For want of a better term I think of it as a coming of age novel. The thing about having a photographer at the centre of your story is that photographers have to take photographs – it’s what they do – and Billy is not a real person with a real camera. Fortunately, I am a real person (or at least like to think I am) and I take photographs, too. What I did was to transfer some of my own pics into Zappa’s Mam and call them Billy’s. The first appears here:
It was round about the that Jessica slipped out the second of my celeb stories.
Art for All
BL McErlane is fast developing as one of the big sellers among photographers. While he welcomes this (as who would not?) he sees the danger to an artist of his work becoming the preserve of the well-to do.
‘Shakespeare wrote for ordinary people,’ he says. ‘The rich loved his plays and there were seats on stage for the elite. They’d even join in, talking to the actors while the drama unfolded, which must have made for some interesting ad libs, but the ordinary people of the town thronged the Globe, eating oranges and drinking and chatting to each other. It was art for the common man and woman.
Today, art has too often become the preserve of the super-rich. It’s comforting for the artist to have a public that can afford to pay any price for what it wants but it’s also a trap. I want my work to be available to everyone.'
McErlane’s agent, Jessica Robinson, has assembled a line of prints featuring some of the best of his recent portraits and is making them available through retail outlets at prices that mean no home need be without its McErlane. The example shown here, The Future, is one of these and is available, framed and ready to hang, at only £60.
The picture she’d chosen was one I was particularly pleased with. It showed a man on a hillside, back to the camera, looking into the distance. Nothing of his face was visible, and the idea you got was of someone staring towards what might be. He was wearing a hip-length red coat, black jeans, white trainers and a brown hat with an absolutely flat brim. Two dogs were close to his feet.
I had actually taken that photograph some years before I even started to write Zappa’s Mam; it is of a friend of mine and his two dogs and was shot on a hillside about 3 miles from where I live. Here it is:
The second pic comes at a very important stage of the story for Billy, so I’ve allowed myself quite a big extract here:
One of the Sundays was running a series they called Heritage Villages and Jessica got me an assignment to take photographs of Cartmel. It’s in Cumbria; I had to look it up to find that out. Poppy took a few days leave and we went there together. We arrived the Wednesday before a Bank Holiday weekend because Bank Holidays are when National Hunt race meetings take place in Cartmel and I wanted pics both of solitude and of the organised mayhem that surrounds a race meeting.
At six o’clock on that Thursday morning in May, the sky was blue and the sun was at exactly the right angle for landscape shots. I’d thought Poppy might like a little more time in bed but she got up and walked with me, on my right because I held the camera in my left hand and we liked to touch.
We walked through the Square towards the race course. We’d be back here when the races were on, there would be crowds of people and this road to the car park would be closed because horses in some of the races would cross it, but right now there was only us and a man walking a Labrador that was too old to run very fast or very far.
‘Would you like a dog, Billy?’
‘A dog? I’ve never thought so. But if you do…’
‘No, I don’t want a dog. I just wondered about you. There’s far more stuff I don’t know about you than stuff I do.’
We talked about our childhood and I learned things about Poppy’s family I’d never heard before. She wanted to know if I was in touch with my brothers and sisters and I said I wasn’t, couldn’t even say where some of them were. How about her? Yes, her mother was in touch with all her children, which meant Poppy was in touch with them, too.
‘What about your father?’
She shook her head. ‘He disappeared. Just cleared off. I have no idea where he is.’
‘I don’t think anyone ever knew who mine was.’
And then, I suppose inevitably, there was the big one. She turned me round to look straight at her and took hold of both my arms before she was ready to ask it. ‘What about children, Billy?’
‘Children? No. I’m pretty sure I don’t have any children.’
She dug me in the ribs with her hand. ‘I mean, do you want any?’
‘Yes,’ I said, and I knew that it was true. ‘I want children. But I want to be married first.’
‘Tell me why?’
‘Because I want to end the cycle.’
She nodded. Her face was very close to mine. ‘Okay. Do you have a particular bride in mind?’
I pulled away without answering. I turned from the track and we walked along a broad belt of grass with trees to the side until we came to a fence, at which point I had to get the camera in both hands because beyond the fence was a group of buildings in an open field that said everything the editor paying for my trip wanted to know about how the past could exist harmoniously in the present. Poppy watched me as I framed my shots. ‘You see things that I don’t,’ she said.
‘And you know things that I don’t.’
‘We can learn from each other.’
‘I already have. Learned from you, I mean.’
When I lowered the camera she hugged my arm. ‘What? What have you learned?’
‘I was with Wendy, and you know about that. I was also with Marcie, though I don’t think you do know about that. There was whatever I had with Mel. All of those times were good times but I was always still just me. This is different. I feel now like there’s a new person called BillyandPoppy and I’m half of it.’
‘Do you mean PoppyandBilly?’
‘And which is best?’
‘You know which is best.’
‘Yes I do. But I want you to tell me.’
‘Being half of Poppy and Billy will always be better than just being Billy.’
‘That’s how I feel. So why didn’t you answer my question?’
‘Your question? What was your question again?’
She slapped me on the arm. ‘This marriage you want. Do you have anyone in particular in mind?’
‘I suppose I do, yes.’
‘You, my wonderful one. You.’
‘Right answer, Billy Mac.’ And she took my head in her hands and pulled it down and kissed me.
She looked at her watch. ‘They’ll be serving breakfast. Shall we go back to the hotel? And while we’re eating, you can tell me about Marcie.’
That was in May, as it says. But I had been in Cartmel in February of the year when I was writing Zappa’s Mam to celebrate a birthday – a rather big birthday as it happens – and when I woke at six in the morning I went for a walk on a racecourse covered in a thick frost. When I wrote in the book that “beyond the fence was a group of buildings in an open field that said everything the editor paying for my trip wanted to know about how the past could exist harmoniously in the present” I meant this:
I began this post as an illustration of how the writer’s own life experiences can help flesh out the story but I’m left with something different. I’m not Billy. I’m not. And yet, if Billy isn’t me, where did he come from? I don’t know, and I’m glad that I don’t because my suspicion is that if I did know I wouldn’t be able to write any more.
Tell me, how do we separate the writer from his/her creation?
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