Writing On Literature

  • At the age of fifteen, in 1980, at St Mary’s RC Grammar School in Blackburn, Graham Caveney was sexually abused by his headmaster, Father Kevin O’Neill. Caveney’s subtitled Memoir of an Adolescence starts with this fact, as how could it not? The trauma is ‘something that the survivor, the sufferer, carries within them; the wreckage that is part of their self.’ What Caveney brilliantly achieves in this powerful, distinctive memoir is the positioning of his repeated sexual abuse in the landscape of an early 80’s adolescence. Before the abuse, Caveney is a clever, bookish boy born into the ‘Respectable Working Class’ of Accrington, his dad a groundsman at the local comprehensive and his mum a factory worker. He is not

    Aug 29,
  • At the age of 60, when he sets out to write this memoir, Allan Jenkins is older than his mother and his brother when they died, ‘time near my end to unravel my beginning.’ At first, the omens aren’t good: all he sees are memories that ‘stir like crocodiles.’ In this particular family, the past needs to be approached with caution, but fortunately for Jenkins he has a place of safety from which to start: his London allotment, the Plot 29 of the title. His memoir of a disrupted childhood is structured to alternate with a gardening diary that takes in eighteen months of sowing and reaping from June to the following December. Throughout, the green refuge of the allotment

    Aug 29,
  • I was asked to write an Opinion piece for the Observer about reaction to the publication of The Day that Went Missing, including my own reaction to having written a memoir. How does it feel once it's out there? What was the point? 'Now I’m faced with the question of what happens next. What is a memoir actually for? There seems to be a lot of memoir about, but I can only speak for myself and wordsearching the typescript I discover the book contains 434 instances of the word Nicholas or variants. I have filled the pages with Nicky, with Nick-Nack, Nickelpin, Pinwin, all my brother’s various rescued nicknames. His solo photograph in beach-tinted Kodacolor is bold on a hardback

    May 03,
  • 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”. Back in

    Mar 26,
  • 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

    Oct 08,
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