Apart from when she was teaching, Jan was a lone operator – like most of her characters – toiling away in the upstairs study in her East Oxford home. But because many of her friends were also colleagues, she occasionally liked to collaborate on projects. I remember her enthusiasm about working with photography Andrew Rafferty.
Andrew told me:
Following my book on the ancient sites of Britain, The Stones Remain with Kevin Crossley-Holland, I approached Jan with an idea of stone carrying memories. I took Jan to see Roman quarrymen graffiti and she took me to Canterbury Cathedral. We travelled around quite a bit and I put together some images. Indeed, for an exhibition back in the 90s I actually devised a technique for printing the photographs back on to pieces of stone. (One visitor said that it was ‘post-modern’ and I thought, I can live with that!)
I made up a proposal ‘book’ with the images and Jan’s words and we both tried to get our respective agents to run with it. We were still talking about ways forward even in the months before she died.
I published the piece in my retrospective catalogue with some images and Jan’s poem ‘Geraniums’. It’s one of those projects I have been intending to come back to and having just finished Seahenge: A Journey with Kevin, it may be that the time is right to see what I can do with ‘Remember Me’.
Visit Andrew’s website for images and artwork.
Literacy is the closest that most of us will ever get to telepathy, the exchange of ideas between those who do not meet. This exchange transpires over distance and time. We know the thoughts of the earliest writers. But the urge to communicate predates writing. Perhaps the first mark made by man was a message to himself: ‘I was here. This is the way home,’ but the moment it was made, published, it became a message to anyone else who saw it. ‘X was here. Now I can find him.’ For good or ill, Y became aware of X, of his existence.
At the most primitive level graffiti makes this declaration, ‘I exist’; the felt-tip scribble on a wall, the spray-painted tag on a railway siding; ‘I am my name. I exist.’ The Roman workmen who took time off from building Hadrian’s wall to cut their names in a quarry face began a tradition maintained by the local lads 1900 years later.
Words, Justus hic scipsit, Kilroy was here, Kyle 4 Lauren, leave little leeway in the matter of interpretation; the fascination of the symbol is the implicit challenge to interpret it. The Pictish cup and ring marks of North Britain defy understanding. They are cut into hard rock, not doodled with a sharp point. They were made to endure, the meaning entrusted to the stone. Man has always known that stone outlives him; no one has seen a stone born.
Through centuries, millennia, this trust in stone to convey meaning has been outlasted by the medium. We can make an educated guess at what Justus and Severus were doing on that precipitous Cumbrian hillside, but we share their alphabet. We do not know what the picts were saying; being prehistoric they were, by definition, preliterate.
Cups and rings are little, intimate thought-bytes. Generally speaking, the larger the message, the less intelligible it has become. Perhaps it was a seaman, newly landed at Gloucester, who cut a mermaid into the south porch of Churchdown church, but who cut, and why, the world’s largest graffiti outside of South America into the chalk of southern England? The Uffington White Horse which, contrary to popular belief is not best seen from the air, the Long Man of Wilmington. ‘He carries two poles,’ cries one enthusiast. ‘He is Colman, surveyor of ley lines.’
The communication system of mediaeval stonemasons has accreted such speculation that an entire global culture of secrecy has evolved from it, but it is no more sinister than the potter’s mark on his synthetic stone, the printer’s colophon, the publisher’s logo. We have now entered an age where incomprehension is becoming preferable to understanding as a more creative form of thought. Science and Enlightenment have not brought us content and joy. The message of symbolic marks tells us something but we do not know what it is and many do not really want to know, preferring the comfort not of ignorance but of unfettered speculation. One fact remains beyond dispute; they were made by human hand, entrusted to the messenger, stone. ‘I am’ becomes ‘I was. Remember me.’
Isn’t ‘Remember Me’ an astonishing piece of writing? As you unpack each line you are reminded of Jan’s preoccupations as a writer – for starters, the line ‘Man has always known that stone outlives him; no one has seen a stone born’ makes me think of Useful Idiots. (As well as reminding me that her degree was in stone-carving and she wrote novels as she worked in stone: working all the material to the same level at once, not stopping to polish and refine until the draft was complete.)
Many of her books contain broadsides and policy statements, a kind of graffiti of the mind. My favourite is from 1989’s Man in Motion: ‘Well, blast my ghetto! (A useful oath.)’ Think, too, of Hanno’s disintegration in Divide and Rule, that harrowing final page:
‘Are you hurt?’
‘Have you lost everything?’
Again, he nods.
‘Where do you come from?’
‘What is your name?’
‘What is your name?’
‘What is your name?’
He stares at them, quite speechless.
Proving our existence – or having it acknowledged – maybe even having a handle as well as a name – informs many stories.
In Zeno Was Here, our focal character watches his young son practise writing his name with furious concentration – remember it? – ‘He is at the stage of writing his name on everything … as if to convince himself of his own reality.’
The challenge is no less daunting in maturity. When John McEvoy’s jealous wife meets his intellectual lover they chit-chat awkwardly about writing with horrendously funny results. It’s a car crash.
‘Geneva is not working on a novel at the moment, but senses that Sarah will take it as a slight if she says as much; moreover, her projected work is currently too fluid to be pinned down by description. “Oh, I’m writing a book about a man who’s writing a book, but the more he writes the further he gets from finishing it. It’s an autobiography,” Geneva says. “Of the man, not of me.”
“The man who’s writing the book. He’s writing an autobiography but he doesn’t get born till halfway through.”
“What’s it called?”
Geneva, who hoped to stop this conversation train dead in its tracks, tries again. “Zeno Was Here.”
“Fascinating,” Sarah says vacantly. “Oh, is that the time?”
And the piece is prophetic too: ‘We have now entered an age where incomprehension is becoming preferable to understanding as a more creative form of thought.’