The State of Being Unhidden: An Interview with Colette Bryce
This interview took place in the Somerset village of Curry Mallet in September 2014, in collaboration with the Bloodaxe Archive Project at Newcastle University. It was first published in the 20th Anniversary issue of The Dark Horse (Summer 2015).
CB: Julia, thanks for agreeing to talk to us. We’re working with the Bloodaxe archive at Newcastle University. Your first book The Shuttered Eye and your second In Defence of Adultery are a part of that archive. I’ve brought along a copy of the first letter that Neil Astley, Bloodaxe’s editor, wrote to you.
JC: Yes. This was back in 1994, so I would have been 25. The first contemporary poetry collection I read was Electroplating the Baby by Jo Shapcott. I found a copy in Maidstone Reference Library of all places. I was startled and delighted by the poems – by their playfulness, especially. I was also very taken with the cover, and realised that the collection was published by Bloodaxe. So I started to look out for other Bloodaxe titles in bookshops and libraries. Then I got wind of a poetry competition that was being run by The Kitley Trust. I entered it, not for the prize money, which was £10, but because it was being judged by Neil Astley. I was lucky enough to get one of the ten prizes, and went up to the reading, but I was too nervous to read out my winning poem so Neil kindly did that for me. And then, at the end of the reading, I did what you absolutely are not supposed to do if you want to approach a publisher: I took a sheaf of poems out of my bag and said: ‘Will you read these on the train home?’ So his letter to me is a result of that. It’s amazing to see it again. I remember distinctly when it arrived in the post. It was in a jiffy bag, so it was quite large, and I thought ‘This is not a rejection because it’s quite a thick envelope’. I was so excited I ripped it open and actually cut my thumb on one of the staples. So the original of this, which I have somewhere, has a smear of blood on it. He wrote: ‘Thank you for leaving me with a sample selection, I was very impressed, can you send more?’ I’d sent him 15 poems and he explains that they’d need about 56 pages for a book. That’s how it all began.
CB: How did the book come about after that? Because this is only an expression of interest, isn’t it?
JC: It is, yes. He does stress here ‘I think it would be in your best interest not to publish a book prematurely but to wait until you have a consistently strong volume of work’. I felt quite reassured by that, that he wasn’t going to say ‘I’d like to have 56 poems by, you know, the end of next year’; I’ve never been a very quick writer. So I sent him poems as I went along and he would tell me whether he liked them. We worked together like that for, probably, over a year.
CB: You found the covers were a big draw to the Bloodaxe imprint?
JC: Yes, definitely.
CB: I remember that time in the early nineties because I might have been at a similar point to yourself. I was working in bookselling. I remember how vibrant the covers were and also what a buzz there was around the Bloodaxe list. There was a sense of youth and vitality, wasn’t there?
JC: There was. Reading Jo’s book that first time, one of the things that struck me was the content of the poems. I had never read poems before that were about the sort of things she was exploring—the true character of sheep, the musings of a baby, before and after birth, closely reimagined episodes from the lives of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning… It was their slightly surreal nature that stayed with me—also the confidence and directness of their tone. I do remember specifically wanting to be a part of the Bloodaxe list, and I was very lucky to end up being able to do that.
CB: This was the New Generation promotion. I’m just thinking that was around 1994 as well…
JC: Yeah, poetry as rock and roll!
CB: So they said. The papers collected in the Bloodaxe Archive include correspondence relating to the editorial process, and this can throw up a little trail of what we could call ‘ghost titles’. I found two titles in the archive that came before The Shuttered Eye for your first book. One was Pulling the Ivy, the title of a beautiful poem in the book. For a while that appeared to be your working title. The next one was Walking in the Shadows.
JC: Walking in the Shadows was eventually used as the title of a pamphlet that was published just before my book. I entered it for the Poetry Business Smith Doorstop competition. Being very naïve, I hadn’t realised that it probably wasn’t the best idea to publish a pamphlet of poems when you’ve got so few, when a full collection is in the offing from a big publisher. So I entered the competition and was selected. There were four winners I think and they each got a pamphlet published. The overall winner gets a book published by Smith Doorstop, but Neil said ‘No, I think we’ll stop at that stage’ and didn’t allow me to go through to the final judging. So the pamphlet was called Walking in the Shadows. I honestly can’t remember why I changed from Pulling the Ivy to The Shuttered Eye.
CB: How do you approach titles in general? Do you find that they come easily or is it a difficult thing to find a correct title? Not only for the book, which of course is the big one, but for poems as they come along?
JC: Well, the book titles I usually take from a poem. Often that’s quite easy because there aren’t that many poems whose titles are suitable. The poem titles often, not always, come afterwards for me… I think some poets have a title in mind at the start, and that’s the peg they hang the rest of the poem from. Poem titles for me quite often change, so I might feel the need for a title, and then end up calling the finished poem something completely different.
CB: Keeping archival matters in mind for the moment, how archival are you in your process as a writer? Do you keep drafts of poems, for example? Do you number or date them? This widens out obviously to include notebooks, manuscripts…
JC: When I heard your project was to do with archives, I thought ‘Well I’m not really a person that does keep things in any systematic way’. I was talking to my husband about this and he said ‘That’s complete rubbish, you’ve got boxes of stuff’. It’s half true. I don’t have masses but I’ve got drafts of poems, and diaries, letters, all sorts. I find the whole concept of archiving really interesting. I think, though, it would be quite hideous to be archiving stuff with a view to the future, and to other people finding it in the future, because it would then become a terribly self-conscious process. I sometimes wonder if, when I’m looking at archives of other poets and there are these carefully drawn sketches in the margins and so on, whether they were aware that these might be viewed in the future, and therefore, how spontaneous they really are—whether it interferes with the actual creation process. I wouldn’t like that to happen.
CB: I think there’s something archival in the writer’s mind, isn’t there? You mentioned previously that because we’re trying to pin down, or preserve, or capture something, it stems to the material of the process.
JC: I think that’s right. That may even be why I write. I don’t like the sensation or the notion of loss, and so I think I’m constantly trying to not only pin down, but make a shape out of things that have been lived through, or witnessed. I’ve got little boxes of things going back many years.
CB: So that precedes your writer’s life?
JC: Publishing life, yes. By some way! I think it’s just the desire to not want all of those moments and connections to be, you know, for nothing.
CB: It might be early days but do you think about your work in the context of it eventually being kept in an archive?
JC: Not as a rule but I’ve thought about it a little bit recently because I’ve started working on a biography of the poet Charlotte Mew. So I have experienced the thrill of finding letters and drafts in that person’s handwriting, and mentions of her in other people’s diaries and so on. For a poet it’s really fascinating to come across the draft of another poet who you admire, and see where they’ve made little changes to a line, or to individual words. I suppose it would be a bit selfish, if you have those drafts, to deny access to anyone interested. Maybe selfish is too strong a word.
CB: It’s something about the trail, isn’t it, going right back to the genesis of the idea, or whatever started the poem.
JC: I think it’s interesting for the poet as well. When I feel I can’t write at all, when I’ve lost all confidence, it’s very reassuring to go back and look at the germ of a new poem, where it grew from and the wrong turns that it may have taken, yet knowing it’s eventually ended up being worthwhile.
CB: That can be lovely, because sometimes you see how unpromising it was at a certain point, and think, God, something really did happen in the process that just changed it, and it became something.
JC: Several poems that have ended up working for me have started off being wrong—sometimes in form. I haven’t wanted to let them go completely. And they can end up being among the strongest poems. ‘The Back Seat of My Mother’s Car’ was one that had a history like that.
CB: Can we hear a little more about that poem? It’s from a child’s point of view. A mother and child are driving away from the father and the family home. It’s the first poem in which you adopt the specular form, which you’ve obviously returned to in subsequent collections. Could you tell us, for people who don’t know, how does a specular poem work?
JC: I just noticed that it is mentioned in this first letter that I got from Neil at Bloodaxe. He says ‘I’ll wait until I have more work from you before I comment on it in detail, but I must say now that I was knocked out by “The Back Seat of My Mother’s Car”’. I think that was because it’s written in this two-stanza form, and each stanza uses exactly the same lines, but the second stanza is in reverse order. The first line of stanza one is the same as the last line of stanza two; the second line is the same as the penultimate line of stanza two, and so on.
CB: So it’s a complete mirror effect.
JC: It’s a mirror image: exactly the same words but differently punctuated and in reverse order. It meets itself in the middle. I had originally written a poem called ‘The Getaway’ which isn’t published anywhere and I wasn’t happy with it. It was autobiographical, and difficult to write for that reason. The story is the same as in ‘The Back Seat of My Mother’s Car’ but I noticed that I kept repeating certain phrases and lines in the original poem, and it just wasn’t working. The experience in it triggered so much emotion in me, I found it very hard to write about it sincerely—to make it sound sincere. I knew it had promise and thought: ‘What would happen if I consciously tried to repeat lines?’ When the mind remembers trauma, it’s almost in a cyclical way… it’s not as neat as that, but it goes over traumatic events again and again. The precise beginning and the end become less important. It’s just replaying the memory. The repetitions felt right for that kind of replaying memory. I was living with some friends from university in a dilapidated manor house in Kent when I wrote it, and I stayed in the attic until I’d finished. Specular form—though it wasn’t called that at the time!—is very difficult, but I felt I’d made something that I was happy with.
CB: It’s a beautiful form. You’ve returned to it throughout your work. Does the way in which you write it vary? Do you tend to write the first stanza, or even the second stanza first, and then work backwards on the mirror image? Or do they happen in parallel?
JC: They happen in parallel. I think it’s got to be simultaneous, so it’s like writing both stanzas at the same time: every single line has to work forwards and backwards. You’ve got to check all the time that that is happening, and for both ways to sound as natural as possible, because like any form, even sonnets, you know it’s a construct. I find it useful for emotionally charged subjects: it’s a way of giving your chattering left brain something to do, which in a strange way frees up the right, the creative side of your brain, and allows you to produce something that is less sentimental than it might otherwise have been.
CB: I can understand that in relation to your other forms as well, and to form in general: it creates something unexpected. Which is the opposite of what sometimes people think, that forms can be predictable. But if it’s working for you, it creates the unexpected and the material changes.
JC: Exactly. That’s what writing is about. Poetry is a kind of… rubbing two flints together. If you’re lucky you get a spark. For me, that’s one of the things that form does. But I wouldn’t like it to be tricksy: it’s important that there should be a point to the form. I think some poems I’ve written in the specular form are less successful than others, actually, but when it works, it works well.
CB: I love the strangeness that occurs, with the whole mirror idea. You get to the centre of the poem and pause there for a second on the same line, and think, ‘Well what’s happening here?’ Then it starts to unfold backwards, but with a strangeness, because the punctuation’s changed, the sentence structure has changed with it, and the meaning ultimately changes. There’s a ‘through the looking-glass’ kind of surreal aspect to it. I notice there’s a specular poem ‘Raymond at 60’ in your new book: a poem about the life and experience of a particular character.
JC: Yes, that poem is about my uncle Ray. He has Asperger’s Syndrome but was diagnosed quite late in life. He’s a lovely person, very warm and generous, but also he’s got a real childlike quality. It feels like he’s more honest than a lot of adults are able to be. I love that about him. He has two big obsessions. One is Shrewsbury Town Football Club. The other is buses. He knows all the bus numbers in London, and the routes. I think the specular form is appropriate for him because of the presence of the child in him. In the poem, childhood and adulthood co-exist, and one becomes more important in each of the stanzas than the other. Can I go back to the idea of such a poem reflecting itself? In the middle of ‘The Backseat…’, there is the image of a car window and the little girl looking into the glass. I think that was completely subconscious, but it’s interesting that you’ve got that glass there and that’s a kind of mirroring image.
CB: It works beautifully in that poem. Also, in that first suite of poems in your first book which all have an autobiographical feel, I noticed on rereading them recently that images of glass recur. So ‘The Backseat…’ ties in obviously with the other poems around it. In correspondence with Neil Astley from the time, you refer to the form as a ‘cyclic’ structure. Can you remember when you decided to name it ‘specular’, and to claim it by doing so?
JC: If memory serves, Neil advised me to give the form a name because he hadn’t seen it done before, so I did. I called it specular form because speculum, as well as being a medical instrument, is Latin for mirror. It’s as simple as that.
CB: I know it’s probably difficult to talk about a book that came out twenty years ago, but staying with The Shuttered Eye for a moment, I see the proximity of Sylvia Plath’s work. Many of us as young writers could relate to that because Plath was such a powerful influence, I think, on our generation. Can you think of any other fixed stars, if you like, in your firmament then and now?
JC: There are so many, but certain poets I go back to, to energize my writing life. And there are certain collections. One of them is Hare Soup by Dorothy Molloy. That is one of the collections that I read and re-read and go away thinking, ‘Yes, this is what it’s about’, and feeling excited every time. If you can read a collection that many times and get that feeling from it then there’s surely something to it. The American poet Kay Ryan, whom I came across some years ago, and who subsequently became Poet Laureate in the United States, writes these tiny, jewel-like, very condensed poems. She does fascinating things with rhythm and rhyme and half-rhyme. That was completely different from these much more traditional poems that I was writing, certainly in my first book. I find that quite exciting. Reading someone quite different from you can be really refreshing, and it can help draw you out of a stasis.
CB: This cross-pollination that goes on in contemporary poetry is always such fertile ground, isn’t it?
JC: Absolutely. Anne Carson is another, especially her Glass, Irony and God. That’s one of my favourite collections.
CB: In The Shuttered Eye, the Plath influence was a little to the fore, but in a lovely way: only as a young poet can you be that unselfconscious about influence. Do you think that, as poets, how we process influence changes as we get older? Does influence manifest differently now?
JC: Yes. I was remembering as you asked that, that Liz Lochhead wrote this on the back of The Shuttered Eye: ‘The Shuttered Eye begins with several searing poems on marital breakup. Plath, for whom there is an elegy in this volume has evidently been Copus’s guide into the labyrinth of the Electra complex but she is quite as much her own woman, as her distinctive Daddy, capital D, is his own man.’ I was really worried about what my father would think of that. I showed it to him and he was really proud, you know, and said ‘Ooh, distinctive Daddy. Great!’ It is evident that Plath haunts the whole collection and yes, I think how influence affects us changes. At the time it wouldn’t have occurred to me that it was something to be concerned about: as new writers, it’s hugely helpful to find someone that we admire and want to sound like and imitate. That’s the best way to learn.
CB: It’s almost like how visual artists used to be sent in to copy the old masters. You retain what you need from that process.
JC: Yes, but now I know more poets than I did then, so there’s probably a more diffuse influence from a whole range of poems and poets whom I’ve read over the years. It’s become more difficult to pin down. I hope, too, that I’ve found more of my own way of doing things. I would be horrified now if there was an influence as strongly recognisable as Plath is in my first book.
CB: Plath became associated with ‘Confessional’ poetry, which is less of a favoured term now. Sharon Olds prefers ‘apparently personal’ poetry. You said in an interview that you found little difference between a so-called ‘confessional’ poem and any other, because in both cases, you say the writer makes an ‘artifice of honesty’. This reminded me of a phrase by Anne Sexton: ‘faking it up with the truth’, which I’ve always liked. Can you tell us a little bit more about this ‘artifice of honesty’ in the process of writing poetry?
JC: Well, every poem is an artefact. It’s something that is made and crafted. You can never replicate an experience entirely faithfully in any case. First of all, you’ve got your own filter for any experience. You perceive the experience, so you’ve got that going on. Then, because a poem is something that is made, there’s not as big a difference, I think, between something that is made of your own experience and something that’s written about somebody else’s experience, or an object, or anything. There’s always you in the poem: you can’t divorce yourself from what you write, though some poets claim they can. At any rate, I can’t.
One example in my latest book is a sequence based on the myth of Hero and Leander. Nobody would think of it as an autobiographical poem, but I’d argue that in some ways it’s more autobiographical than others that appear to be so. In the legend, Hero is a priestess of Aphrodite and so she’s taken a vow of chastity. She very soon regrets this when she falls in love with the young man Leander who lives across the other side of the Hellespont. So they come up with this plan that he will swim across the Hellespont whenever he can to see her at night. That all works very well: to let him know that the coast is clear, she lights an oil lamp outside her house. This both tells him that it’s all right to come and gives him a landmark to head for while he’s swimming. But one night a storm blows up. Hero is wracked with fear and confusion: does she light the lamp to tell him the coast is clear? She desperately wants to see him but she knows that if he swims to her then his life might be in danger. My poem leads up to that point and ends with Hero walking back up to her house from the seafront and deciding finally that, yes, she will light the lamp. The poem doesn’t tell the end of the story, which is that Leander does swim to her but the lamp has blown out in the storm, and so he dies. I was interested in the emotional charge of that, the idea of waiting and desperately wanting something to happen but fearing its consequences. That’s a situation that probably nearly every human being has been in. What interests me as a writer is: what makes humans tick? Now, it happens that I had been in a situation very close to Hero’s, waiting for somebody important to me, under dangerous circumstances, and that was the incident I had in mind when I wrote the Hero poem. In that sense the poem is at least as autobiographical as others that are, as Olds puts it, more ‘apparently personal’.
CB: Yes, it’s not a poem that people would pick out as autobiographical. That leads to my next question: what is poetic truth? I noticed, in quite a high-profile review of your new book, the first sentence mentioned ‘personal poetry’, the second mentioned ‘intimate poetry’, and then the reviewer commended you for writing about personal experience in a ‘controlled’ manner. This reviewer had assumed that some or all of this work was autobiographical, and indeed true. Perhaps that is because of the sequence at the end of the book about a couple going through an IVF treatment cycle. Do you find it problematic that people read poetry in this way and assume that events described within a poem are true?
JC: As human beings we are naturally curious, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We want to know the stories behind things. But I think if the poem is read through that filter and primarily for that reason then that’s a big problem. The poem has been carefully created. It should be irrelevant whether the experience has actually happened, or has actually happened to that author. If people are wanting to find out, out of curiosity, whether something actually happened, that’s fine. As long as that’s not the driving force for reading in the first place. In that case, you might as well be reading a biography or an autobiography. This reminds me of an interview I gave on Radio 4’s Front Row. It was a lovely interview: the interviewer realised halfway through, live on air, that one of the poems in my latest book was in the specular form, and did a sort of double take. But he was also interested in my life, and the sequence at the end of that book deals with a couple’s experience of IVF. He wanted to know whether I had been through that myself, and if so, how ‘true’ were the poems in the sequence? I was caught off guard when he asked me ‘So did the IVF process actually work for you in the end?’ I tried to put off answering, and then towards the end of the interview I did answer that it hadn’t worked. But when I was writing the sequence, it took on its own life, and so the woman in the sequence is not me. As I went on writing, and thought about narrative shape, when I was deciding whether the treatment would work or not for her, considerations about what had happened to me were not part of the equation at all. All I wanted was to serve the poem as well as I could. That illustrates what I feel about autobiography and a made poem, and the difference, really, between the two.
CB: I can’t remember now who called it the ‘what-actually-happened truth’ and then the poetic truth.
JC: I think it was Rita Ann Higgins. It’s something that Selima Hill quotes at the start of Violet—another of my all-time favourite collections. She says, ‘To get to the poetic truth it is not always necessary to tell the what-actually-happened truth; these times I lie’. The Greeks had a word ‘aletheia’ which literally means ‘the state of being unhidden’. It implies that a disclosure is taking place, which is what should happen when we read or write a good lyric poem: there’s an unfolding, an uncovering and a revelation. For me that is a very good way of describing what I call poetic truth, as opposed to the literal, what-actually-happened truth. For me, poems have to be true in that former sense, and not necessarily in the latter.
CB: In the article you wrote about ‘personal’ poetry for The Author, you finished with an interesting quote from the American poet Sharon Olds.
JC: Sharon Olds said that when a poem is written, it doesn’t feel personal for her, it feels like art: [reads] ‘a made thing, the ‘I’ in it not myself anymore but I’d hope some pronoun that a reader or hearer could slip into.’ I love that idea of the ‘I’ in the poem being inhabitable by anybody, and not just there for the writer.
CB: You’ve spoken in the past about an idea of shadow selves: that with every choice we make, the world – our world – branches off from the one in which we might have made another decision. I think that’s really fascinating, and think of Frost’s famous poem on the diverging roads. Then you start to visualize a vast network of divergence. You approach this idea from several angles in your second book, especially, In Defence of Adultery. The idea continues in ‘This Is The Poem in Which I Have Not Left You’, the first poem of your most recent book, The World’s Two Smallest Humans. Can you speak a little about that idea of parallel lives and shadow selves?
JC: It’s a sensation that I have lived with from quite a young age. My parents got divorced when I was six. From around about that age, because we left my father, I was aware of the little girl who perhaps had stayed with him, and the life that she might be living. Of course that life was always loads better in my mind than the one I actually was living. When I was in my late twenties a friend lent me a book about quantum physics but very clearly explained for everyman. It described what physicists call shadow selves, and that with every single decision we make, our world divides off from another world in which we made another decision. And so there aren’t just two of us, but a countless number of other selves out there. This isn’t supposition: they say it’s really the case, and certainly I’m very aware of it happening. People do have that sensation, especially when you make big life decisions. Philosophically, the question is: ‘What if this had happened instead of this?’ But I love the idea that it actually has happened, that that alternative state of being is out there somewhere.
CB: It’s like some other kind of a reality?
JC: Yes. That first poem that you mentioned in my new book deals with this idea of shadow selves, as you say. The poem’s speaker has not made a decision which she ends up making in the poem itself, so it does a kind of funny back-flip thing with time.
CB: There’s a poem in your second book, part of a sequence ‘Playing It By Ear’, that I particularly like. It appears to be a kind of episodic poem about marital stasis. It contains this lovely image of a couple who are eating in a restaurant. The wife imagines taking her husband’s hand, and the two of them walking off and leaving themselves still sitting at the table—a surreal but also compassionate kind of image.
JC: I think that she has this sudden urge to go to a better life with her husband—to walk out to something, a life that they might be living that is far better than the one that is being enacted at the dinner table at the time.
CB: We keep returning to the idea of the specular poem. I wonder if the specular form is somehow enacting the poem’s shadow self?
JC: I’ve not thought about that. When I’m writing the first stanza there is certainly this sense of a ghost stanza hovering behind it. That ghost stanza eventually materialises into the second half of the poem, but in a sense it remains as a shadow being—an alternative, or slightly altered, version of events.
CB: Another thing that distinguishes your work is that you create very memorable characters in each of your books. I notice that some of them are people who are minutely engaged in a process. I’m thinking for example of the monk in the scriptorium in ‘Breaking the Rule’, or more recently the composer Franz Süssmayr who is transliterating Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’. Is there a theme of loved work, of process being a kind of refuge from the chaotic nature of romantic love, in your poetry?
JC: Yes, the chaos of romantic love. I think what I’m trying to do in my poetry, perhaps what any artist is trying to do, is to shape something that really has no shape in the lived moment, or not one that can be felt. I’m currently working on a biography. You very much get the sense that the person who’s lived through the experiences will have no idea of how that—the overall life—can be interpreted in different ways, given a shape and a narrative that they did not feel while they were living it. But often there is a pattern of sorts. Charlotte Mew said in a letter to a friend that “life has an odd way of falling with patterns, even for untidy people, and more for the others who lend it a hand”. So I suppose in those poems you mention I’m examining characters who are focused on giving shape to something—an illuminated manuscript, a music score—and yes, often as a kind of refuge from romantic love, which is an altogether trickier thing to shape.
CB: A very beautiful poem I didn’t mention was one that you wrote about the invention of the electronic antibiotic. Which again, is someone very deeply involved in a process.
JC: That’s based on my father who invented a machine which he called ‘the world’s first electronic antibiotic’. He named it ‘The Biogun’, and he still makes and sells these machines. The emotional core of the poem is a person trying to make the experiences in his own life okay. I mean, the machine kills surface infections. The tragedy in the poem is that he’s only able to make a difference to surface problems, but actually his marriage is breaking up and so on. He very much wants to control things and in the end is unable to do so. But he has this dream of healing everything, healing his marriage, the rotting thatched roof, and so on.
CB: Finally there’s a poem called ‘Deskscape’, again in the same book, where the night worker engaged in the process appears to be the poet or the lyric ‘I’. Are all of these characters aspects of the poet? Is poetry a refuge? Is it somewhere one can go for a kind of sanctuary?
JC: I think there are easier ways of finding sanctuary! Poetry is such hard and slow work most of the time. If you’re asking if there’s sanctuary to be found in inhabiting another persona—slipping into another ‘I’—I’m not sure… It can be liberating, of course, but I don’t see it as an escape. Having said that, I do think that the act of writing is itself a form of refuge, inasmuch as you’re taking a step back and shaping something from the rush of life. There’s this difference between living a life—you always worry about it as a writer—and standing on the side-lines just writing about it. But then Hilary Mantel said something about the observer—the unnoticed bystander—being in a position to see more than anybody else. Standing on the side-lines is not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly it’s fulfilling to give a shape to things that would otherwise have been left to pass in a blur.