Pamela Frankau: imaginary friend (4)

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.

Pamela Frankau: imaginary friend (3)

There were a couple more shocks in store, aside from Pamela’s being un-alive. As a post-script to her death, or rather my belated discovery of it, I decided to read one of her actual novels for the first time. It was easier to get hold of a copy at that time than it would have been in my youth, thanks to Amazon. I cannot now remember which novel it was. Suffice it to say that I gave up trying to read it about a third of the way through. It wasn’t badly written, not at all. A best-seller in her day, and from a very young age, she had dated badly. What must have sounded darkly sophisticated a couple of years before I was born now came across as stiff and mannered and oh, there was so much of it. It reminded me of matinée films of that period: the feeling that the action was taking place in a tiny black-and-white bubble far, far away from the real world; the excruciating accents; the overwrought moral havering over stuff that wasn’t important any more. I kept wanting to smack her characters, the women for their brittle wit and the men for their sexist smuggery. And yet it was well-written – a polished, professional performance. And how could it have been otherwise from the author of Pen to Paper?

One thing that had made a big impression on me in Pen to Paper was its black and white photo-illustrations. There was her father, the playwright Gilbert Frankau, with whom she seems to have had a difficult but instructive relationship. Since at the time I was having a difficult relationship with my own father, this was another bond between us. The two central pages fascinated me. The left-hand side showed an actual page from the Rough of Road Through The Woods and the right-hand side showed the corresponding page from the Smooth. I had seen, of course, the various versions of my own school essays. I had not shown them to anyone else as none of my friends seemed to go in for ‘drafts’ at all – they just sort of filled the fountain pen and went for it. If you made a mistake you just ignored it and kept on going, the general idea being to waste as little time on schoolwork as possible. (A couple of years later, I am almost certain I was the only pupil to suffer essay-writing withdrawal symptoms after leaving to start work.) This was the first time I had seen somebody else’s manuscript and I was so pleased – it looked like mine, or mine looked like it – in fact it looked worse than mine! Such a splattering of exclamation marks and X’s and wiggly ballons with arrows.

Until that moment I thought I had invented my own method – writing on the right hand side only, insertions and afterthoughts on the left, stars, dots, squares and arrows to differentiate between one insertion and another, corresponding symbol in the text, ‘ins’ in the margin – and here was someone else doing more or less the same thing. Maybe what I did was actually how writers wrote. I loved her handwriting, too: those tiny, sloping words, the giant gaps in between. One’s writing tends to get smaller and smaller the closer you get to creative ‘critical mass’ and I guessed she must have been totally absorbed and writing really fast at the time. By showing both versions, she was letting me see her thought-processes. It sounds foolish now, but I felt privileged.

The photo that drew me most of all, of course, was the one of Pamela. So that was what an actual writer looked like. There she was, in her tortoiseshell glasses (I was always trying and failing to find a pair like that), her hair cut short and brushed back from her face in a series of unlikely quiffs and waves. She was lighting a cigarette with a lighter, frowning slightly, her mouth twisted sideways a bit to bring the tip in contact with the flame. She looked kind of nautical, vaguely mannish and yet glamorous. You could see she would not be a sufferer of fools. She looked brisk, competent, exotic. I noted that she was right-handed – a disappointment since I was left-handed and was hoping this might be a signifier of artistic talent. The photo was sub-titled One cigarette, or two cigarettes, first. I spent a while brooding over the placement of those commas, and whether there should have been a question mark. But this was a direct quote from Pamela (page 96) so it had to be right. She was very particular about punctuation.

Pamela called it Protecting the Rough – and I knew what she meant. Whilst writing the first draft, in particular, you have to keep yourself in a certain state of mind – tuned in, as it were. If you tune out for too long, if you un-obsess yourself, the whole thing just sort of fizzles and dies on you. The Smooth doesn’t need protecting in the same way – it’s merely hard, painstaking work. In one classic passage (I came to know many of her phrases and anecdotes by heart after a while) Pamela claims to have successfully accomplished this ‘while flying the Atlantic, while driving across France and meeting may beautiful interruptions on the way’. What beautiful interruptions? She doesn’t say. I had never travelled further than Westgate-on-Sea for the day – in a hired car, with my friend, her mother, her aunt, various other young people and the friend’s demented granny in the back asking what time it was every five minutes, and in between times informing me that one of her toes had fallen off. I was entranced. I pictured Pamela/myself in a red sports car, driving round twisty mountain roads, as in the movies, stopping at some rustic café for a glass of vin on the terrace, overlooking a vineyardy French valley, or being steamily courted by some Sacha Distel-looking lothario but never for a second failing to Protect the Rough.