Living in Community, Writing Alone II
I have to smile at the popular images of community living, as depicted in film and television. These often show groups of naïve young people being manipulated by a cynical older man. There is usually some form of exploitation going on, drugs or mind-zapping religious theories, and we are led to believe that most of the participants are escapists in a mad flight from reality, or merely inadequate characters in need of care and attention.
That was not my experience in a ten-year stint of community living during the seventies. And now, twenty-five years later and with the benefit of hindsight I am still certain that it was not like that. Far from being escapists, the people I shared my life with at that time were at the coal-face of reality. There was idealism, of course, because without that there would have been no experiment in the first place. But there was also the day-to-day necessities of putting food on the table, of managing a job of work, of relating in the best way possible to the demands of the others one lived with. We had to negotiate, as everyone else all over the world has to negotiate, with sympathy and antipathy.
This experience of community living was a great training ground for a writer. It was heaven and hell. It was like being wedded to every other person in the community. There were plenty of laughs and always enough problems to bring us together and split us asunder. Literature, fiction is about the everyday, the ordinary and the extraordinary events that go to make up a life. It is about day to day human experience, elevated, in the best writing, to the realm of myth.
A writer draws on experience. That is all that he or she has. I don’t consciously draw on that particular period of my life when I’m writing a novel but I’m aware that it is there, like another great well of experience, second only to childhood
And I believe that this period of community living also fashioned my attitude to the genre of the crime novel. Because although I read and was influenced by many of the classic American crime novelists I was also aware that very few of them managed to avoid, sometimes unwittingly, becoming propagandists for a right wing agenda.
It is not possible to adapt and modernise the hard-boiled form for the 21st Century without taking into account the experiences and events which have helped to form us as individuals. My generation has been and remains obsessed with the problems of identity and with finding an egalitarian and just social system. At the moment we don’t know how to achieve it. We only know that quick-fix politicians are wrong. It is their day, no doubt about it, and we have to await a sea-change before these unscrupulous zealots are consigned to the waste-bins of history. But a kind of sanity and a new form of morality will emerge again, sooner or later.
Literature, if it is doing its job, has to reflect what we are like in the here and now. If the genre of crime fiction gives us only blow-em-away-because-I-know-best detectives then I believe we are short-changing ourselves. I want a detective who has passed through the stage of being a moralist and come out the other end. Someone who is a character in the absolute sense of the word. He or she has to be short on answers and long on questions. I don’t care if he finds the villain or not, so long as he continues looking for himself and for a social and political system with a heart.
The modern, protean hero, doesn’t come with an agenda. He’s been listening to answers all his life and it didn’t get him anywhere. Reality consists of working your way through the questions. It requires flexibility and the knowledge that everything is in change, everything is in flux and the only way to stay on your feet is to keep hopping from one leg to another.
I have moved from living and working with people to living and working with fictional characters. The reality is still there on a good day. How could it not be. The rules are exactly the same. You have to shut up and learn to listen.