Lavinia Greenlaw: Testament of middle youth

Lavinia Greenlaw, the poet of science, also writes fiction that unravels the riddles of family life. Marianne Brace talks to her about landscape, light and short sight

At the age of eight, Lavinia Greenlaw jumped through a fastened window while running away from her mother. She was in a friend's house. "There were three French windows and I knew one was open but I chose the wrong one," she says. "I hit it so fast that when I landed I only had two cuts on my knees. The thing I remember most was how glass bends before it explodes. I remember being mid-air and held. It felt like the world was giving me a chance to catch up with what was happening."

Greenlaw used that slow-motion leap at the end of her first novel, Mary George of Allnorthover - her teenage heroine crashes through glass to escape a fire. She later revisited the incident in her excellent short poem "The Falling City". While her new novel, An Irresponsible Age (Fourth Estate, £15.99), contains no such stunts, the characters seem similarly suspended between two states, numbed by another kind of shock.

Juliet Clough and her adult siblings are coming to terms with the accidental death of their brother. The Cloughs appeared in Greenlaw's debut novel, living in the same village as Mary George. Now they are grown up and settled in London. It is 1990. "I was interested in the period between the 1980s and the millennium when things were in a state of hesitation,"Greenlaw explains. "It seemed a good period in which to explore the notion of a family suddenly being compelled by change and not knowing how to handle it." She also wanted to consider "how people can remain children in their own heads when they're in their late twenties and early thirties, even when they have children, are married, have jobs."

Juliet, Clara, Carlo and Fred are frozen in their allotted roles, still behaving in ways they should have outgrown. Because they can't bear to address Tobias's death, they distract themselves, embark on hopeless affairs, disappoint each other.

Greenlaw understands the dynamic of large families, being one of two sisters and two brothers, close in age: "When the four of us get together we fall into place." She adds: "One of the things that sustained me through my childhood was a sense of identity with my family. It provides a kind of machinery. You think you can dip in and out and come back to it. But when your parents split up or your siblings go away, suddenly the machine stops and you have to become your own machine."

It's no surprise that Greenlaw applies an industrial image to something so organic. As a poet, her work shows a fascination with science and technology, time and space. Although she is wary of romanticising science, co-opting it into her poetry always seemed natural.

Not only was her father a doctor; one brother trained as an engineer, her second has a PhD in astrophysics and her sister is an immunologist. "So, I'm very much the village idiot", she says, laughing. It was a household where literature, art and scientific ideas were all discussed avidly. Six years ago, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts granted Greenlaw a three-year-fellowship. She has also been the Science Museum's resident poet and hasn't shied away from extraordinary commissions. She was asked to write a series of poems on mathematical concepts like the impossibility of the square root of minus 1. Recently, she wrestled with the theory of relativity for a poem commemorating the centenary of E=mc2.

Both Greenlaw's poetry and fiction use autobiographical elements. Her parents, seeking change, quit London in the 1970s and plumped for a village south of Chelmsford. Greenlaw assumed life would be the same "but with trees and fields". She got a shock. Sent to the local comprehensive, she looked different and spoke differently from everyone else. Added to which she had a peculiar name. "I spent seven years just wanting to get back to London."

And 1973 was a year of power-cuts. The "absolute black, countryside night" was something Greenlaw had never before experienced. When she suddenly became acutely shortsighted too, "It was as if every aspect of my vision was closing down." She smiles. "Short-sight has really formed my character. I don't expect to notice things around me, so I remain quite within myself".

Yet her vision can be laser-sharp, her work displaying a talent for moving between the abstract and the keenly observed. Weather, landscape, the natural world are all exquisitely evoked.

Light is a constant preoccupation for Greenlaw. In the new novel it "shoves" and "bounces", but on a drab winter morning, "The movement between London night and London day was more like a prevarication than any clear shift." In the poem "Blue Field", light mesmerises. Greenlaw became inspired by trips to the Arctic. "You get this amazing twilight where everything goes blue", she says. "I felt very, very alive there."

How different from her experience of Essex with its flat landscape and open skies. "Parts of Essex are wonderfully beautiful," she says, "but parts are just dead, somehow. I did feel subdued by it." Much of Greenlaw's adolescence involved waiting hours for buses or trying to hitch lifts. "I think of Essex as a place you can't get out of easily."

During that period Greenlaw read her way through her father's shelves of American and Eastern European poetry, and wrote too. Salvation came from an unlikely source. "I can remember going on a school trip to Basildon shopping precinct - which must be the greyest place in England - and seeing the cover of the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, this lurid yellow and bubblegum-pink cover. The word 'bollocks' had been taped over but what shocked me was not the word but the colour - it was electrifying. In Essex. I couldn't believe it."

With her freshly-dyed pink and black hair and "dead men's suits", Greenlaw was frequently mocked in the street but felt liberated by her new identity. Some years ago, she did a reading in Chelmsford and several of her old mates attended. "There was a definite clanking of chains as they came up the stairs," she says, laughing again. "They asked me if I was still with the boy I was going out with at 16."

Greenlaw wanted to capture this era in her debut novel. Two recollections triggered it: the vault through the window, and staggering across frozen fields to a party. "They were very physical memories which I thought would be a poem. And then this figure appeared, this girl Mary, and I thought - it can't be a poem, because she's a character."

For the writer, the different demands of prose and poetry soon became apparent. While Greenlaw can't compose a poem on screen ("It's too immediate and fools you into thinking it's finished"), she can write prose that way and "push on with it, however painful. You can't make a poem arrive. You have to wait for it to come." She edits everything with a pen: "I need to be writing to be thinking."

Greenlaw thought it was important to find a prose style "not too dense and - dread word - poetic." When someone commented that her novel wasn't a poet's novel she was delighted. "I've always wanted to tell stories and my early poems were quite laden with narrative."

In poetry, the poet is often the character. Does that make the poetry more personal? She pauses. "Probably, yes. A poem conveys an experience in the form of sensation. It's concentrated; to be read over and over. It took me a long time to get used to the fact that you can hold a poem in your hands all at once while the novel is something you have to travel through. I was unnerved by that loss of control and perspective, which is partly why it took me eight years to write Mary George."

An Irresponsible Age isn't exactly a sequel; as a story, it stands alone. Juliet, a walk-on in the first book, stuck around in Greenlaw's head. Here, Juliet launches into an affair with the handsome, older Jacob, a writer whose strong wife looks after him even though they are separated. Juliet sums him up as the type who refers to his "wireless" and uses words like "quiddity" in conversation. He looks blank if anyone mentions popular television but always manages to namedrop terrifically hip bands. His is a carefully contrived artlessness.

Absence is a recurring image in this novel, from Juliet's PhD ("Framed Departure: the Empty Metaphor in Post-Iconoclastic Netherlandish Art") to the white spaces in the A-Z where London's Docklands are under development. The Cloughs, of course, are defined by Tobias's absence. "When somebody dies you are supposed as a family to pull together but we're often blown apart by these things," says Greenlaw. She wanted to show how death affects us, "how protected we are before that moment." Everything trivial seems to vaporise. "It's an exalted state. We think we're going to learn from it, will never go back to operating on a surface level but we do."

Will there be a third book about Mary George and the Cloughs? Greenlaw reflects. "I've a feeling I'm going to look at those characters again ten years from now, when they're in their forties". As we get older, our lives may become increasingly locked down but, "However much we think we see what's coming, we really don't."

Biography: Lavinia Greenlaw

Lavinia Greenlaw was born in London in 1962. When she was 11, her family moved to Essex. After studying at Kingston Polytechnic and the London College of Printing, she worked as a book editor and later an administrator at the South Bank Centre. Her first poetry collection, Night Photograph, (1993) was shortlisted for the Whitbread and Forward prizes. The title poem of her second collection, A World Where News Travelled Slowly, won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. Minsk (2003) followed. Her debut novel, Mary George of Allnorthover, came out in 2001 and won France's Prix du Premier Roman. Other work includes plays for BBC Radio 4, libretti and her second novel, An Irresponsible Age, published by Fourth Estate this week. She lectures at Goldsmiths College and lives in London with her 18-year-old daughter.



Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss