Ellen Bell:Photography by Simon Cook 01736 360041


..the choice of a book presented some difficulties, since when she was writing she could only read something she had read before…(Anita Brookner, The Hotel du Lac)

Why do you do it? he said, why do you read such stuff? You’re too sensitive. Yes, I say, I know, but it’s just the writing is so good. We were talking about Cynan Jones, Everything I Found on the Beach, and its main protagonist who works in an abattoir. And then, I think, perhaps I shouldn’t, not because of the subject matter which is distressing (though Jones, is never lurid for the sake of being so) but because of the way it may influence my own writing. I feel like a sponge sometimes, still so uncertain of my own voice, my own way of being even, that I soak up what I read and reflect it back. Is this good? Is this the way to learn, like trainee painters copying the old masters in the National Gallery, stroke-for-stroke, imbibing the knowledge. I just don’t know.

My back is rigid with the fear of this present encounter. The encounter of myself as writer and all that I do not yet know about what I can and can’t do. Just write. Just write your one thousand words a day. That’s all you have to do. OK. I will. And then? Wait and see. You have to get it down first. Yes, I see that. I can see that. Do I read in the meantime? And if so, what? There was a programme on the radio the other day about the woman who typed Jean Rhys’ manuscript of her biography, Smile Please. It made me want to read it. I want to feel in safe hands, present with someone who I know can write. So this is how you do it. Now, I understand. And yet, will I be intimidated? Struck numb, dumb by their brilliance? Is it best, as does Edith Hope in Hotel du Lac, to stick to more familiar landscapes, to reread what I already know? I could return to Philip Roth, reread the memoir of his father’s death or to Richard Mabey and his beautiful book about depression. I’ve given them both away. All to often I end up having to rebuy books. Don’t tell him, will you?

Two twins in the gym yesterday. Lithe as gazelles. Are you dancers? I wanted to ask. First they went on the treadmills, then the step machines, before going into what is called the ‘Ladies Gym’ to do their routine. They slump down of the floor to check phones between moves.

We went to Cardiff yesterday to see Art. Art in the making. Oceans of rain pelted down on our car as we drove over the mountains. I slept and woke, slept and woke. In one of my semi-waking dreams I saw a sign by the side of the road. You are mystified, it read. See that tree, he said, it’s going to fall down. Another dream. A full moon is due on Saturday. Is that why we were both tetchy.

Fragile. The National Museum was chock-a-block. Kids everywhere. Running around like mice. Shouting and screaming. It was joyful and manic at the same time. The Ladies toilet was full of four-year olds in yellow high-vis waistcoats with Foundation Fun Day written on them in pen. Two teachers were standing there directing them into the cubicles and counting their heads. It was hot and clammy.

It wasn’t there. The piece we had driven 100 miles to see. I was disappointed. Clare Twomey’s artwork has been temporarily removed, said a sticky label attached to one of the walls. Not even a ‘sorry for any inconvenience’.  So be it. There were compensations. The shelves of Edmund de Waal forms that made me long to make again. The Picasso jug. The Claire Curneen angels dripping gold. And that fact that it was quiet in there. Children were stopped at the door. A hand up. No running. Hold their hands, please.

I like going to galleries with him. He is open, he is curious. He reads everything, wanting to understand. Did you know this? he asks. No, I say, no, I didn’t.

Shall we eat in the car? I ask. I don’t think I can stand the noise any longer. We do and do half The Guardian crossword. It’s good to get away, we say, but so good to get home. Yes.

He remembered Dolly this morning on the way to Morrisons. And I turned round and what’sname, she said, he said. What’sname, he said, what’sname. God, she was funny. Do you remember when she put her hand up to her mouth to take out the fag and there wasn’t one there? Yes, I remember. Such a long time ago.

By Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.