For a few weeks now, I have been living on the campus of Queen Mary College, immediately overlooking the canal. You could hardly hope to find a more tranquil place to write in…
…were it not for the rest of the City, starting with the East End, bastion of the Bangladeshis and all those who somehow want to be hip; and beyond that the whole huge remaining expanse of London, day and night, night and day. Greater London is quite a handful for someone who comes from one of the globe’s remoter provinces: Germany.
What then is to be done when the place you are writer in residence at is one of the hinges of world history and the sounds that reach your ears consist of rather more than the quacking of ducks? The clatter of the London overground for instance, the soundtrack of an age whose presentness we never register with this intensity anywhere in Germany. Writing at any rate is quite impossible here. Even on my very first evening in London I was just dragged out and along by the pull of the city. Since then I have been constantly on the move, restive as the rest and wanting above all only one thing: to keep going further and further and further.
I might sit for example on a double-decker bus, on an expedition from Mile End to Brixton, from Brixton to Croydon, from Croydon to Peckham, from Peckham to Waterloo Station, and from there, finally, home, changing buses five times on journey that took ten hours. The following day I travel by underground into that most salubrious of all parts of London: the West; only to race back eastwards again, following the Grand Union Canal until I have left behind me first the estates of the well-to-do and then the glass skyscrapers of Paddington and Regent’s Park. Why? Because I want to get to the place where the global citizenry of the future is taking shape, a fascinatingly explosive world proletarian mix of every imaginable skin colour, including a glitzy sprinkling — economic crisis or no economic crisis — of a nouveau riche jeunesse dorée that spills over from Canary Wharf. Onwards! And whatever you do, don’t stop!
No, this certainly is not the right place to be working on a novel, there will be time enough for that on my return. Or rather: Isn’t what I am doing right now the real work of a writer? To open oneself up to this world of ours, and that without keeping at the back of one’s mind the protective thought of only really being at home in one particular place, and assuming elsewhere the stance of the merely by-standing tourist. Are writers not condemned to the continual repetition of such painfully sobering compulsive researches, perhaps with an eye to a hidden account drawable on the future, where experiences, filtered and purified, might find their way into novels and poems of which for the moment they have no inkling? I think the actual writing down of a text is an activity that occurs relatively late in the sequence of a writer’s tasks, just before the finishing line, so to speak. Long before that a simple participation in the lives of others is called for, entailing all the vulnerability of someone who, having imposed an imperative of openness on himself, is constantly torn between fervour and melancholy, euphoria and quiet despair. For that of course, that particular susceptibility of soul which we experience with special intensity when abroad, is where literature comes from in the first place. Where it duly gets written down is ultimately irrelevant.