I’ve been in Durham for almost six weeks now, as Writer in Residence at St. Cuthbert’s Society – a college on what looks like a Georgian cobbled street, very close to the Cathedral. I have my own flat inside the building – I am the only person there at night, the students living (mainly) just over the road – and the dining room is two storeys down. I get free meals, but can’t pile it away like the 18 and 19 year olds, so usually take only one meal a day and make do the rest (like the old geezer I’m becoming), with cheese and an apple. Breakfasts are a joy, all laid out as in some very decent hotel.
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In short, it’s time out of mind, and – because I’m ahead of myself with radio plays – I’m working on what I wouldn’t be doing at home. Fiction. I have got one of the novels (mentioned earlier among these despatches) into shape and it looks promising. This whizzy computer tells me I last worked seriously on it in 2003. I have written 16 radio plays since then, so haven’t been malingering. Whether the book will work and then be saleable will have to wait for a bit. It’s certainly absorbing writing, and I heard Ishiguru talking this last weekend about the (very) long gestations of some of his novels. He keeps several on the back burner – all this sounds familiar and reassuring – but the great thing is that, at my time of life, success or failure as a novelist doesn’t matter. I’m following my nose. I have also knocked out a synopsis for a new radio play, called ‘Beckett takes a Break.’ Just before I came up here I picked up a rather beautiful edition of Samuel Beckett’s letters from the middle part of his career and noticed that he was in Folkestone (where I live) for a month back in the early Sixties. There was no other biographical information and ‘following my nose’ I got hold of the big authoritative biography by Knowlson, which I read with enjoyment over Christmas. Beckett was in Folkestone because he was getting married. His long term lover and wife to be, Suzanne, was French, he Irish, and he had been advised that they had best get married in England – to safeguard her financial future with the earnings from ‘Godot’. He needed to establish a two weeks’ residency so checked in at the Hotel Bristol (now demolished), not at the more upmarket Grand or Metropole, under a false name: he had a horror of publicity. The idea for the play grew from there.
In the Eighties, when I worked at the Royal Court, not then done up and with pokey back corridors, I passed someone backstage and realised it was the great man, Beckett. He had been in that day to see the Artistic Director. Twenty years before, when I was at Cambridge, I looked out of my window and saw what was surely E.M. Forster, walking very slowly – he was in his eighties - over the Mathematical Bridge at my college, Queens’. I had the nous to pop out of my rooms and walk slowly past him. Years later, I wrote a play about him – it’s on the ‘Listen’ section of this website – called ‘A Dose of Fame.’ I wished I’d spoken to him, and realise now that he might have welcomed a chat with a fresh faced young man (we’ll put it no differently than that). Beckett, I suspect, might well have retreated. But I take this opportunity to apologise to both of them here for my writing about them on the basis of such brief acquaintance… Both wrote novels, of course. Both stopped writing novels – Forster famously for 45 years. And I’m sputtering on. The tightrope.