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Somewhere Ordinary

Posted on 7th July 2016 by Sally Campbell
Sarah Moss is currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Warwick and has previously penned four novels: Cold Earth, Night Waking, Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children, as well as two works of non-fiction. Night Waking is a blackly comic account of early motherhood and her new novel The Tidal Zone is a companion piece that focuses on parenting teenagers. Full of narrative surprises, The Tidal Zone has been described as ‘a remarkable, passionate, funny and beautifully furious book, full of love, history, justice and tenderness.’ (A. L. Kennedy)
I've been asked why, after setting my other novels in beautiful places, I've chosen to write about 'somewhere ordinary' in The Tidal Zone. One answer is that they are all ordinary places: I wrote about West Cornwall while I was one of thousands of people there living, working and doing the school run as people do all over the world. My books about Iceland and the Hebrides are very much about domestic and working life, the resilience or relentlessness of the everyday. Still, after three years of living here I wouldn't try very hard to deny that the West Midlands is more ordinary than Reykjavik or Falmouth, and that's really why I wanted to set a book here.

 
Moss detail
 
In some ways it's easier to write well about apparently uninteresting places than about the obviously inspiring ones. Everyone knows that beaches are beautiful and mountains awe-inspiring, so a writer has to work hard to wade through the clichés to a different way of seeing. Fewer people remember that it's also possible to find pleasure in the pattern of damp in the brickwork of a derelict building or in the assertiveness of weeds in a car park, and yet most of us see brickwork and car parks far more often than we see mountains and beaches. It's important not to dismiss our own places, not to think that the only environments that matter are the ones we don't inhabit.
 
 
Brickwork detail

My narrator, Adam, grew up in idyllic surroundings in Cornwall and is now making an adult life near Coventry. The descendant of refugees, he knows the value of ordinary life in ordinary places and takes pleasure in the architectural details of his town and in the trees and parks of English suburbia. When his own ordinariness is ruptured by his teenage daughter's sudden collapse on the school playing field, Adam finds his way into the stories of his father's and grandparents' rebuilding of everyday life in the wake of war, and into Coventry Cathedral.

 
Coventry Cathedral

I was fascinated by the Cathedral from when I first saw it; it would of course have been worth a special trip but I'm sorry to say that the first time I visited only because I needed to pass the time while my son went to a birthday party at a nearby bowling alley. The Cathedral was designed and built in the aftermath of World War II, because the medieval cathedral beside whose ruins it stands had been destroyed by bombs one moonlit night in 1941. The architect Basil Spence had fought in the war and seen the burnt-out churches of France and Belgium, witnessed the deliberate destruction of Europe's heritage and history. Jacob Epstein, son of Polish Jewish refugees, made the sculpture of St Michael by the huge porch. John Piper, who made the stained glass, had in his sketchbook line drawings of the dead bodies on the roadsides of Germany at the end of the war. The saints and angels on John Hutton's West Screen speak of the first images of Holocaust survivors, skeletal and haunted. No cathedral is ordinary - maybe no holy place is ordinary - but this building comes from a time in Europe's history when everyday life was being deliberately rebuilt in a new form.

 
Jacob Epstein's Sculpture of St. Michael
 
Coventry is not a pretty place, but almost every street in the centre was designed and built as an act of faith in the post-war future. The concrete shopping precincts and office blocks were meant to offer clean lines, comfort and efficiency to people who had previously had to drag prams over cobbled streets and squeeze industrial workshops into lopsided old buildings with steep staircases and low doorways. The post-war city was intended to prioritise the welfare and convenience of ordinary people going to work and school, buying groceries and fitting in some sport and culture along the way. You have to try quite hard, now, to see the ghosts of the planners' ambition, but when you do, a very ordinary place becomes intriguing.

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