All that talk of Mount Fuji the other day made me want to post this picture, even though it’s a wintry, snow-capped Fuji and my Bath Novel Award shortlisted novel You’re Beautiful takes place in the summer. I’d also been thinking of saving this particular image for one of the final posts in this series on the background to the novel because it’s the last Fuji photograph I ever took. I didn’t know that when I took it. I didn’t know that within two months I would have left Japan forever after living there for fifteen years.
I first saw Mount Fuji on the crudely tinted colour postcards my father sent from Japan, where he was stationed with the Royal Navy at the end of the 1960s. I couldn’t wait to see the real thing when I finally got to Japan as an adult, but the mountain is famously elusive, usually cloaked in cloud, especially in hot and hazy summer. Even though it’s only fifty miles from Tokyo, there are few places left in the high-rise city that offer a view of Fuji. Perhaps from the top of a west-facing skyscraper at sunset or on a clear winter’s day, if you’re lucky. I was luckier than most; the weekend seaside cottage I rented just down the coast was across the bay from Mount Fuji. Every morning the first thing I’d do was look out of the window to see if it was visible. I never got tired of looking at it; the fact that you could only see it sometimes made the sightings all the more magical.
A lot of the action in You’re Beautiful takes place on a fictional beach that is based on a real beach just down the road from my seaside cottage. Like the real beach, the fictional beach is across the bay from Mount Fuji, and the spectacularly beautiful mountain has a strong presence in a story that has beauty as one of its themes, particularly the pursuit of beauty in our everyday lives and the importance we give to it, from the barman intent on carving the perfect ice ball to the stalker obsessed with his beautiful victim.
Anyway, back to the above photo of Mount Fuji. I took it on 5th March 2011. Six days earlier I’d been informed, along with the rest of my colleagues, that our company was closing down and we were all being made redundant. Six days later, a few hundred miles up the coast, that same beautiful calm blue sea would rise up into the tsunami that killed thousands of people. Redundancy, earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown, all in the space of a couple of weeks. I decided to leave Japan. I always feel sad when I look at this photograph. It’s hard to believe that such serenity would soon be followed by such chaos.
Looking for more photographs showing the Japan background to my Bath Novel Award shortlisted novel You’re Beautiful, this one felt like a piece of ancient history with its pre-iPhone mobile, and my fags sitting on the table. Yes, I used to smoke. And even though it’s seven years since I gave up and I don’t actively miss smoking any more, I know I used to love it. Smoking and drinking. Smoking and writing. Two of life’s top smoking combos. And Japan was a fabulous country in which to be a smoker. Everyone smoked, everywhere. It was cheap. There were cigarette machines on every corner. Smoking was cute and sexy (proof below). Japanese cigarettes had great names, like Hope, and Peace, and Keith.
I was a regular smoker for twenty years and then it took me ten years of stopping and starting again before finally giving up for good. During that decade, there was a period when I didn’t smoke for three and a half years. Oh no, people say, sympathetically, when I start telling this story. What on earth made you start again? Were you depressed? Stressed out? No. It was because I was having an absolutely marvellous day on this very beach. It was late afternoon at the height of summer, I was with a group of friends, we were sitting on the sand having a beer with the beach bar in full swing behind us, and in front of us a couple of fire dancers started an impromptu performance. And then out of the heat haze Mount Fuji appeared on the other side of the bay, a rare sight in the summer. Everyone on the beach cheered. A cigarette was all that was needed to make the moment perfect.
A version of this scene made it into the book. Nothing to do with smoking, you’ll be glad to know; it marks a significant turning point in the emotional journey of Lisa, the main female character:
“Look.” His hand is still clamped over hers, but he is staring across the bay. She looks where he is looking and there is Mount Fuji, outlined in gold as the sun sets behind it, the spectacularly perfect cone shape rising up to dwarf the surrounding mountain ranges. In the bar and along the beach, people have stopped to point and stare; some are even cheering. In front of the bar a couple of fire dancers begin to gyrate, spinning their flaming batons to the accompaniment of a djembe. He has removed his hand, but her flesh retains its warm imprint.
So this is the actual beach bar, near Tokyo, on which the beach bar in my Bath Novel Award shortlisted novel You’re Beautiful is based. It was surprising, hunting back through all my old photos (this one dates from 2009) to see that during the several years of drafting and redrafting the novel, the fictional beach bar I described on the page kept its fundamental resemblance to the real beach bar that inspired it. The white plastic chairs and tables. The bamboo awning. Wooded hills silhouetted against the sky. When I reread the novel and the action moves to the beach, the scenario above is exactly what I see in my mind’s eye.
If there was an audio file with this photo you would probably hear reggae music playing in the background. For some reason the Japanese only seem to listen to reggae in the summer, never the winter, and it is only in summer that you will see the dreadlocked, hemp-clothed Japanese Rastafarian, especially if you’re at the beach. I have no idea where they go in the winter. Google tells me that “a small but devoted Rasta community developed in Japan in the late 1970s and early 1980s,” so I am sure there are genuine Japanese Rastafarians out there, but there are definitely those for whom the look is nothing more than a summer fashion fad. I had a bit of fun adding a handful of Japanese beach hippies to the crowd that hangs out at my ill-fated (yes—this is a teaser) fictional beach bar.
So to follow on from the previous post about the Japan background to my novel You’re Beautiful, and in the interests of being completist, this is the beach that my weekend cottage overlooked, as viewed from the garden. But this is not the beach on which the beach in the novel was based. That one, much livelier and trendier, was a little further up the coast, and will feature in an upcoming post. This one, as you can see, is quiet and peaceful, although it gets very busy in the height of summer.
I’m guessing this photo was taken in about June, judging by the flourishing lilies, and the construction, up near the top left corner of the photo, of the umi no ie, literally “sea house,” a cafe that opens for the duration of official Japanese beach-going season which is from 1st July to 31st August. I remember on my first visits to Japan in the late eighties and early nineties being astonished at the rigidity with which the Japanese adhered to beach-going season. A beach that was packed on 31st August would be completely deserted on 1st September, despite the still searing heat. On my very first visit to Japan back in 1988, in a hot and steamy September, my friend and I, knowing nothing about Japanese traditions, went to the beach where we laid on our towels in our swimsuits and swam in the sea, relishing the fact that we had the beach to ourselves. But we soon fled when a crowd of people gathered on the promenade to point and laugh at the crazy foreigners.
These days, the Japanese are less rigid about these dates when it comes to hanging out on the beach, but summer beach bars still tend to close on the last day of August. A lot of the action in You’re Beautiful takes place in a Japanese beach bar. Lisa, the novel’s female protagonist, ends up getting a job there as a kind of refuge when her relationship with her boyfriend breaks down, but the fact that her job and the bar will literally vanish on the first day of September add dramatic tension to her story as she struggles to make the right decision about her future.
This is where the seed for my Bath Novel Award shortlisted novel You’re Beautiful took root: in the garden of the little grey-walled house you can see second from the left in the above picture. This was my weekend seaside cottage when I worked as an editor at a large Tokyo book-publishing company. Every Friday evening I’d go straight from my desk to the station and take a packed commuter train from the centre of the city out towards the suburbs. After Yokohama, the train would continue to empty at every station until it reached the seaside town of Zushi at the end of the line. Then I would take a local bus down a darkening coast road to my village. Even in the middle of summer the sun sets in Tokyo by about seven-thirty, and by the time I got to my bus stop, night had fallen. I found the final stage of the journey really scary: getting off the bus in the silent village, walking down the deserted lane, dragging open the squealing, rusty garden gate, and stumbling in the pitch black through weeds and spider webs to the front door, terrifying myself with thoughts that someone might have followed me off the train, onto the bus, and into the garden and might be standing behind me as I stabbed blindly at the door with my key, trying to find the keyhole. And that fear was the starting point for the novel—a man on a train going from the centre of Tokyo to a suburban seaside town develops a fixation on a girl he sees in his carriage every week.
Despite those moments of irrational fear every Friday evening, I loved my weekends in this little house. My friend Greg and his family would arrive on Saturday morning to take up residence in their weekend cottage, the low, wooden, red-roofed building on the left, and there would always be barbecues and friends visiting. I’d usually spend the mornings writing in that upstairs room with the red shutter, and the afternoons reading or watching the waves on that blue sun lounger you can see in front of those glorious canna lilies. In case you’re curious, the dilapidated green-roofed house on the right once belonged to Charles E. Tuttle, a pioneer in publishing Japan-related books for the English-language market (whose company I was later to work for as an editor).
Both our weekend cottages are gone now; Greg had them knocked down to build a lovely new house where he now lives year round, and I imagine the Tuttle house must have met its demise by now. That little white house is probably still standing though. It belonged to an old couple I never met or even saw. I heard them though. Or rather, I heard him. I’d be lying in bed in the middle of the night and I’d hear a liquid sound that was out of sync with the rhythm of waves breaking onto the sand. It took me a while to realise that the old bugger was peeing out of his bedroom window into my garden. I must have given him a terrible fright (perhaps even induced some urinary tract damage) the night I yelled out of the window at him to stop, but after that he never did it again.
Got a whole treasure trove of You’re Beautiful related pics and stories to come . . .
I’d thought by now that I’d be regaling you every day with stories of offers pouring in from agents, but apart from a few immediate rejections, there has basically been complete radio silence from the seven or eight agents currently considering my Bath Novel Award shortlisted manuscript, even from those who expressed initial enthusiasm. Maybe they’re all on holiday. Let’s hope so.
So in the absence of any writing news (except to say that I’m still plodding on with the next novel in the gaps between work, afternoon naps, and the Kardashians), let me tell you what I’m reading. The “bedside pile” has been a staple of my blog posts over the years; it’s been pretty small recently (it used to be enormous) as I do most of my reading on my Kindle these days, but above is a photo of the current pile. Starting from the bottom, there’s a rather out-of-date Bangkok guide book and then a teach-yourself-Thai book, both hand-me-downs from two colleagues who recently left Thailand, my current home, and probably my least favourite of all the Asian countries I’ve lived in (for reasons that I might share with you one day in another blog post), which is why they sit unopened at the bottom. The next two, Dear Life and The Buried Giant were both presents from my mum; I read one of the Dear Life short stories a while back but I’m not really in an Alice Munro mood at the mo (and I’m rarely in a short story mood; reading for me is escaping into another world and you can’t really escape for long in a short story). I started The Buried Giant last week and although dystopia is not my thing, I was immediately drawn in by the protagonist couple, but then yesterday I found myself in town with a few hours to kill and nothing to read so I went to the wonderful Kinokuniya bookshop intending to buy one book and came out with the three that now grace the top of the pile. The Lisa McInerney book I’ve seen touted a lot on Twitter (so it does work!)—had a quick flick through and really liked the voice. The Finkler Question I bought because the aforementioned colleagues who gave me the Thai books also bequeathed me Howard Jacobson’s The Mighty Walzer which is very funny, even though it’s about table tennis. And at the top of the pile is The Rachel Papers which I’ve been reading since yesterday and is hilarious and brilliant even though the casually sexist seventies language (“I spoke to key tarts in the University Administration complex and finally got on to the Tutors”) makes me flinch a bit. But my love for Martin Amis has already been documented. Kazuo Ishiguro will just have to wait.
Yup, got that too. As with my previously documented ailments, blogger’s block and writer’s block, it’s not that I’m not reading at all. Ever since I was old enough to read by myself and started working my way through the entire Enid Blyton catalogue, I’ve always had a book on the go. But it feels like a long time since I haven’t been able to put a book down, or since I went to bed early because I couldn’t wait to get back to the world of the book I was reading. I’ve read some books this year that I know objectively to be good, like Anne Enright’s The Green Road and Lauren Goff’s The Fates and the Furies, and I did enjoy them but not in a wholehearted way, if that doesn’t sound too ridiculous. Perhaps my own struggle to get an agent and a book deal has made me self-conscious not just in my writing but in my reading: unable to take simple pleasure in someone else’s writing without that little nagging voice in my head telling me I’ll never be as good as them so why am I even bothering to write? Or perhaps it’s something else—I once read an interview with someone, someone famous I think but whose name I can’t recall, who said now that he is in his seventies he doesn’t bother listening to the news any more because he’s heard it all before. In other words, once you get to a certain age, there is nothing new in the world. Is it the same for reading? Have I reached the age where I am so jaded that there is nothing in a book that could excite or move or enthrall me again? That would be awful. So I am battling on.
At the moment I’m reading Independence Day by someone called Richard Ford, which I came across when browsing on Amazon. It’s oldish, written in the mid-nineties and set in 1988, and I guess I was hoping for one of those resurrected classics like Revolutionary Road or Stoner, but its miniaturist account of a few days in the life of a man in the throes of midlife crisis trying to repair his relationship with his teenage son hasn’t really resonated with me although the writing is nice. I have kept going though—for what seems like months—and today my Kindle tells me I have at last read 96% of it—hoorah! I’m looking forward to starting Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible next; a modern version of Pride and Prejudice apparently. This may not be the best choice to cure the reader’s block as I really don’t like Jane Austen, but I do like a bit of Curtis and I loved American Wife, so fingers crossed.