Try Reading

Try Reading essay reflects upon the mundanity of lockdown and considers an approach taken by Poet laureate Simon Armitage.

“…from a creative point of view, everything has just become a little bit overfamiliar,” observed poet laureate Simon Armitage (8 May edition of the Guardian Review) and this has been a common enough comment since last year.

Few may have been driven to write, as Armitage reveals, three poems about their Velux window (has a pivot roof window manufacturer ever been so honoured?) but many have bemoaned the lack of stimulation and the stifling impact on their creative work.

Yet the infinitely rich source of inspiration is there at our fingertips and was highlighted in that very same edition of the Review: the news. Author Emma Donoghue ascribed the genesis of her multi-million seller Room, as the then newly published news story about five-year-old Felix Fritzl escaping familial imprisonment. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express drew on the infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping and Lionel Shriver had photocopied “hundreds of articles about school shootings” before writing We Need To Talk About Kevin.

The job of Poet Laureate has no set remit, but the poet is generally expected to cover major events of state, also known as ‘stuff that happens’. This activity is not unknown for poets over the centuries, mostly not poet laurates: Lord Byron penned verse on politics and events, such as the Battle of Waterloo; Christina Rosetti wrote on the massacre of Christians in her In the Round Tower at Jhansi, June 8, 1857; Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s The Cry of the Children is about child labour conditions, and her poem Casa Guidi Windows deals with political events in Italian liberalism as viewed from the very windows of the palace where the Brownings were living; Walt Whitman reflected on the Paris commune in Songs of Insurrection; Maya Angelou wrote A Brave Startling Truth about the founding of the United Nations; and if such topics are too lofty, search your newspaper for smaller items to inspire – Robert Burns attacked an increase in the price of men’s grooming in 1795 with On Mr Pit’s hair-powder tax.

Albert Camus wrote his haunting and shocking play Le Malentendu (The Misunderstanding/Cross Purpose) on the theme of an old clipping he had highlighted in his novel L’Etranger (The Stranger) the year before. While not identifying any actual cutting about (spoiler alert) killer hoteliers, Camus maintained he had read about it and not at all copied the plot from a 19th century play. As a journalist, and he wrote for many newspapers, he would know a good story when he saw it.

Camus is among many writers to have honed their skills in journalism, such as George Eliot, a contributor to the Coventry Herald and Observer. Bram Stoker and HG Wells were journalists; Rebecca West received the Women’s Press Club Award for Journalism in 1948 from President Truman; Graham Greene was a journalist on the Nottingham Journal and rose to sub-editor on The Times; Rudyard Kipling was stylishly portrayed working in newspaper office by Christopher Plummer in the 1975 film of The Man Who Would Be King; and Stieg Larsson, of Millennium trilogy fame, wrote for the weekly Internationalen. Terry Pratchett began work as a journalist with The Bucks Free Press and said that “Journalism makes you think fast. You have to speak to people in all walks of life.” Literary award-garlanded crime queen Val McDermid picked up her very first prizes in journalism and, as a young reporter, certainly met people from all walks of life, including Jimmy Savile, whom she then used as the basis for her serial killer Jacko Vance in Wire in the Blood.

In short, the remedy for the blank page is free and plentiful, whether the writer is confined to their Velux-windowed room or roaming free and wild.

Take heart, dear bard, your answer’s here and now:

inspo from your paper, not your window.