My new work of fiction, Dicky Star and the garden rule is published by Forma on 26 April with a launch event at the Free Word Centre in London. Here is the text of a short afterword that is included in both the print and ebook editions, which discusses some aspects of the story’s relationship to the work of the artists Jane and Louise Wilson.
Dicky Star and the garden rule was commissioned alongside and to form a critical response to the remarkable body of research and creative works currently being produced and exhibited by the artists Jane and Louise Wilson, who themselves are responding to and investigating the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 for a major commission and series of exhibitions that began at the John Hansard Gallery, Southampton in 2011 and continues at Dundee Contemporary Arts and the Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester through 2012.
The story occupies the Chernobyl time-line, from 26 April 1986 when the accident occurred, until 7 May when reports of the true scale of the disaster were printed in UK newspapers following the Kremlin press conference of the previous day. Rather than work with Jane and Louise in Ukraine or to have drawn too heavily upon the unique interviews and testimonies that they have been collecting in the course of their own research, it seemed pertinent to explore, in a work of fiction, the same events from a UK perspective and using contemporary print media as my primary source.
A metaphor for this approach might be that of the scientific control. In an experiment – e.g. one designed to test the effects of a particular drug – the control is of course the experimental sample that remains untreated or subject only to some standard or pre-existing variable or attribute in contrast to, or to provide a point of comparison with the main, treated sample.
My own research draws on two main sources. Firstly, the Leeds Other Paper archive, which is held in the local and family history section of Leeds Central Library. LOP was an independent, alternative left-wing newspaper published between 1974 and 1994 in that city, where I lived during the period in question. Secondly, archive copies of the Guardian newspaper held in the British Library’s national newspaper collection at Colindale, London.
I am also indebted, as ever, to the writings of Michael Moorcock. As noted by a character in the text, the Guardian book page (singular) of Thursday 1 May 1986 includes a review by Robert Nye of a then new Michael Moorcock novel, The City in the Autumn Stars. This is the sequel to an earlier novel by Moorcock, 1981’s The Warhound and the World’s Pain, in whose pages my character Jeremy finds what seem like eerie predictions of the Chernobyl disaster. These few short and prophetic-seeming passages are quoted here (on pages 18, 19 and 43) exactly as found in Michael Moorcock’s work. (Further bibliographical information in ‘Notes’ below.)
Alongside the LOP’s prior anti-nuclear content, its critical stance and its notable dissemination of accurate scientific information about risks posed by ‘the cloud’ (as the plume of Chernobyl fallout was popularly referred to at the time), and the Guardian’s own extensive coverage of the disaster, I was particularly drawn to the then broadsheet’s back pages, to Steve Bell’s memorable cartoons of radioactive sheep and to the two crosswords, especially the Quick Crossword which I had been fond of doing at the time.
I was mindful of Jane and Louise Wilson’s eloquent deployment in the large-format photographic works comprising Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum) of an actual rather than metaphorical yardstick* – a legacy of their work in the Stanley Kubrick archive – and thinking too of the experimental literary strategies and constraints used by the French writer and novelist Georges Perec (1936-1982) and the other members of Oulipo, the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle. During the later years of his life, Perec composed a weekly crossword for the news magazine Le Point. Might the Guardian crosswords themselves, I wondered, synthesise both of these imperitives? Could they be used to provide meter (in a loosely poetic sense) and measure, as well as a useful literary constraint, a mandated vocabulary that might form in effect the tightly controlled variable needed for a literary if not a scientific control? Dicky Star and the garden rule was written to test that proposition.
In following the Chernobyl timeline then, this story is structured as a series of daily chapters running from 26 April to 7 May 1986 (Guardian days only, so excluding Sundays), the course of each of which (including the names of the two main characters) was determined by its own puzzle: that without going ‘off subject’ and as economically as possible it had to incorporate every answer to that day’s Quick Crossword, each of which I completed before beginning to write.
The title is itself adapted from a speculative, crossword-style clue of my own, which also relates to these works of Jane and Louise Wilson and might alternatively be expressed as follows: Dicky Star (anag) – garden rule? (9).
Tony White, Oxford, January 2012
* Even at this resolution, if you look closely at the photograph (above, right) by Jane and Louise Wilson you can see that a yardstick with its alternating black and white pattern has been carefully placed in the upper and right-hand portion of the glassless centre-light (tight up against the ‘hanging stile’ and beneath the ‘top rail’) in the right-hand door.
Dicky Star and the garden rule launch, 26 April 2012, 18:30 (Doors 18:00). Freeword Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London, EC1R 3GA. RSVP essential. Please email Divya Thaker on firstname.lastname@example.org or +44 (0)207 456 7820.
For updates and further details about forthcoming exhibitions of Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum) by Jane and Louise Wilson follow Forma Arts and Media Ltd.