted. I like tightly packed writing but you might not believe that...reading this!

Margaret Drabble (11) – my Mum loved all Drabble's books (particularly the ones from the 1960s and 70s) and had them all in the house. At about 17 I started to read them quite voraciously. They were very adult and philosophical and about grown-up lives (particularly women's). You don't see them mentioned very often these days (maybe they're a bit dated and she seems to be better known as an academic now) but her novels are really very good. Again they are excellent on the detail of how people behave, what they say to each other, what they don't. She's not a writer who's afraid to face up to unpleasant truths either.

Willy Russell (12) – I went to see the film 'Educating Rita' (1983) at the cinema when I was about 17. A bit like reading 'Mockingbird' at school...I can still remember how I felt at the end of the film...amazed, exhilarated...and maybe just starting to hope that one day I might somehow be involved in a piece of work as good as that one. “Do you know Yeats?” “The wine lodge?” I loved it. Funny, harsh, about ordinary lives, about how people interact, about books, starring Julie Walters...what's not to love?

Paul Simon (13) – was it about now I started listening to Paul Simon and Simon and Garfunkel? I'm not exactly sure but I know he has written some great words (and tunes). I listened to that 'One Trick Pony' (1980) album over and over and over when I was about 17. He's very playful with words and yet can write very moving lyrics too. “How the heart approaches what it yearns...” and all that. I've never seen the film in fact but here is a bit of it (and is it me or does Paul Simon look like the Fonz in that clip?).

Stage D – University

I was a bad girl at uni. I think I went at the wrong time or something and I really didn't want to be there so I drank a lot (fairly normal) and watched a lot of TV (ditto) and didn't read much (again, sadly, fairly common). I think what Oscar Wilde really wanted to say was that university education is wasted on students...or something like that. Still...I did manage a few books.

Fydor Dostoevsky (14) – I read every book he'd ever written (pretty much), though in English because I was too lazy at this point to work on Russian properly. I was also too drunk (something many Russians would appreciate...including FD in his time, no doubt). He wrote very much about the truth of human nature (particularly its weaknesses and madnesses) and again this is subject matter that I know I am drawn to.

Ben Elton and friends (15) - no, not the crappy paperbacks and the Queen musical! In the 1980s alternative comedy was big, loud and exciting and I watched a lot of it around this time. I had tapes of Alexei Sayle, went to see Ben Elton and various others live and watched the 'Young Ones', 'Spitting Image' and UK's 'Friday Night Live/Saturday Live' shows on TV. I'd always liked TV comedy as a kid (Dave Allen, Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise...I was writing about that at Xmas back here) but around this time I started to enjoy the more overtly biting and political comedy that was coming out too. Elton, of course, went on to work on 'Blackadder' (another great project in terms of writing) and though he comes over as a twat these days (with the Lloyd Webber projects and all that) I still think he was funny back then (current crapness does not wipe out past good works necessarily). Anyone remember his routine about men and periods and cricket whites? It still makes me laugh (and there are a lot of new male stand-ups who may look down their noses at Elton but who have still not written anything as funny or as spot-on as that). It's fairly uncool to admit it but he and the comedy of that time has undoubtedly been an influence on me somehow, somewhere. Maybe I should have done an exam paper on that...might have got a better degree...

Germaine Greer (16) – some of you may not know this but she's a great writer as well as everything else. I've read most of her books and I have inherited from my mother the belief that GG can do very little wrong. I like the way she looks at things...always in her own way...paying such attention to detail...not giving a hoot about what anyone thinks of her. From the political essays to the memoir about her father ('Daddy, We Hardly Knew You') her direct but intelligent and exciting style is one that has always appealed to me.

Stage E - Adult life (well, it had to happen...eventually..)

Lemn Sissay (17) – I wrote comedy/cabaret reviews for a local paper in Leeds for about a year (around 1990). One night I went to the Duchess pub to a night called Leeds Alternative Cabaret and saw a poet from the other side of the Pennines called Lemn Sissay. What do they say...blown away? Completely. Lemn is one of those people...when he speaks you can't help but listen. He's a really thoughtful person too and, as I've said somewhere before, he made me realise that night (and also later on when I interviewed him) that there was more to modern poetry than T.S.Eliot. I suppose some of you already knew that by then but I didn't...up to that point I'd been more interested in prose really. Lemn has the energy of at least ten ordinary mortals too - I'm a big fan.

Gil Scott Heron (18) – about the same time I was doing a lot of raving and a lot of driving – sometimes at the same time. Usually in the car (I had a company car...I had a job!) I listened to slower, funkier music and I particularly liked stuff like NWA's 'Express Yourself' and pretty much anything by Gil Scott Heron. GSH is a brilliant writer (as well as musician and performer) and many of his words have stayed with me ever since I first heard them. Some of the lines from his best known track 'The revolution will not be televised' are just brilliant, for example. Here are the lyrics and there's a video of it here.

Roger McGough (19) – once I started writing poetry more regularly (about 1997) I looked for poets that didn't make me feel like I was completely wasting my time up the wrong tree, as it were, and when I did I found this one (Northern, a bit funny, a bit straightforward, a bit weird, not very formal...). I suppose he gave me permission to carry on in the direction I was heading, if you know what I mean. He almost whispered “it's don't have to write every poem like you're trying to win the National Poetry Competition...just enjoy it...write for readers and listeners...write for people not prizes...” McGough is successful but not fashionable or particularly critically acclaimed. Here's a little poem of his that I particularly like:

Children's Writer

John in the garden
Playing goodies and baddies

Janet in the bedroom
Playing mummies and daddies

Mummy in the kitchen
Washing and wiping

Daddy in the study

by Roger McGough
(and I did buy the book 'Collected Poems' full-price in a bookshop Mr McGough, if that makes you feel any better about me nicking the poem for on here)

Wendy Cope (20) – for similar reasons, I found this poet too about the same time (except she's a bit funny, a bit cynical, a bit not-at-all-cynical, female). I saw her read (quite a few years back...bit of a vague memory) but it was one of the first poetry readings I went to (that wasn't in a pub) and I loved the way she communicated with the audience, the way her poems really spoke to people and broke down the awkward 'sitting in rows' business.

Philip Larkin (21) – then I realised that somehow bizarrely my long-dead Dad's favourite poet was now my favourite too (no plan there...just the inescapable truths of family likenesses I suppose). So is he an influence? I have no idea really but I've written quite a lot about this poet already and I know that it's the combination of humour and misery, comedy and tragedy, that makes his work so important to me. That and the clarity, the examination of now, the precision and the searching really hard for truth.

Liz Lochhead (22) – I read her poem 'Everybody's Mother' in about 2003 and I rejoiced. Cope, much as I love her, writes some of those 'women moaning about blokes over a glass of wine' poems that I don't much enjoy (for me they are a bit stereotyping in places, if funny). Lochhead writes about women in a different she's using a wider lense, if you know what I mean. She's inspiring.

Carol Shields (23) – her novel 'Duet' is brilliant and had quite a strong effect on me (women writing their asses off always appeals!). I like Alice Munro's work too and it's not completely dissimilar in style and output as both women write in a very detailed, very precise way about the world of now.

Helena Nelson (24) – Helena is the only person who has persuaded me to change any of my poems (probably ever...). I like some of her poems very much too...she combines being a nice poetry lady with being a bit of a shocker in a way that I much admire.

Anonymous/various (25) – these days I listen to a lot of folk songs and a lot of the writers are unknown/unnamed. One of the first folk songs I listened to over and over was 'Botany Bay' (the version I had was sung by Kate are the lyrics). Some of the unclaimed words of these songs have lasted for centuries and I like that about them. They are old friends, as Paul Simon once wrote... “like bookends”...they punctuate our lives...they're worth a mention.

Heck, that was hard work...but thanks Juliet because it was interesting to think about too. Are these really influences...or just stuff I like? I really don't know! I'm not going to tag, bag or flag anyone because I'm interested in all of you but be warned...I just lost three days of my life to this one. Or it could be I'm just putting off worrying about Sunday night (out into the world again, are you mad?). See you at the Apex Hotel, Dundee at 7.30pm if you're local....otherwise see you in the comments.



Crafty Green Poet said...

interesting list, I ignored music in my list, but actually probably a lot of songwriters have influenced me...

Interesting question though, how do we define influence, I went with writers who I keep going back to because they make me think differently (about theme or language).

I should try to do a historic approach like you did though, that's an interesting one...

Thanks for taking part...

Rachel Fox said...

Yes. it's interesting how we tackle these things differently! I think I did the historic approach partly to make sure I didn't overlook anyone...probably still did though. Never mind the subliminal influences...

Unknown said...

I will have a good think about this and post later on - it's very revealing, Rachel and I like the depth you go into - must have taken you ages!

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, far too long! It's one of those things...I started it thinking it would be quick but then...once I'd started...I needed to get it all clear in my head!

Onto the next job now...


Susan at Stony River said...

What an amazing and varied list! I'm thinking what a very worthwhile project it would be to study my own influences and wonder over them a while, and find traces of them in my own story ideas and written lines...and then, wow, I'm just tired thinking about it. LOL A number of names come to mind instantly, but I'm (almost) curious as to who would show up and surprise me, if I gave it an afternoon.

Rachel Fox said...

Well some of these I've written about here and there already so some of it was just putting pieces together. And I'd very interested in your pieces too Susan if you do ever get that afternoon.


McGuire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
McGuire said...

Many of the people who influenced you, influenced me, here's a run down:

Siegfried Sassoon
Gabriel García Márquez

Fydor Dostoevsky (have you read the Brothers Karamazov? I have it but have yet to venture through the forst of pages. It looks quite intimidating on my shelf in Glasgow. Some day.)

Germaine Greer - Not a big fan of hers but I was intrigued by her book on boy art, called: The Boy.

Gil Scott Heron - Got one of his C.D's - his Father played for Scotland. Seriously!

Roger McGough - The Rolls Royce of car mechanic of poetry. The master of ease and deceptive simplicity. Love his words.

Philip Larkin - Beautiful pessimist.

Liz Lochhead - I should take the time to read her.

Interesting list all in all. Insightful to read about what you read and listen too.

speak soon.

McGuire said...

Gils Father actually played for Celtic, my mistake. Still fascinating bit of factual history.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, interesting what we have in common McGuire.

The Greer book you mention is one I haven't read...will look out for it.
And as for Bros Karamazov...I did read it...twenty years ago but it isn't one of the ones that made a huge impression. I think maybe I was tiring by that point...I haven't read any FD for a while...maybe it's time to revisit.


Ken Armstrong said...

This has resulted in a fascinating post. I'm going to have a go myself in a few days as it's something I've been thinking about but I'm going to approach it a little differently. I think I can name five writers who have visibly contributed to the way in which I now write... 'can't wait to write it.

And this post finally allows me to define you - it's sort of Neil Young meets Shakespeare. :)

Were you *really* only seventeen when Educating Rita came out??? Oh wait wait, I'm confusing it with 'Shirley Valentine' silly me, yes I was pretty much that young too.

Rachel Fox said...

It's funny Ken...speaking of memory (as you have been doing over at yours)...I can't remember that much of being 17 already but I can remember that cinema trip really vividly. It was back when they were dividing ordinary cinemas up into odd pieces and it was one of those really daft tiny screens (hardly bigger than a sitting room). We sat on the front row and it was a double 'date' with a girl I lost touch with ages ago and her boyfriend and his totally unsuitable (for me) friend. I bet he hated the film but I loved it!

The Weaver of Grass said...

I am still compiling my list Rachel - it is quite hard work isn't it? But very worthwhile I think because it makes one go back and really think about what one has read over the years. Mine will be put on my blog when I have got twenty five!

Marion McCready said...

wow, what a mammoth post! Yes, very interesting and Ken's "Neil Young meets Shakespeare" summary made me laugh :)

deemikay said...

Very interesting combination. And I like the earliness to lateness of it... I shall have to steal the idea. :)

Rachel Fox said...

Weaver - yes...bloody hard work! all I can see is Neil Young in tights. Not a pleasant image really.

And David...steal away. Look forward to your take on this. I'm a bit mainstream compared to you I bet.


Rachel Fox said...

Deemikay has just put a list up at his Stars Sliding...go and see it, it's great. Plus he reminded me about fairy tales. I have read loads to my girl but they weren't a huge feature of my own childhood really. The only one I really, really loved was 'The twelve dancing princesses'...and I went on to be the girl who danced all night some years later. It wasn't quite the same in nike trainers and dirty Leeds nightclubs but the basic idea was there.


Anonymous said...

What a fascinating read. I'm not sure it would have occurred to me to include songwriters either, but it makes perfect sense. Well, now that you've lobbed this my way whilst pretending not to, I might even manage 25.

hope said...

Wow, what a task! And well done, I might add. Every time I leave here I always think,"I really do need to start writing down the titles of books I've missed."

I wonder how lists vary, geographically speaking?

Art Durkee said...

It's all your fault. You made me do it. So I did.

How Did You End Up Here?

Rachel Fox said...

You're all the best...mainly because no-one has written 'Ben frigging Elton - are you insane!!!' I almost took that one out because it was so shameful...then I decided to let the truth reign (or something like it). As I once wrote (in a poem called 'Self-help shortcuts') - "it's horrible to know yourself/But better to be true." And that makes me laugh (bitterly) every time I read it out somewhere. I have tried to be more just didn't work...I like a bit of everything, see.


Colin Will said...

Fantastic list Rachel.

Dave King said...

It's one heck of a fascinating subject, influence. We can only talk about those we believe to have influenced us, but as you so rightly hint, we can be influenced in all manner of subtle ways, many of which get under the radar. I suspect that I have been influenced by poetry to which I was exposed at school but n ow decidedly do not like. I couldn't say which or how, I'm in denial.
I do think it possible we are influenced by everything we encounter, though not all equally - I hope!
None of this takes anything away from your brilliant post and fascinating list of influences.

Liz said...

Gosh, Rachel, what a great post - this brought me so back - Educating Rita and Ben Elton being biggies for me too...I hardly remembered all that part of my life...great work getting it all done - I'd like to try and do a list but know I don't have the stamina nor recall... ; )
Thanks again (am still siesta-ing...must make moves soon though... :))

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks, Colin, did we have any influences in common? I just went to look...TS Eliot is the only one so far.

Which links to what Dave said as TSE is not a poet I would necessarily choose to have on my list (for many reasons)...but if I'm honest I do remember being quite bowled over when I first encountered his poetry way back in the mists of time. You can't really choose your influences can you...bit like your family...

Ah, Liz that siesta in the sun sounds good. Scotland's not really known for its siesta culture...


Kat Mortensen said...

Rachel - I just want to let you know I have every intention of reading this post, but it's been a busy week and I'm going away on a mini-break tomorrow night (bringing my laptop) and I hope to get the chance sometime over the weekend. It looks fascinating but I can't devote the attention to it that it deserves. So, I'll return soon.


Rachel Fox said...

Enjoy your break, Kat. I'll still be here when you get back!

green ink said...

Wow, what a wonderful idea to chart your influences over the years...and what an eclectic mix you've got there (and lovely to see so many that have influenced me too!). I might do something similar soon! There are also some people you've mentioned whom I've not read before, so I'll be on the lookout at the library today!

Particularly liked your thoughts on Roger McGough. He also "reassured" me that I wasn't barking up the wrong tree :)


Rachel Fox said...

Make sure to take a look at Crafty Green Poet's too - and Colin Will's...and Stars Sliding...and Art Durkee's. Also Barbara Smith has posted her first instalment. No time to read any actual books now of course!

Rachel Fox said...

Oh and the Weaver of Grass has done a list too.

Kat Mortensen said...

I will definitely give this a go at some time in the future. I can see how you devoted so much time to it - it's a real self-exploration, isn't it? What you've read and listened to is such a large part of who you are. Perhaps that's why I've never connected with anyone who doesn't read or appreciate music; they are rather empty people, aren't they?
If you have a chance, read my post, "Trivial Pursuit And A Taste of Freedom" on Blasts From the Past. You'll find a nice little bit on Neil Young (and a video).