I went to see Jackie recently. It’s good movie, although there’s something a bit odd about it: the Guardian review probably sums it up for me. There’s a dream-like quality to it that got me thinking, because the way that the various forms of the sleeping state influence creative work interests me a lot.
I’m scarcely an original in using dreams to help the creative process: writers and musicians from Robert Louis Stevenson to Prince have talked about how they’ve plundered the stuff clambering out of their night-time subconscious. Stevenson’s classic horror, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for example, came to him in a dream, although the cocaine he’d been prescribed by a doctor for his ongoing health problems might have had an influence too. According to that particular creation myth, he got as far as the first transformation scene before his wife woke him up. Wives, eh!
Which leads me to the inspiration for my published-at-long-last novel, The Wrong Box.
Most of my creative endeavours, whether musical or writing wise, tend to have shadowy beginnings – a half-heard piece of conversation; an encounter on the express bus to Edinburgh; an earworm of a tune that won’t go away despite it appearing during work time. In the case of novel’s story, however, I can more or less trace the date of its inception to a week in April, 2008, and the Hostal San Bartolome, Almagro.
Anyone that knows me half at all will know that I’m a lover of Spain and all things Spanish, and not even just the wine neither. Every year for the last fifteen or so, we’ve been spending time travelling through that great country, all the time seeking out different regions, different places to visit that are off the tourist trail. Because we rely on train and bus to get about (just never fancied driving a car in Spain, funnily enough) that usually involves reasonably decent-sized towns. However, in 2008 we decided to push the envelope a bit, and explore somewhere that even the more generous Spanish classification of ciudad wouldn’t cover.
First stop, though, after touching down in Madrid and spending a night in the unremarkable but reliable Hotel Mora, was one of the great Spanish northern cities, Valladolid. It was a pleasant three nights there, from what I can remember: the things that stood out were the storks nesting on the roofs of the churches, and the quirky proprietor of the Hostal Los Arces showing the 9-year-old Daughter and Heiress the model house he was building out of sweets (although that now sounds so unlikely, I’m wondering if I dreamed that bit!)
From there, we had to head back south, through Madrid, and change trains at Ciudad Real to get to our second stop, the La Mancha town of Almagro. It was, in retrospect, quite a small place to spend almost a week, (from 5th to 11th April according to the itinerary I’ve unearthed) and I remember wondering, as the tren de media distancia crossed what I was to describe, in a subsequent poem, as a ‘tiny wrinkle on Spain’s great red face,’ whether I’d overcooked the length of our stay there, and undercooked Valladolid.
I had. It rained. It wasn’t a warm rain. Although what I described in the same poem as the ‘green and white layer cake’ of buildings forming three sides of the central square had its charms, in the rain those charms were a bit, well, on the soggy side (I’m giving you the absolute best bits of that poem, by the way – you can see why it never made publication). As we huddled in the bars and cafes of the plaza mayor with the locals and very few other tourists, we also came to realise that, given the somewhat niche appeal of the place, we had probably arrived a week or so early, tourist season wise. Not all the cafes and bars were open all the time.
We gravitated initially towards one place in the square which seemed popular with the locals: the food was decent, if a little red-meat heavy, and they had, like most bars in Spain do, a decent Rioja as the house red. We ignored the bullfighting on the telly at first as one of those cultural things that come with the package; but by the time of the second visit, the relentless procession of Hemingwayesque scenes from the plaza de toros started to grate a bit. Then we learned that the son of the establishment was a bullfighter, and took the hint that they probably wouldn’t be changing over to the football any time soon.
The main alternative seemed to be the bar/restaurant on the side road that led to our hostal. It was often virtually empty, and the waiter a youngish bloke who didn’t seem that sure about anything we asked him. The food was ok, though, and the inevitable telly was tuned to a channel that featured lots of what we took at first to be nature programmes. On closer inspection, these turned out to be actually about one of La Mancha’s other obsessions, la caza: the types seen striding about various grassy wetlands weren’t there so much to appreciate the bird life as blast the hell out of it with guns as soon as look at it. Oh well: asi es, as the Spanish say. By way of compensation, the uncertain young waiter decided we merited an end-of-meal taste of the local liqueur: three glasses of the stuff (including one for said 9-year-old D & H) appeared unbidden at our table.
Needless to say even we Scots leave it a couple of years before starting our kids on spirits. The Redoubtable Mrs F, meanwhile, had taken one sip of the yellow liquid and decided it was something I had to deal with, either by drinking or pouring into a handy plant pot. The plants were plastic, so down my neck all three went. I still have no idea what it was, beyond perhaps being the subject of a bet back in the kitchen to see if the crazy extranjeros would drink it. I’ve a vague recollection we even got charged for it.
All of this was nearly offset by the charm of our accommodation, the Hostal San Bartolome, and the young woman who ran it. Built around a central patio, the place was brightly painted, had real plant life in it, and was comfortable, accommodation wise. On the debit side, it was a bit – well, crumbly. I owe the place a debt for forcing me to find the Spanish phrase ‘el techo de nuestra habitacion esta goteando,’ (our room’s ceiling is leaking) as well as one for the handle falling off the door of the room I can’t place exactly now. All good practice, but not particularly great in terms of rest and relaxation (I’m sure they’ve fixed it all up now, of course).
Anyway. There we were, and there was the rain, and after dinner there wasn’t a lot to do except retreat to our room and hope the door handle didn’t fall off the outside while we were inside.
And whether it was because of the weather, the leaky ceiling, the third shot of mysterious yellow liqueur, or the bed which, in common with most Spanish hostal beds, wasn’t designed for those of us north of 6 feet tall, sleep didn’t come easily: which is how I came up to dream part, at least, of the story which was to become the Wrong Box.
I can’t remember specific details now, of course: but the essentials, I think, were there, of an obnoxious commercial property lawyer who wakes up with the hangover shark biting his head and the dead body of a client, naked, dead and with his toe stuck up the tap, staring up at him from the bath. There was always the idea of women having been there but then having disappeared; of there being some wider conspiracy at work that he didn’t appreciate; and of dark forces at his workplace.
Every so often throughout the night I’d wake up, hearing nothing but the sound of the others’ breathing and the downpour outside; then drift back off again, back into this dream that spun on with its story. There was another character, one from one of the housing estates that encrust the far outer ring of Edinburgh’s historic core: a conspiracy theorist who, alone, could help the lawyer find out the truth.
Towards morning, the periods of wakefulness became longer, as a watery light started to bleed through the curtains of the room. Inevitably, the left brain – the half that likes to impose order and structure on ideas – took over: the lawyer’s name would be Simon English, and his Englishness was a factor in the whole story, making him the stranger in a strange land. I don’t know at what point I came up with the name Karen Clamp for the conspiracy theorist, although I suspect it was then, still half-dozing, when the trapdoor between the two brain halves was still half-open.
As soon as it was light enough to see, I crept to where I kept the notebook I always carry with me on holidays and scribbled some essentials down. There were still long, arduous hours of plotting to come before I could start on the story properly, because I was determined that, if I was going to commit all the spare time it would take to write another novel (the previous two remain, tucked up in a digital drawer on the hard drive, unpublished and unpublishable) I was going to have a story that actually ticked all the story-formation boxes. My fantastic Finnish friend, Hannu Rajaniemi, was to help with all of that. But for now, fresh from the alchemical moment of creation, I knew I had something.
In the movie version of this moment, the rain would have stopped, and my family and I would have walked to our breakfast café through tendrils of steam drawn from the pavement by the rapidly climbing morning sun.
In reality, it just kept on pissing down, of course.
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