Tuesday, October 31, 2006

20 Years Ago

Old Friend came, with family, for end of half-term. Met her at University of East Anglia, 20 years ago. MA in Creative Writing. That was a good year. Ten of us, aged between 23 and 50 something, different backgrounds, nationalities, experiences. Same hopes. And by some surprising alchemy instead of all hating and distrusting each other, trying to step on each other on our way to stardom, we all got on.

It was taught back then by Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter. Malcolm Bradbury took the workshops. Legs twined together, sardonic mouth, what my mother would call kind eyes. Somehow getting us all to open up to each other. Outside the classroom he might mistake you for someone else (possibly not seeing you properly through the haze of pipe smoke), but inside he was warm, engaging and sharp. You’d introduce your 20 pages, then he’d make sure everyone had their say, then he’d summarise the criticism and extend it and ask penetrating questions, and you’d finish up looking at your writing in a slightly different way.

And then Angela Carter. We met her for one to one’s, and since I lived in London I went to her house in Clapham. First time, looking down this long street of terraced Victorian housing, I knew which would be her house. It was the only pink one. And inside all this intriguing clutter, including a horse from a fairground ride. And her perched on the edge of a chair, all in black, with her cloud of white hair. There was a thunderstorm that first time, and a crack of lightning when I entered. ‘Sorry,’ she said. You sensed it was a bit of a chore for her to read your stuff, a slight air of weariness to her, but her observations and questions were acute, and often disarming, and she once began a comment to me ‘Well, obviously it can be published but …’ I didn’t catch the rest of what she had to say. Angela Carter thought it could obviously be published! She gave us presents when we finished, books she felt were apposite.

I was one of the stars that year. Wrote my first novel there, got it published the following year, had two more published and a bunch of short stories before I was thirty. Shame there was no fetish for younger writers back then. Good looking younger writers. Good looking younger writers writing thoughtful, moving, serious literary fiction. Old Friend was a slower starter, but now she’s a Leading Light of the London Literary Scene and I’m only now, all these years later, getting my 4th book published. But I’m not jealous and bitter. I have been in the past, but I’m not now. Your 20’s are for ambition, your 30’s for disappointment and your 40’s are for stepping back a bit and saying ‘Yes, this is OK, this is pretty good.’ Someone wrote that, or something like it. In fact several people probably have, including me. Does it sound plausible?

3 Books I’ve read recently and highly recommend

The Damned United David Peace

The Accidental Ali Smith

Runaway Alice Munro

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