I always wanted to be a writer, really.
I especially wanted to be James Joyce. I read “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” for the first time when I was fourteen, and while I didn’t understand all of it, I was deeply affected by it, and if I could point to one book that set me on the path towards going to Clare College, Cambridge, for a degree in English Literature, this was that book. Some of the book’s effect on me was due to the way in which it was written; some of it was due to a large degree of identification. I can still remember the way certain scenes sprang vividly to life as I read them: the argument at the dinner table between Simon Dedalus and Dante; Stephen Dedalus’ being punished at school for a misunderstanding; the great fire-and-brimstone sermon delivered by one of the priest-teachers. I, too, was a Catholic, and a second generation descendant of Irishmen, and while the atmosphere of my Catholic comprehensive school school was not nearly as terrifying and oppressive as Clongowes, there were still enough similarities for me to identify strongly with Stephen’s trials, and his eventual rebellion against his upbringing. In fact I tried to stage my own rebellion by carrying “A Portrait” conspicuously around at school, which led to my being hauled up before the headmaster, who warned me against “this evil man” and took the extraordinary step of calling my mother to scold her for allowing me to read such filth. (To her great credit, my mother told him that he should be grateful that someone in his school was actually reading books.)
All through my adolescence, I dreamed of being Stephen Dedalus/James Joyce. I, too, wanted to read everything, from literature to philosophy. I wanted to read in many languages. I wanted to attend an old university, like Trinity College, Dublin, and argue ideas on the steps of ancient buildings and force my peers to bow down before the power of my intellect. I wanted to spend years on writing a novel, like Joyce, honing and refining every phrase, every sentence, until the book was finally published, hailed as a masterpiece, and women started throwing themselves at me like rice onto a wedding party. Actually, it wasn’t even the women part that I looked forward to. I was thrilled by the idea of writing, of words, of having a thought or seeing a scene in my mind, and then having the words come out, flow forth onto the page, and somehow add up to something that embodied the thought or depicted the scene, in beautiful and original language.
By passing the entrance exam for Cambridge and going ‘up’ to ‘read’ English for three years, it seemed like my dream was on the way to being realized. (Actually, that’s a very Americanised way of putting it. In England, we don’t say ‘follow your dream’: we use the much more accurate ‘fulfill your ambition’). Let me speed time up a bit and go to the years immediately after I graduated. As I said in a previous post, I began working as a technical writer and a copywriter, which paid the bills without demanding too much of my other mental capacities. I don't disparage the work, however: it still demanded the writerly disciplines of reconsidering material, finding the simplest form of expression, editing and rewriting, shaping the material for an audience, and working to deadlines. In the evenings, I started what I considered 'real' writing — short stories, radio plays (intended for BBC Radio), a novel. I wrote 500 words a day, sometimes more. In 2007, I saw an advert for a novel-writing competition, and I began revising the novel with the intention of submitting it. I missed the deadline, but I pressed on to the end. I felt in a position to send chapters out to publishers and agents. I got a lot of rejections, some of them better than others, until one day in 1989, a literary agent by the name of Serafina Clarke called me, and told me that she loved the book, and would I come to London so we could talk about what to do next.
It turned out that Serafina wasn’t just any old agent. She worked on her own (and still runs what’s referred to as a ‘boutique agency’), but she had a powerful list, which included Booker Prize winner Pat Barker. I went to meet her in her office, which was the front room of her home in west London. We had pizza and went through a bottle of red wine. If a film were ever to be made about Serafina's life, I imagine she would be played by Vanessa Redgrave - very elegant, polished fingernails always holding a cigarette, very beautiful despite her age. She said the book needed some work, but that it had a lot of promise, and she wanted to submit it to some publishers, and to enter it for a first novel competition. During the course of the afternoon, she said something to me that sort of knocked me sideways. “You are a writer.”
So, where did it all go wrong?
Part 2 follows on Wednesday.
Subscribe to Praeterita in a reader