My previous life
The notion of vocation that introduces this batch of small essays wasn’t my idea. Hugh, who runs this site for me, decided on the title after I had submitted the first three pieces, which he said he found ‘interesting.’ He’s a priest and may have spotted something, but it made me think about whether I would call what I do a vocation. I think I’ve described how my ‘career’ was/is a mix of upbringing, temperament, vague yearnings. And, then, at a certain point, you realise this dream of writing is hard and dedicated work. Chekhov is good on this, speaking from some early bitter experience of the theatre: ‘Art (especially the stage) is an area where it is impossible to walk without stumbling. There are in store for you many unsuccessful days and whole unsuccessful seasons. There will be great misunderstandings and great disappointments. You must be prepared for all this, accept it and nevertheless stubbornly, fanatically follow your own way.’ Now, I’m named after my dad’s brother, Stephen, who was killed down the pit, aged 20 or so, leaving a widow and baby son. I’m not inclined to overdo the occasional agony of being a writer, but there’s no doubt that in mid life I had a crisis of some years, where the game was no longer joyous. Towards the end of this period, there was what seemed to me a revelation, an experience that gave me strength, hope and a (much needed) fresh direction. Even if this hinge or turning point in my life was in some way self willed, a psychological compensation arising out of a need in myself, it offered me a chance to start again. Re-dedicate myself. I’d become dissatisfied with my habitual self. I needed, for a time, dis-organisation, to go a wander. Without converting to Christianity – or, indeed, any other belief system (the revelatory experience being, of course, non-denominational) - I certainly read a great deal of theology, became aware of religious archetypes and metaphors: Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Give up everything and follow me.’ Well, my stuff went into storage and now, after twelve years in limbo, surrounds me again in this flat with its view of the sea, where I type on this fine Spring day. It all seems extremely odd, looking back. Did I really live nomadically all those years? To exist like that required an act of faith - of renunciation, of disaffection. I wanted to rid myself of my past and (almost all) my possessions for a time. It was liberating. I think the idea was – there became a self conscious side to it – to un-tether myself from the person I had been, escape from my ‘previous’ existence. I was unhappy. I had almost lost faith in myself as a writer. Put your trust in chance, let your ship go adrift. It was thrilling – and risky. A couple of friendships suffered, badly: I regret that. I stopped being the orderly, achieving soul I had been. I became less sociable. What I knew I needed was a greater seclusion. I went to France for long stretches of time, lived in other people’s houses when they were away (the ‘house sitter’). This was not the stony path of hardship and self denial – a number of the houses in which I set up my laptop (bought at that time) were extremely plush. But there was some austerity, sacrifice – and a new found joy. I remember cycling in France one late September afternoon, free-wheeling round a corner, thinking, ‘In England, everybody’s back at work, achieving, earning. I’m not and I’m loving it.’ I felt I’d changed. I’d seen the world anew in a certain way and there was no going back. When, as the weather deteriorated in November, I did return to England, I was due to have lunch with a Theatre Literary Director but missed the appointment: ‘forgot’. I can’t have had many other engagements on my calendar. I’d just got out of the habit of being punctilious. When we eventually met up, I told him I wasn’t interested in the theatre any more. I’d done striving, competing. He looked at me with some bewilderment, as well he might. He liked a drink – I did too – and we spent the rest of a liquid lunch talking about anything but work. His private life had become complicated. So was mine. He was in an adulterous affair. Mine much more the hermit’s life. It seems, looking back, a wonderful madness.