A guest blog from our adventuring novelist Stephen Orr, who’s currently conquering Europe.
You can check out Stephen’s award-winning novels here.
Sitting on a train from Berlin to Munich, it seems a good time to ruminate (lack of cows in fields, although plenty of wind turbines) on the nature of lit-tourism. Just past Dessau, villages, birch and the fiery glare from the white-blue eyes of an old man (what? what am I doing wrong?) across the train.
We can search for writers, we can go to the places they lived (for short times anyway) – but can we ever really find them? Evidence, everywhere, but most of it makes them seem too ordinary. Then again, what was I expecting?
It started in Dublin. The James Joyce House in North Great George’s Street. Joyce never lived here, but parts of several stories from Dubliners are set close by. Belvedere College at the end of the street, where Joyce was first taught by the fearful Jesuits. Eccles Street, Molly and Leopold wandering. A walking tour took me to Hardwicke Street, where Joyce once lived (opposite ‘The Boarding House’), although Joyce’s home has been consumed by council flats. It didn’t seem very, well, Joycean. A couple of kids on a motorised scooter kept circling the tour, and we had to move.
Leipzig. Cast iron train station. Fifteen platforms with no one in sight.
So what was I expecting? To actually see Joyce? Work out why (and how) he wrote what he wrote? Nope. None of that. Just Dublin’s ever-present seagulls, rain, Liffey-chilled breezes, tourist buses. As I reminded myself this was the place he (like Samuel Beckett) escaped from. Maybe he wrote not because of Dublin, but despite it? Maybe that’s what writers do.
Swift would save the day. Bus to St Patrick’s Church (where he was dean, giving sermons about people falling asleep in church, meanwhile writing Gulliver’s Travels and pamphlets such as ‘A Modest Proposal’, about the necessity of eating your children to save the country money – the first and best satirist). I saw where he preached, lived, worked, was buried, but I didn’t see Jonathon Swift. I saw pictures, furniture, but not so much as a ghost.
London would save the day. A quick walk to Bloomsbury. 48 Doughty Street, where Charles Dickens lived during the first flushes of his success. Now, here was a writer’s house. All preserved from when the great man wrote several early novels. Sitting room (where wife Catherine was exiled with the kids), dining room (long boozy nights with Forster), then upstairs to the great man’s study. The actual desk where he penned Oliver Twist. But, it just seemed to be a desk. Shouldn’t it have been greater, grander, deskier? Bedroom, where he sired his generous brood, and up to the nursery. All so ordinary. The kitchen, laundry, cellar. Mm… I left feeling I knew Dickens no better. A sort of anti-climatic walk back to Trafalgar Square through theatreland. A stop at Russell Square, to gaze in the window where T.S. Eliot worked at Faber and Faber.
More green fields, still no cows. The old man reads Die Welt, as die Welt passes us by (maybe he’s seen it too often). The conductor checks our tickets with the brutal efficiency that seems to characterise most things German.
As I ponder. The pattern repeats in Edinburgh (the cafe where Rowling scribbled The Philosopher’s Stone, the medical school where Conan Doyle learned all about deduction from his teacher, Joseph Bell, Stevenson’s old haunts, Scott’s house etc.) Then to Berlin. The Brecht House. The rooms where he wrote his plays and poems, the bed the threepenny playwright died in.
But Brecht wasn’t home. None of them were. Maybe the writers were in my head. One thing was interesting though. The important role these writers still play in their native countries. T-shirts, mugs, walking tours, the lot. In Ireland, most bookshops save the most prominent display at the front of the shop for Irish writers.
More turbines. Green, green grass. A few distant factories. Not really what I thought the German countryside would look like. But what did I expect?