This is a new piece that I wrote for the Guardian family section. It’s based on a photo that gets a mention in The Day That Went Missing, but the book wasn’t the time or place for the full story of what that photo demonstrated or made me feel.
‘For most of my life, and I’m 50 now, one piece of information about my brother had blocked all others. “Dead” became the barrier; a restraining wall.
Nicky’s deadness became his defining characteristic, although he must have had others: he was nine when he drowned. I was 11, his closest brother by age, but to contain the grief I had dismissed his character as provisional. He was a child. Now he was dead. Nothing more to see here.
What connects the CIA, Somerset’s Midsomer Norton Rugby Football Club and 1970s experimental literature in Paris? Easy. The answer has to be Harry Mathews. At least, it’s easy for me, because I’m the other connection.
The novelist Harry Mathews, the “American Oulipian” who died earlier this year, was an entertaining and reliable correspondent. I could expect letters in fountain pen, on heavy engraved paper, from any of his four addresses. In the early 2000s he would update me on his novel My Life in CIA: A chronicle of 1973. “Part non-fiction, part fiction”, he let me know from New York; “I have a feeling the French will get more of a kick out of it than my fellows here”.
My French editor, a poet who’d slipped into publishing because poetry doesn’t pay, was a former colleague from the old Bibliotheque Nationale on the Rue de Richelieu. I worked in the galleries, he was Maps and Stamps, though his true interests were poetry and the spirit of ’68.
He had in mind a verse epic about Paris and life on the Grands Boulevards, the contemporary everyday bursting with ghosts. He had a greedy eye, and could be distracted by fleeting impressions and chance events, so much so that he often forgot to inject himself with insulin. This meant he was forever scurrying into the toilets of a MacDonalds, a syringe between his teeth. Someone would call the police.
When he forgot his insulin his speech slurred and his eyes rolled and the police beat him for being a junkie. Because he was a poet, his soixante-huitard letters of complaint to the Prefecture were full of extravagant words and easy to ignore.
He married late, and for a while displaced his poetic energies into a shop conversion in the ninth arrondissement. He was getting older. The last time I saw him he took me to Chartier, but I had no feel for the poetry of queuing, or the famous cheapness of the Chartier food. I took him to Le Recrutement instead, a rugby bar in the seventh.
We ate much better there, and he told me how married life was a pain to him. His discontent centred on the prosaic failings of a laid table. ‘She puts out a knife’, he said, ‘she puts out a fork. Every single day.’ He was planning an escape to Switzerland, where at the age of nearly sixty he’d get a job washing pots while writing poems about sex workers he’d contacted on the internet.
I could feel his anguish but thought he must be joking. ‘Live the life of a poet,’ I said.
A week later he was found dead in a forest outside Geneva. He’d taken a huge overdose of insulin, or none at all, I don’t know for sure, but he was found by a walker in a closed-off area: No Rambling Beyond This Point. The walker didn’t call in the body for several days because he was scared of getting into trouble.
I remember another friend, from school. I recently looked him up because he was the best of the writers our age. He had the soul of a poet, definitely, but on the internet I found him as a lawyer. Then he left London to run a farm in Yorkshire. It was the new start, the new stanza beloved of poets.
Two years ago, in his mid forties, he was married. Three weeks after the honeymoon he went to an outhouse with a shotgun and shot himself dead.
‘… cakes and biscuits will be provided free of charge.’
It’s a deal. In fact it was a deal before the final incentive. I’ll be spending February in Gladstone’s library on the Welsh border not far from Liverpool. There is a fairytale quality to the idea of a residential library, a sense that anybody who chooses to stay the night is not only living with the books, but also somehow in the books. Who knows where a library dream will go at night?
I’m about to find out, mostly thanks to the energy of William Ewart Gladstone himself. Into his eighties, past even his old man’s prime as the Grand Old Man, he founded this library so that his books, and subsequent scholars, should be able to share a home. He transported many of his 32,000 volumes by wheelbarrow from his house at Hawarden, and of those 32,000 books he annotated about 18,000. The man is in his books, the books are in the library, and during February I’ll be there too.
I’ll be finishing off a novel, Acts of the Assassins, which is a kind of sequel to Lazarus is Dead. Many of the books from Gladstone’s collection are works of theology, and part of the liberal revival is to understand that spiritual questions are not made moot by the rise of science. The challenge is to reframe these questions so that they seem relevant in a modern context. This is partly what I’ll be talking about in a lecture on February 5th. What can theology teach fiction, and what can fiction learn from stories that start a religion? How are different versions of a story the same story?
Towards the end of my stay, on Saturday 23rd February, and wearing my hat as Director of the National Academy of Writing, I’ll be offering a day-long Creative Writing workshop. The aim will be to create a checklist of what any type of story (no matter the genre, fiction or non-fiction) needs to function. Once the ingredients are in place, there are some helpful procedures to improve the draft that appears on the page.
Both these events are open to the public, and places can be booked here.
Otherwise I’ll be dreaming those dreams, otherwise known as writing a novel.
Gladstone’s library ‘comprises a residential library and meeting place which is dedicated to dialogue, debate and learning for open-minded individuals and groups, who are looking to explore pressing questions and to pursue study and research in an age of distraction and easy solutions.’
I’m a judge for this year’s inaugural Costa Short Story Award. There, interest declared, but one of the reasons I wanted to join in was the anonymity of the entries. There’s a mystery to who has written each story, but there shouldn’t be any mystery about the judging. As with reviews on Amazon, it helps to know who’s who and who knows who and who’s doing what.
Right. The award is open to anyone who has written a short story, whatever their publishing history, and the deadline for entries is Friday 7 September.
There are then three stages to literary glory:
1. All the entries will be sent anonymously to a group of readers, who will sort out the sixty stories that in their opinion are the most likely winners of the prize. For guidance, the general Costa Book Awards website claims to ‘recognise some of the most enjoyable books of the year’. The vagueness of that ‘enjoyable’ should be reassuring, whatever the length of the fiction.
What could go wrong (who can you blame)? The initial group of readers may be insufficiently diverse, with tastes too limited to appreciate the varied qualities of the stories they encounter. That’s a risk. The anonymity of the texts at least ensures that the story on the page will take precedence over other considerations. Reputation counts for nothing when no-one has a name.
2.The sixty stories these initial readers like best will be passed on to a panel of five judges. Anonymously.
What could go wrong (who can you blame)? The judges may be idiots. We come each with our flaws, but at least we’re not secretly unified in favour of a certain type of story. I’ve met only one of the other judges and that only briefly. Anything else? It’s possible that a published writer with a distinctive voice might be recognisable by their style, in which case prejudices would apply as if the writer’s name were inked beneath the title. But then again the story could be written by an imitator, someone so influenced that they only sound like the distinctive writer. Heads down, back to the story. If it succeeds, it’s still a top story – if anyone thinks it’s simple to write like Lorrie Moore then go ahead, make everyone’s day.
3. The six stories the judging panel like best will be posted online (anonymously) on the Costa Book Award website. The public can download these stories and vote for their favourite. Think your taste is better than most judging panels? Fed up of shortlists where the wrong winner is chosen? This is a chance to do something about imposing your own taste as a reader on a major literary prize.
Or, in a world where everything can go wrong (oh why didn’t I win, again) the vote can be manipulated by whichever shortlisted author is most attuned to the virtual world. At this stage the anonymity breaks down slightly – the shortlisted writers will recognise their own stories. In fact, they’ll be told in advance, and may now mobilise an army of sock-puppets to vote on their behalf.
It could happen but it won’t be easy. The voting system on the Costa website allows for a single vote per email address (apparently on tv shows one person can vote as often as they can afford). Authors will be asked directly to retain their anonymity, and Costa (a bit scarily) will be monitoring social media for suggestions of authors breaking cover to influence supporters. Action will be taken (grrr). Costa will also be looking out for unusual voting trends and spikes. There will be no excuse, no gummy sock-puppet in one hand saying ‘I didn’t know, everyone does it’ while the author’s lips barely move.
Always, there’s something that can go wrong – many short stories are about exactly that subject. But in my opinion this voting system is a sincere attempt to allow the stories to speak for themselves, standing up to judgment without fear or favour. Let’s see how it goes, because when the the six shortlisted authors are revealed (Ta-da! In late January 2013) it’s going to be a bigger surprise than hearing a winner. A surprise to some if the shortlist is full of well-known authors; a surprise to others if it’s not.