Writing ‘Plainsong’ / Mark Blayney

Mark Blayney discusses ‘Plainsong’, his new short story in Issue Twelve.

My friend Dennis is obsessed with building a model of St Paul’s Cathedral out of matchsticks. This might seem a rather pointless endeavour, but think about your own obsessions, if you have any. I’ll wager they’re not too closely aligned to reason or logic. However, my friend Dennis – all writers become friends with their characters, even the unpleasant ones, it makes them real – is, or considers himself to be, a reasonable, rational and logical person.

The matchsticks he uses are all brand new and smell of pine from their log-roofed matchstick factory in Sweden. He uses a range of miniature G-clamps in a variety of sizes to hold them together while he snips the live heads with yellow Stanley knives. The cathedral, just large enough to contain a man Dennis’s size should he decide to kneel inside it, was begun for reasons largely opaque to Dennis three years ago and so far he’s used 39,040 matches.

The more you focus on something, the larger it gets. Dennis doesn’t go down to the Crown any more to see his friends and he certainly doesn’t want to have a pint with the doctor who looked after his wife in her large years. Even though he’s a friendly, affable, logical and reasonable chap.

So he obsessively makes his cathedral for eight hours a day and – as his life isn’t interesting enough to fill a story by itself – we find ourselves thinking of Christopher Wren, and how he was in the right place at the right time, and how he was a rational person who obsessively created something that appears to defy logic and reason. The huge dome should collapse in on itself – it’s far too heavy to be suspended above an unsupported space.

Perhaps, as we are having that pint with Dennis in the Crown and he’s saying he must get back to his matchsticks, we find ourselves thinking about the architecture of our lives and how, if you look at things flat-on, you sometimes get the feeling that one good shove would bring it all crashing down. Certainly 2020 has done that to all of us, if we didn’t have a sense of it already.

I could and perhaps should have put some of Wren’s history in the story. He had designed and submitted plans to rebuild St Paul’s anyway, and then the Great Fire of London happened. Suddenly he had a largely blank canvas to work on. Does this kind of detail fill things out nicely, or is it a distraction? Such are the choices when writing and it’s one of the things that keep it interesting. Like a painting, or possibly even a cathedral, a story is never finished.

After Wren’s time the cathedral was modified as tastes change. My friend Dennis refers to the Victorian addition of steps and piazza that now adorn the cathedral ‘like a napkin round its neck’. Should his model be authentic in the sense that it’s what the cathedral now looks like, or authentic in that it’s as Wren envisaged? The plans Wren created differ in a number of ways to what was eventually built.

‘Plainsong’ is about believing in something whilst fully aware that to do so is both foolish and intelligent. Being able to hold these contradictions in one hand is quite useful. I think there are lots of things we all do in life that come under this category. After all, what is a cathedral? A vast, expensive, dangerous project that takes years to complete and stands as a monument to something that may not / probably doesn’t (delete as appropriate) exist. It is a monument to an unseen hand. Wren is playing with perhaps the largest metaphysical statement ever made – the unseen hand is his. ‘If you seek his monument, look around you’, says his memorial. It still appears to defy the laws of gravity today, and only a small bird could fly through the windows and work out how he’s done it. (The answer is in the story, in issue 12 of The Lonely Crowd.)

Where did this story come from? When I was a teenager, I saw the ‘Great Model’ of St Paul’s that has lived inside the cathedral since it was built, and which you can still see today. Well, not today, but you know what I mean. I suppose this ‘cathedral inside the cathedral’ planted the idea in my mind, and the shape and size of it is roughly what I envisaged Dennis trying to create.

I wrote an unpublished version of ‘Plainsong’ over 20 years ago – it was called ‘Canto’ then, and whilst the bones of it were in place, there was something missing. Coming back to it more recently, thinking of how to make it sing, was like having a dialogue with my younger self. Much of it was a case of taking out adverbs, tightening sentences up, jettisoning paragraphs that trod over the same ground in different boots. There’s a subplot now about Dennis’s wife that gives the story a more resonant wooden floor, rather than the threadbare carpet that it had previously. The character was always small and at the same time ambitious, but now his ambition seems a bit more moving rather than just hubristic and frivolous. At least I hope it does. He’s my friend Dennis, and he may be a failure and knows it, but at least he has lofty, vaulted ambitions. No one else we know has built a model of St Paul’s Cathedral out of matchsticks, have they?

Mark Blayney won the Somerset Maugham Award for Two kinds of silence. Books include Doppelgangers and Loud music makes you drive faster with Parthian, and The view from my shed is forthcoming from Dreich Chapbooks. He is a Hay Festival Writer at Work and lives in Cardiff. 

Image by Jo Mazelis.