Monday Motivation: The devil’s in the detail
Today we crossed London from Paddington Basin in the heart of the West End to Limehouse Basin in the east. It’s a journey of nine miles, and descends through twelve locks. It took us all of seven and a half hours through a rare day of August sun.
It’s difficult to describe the extraordinary variety of sights and scenes, of people active on the tow path and in cafes and restaurants alone the way, of wild life on the canal, of aircraft constantly heading in to and out of at least three airports, but it provides an instant lesson for writers intent on capturing a mood – or capturing a city – in words.
You could try by using words like “magnificent,” “great,” “extraordinary,” “boundless,” “astonishing,” “bewildering” and so on and so forth. These would constitute an attempt to explain the impact on us of London, viewed from our narrowboat. It’s true: we remarked repeatedly on the vibrancy of the city, on the life of the canal path, on the energy of the people…
You could try to do it in this way, but you’d fail – because all of those words, and many hundreds of other similar ones – are simply too vague, too generic, to capture the unique essence of the city.
The only way you can do it is by descending down the ladder of generality into the cellar of the very specific and particular. By observing and describing the details. Here are just three examples drawn from today’s odyssey:
I’ll begin with an altercation. The antagonists are two coots, sooty grey water birds featuring a distinctive white beak and a blaze of white above it. They’re having a fierce and noisy fight, their wings half raised aggressively, their feet up, their claws seeking an advantage. And they’re squawking with uninhibited abandon. Their battle takes place in a section of the canal that is green with duck weed – so solid a carpet that you wouldn’t be surprised to see someone confidently striding across the canal on it. But as the coots have at each other, they plough through the duckweed, creating channels of black through the green, like watery hieroglyphs.
And then suddenly one of the coots calls it quits and turns and dashes away. The victorious coot races after him, his head held low above the water in a particularly threatening way. A third coot then enters the scene: it’s a fledgling and it’s crying piteously. Both of the adults, intent on chasing and escaping, ignore it.
And by then we’ve moved on and I miss the final outcome of the affray…
Joggers hammer past us in an uneven stream. One in particular, a woman, has all the gear you could imagine, including a black heart monitor velcroed round her upper arm. She’s ripped: her quads, her biceps, her triceps rippling as she runs, and her blonde ponytail, threaded through a fashionable cap, swishes rhythmically from side to side.
Later, at Commercial Road Lock – the lock that opens into Limehouse Basin itself – we’re confronted by a group of youngsters, some teens, some in their early twenties, swinging on the lock gate. A couple of them fool around with a litre bottle of Coke, throwing it half in fun, half with an edge of aggression, at each other. One of the young men has a shaven head and wears a tight t-shirt over impressive musculature. He features a great many tattoos, the most distinctive one of which is a colourful Chinese dragon. All in all, the young men are vaguely intimidating – although, when we ask them to stand aside and let us operate the gate, they fall back passively, without argument and watch, unsmiling, as we descend through the lock.
What works here is not talk of a vibrant, even a great city. What works are the details – the very specific details – that the writer observes and recalls. Observe and recall this advice the next time you sit down to write a scene.