She tells another story – the vineyards reminded me – where she is (again, no details supplied) in Martha’s Vineyard in America. It is the winter of 1950 and she is writing one or other version of a novel at a kitchen table ‘littered with scattered foolscap’. A certain Mr Butler enters, bringing with him ‘the clean clothes on their wire hangers and a certain amount of snow’. He asks her where her typewriter is and she tells him she doesn’t have one. As she speaks, it strikes her that for each 100,000 word novel she must in fact be writing 200,000 words. Mr Butler stumps back out into the snow, with this parting shot:
‘Henry Beetle Hough, the editor of the Vineyard Gazette, – he has two typewriters’.
This caught my imagination on several levels. Presumably in America they delivered dry-cleaning to your door? Could anyone really have the middle name ‘Beetle’? What exactly was Martha’s Vineyard?
Re-reading the passage itself as opposed to my paraphrase, I realise I absorbed more about the art of storytelling from the way Pamela Frankau wrote in Pen to Paper than I ever did from her more straightforward instruction in the matter. I learned that you didn’t have to fill in the gaps, in fact to leave them was often more effective, because the two imaginations involved – yours and your readers – then started to work in tandem, creating the scene together. She told me nothing about Martha’s Vineyard except that it was sometimes snowy. I pictures this Mr Butler – a small, bald man – getting out of some sort of black sedan, struggling with an armful of clothes and wire hangers into thick, white snow – no footsteps as yet, he being the first visitor – into a clearing surrounded by pines – except that didn’t quite go with vineyards and stuff. I imagined a kind of log-cabin, cosy and warm, a big American kitchen, that eerie pink kind of light you get when it’s snowing… None of this she tells me, and yet she does.
Without actually instructing me she showed how to edit a book as if it was a film, that is was possible to zoom in and out of locations and back and forth in time, that you could cut out a lot of stuff. She taught me the value of an arresting sentence and the power of précis. We had been made to ‘do’ précis in English, of course, but no one had ever told us what for. This was what for.
Martha’s Vineyard brings me to the third surprise. First I had learned that Pamela was not exactly alive. Then I had had to accept that her actual novels were not really to my taste, although they might have been, had I been her contemporary. And then a year or two ago I learned that the other person with her at Martha’s Vineyard was not so much Sacha Distel as (gasp!) a lady. Suddenly the slightly nautical air, the twisted cigarette, the severe cut of the shirt in that photograph, all fell into place. It was like that moment in every single episode of Stargate where the massive heiroglyph thingies clang into place in whatever mysterious sequence, the stargate opens to reveal…watery stuff… and in rush the aliens. Pamela was bisexual. If you had mentioned the word to me and Lydsay Barwell wandering around Woolworths that day, we would have imagined…well, I don’t think we could have imagined. Now, of course, it is not shocking at all, just another detail.
Of course Pamela Frankau has not been my only writing buddy. Over the years I have been lucky enough to bump into one or two more. There’s the Dylans – Bob and Thomas – who remind me that words have their own magic, an intrinsic weight and a whole string of resonances aside from any information they might happen to convey. And then there’s my mate Michel (de Montaigne) who dispenses acerbic French advice, not so much on writing as on how to live and how to grow old amusingly. Sometimes, in the wee small hours when the horrors strike, I turn to him and find myself Laughing Out Loud. And as for me and Pam, we have weathered a number of awkward injections of fact into our fantasy friendship. When dusk is falling you’ll still find us out in the Rec, scuffing our shoes, twisting the chains of the swings and yattering about this and that.
By chance I happen to be the only one left this side of the veil, but we don’t let that bother us.