I’ve just finished a play. No surprise there, then – except it’s my first uncommissioned play in over 30 years. While I was ill recently I hadn’t wanted to angle or accept any commissions. I wanted no pressure and, for a time, as I’ve written in the entry below, wondered if I was still capable of writing. I’d begun this play, now called ‘Sonnet 18’ (but for a long time ‘Bosie in Hove’) in the summer of 2012 and had written about fifteen minutes of material. I’d spotted, in a biography of Oscar Wilde by Hesketh Pearson that I’d come across, that the author had arrived in Hove to interview Bosie Douglas, Wilde’s ‘beautiful boy’, who was still alive, though ailing (he had a heart condition) at the very end of the Second World War. Rather than get down to the business in hand they had taken to arguing about the identity of the supposed dedicatee of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ‘Mr. W.H.’. The interview had ended acrimoniously, though Hesketh Pearson had re-interviewed Bosie after bringing him a conciliatory gift of brandy and a dozen eggs. Bosie himself had died a few months later. I noted the details straight away in my notebook and, for some reason – unfathomable – knew I wanted to write those two late wartime encounters. I visited the flat itself in Hove and took pictures from outside. You wouldn’t have linked it with Oscar, dead for 40 years before the play begins, or Bosie, an aristocrat. So I had the start of a play. The next stage would have been to get it commissioned as, say, a radio two hander, but I couldn’t see that there would be any interest. Two guys get to arguing over Shakespeare? ‘So what else happens?’ And I didn’t know. That’s the fun of it.
It wrote – or revealed - itself finally and the Shakespeare argument pays off emotionally in the second half of the play. I realised I was writing some of my recent experience into the 74 year old Bosie, who had had a heart attack. There is also a great deal of verbatim material, culled from a variety of sources. Michael Holroyd, Hesketh’s executor, gave me free rein. It’s as if I need first hand, extant, materials for a play to be written. They get my juices going in a way unfettered imagination doesn’t. I’ve written elsewhere in the Essays about my attempt at writing novels and my failure, so far, to complete one. The advantage of their lingering in boxes and cupboards is there is plenty of material there for when I’m ready to pick up one again. I’ve written, in effect, my own source material. Some urgency is needed, of course, and I have to surmount my latest hurdle to becoming a novelist. This is my gloom on entering, as this morning, Waterstone’s, and the sheer amount of novels, piled high, this Booker prize season. You quietly know that you haven’t the novelistic skill of Amis, Barnes, or (at his best) McEwan, and certainly not the descriptive ability of the great Hollinghurst and yet, and yet… (I had lunch with Alan Hollinghurst about ten years ago. Afterwards we went to look at the newly published paperback edition of my favourite novel of his (underrated) ‘The Spell’, displayed in Blackwell’s window on Charing Cross Road. He suggested we had a drink or coffee somewhere but I felt I’d done well, thus far, to talk ‘naturally’ to him – he is such a hero – and scuttled off. I’ve done this before. Once, at the races, a TV producer I know said, ‘Come and meet Lester (Piggott).’ Lester in the hospitality tent was too much for me). I remember asking Hollinghurst if the novel he was working on was third or first person, and he said ‘third’. It turned out to be the Booker winning ‘The Line of Beauty.’
I suppose, as a playwright, I’m used to concision, and to actors speaking my words. With plays you stand back and let the characters get on with it. With novels, there’s the question of the authorial voice – where’s it coming from? I do like the turn around of writing plays and the sociability that is the inevitable end of the process, with actors and the director. So we’ll keep fingers crossed for that happening with ‘Sonnet 18’. But I bet it takes a time…