Surely the closest a man can come to experiencing the pains of parturition is to finish a novel. I had been ‘big with book’ for five or six years – the precise date and circumstances of the conception are hazy, as so often, but once started the thing grew and grew, slowly, secretively, in amniotic darkness – until last Friday morning when, groaning but glad, I impressed the last full stop and cut the cord.
I wonder if for new mothers the doubts set in, as they did with me, with the sound of the baby’s first cry? For it is an unlovely little thing, smeared with blood and stuff and helplessly waving its rubbery limbs in glaring first light and unmanageable, suffocating air. When family and friends get a look at the bouncing bruiser, will they go ‘Ooh’ and ‘Aah’, or will they burst into helpless laughter, pointing quivering fingers and saying, ‘Is this, is this, the mouse we waited so long for the mountain to bring forth?’
Mind you, I have produced so many of the blighters you would think I’d have dropped this latest one with hardly more than a shrug. I must say, I do feel hollow, in a good way, sort of. To wake now in the morning without that awful weight pressing on my innards is – is what? Nothing, really, a nothing in the place where a something was; the inescapable incubus fed on me, day and night, insatiably, for so long that it seems hardly anything of me is left.
From the start, this book was to be the last of its kind that I would write. And perhaps it will be. But the other day I found myself recalling how there was so much more darkness around when I was young and light pollution was much less than what it is nowadays. And I wrote in my notebook: ‘15.viii.2021. Darknesses.’
Oh, God, am I knocked up yet again?
* * *
What shall I do now, with all this time on my hands? It is a fact, as awful as it is obvious, that while we are alive, we are alive for twenty-four hours of every day – even when we sleep, we dream, which as some old Greek pointed out is a sort of second life.
I look about and wonder what do folk do who don’t write books? With what do they fill their days? There is work, yes, but for most people in what used to be called the developed world their jobs only account for eight hours or so out of the two dozen. What about the evenings? What about the weekends? What about holidays? Years ago, the playwright Brian Friel sent me a postcard from a villa in France: ‘Here for two weeks. One, with good behaviour.’ I know what he meant.
Staring into the abyss of vacant time, then, I turn my face to the dark and see faintly the outlines of the marionettes starting up again their little round dance. Come to me, my creatures, come and do my living for me.
* * *
To Borris yesterday to attend and perform at my first book festival since the plague began. I have been a couple of times before to this pleasant town on the banks of the River Barrow in County Carlow, where the Festival of Writing & Ideas takes place at Borris House. Last time I spent a splendid sunny afternoon with old friends, catching up on news of our lives, our writing and ideas, and exchanging scurrilous gossip, one of the chief pleasures of any such event, anywhere.
No sun on this day. Mine is one of the first events – that word always puts me in mind of heart attacks – and it takes place outdoors, in a marquee lashed by torrents of wind and rain. What pluck the audience displays, huddled in sou’westers and wellies, and looking slightly sinister in their face masks. The wonderful Alex Clark is my interrogator. We had a previous encounter at the Edinburgh Festival some years ago, an occasion we recall with some vagueness but real warmth. I always feel the interviewer has a far harder time of it than the interviewee. The latter is free to luxuriate in a show of weary tolerance – one has said all these things so many times before, my dear – while the former is duty bound to appear alert, eager and interested.
Despite the gales, there is a palpable hum of anticipation, for the gig following mine will feature Ireland’s president, Michael D Higgins, himself a writer and poet, along with David, Lord Puttnam. They are to discuss ‘Ireland, Europe and the Climate Crisis’; with a subject like that they surely won’t have any trouble filling their allotted hour. The lord lives nowadays in west Cork, where he is, as the old-fashioned newspapers used to say, a popular figure.
* * *
Afghanistan doesn’t bear thinking about, for anyone with a working imagination. After decades – centuries – of strife, torture and bloodshed, it’s really only beginning. I sit by a log fire listening to the rain beating on the leads of Borris House and wonder what a writer can possibly say. Before such a catastrophe, silence is eloquence. As Shakespeare asked, ‘How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,/Whose action is no stronger than a flower?’
* * *
Two rich recent discoveries – both, as it happens, published by Slightly Foxed Editions. The Empress of Ireland is the novelist and screenwriter Christopher Robbins’s account of his friendship with the most successful forgotten Irish film director of all time, Brian Desmond Hurst. Hurst was outrageously camp, and a bit of a rogue, but he seems to have been superb company. There are wonderful twists and turns to his story, not least of which is the account of his service in the First World War. The book, simply, is a masterpiece, and its neglect is as inexplicable as that of its subject. Still Life by Richard Cobb, first published in 1983, is a memoir of a Tunbridge Wells childhood. Cobb, historian and Francophile, seems to have had a photographic memory, and his memoir is both an uncannily vivid resurrection of past times, and a quirky, funny and irreverent personal testament. Surely Tunbridge Wells could never have expected to be so beautifully and lovingly recalled.