Across the Table - The Ann Chapman Interviews
Ann Chapman photo: John Vetterlein
Ann Chapman was born in 1951 and hails from Yorkshire.
Ann took a general first degree (B.Sc.) with the Open University. Later she undertook a number of interviews with Orcadians that formed part of her anthropological studies, and for which she was awarded a masters degree in education. She is an active student in the field of dietetics and health matters in general.
In 2004 Ann published an account of her work in establishing a woodland on Rousay. (Braes Woodland Diary - the First Ten Years, ISBN 1902582500 in hardback and CD-ROM format.) Ann has been a researcher with Spring Ast LIX for over ten years and has lived on Rousay since 1983.
The publishers are in the process of transcribing a number of the interviews carried out by Ann Chapman over the past six years. This will include a cross-section of the community within Orkney - mostly from the island of Rousay.
As a tribute to Ann’s work with Spring Ast LIX, we are publishing the series of interviews with John Vetterlein that is ongoing and which she started in 1998.
This extensive, wide ranging series of interviews is to be found under the general title Across the Table.
Full details from the publishers.
On Writing (extract from the full interview):
AC: I should like to talk about some of the influences on your writing.
JV: My writing of fiction?
AC: Yes. And poetry of course. But before we go into detail I would be interested to learn what came first, the music or literature?
JV: Undoubtedly, music. I was exposed to music in the womb since both my parents were active musicians. My father had an exceptional tenor voice and the house was full of song as a child. But the literature followed on quickly. Before he was called into the Royal Air Force my father would read to us from the corpus of great English literature from Shakespeare to Dickens. Because of that I had learned to read before I attended school.
AC: But you have concentrated on literature in the creative sense rather than on music. Why is that?
JV: I commenced piano lessons at the age of eight but I had long suffered from eczema that caused my fingers on both hands to crack at the joints. Because of this I had to abandon the piano until I grew out of the condition. That occurred when I was in my mid-teens. By then I had developed a passion for astronomy and was reading widely in both fiction and non-fiction. I should also add that I was fortunate in having a very good grounding in the English grammar of function; besides, I had learned early in life a respect for language: "Give me words that I may savour them".
AC: So what impelled you to write?
JV: That is a good way of putting it. Indeed, I write because I have to, not because I want to. It should be understood that everything impinges upon the mind of the receptive artist. I have what I call my raw antennae. That means I am very susceptible to extraneous goings on. Many of my colleagues can write against a background of music. That is impossible for me. As a musician I will concentrate on the music thereby becoming distracted from the work in hand. That is not to say I am uninfluenced in my writing by music—on the contrary. Raold Dahl is reported to have said that he commenced a day’s writing by first listening to good music since, in his view, it was impossible to write badly following the experience. I would say there is less excuse for writing badly. At any rate, music can set the mood. And there is another aspect where I differ from many of my colleagues … I neither drink nor smoke!
AC: I am interested to learn that! But I was thinking more of literary influences. Perhaps I should pin you down. Some of your proofreaders and critics have said that your style is a synthesis of Dickens, Joyce, Kafka and Steinbeck.
JV: Pale imitations, perhaps. Seriously, I am well acquainted with the work of all four but there has been no conscious attempt to emulate any of them. I can see what they are driving at, though. Of the four you have just mentioned I am closer to Kafka, temperamentally at least. For one thing, I am indifferent to fame or fortune and would prefer that my work should be read by a select few. I do not mean this in any snobbish sense. I honestly feel that what I have to say, and the way in which I express it, is not suited to the commercial market place.
AC: All right, I will accept that. Now that you have narrowed the discussion at this stage to Kafka perhaps it is appropriate for us to look at the allegorical component to your work. You told me in confidence that The Knitting Woman is an allegorical piece.
JV: If I told you that in confidence then I am not likely to allow this discussion to see the light of day. I’ll lift the notice of confidentiality in this instance. Allegory is very important. A great deal of fiction is allegory. I might suggest life is a sort of mirror image of itself.
AC: Molly Dolly?
JV: Molly Dolly, perfume gone, life was but hallucination? Just so. The only way one can understand Dickens is to recognise the allegorical contribution. For example, in Dombey and Son. The treatment of the railroad, the allusions to Cleopatra. It is all masterly stuff. The allegory is more forthright in Kafka, of course.
AC: And in your own contribution? Candlelight, The Cicerone?
JV: The latter most certainly. It is allegorical from start to finish, except that it doesn’t finish in a sense.
AC: Returning to Kafka. You bear a striking resemblance physically to him, at least as a young man. I am thinking of the portrait of you—without the beard of course—by Gordon Stuart done in 1956.
JV: Yes, I have to agree with you there. We have the same shaped head, and a great mop of dark hair. My Jewish ancestry is very tenuous, however.!
AC: I was glad you used that portrait for Cobbett’s Field.
Presumably you would regard Kafka as essentially a miniaturist?
JV: Yes, in the way that Mendelssohn and Brahms are miniaturists and Bruckner and Wagner are not.
AC: Is Synthesis a miniaturist’s novel?
JV: Most certainly. I share that with Kafka, if nothing else. The mere fact that I have written so many shorter works, and left larger works unfinished, speaks for itself.
AC: A central theme of you work is paradox. Your motto, which creeps into nearly everything, signifies as much?
JV: My motto?
AC: Yes. Non est, nisi est.
JV: A piece of bumptiousness on my part just to indicate I have some Latin. Latin is a very economical language, you see. In this case I have expanded it a little from the English. That is to say, what is, is not looks more tortuous than the simple word paradox. Of course paradox itself is derived from the Latin paradoxicum. I like the Oxford's Etymology's explanation: statement or tenet contrary to received opinion. The word tenet appeals to me here. Tenet is a Latin word as it stands, deriving from the singular: tenere—from teneo, to hold. Here we have what I love about language—to hold close, to care—what a mother does to protect her child. "Give me language that I may savour it!"
AC: This is interesting. One does not automatically associate you with the Classics in literature.
JV: I can’t think why. I was fortunate to have the Latin which has stood me in good stead when I moved to the biological sciences in preparation for studies in pharmacology. But before then, in astronomy of course . . .
AC: In what way?
JV: Turn to the source writings of Kepler and you will need the Latin for that. You know, because I had read Kepler in the Latin I was considered ripe to that sort of thing. No way.
JV: Sharp of you! That novel, as with a house, is never completely at ease with itself. I think it unlikely I shall ever finish that one.
AC: Another great theme of yours is nuance.
JV: Writing, as it reflects or paraphrases life, is full of nuance, or it should be. To the skilled writer nuance becomes second-nature to the art of composition, as it does in all art, naturally.
AC: How much revision goes into your work?
JV: A good deal now. Once I felt capable of writing a poem, for example, straight off without the need for much revision. In the main, however, I get the idea and work it over in my head a good deal before committing anything to paper. Most of the short radio plays I had formed in my head and would write them down in a single sitting. That’s the way to master dialogue in my opinion. With larger works I have to organize things differently. In the case of Synthesis, for example, I had the thing down pretty quickly—about nine months. Three or four years of revision then took place. I could still take the pruning shears to the thing. But you have to reach a point of final decision, and that’s that.
AC: Yet another of your strong points is the way in which a story starts. I know you have written something on the parallels in music—the beginning before the beginning.
JV: A work must start with the air of inevitability hanging over it. Look at all the great writers. The stamp is there from the first word.
AC: You have some examples?
JV: For goodness sake, my memory isn’t up to it.
AC: Your memory is prodigious. False modesty doesn’t become you.
JV: In music and astronomy, I’ll grant you. But you well know I can hardly quote a line of poetry from any source, not even my own. Besides…
AC: I am not asking for quotes, exactly, the titles will do.
JV: There are the classics: Melville’s Moby Dick is supreme. Stevenson—the opening to Treasure Island. One whole paragraph in one sentence. It makes my flesh creep and my eyes water just to think of it. I could go on and on and on …
AC: And I have one.
AC: A stillness reigned across the landscape. The giant bird, of the species corvus—a raven to be precise—glided at no great height over the scene. It was too close in time to the catastrophe for the microbes to have done much about anything, the putrefaction had yet to set in; the dust, after all, had scarcely settled.
JV: That’s audacious in the extreme on your part. I think we should stop there.
AC: Not quite. I wanted to ask you how work is
progressing on the book of aphorisms.
JV: Under subheading Time we have: The present is the void in which we trawl the past and devour the future.
AC: Thank you, John.
Sample: Island Special.
In this truncated extract, Ann challenges John to name nine records (one bonus choice) he already has in his island home but which he might like to take along with him to another island - somewhere!
AC: Perhaps, before we move on, you should explain the rationale behind your choice of recordings.
JV: Certainly, but if you don't mind, may we go into the detail as we arrive at each piece? I start with a single instrument. I could have chosen the human voice but there are comparatively few recordings of a single, unaccompanied voice.
AC: Blow the Wind Southerly?
JV: Yes indeed, and were I to have more flexibility I would have included Kathleen Ferrier. I have two solo works in my list, then we progress to a string quartet, a symphony, a concerto and, since I must have the human voice, I have chosen a mass and a choral symphony. That at least is the rough outline of my plan.
AC: What is your first record?
JV: Domenico Scarlatti's Sonata in C minor Kk 363. Scarlatti was a phenomenon of the harpsichord. He was in essence a performer and a teacher and it was only in his late career that he put the music on paper. It is probable that he dictated most of it to a copyist.
AC: May we have your second record?
JV: I have thought long and hard about this one. Beethoven, yes - but what? I have chosen the Piano Sonata in E, Opus 109. Originally I had gone for a much earlier work but this late sonata ends in a way which sums up my attitude to life - resignation. And there is one further request, please may I have the Schnabel recording on Bechstein?
AC: Of course.
AC: Your third record, please.
JV: A string quartet and the master of masters in this form, Joseph Haydn, of course. But which One?! Even the fastidious Hans Keller recognised over forty masterpieces. I have no favourites but the last E flat, Opus 76 No. 6, has everything. A landmark work, I would have to say.
AC: Next a concerto, perhaps?
JV: Yes. It should be Mozart but I thought I would be crafty and get two instruments in for the price of one, and at the same time have some Brahms - possibly one of my earliest loves in music next to Handel and Schubert. And so it has to be the Double Concerto in A minor. You know, this work takes some getting into but once you've cracked it... The Thibaud/Casals recording, please.
AC: We are about due a symphony, I should think.
JV: And why not? I have said there are three composers I should most like to have known personally. They are Joseph Haydn, Antonin Dvorak and Albert Roussel, all men of integrity and good humour. And so let us have the Czeck composer at his most inventive and flamboyant, and at the same time, human. The G major Symphony, No. 8.
AC: Your sixth record, then.
JV: It has to be the voice and so The A flat Mass of Franz Schubert.
The recording with Bruno Weil, please.
AC The A flat Mass it shall be.
JV: Sadly, we have only two choices remaining. This is a dilemma. No Bach, no Handel, no Mendelssohn, no Sibelius, no Elgar, no Delius, no Walton, no Rachmaninoff and any number of others. But it would be absurd to leave out Mozart. And so let us go back to chamber music and one of the finest of all string quintets, the C major, K 515.
AC: No Bach, you say?!
JV: In my performing days I played more Bach than anything else, possibly. I have so much Bach in my head, you see!
AC: I'll accept that. In the extended introduction to your novel, Synthesis - microcosms of tragedy, you declare an indebtedness to Albert Roussel. I have to confess I find his music difficult.
JV: I think you either like Roussel's approach or you don't. I have to admire him for his piano concerto if nothing else. The piano is, after all, a percussive instrument. It brings out the worst in some composers. For me Liszt's music is without interest. My father tried hard with me, and I have tried hard myself. Even the much vaunted Piano Concerto leaves me cold. But Roussel took the piano for what it is and did not indulge himself as does Liszt. However, I have chosen the Second Symphony because here again we have an ending which for me settles into the infinity of things and is, once again, pure resignation.
AC: I can let you have a post-script, so to speak
JV: An extra one?! Then let us end with two of my passions, the human voice and the sea. And so I give you RVW's A Sea Symphony.
AC: And if you were limited to one record, which would it be?
JV: Without doubt, the Dvorak.
AC: I have to admit I was surprised by your choice of the Dvorak Symphony as the one record above all the rest you would have to take with you to the island.
JV: You shouldn't have been, not if you know a little about me and a good deal more about the composer. Of course I can only make such a decision based on my memory store of music which is, as you know, disturbingly comprehensive.