Among the letters I sent home from boarding school in the early 1960s and that my mother kept in shoe boxes, there is a list of ‘books read in the last year’. It’s not dated, but from the chronology of the shoe boxes I think I was eleven or twelve when I wrote it. There are 46 titles. Shakespeare scores three, and so do Jack London, Conan Doyle and John Buchan; Dickens, Rider Haggard and H. G. Wells score two each. Alastair MacLean and Hammond Innes score only one apiece (though another year, when I was in the sick room with mumps, I binged on Hammond Innes). There are two titles featuring dogs and three about the war. Easily the winner is C. S. Forester, with ten.
I started on Forester early. When, aged eight, I unpacked my trunk on my very first day at that school, there was a copy of Lieutenant Hornblower, hidden by my mother among the bundles of name-taped socks and underwear to distract me from any soppy homesickness. I started coming with out with naval expressions such as ‘Damn your eyes’, and the next term I got the Bobbsey Twins, but it was already too late for them.
In part this was a numbers game. The Shakespeares were, I think, a cheat – we probably read them in class – and the Dickens were not the big ones. But for the latter, I was spoilt: the experience of reading him on the page has never matched up to James Birdsall, the English and Art master (and brother of the cartoonist Timothy Birdsall, who died in his early twenties), reading Dickens aloud in Saturday morning lessons, doing all the voices.
Conspicuously, only two titles in the list are by women: Baroness Orczy and Rosemary Sutcliffe. And Sutcliffe’s The Eagles of the Ninth is the only book that was specifically written for my age-group. ‘Young adults’ hadn’t been invented. Nor, of course, had PlayStations and Xboxes, which left a lot of time to fill, and reading was one of the things you did. In the holidays, a mobile library van – two-tone: cream and sort of beige – parked once a week at the end of the road. At school, the library was there every day. One book in that library that stands out in memory is a red hardback edition of Notebook of Anton Chekhov, edited by S. S. Koteliansky and Leonard Woolf. It’s full of snatches of dialogue, ideas for stories, random observations. ‘The dog walked in the street and was ashamed of its crooked legs.’ ‘A lady looking like a fish standing on its head; her mouth like a slit, one longs to put a penny in it.’ It’s exactly the kind of book I now enjoy publishing.
At the next school, I began forcing the pace. I read Under the Volcano before knowing what it is to be drunk. With a resigned sigh, my mother posted to me, wrapped in plain brown paper, the Updike novel I’d asked for, with a picture of a naked female on the cover. Back at home, we sat together on the sofa watching a Pinter play on television, and during one of his trademark pauses she remarked, looking at her watch and having decided she wasn’t getting enough words per minute, ‘You know, he’s being paid for this.’ So playwrights earned money even for the bits when no one is actually speaking? This was worth knowing.
I began writing plays. (Chekhov: ‘Anyone can write a play which might be produced.’) One of them was about a boy who ran away from school; the part was played by a boy who, on the day of the first (and only) performance, ran away from school. The authorities weren’t sure what to make of this – was I aiding and abetting? – and nor was I. Shortly afterwards I ran away from school myself, but only as far as my cousin’s house a few miles away. I remember my cousin’s partner, who had been to Oxford, telling me that part of the culture shock of going there had been this: realising that people who wrote books were not that different, to look at them and even to listen to them, from everyone else. At university my interest in drama briefly continued – with a megaphone, I played Aeneas in a production of Troilus and Cressida in which the Greeks were dressed as businessmen and the Trojans as hippies, and the battle scenes were filmed in a local quarry – but then I went through an anti-social phase and holed up in my room with fat black Penguin Classics in translation.
I came relatively late to poetry, but not too late for the Penguin Modern European Poets and the Fulcrum Press (still an overwhelmingly masculine landscape, Lorine Niedecker the only woman on a list of twenty-four Fulcrum poets). Across and down, across and down: the eyes track in the same way, but with poetry at a different speed and with a different kind of attention – this was like learning to read all over again. Shapes and sound and rhythm stepped forward, story took a well-earned break. The tricky words were there not just to be read but pronounced, not like the names of characters in Russian novels. And if I wanted to have a go myself, the attractions were obvious: you don’t have to fill the whole page; and poems are sprints (they’re not, actually, but they look as though they might be) rather than marathons, which means you should be able to carry on with the other things you like doing too. Such as reading.
More recently I’ve been attempting to write fiction. Not in the manner of Buchan and Forester, et al – with poetry, I’ve enjoyed writing only those lines that I’ve wanted to write, and I’m not now going to embark on paragraphs describing the scenery or what people are wearing. But something from the old boys – whose company has expanded over the years to include at least as many old girls too, possibly more – will be in there. Flowing the words from one page on to another, and then another and maybe another, feels like a release, but it’s a struggle too and I often pause over the syllabuses of the creative writing courses that offer me help with point of view, with first-person or third-person narration, with when and why and how to switch between narrative and dialogue. But the private ones are prohibitively expensive (Chekhov: ‘What? Writers? For a shilling I’ll make a writer of you’), and when I look at the prices of the Faber Academy courses and the Guardian Masterclasses I always translate those sums into the number of books I could buy and read.