We are told it is always a dispiriting thing to meet our heroes. In my experience I wouldn’t want to deny it. But just because they cannot be the figures we wish them to be, can they not nevertheless turn us into the very people we wish to become?
Around twenty years ago I left university with a feeling of immense disquiet. I had studied History and English, and throughout my degree I saw it as much more than a qualification; I hoped it would lead me to my vocation. I wanted to be a writer. I hoped also that the tutors there would not necessarily confirm my talent; merely generate in me the enthusiasm required to pursue a life based on words on a page rather than thinking about money in the bank. I had friends doing business and politics, others studying marketing and management. They were at university to make a proper living they would say, determined that any student debt would be insignificant next to the money they would earn. I had worked out that I might never earn enough money even to pay the debt off: I would have to be earning an average salary to do so, and I assumed that writing for a living, no doubt supported by various low-paid jobs, would keep me poor.
But this was a price worth paying, or a debt that I wouldn’t need to pay, if I wanted to write. Yet over the intended four years of my degree at a university I shall not name, I became what I can only describe as properly dispirited.
I suppose it started in that third year of my degree. The first two were meaningful enough because I sought engagement with other students. There were around four or five doing English who, like me, found numerous lectures dull, but enjoyed the conversations we would have after them. I recall one on The Importance of Being Earnest, with the lecturer insisting that the sovereign right of self was a nonsense: we are constantly being coerced into having an identity by family, friends, employers and government authorities. Yet he didn’t present this as what I would have later called a question of interpellation, of being inserted into a society that structures our behaviour, but as a simple fact of life that Oscar Wilde and others amusingly expressed.
I remember coming out of the lecture hall feeling as if only one side of an argument had been presented; outside I asked others what they thought about it. A couple of them couldn’t believe the assumptions underpinning the lecturer’s remarks: as if existentialism hadn’t existed, they said, as though structuralism had been ignored. I knew a little about existentialism, and nothing about structuralism, but since their degree was both Philosophy and English, they had looked at the ignored areas of that subject, just as I had investigated the neglected areas of literature.
This was a university where the centre of the intellectual universe was the English canon: the drama was Shakespeare, with a little Webster, Jonson, Wilde and Shaw; the novel more less nineteenth century English, and poetry Milton, Blake, Shelley, Byron, Eliot and Auden. I exaggerate for effect and due to weak memory, but the feeling I had was increasingly one of imprisonment: there was a world of literature which fascinated me, yet one that was irrelevant to my degree. It was as though they had snatched away my passport When I would occasionally ask a lecturer why we were not covering certain writers, they would say that the people I was thinking of were just cafe literature; all very well for an idle hour or two in our lives, but otherwise not so very important.
The friends studying philosophy had heard similar remarks about various philosophers they had mentioned, and they supposed that what frightened the university was the collapse of disciplines. There was almost no similarity between Jane Austen and David Hume, but a few too many between Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. Better to teach in such a way, and to teach certain figures, so that the gap remained. It was our job, the philosophy students said, to close that gap. We had to read broadly enough, and thus question the presuppositions the tutors’ were holding. During that second year I would often make statements that made the remarks the professors would make sound presumptuous, and find myself writing essays that only half answered the question because I believed the question had been only half asked.
Yet after returning home at the end of the second year, to my parents’ house in Dorset, it was as though I couldn’t quite get the various institutional expectations out of my nervous system. When returning at the end of the first year I was relieved that I had three months to read what I liked; returning that following year I couldn’t quite concentrate on the reading list I had set myself; an alternative one to the books I had been reading during term time. There they were: Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer. Bergson, Heidegger and Sartre; Kundera, Handke, Duras, Pavese and Borges. During that second year I had decided I would immerse myself in the institution; even going along to a dozen philosophy lectures without signing up for the courses, and working my way through some of the reading material. But it was as though while absorbing the English classics, and the philosophy of Russell, Ayer, Ryle and others, hadn’t led to many new insights and certainly no revelations, what that accumulated knowledge appeared to do that summer back home was make me constantly critical of the texts I was trying to read. The philosophy I saw as vague and too generalising. The fiction didn’t have a clear story or a clear point; it lacked the descriptive precision of the British writers. It wasn’t as though I had responded to the English classics or the British philosophers; more that I had been brainwashed into disliking work I would have responded to a year earlier.
Some might insist this was a sign of intellectual maturity; that I had been reading too enthusiastically writers who were saying things I wanted to hear, and I needed more critical distance. I needed to read them not as good friends but as distant acquaintances: I should be able to see through what I was reading. But I think what happened, was that I could see through myself instead: that I felt exposed and empty and I was dreading the next academic year, feeling that I would be excavated still more.
During this third year none of the people I discussed literature with in the previous two were any longer interested. They were too busy they would say, disappearing over to the library or into their rooms to study. They no longer felt the need to debate; instead believing their purpose was to absorb the material, and regurgitate it with a high degree of fidelity. I would study a lot too, but I would vibrate with unease as I read, and the lectures sometimes left me feeling nauseous. There was one professor in particular whose teaching of the 19th century novel made me mark holes in the lecture hall desk with my penknife. The desks were far from new and already well worn: any act of vandalism on my part was minor next to what the lecturer was doing to these novels. I had read Hardy, Emily Bronte, some Dickens and Eliot’s Middlemarch before university, but had I read the books with naivety, or with a specific type of sophistication the education system couldn’t tolerate? Years later I would read Doris Lessing saying that people should read books when they are ready for them; not when courses prescribe them. I wouldn’t have been so demanding: all I wanted was for the lecturer to teach them with some of the sensitivity I possessed when initially approaching the material as a sixteen year old determined to find an aspect of myself as I searched out the lives of others.
This lecturer, who was also my tutor for the course, lectured in so prescriptive a manner, and with such assertive confidence, that he became perhaps the first person in my life I hated. He was around thirty five, admitted that he had nothing of what others call life experience, and didn’t feel the need for it. We don’t expect, he said in his opening lecture, that soldiers, mechanics or welders need literary experience, why should we expect young professors like himself to have any life experience. He told us that he was born of academic parents in St Andrews, went to school there, then to the university, and also did his PhD at the institute. For the last ten years he had been at the present establishment he said, and proudly announced he knew almost nothing about life, but an awful lot about literature. He talked about the clichés of life and said he was interested in the tropes of literature: he saw a book as an object to be studied, not a work that has anything to do with reality. Do we need Pip to resemble anyone in life, he would say, does Heathcliff need at all to be realistic? Who cares, he would insist. What matters is that the work has unity and integrity. What made it all the more awful was the audience response: third year students who laughed with the confidence of people who had been institutionally incarcerated for two years, and who were increasingly capable of knowing something about literature and less and less about life.
There I was a twenty two year old student who wouldn’t have known any more about life than McAllister, and knew a lot less about literature. Yet he was wrong. As he insisted that we concentrate on the structure of a book, on the characters as ciphers of narrative intent, on imagery that had nothing to do with the real world but was there to serve symbolic intention, I knew I couldn’t counter his arguments except as that vibration in my body. During that term, after the lecture and after the tutorial, I would go back to my room and drink. I was living in a flat a couple of miles from the campus, a few hundred yards from a large supermarket that had been built, and I would buy a litre bottle of wine on my home, and would drink it by around ten o’clock at night. Perhaps this drinking was linked to a girlfriend whom I had been with through the second year, and who had broken up with me during that summer. However, if I make her all but irrelevant to this story, I do so because I believe that she was a minor player in the crisis that had visited me. I even used our breakup as an excuse for the actual crisis: I couldn’t quite explain to friends why I was drinking more than I should, and why my nerves were more raw than they ought to have been. How easy it is for us to explain to friends around us that while our grades are very good that the writing of each essay, attending each lecture and tutorial was a live, existential burial? No, he is still trying to get over Heather, they would say.
Can I now explain why I wasn’t trying to recover from my parting with Heather? We had been together for almost two years, since near the beginning of the first term at university, but I never allowed her to get into my mind no matter how much I enjoyed exploring the contours of her flesh and bone. She was in my hopelessly divided head sensuously relevant, but I never shared very many of my thoughts with her. Those I would keep for the diary and expect to find explored in the books I loved. After we parted I didn’t yearn for conversations with her, but better books or friends with which I could discuss my predicament.
Of course it may sound like my past self was callous and insensitive (perhaps my present self still is), but I want to make clear that my problem at the time was not one of love, unless we accept that, if it was, then the break up with Heather was not the cause of it. I am not saying I couldn’t have found what I was looking for in books and in my nervous system from a woman, but at the time I didn’t expect to find it there, and hadn’t found it with Heather.
Perhaps what made me notice this so strongly was when I saw one evening, while eating with a couple of friends in an Indian restaurant, McAllister arriving with his pregnant wife. He either didn’t notice me or cared not to acknowledge my presence, sitting a few tables away. As he fussed over his spouse, as I heard his exclamations of enthusiasm as the starter arrived, as he tasted his wife’s dish as she fed him with the fork, so I saw a man who believed in a clear division between life and literature, between what I could only assume was his love for the former and the liking of the latter. I suspected life was very important to him indeed. At one moment during our meal one of the friends, Robert, who was studying economics, asked if I knew the couple over there. I said he was one of the people at the university ruining my life, because he didn’t seem to believe that literature and living were one and the same. This friend, who would always impose on any problem a ready solution that would fit well within his own parameters of consciousness, rather than expand outwards to incorporate those of others, said I needed to get over Heather. The other friend, who was studying marketing, didn’t say anything initially. But after he looked across at the professor and his wife, he said he couldn’t have seen me in ten years time sitting there with Heather and being happy.
The economist friend I’ve long since lost contact with, but the marketing mate I still see regularly, and though he has become a man not too unlike the professor that day, with now two young children and a job he likes well enough but doesn’t feel stimulated by, Jonathan is also someone who always accepted that there would be another life that he might not quite have the opportunity to live. He recently said that he followed my own a little like he might a character he is fascinated by in a film: someone whose life is not his own, but not so very different in thought and feeling for him to lack interest in it. We laughed about this, but I knew, too, that he was acknowledging a conversation we had had many years earlier, one around a year after that evening in the restaurant. I also wanted to tell him about a recent encounter that could have, many years earlier, completely disenchanted me.
That conversation we had was a few months after I had left university, believing that to have stayed and done an honours year would have been detrimental to my health: by the end of that third year I was drinking a litre bottle of wine most nights, and I couldn’t stop my body anticipating a future to which I didn’t feel a part. The only way I could stop drinking was by leaving university. It was a couple of months before the end of my general degree, when I arranged an appointment with the head of the department, to say I wasn’t going to stay and do my honours year. I arrived at the appointed time and, after knocking on the door, an overly familiar voice asked me to come in. The head of department wasn’t available, he said, but he hoped he could be of help. I had never talked to McAllister in a situation where there happened to be only the two of us, and any disputes we would have in the tutorials were on very specific points that needn’t have suggested the personal, however personally I happened to take them. Yet here I was given the opportunity to offer my reasons for leaving to a man who more than anybody would have been responsible for my choice.
I explained that I had wanted to study literature because I thought it was as important as life: that it wasn’t an entertainment nor a profession, but a vocation, a certain way of being in the world that meant, just as characters in books could make choices, those choices made could help us make them in reality too. I expected him to look at me with a supercilious gaze, but instead I saw in his countenance if nothing so grand as admiration, then at least a look far from disrespect. He couldn’t deny I had a point, but one I would have to find my own way in life to justify. He had chosen the route that has most suited him; an easier one he admitted, but also consistent with his disposition. He said he could see that sometimes in class I would find what he was saying limiting, but he couldn’t pretend to know very much about the literature that so interested me, and taught what he could as best as he could. He said he would like me to consider staying for another year. I said I had somehow no choice: my disposition insisted that I leave.
That summer I managed to find work as a postman, starting at five thirty in the morning; finishing around lunchtime. It was the perfect occupation for someone determined to practise their will with a little help from the job. I would be exhausted by about ten at night, and it had usually been between about nine and one in the morning that I had been drinking my litre of wine. I didn’t drink at all that summer, and stayed sober as I remained in the job into what would have been my fourth year. During that summer I saw very few people: most of the students were away on their extended holidays, but it was a relative stranger who would impact on me more strongly perhaps than anyone else ever has.
This was the story I told to Jonathan, and one I was to augment twenty years later. I was in the main book store in the town centre, looking through the Scottish section and saw a collection of essays and interviews by and with a writer whose name I’ll withhold. He was born in Glasgow but left after his degree at twenty one, living mainly in France, Spain and Argentina. In one essay he talked of how he would never have had the courage to leave Glasgow if it weren’t for what he called his literary heroes. These were not he insisted the novelists he would read (Kafka, Hamsun and Walser were the three he named in the essay) nor was it the characters either. It was more some interim space between author and character, some hypothetical possibility he could see giving him the inner resources he required to make his own existence. If it had only been the authors, that would have been too close to hero worship; if it had only been the characters, that would have been too close to make-believe. No, it was a liminal position; he thought the best literature was created from this sense of self. His arguments were the opposite of those held by MacAllister, and coming across these essays and articles, and then reading the five novels he had written, gave me the inner resources to see that I must find a way of my own, and that he could help me to do so.
I wanted to become a writer, of course, but what did that mean? I never really thought of it as one of mainstream publication or of becoming established, though equally I didn’t see myself writing in notebook, for the rest of my life. When reading books about how to become an author left me feeling agoraphobic, exposed to the social elements, the idea of keeping a diary or a notebook made me feel claustrophobic: locked in a coffin of my own mind. What I had always wanted to do, without quite articulating it, was to write as if the work happened to be an account of my experiences. These wouldn’t be autobiographical descriptions of my life at all; more concentrated, elliptical explorations of events that would happen to me, that I would hear about, that would pass in front of my eyes and somehow take on the pertinence of fiction. It could be a busker I would see each day and find myself wondering what his story happened to be, and creating a tale around him; it might be an argument I witnessed in the street that I would expand into a tale of marital infidelity, or a woman tearfully crouching in a doorway that became the story of a person who had recently lost a parent. Often they would be based on anecdotes friends would tell me, and no less often on an event in my own life which puzzled me, and needed a completely different form upon which I could begin to understand it.
I had read often enough in books about how to get published, and how to write a novel or story, that there were expectations, rules, obligations. Some books would tell you which type of book you ought to write for a given publisher; another book would tell you how to grab the reader’s attention from the opening page, how many characters you could get away with having in a story and so on. I knew I wanted to ignore these books even if I gained a perverse pleasure in reading them: pulsating with disdain and dismissal, seeing them as enemies of promise. I would read these books intermittently between about eighteen and twenty four, and would find their antidote in writers I admired who I believed had escaped such strictures. But it wasn’t until I had read this particular Scottish writer that I found not so much someone I wanted to emulate; more someone who had anticipated where I wished to go. The writing itself was quite different from mine: he was much more autobiographical, with all the novels written in the first person; the narrator resembling a figure very much like himself.
I discussed this with Jonathan when he came to finish his final year. He knew that I’d taken a job as a postman, and knew that I wanted to be alone for most of the summer, and that staying in this university town where everyone I knew would leave after the term finished, forced solitude upon me. But I hadn’t told him about the friend I had found within the pages of a book. Speaking to him about it that September, shortly after he had returned, he said he found it interesting: he never thought I was the one for heroes, and quickly added that of course he was sure this isn’t what I had fallen into in this instance. It was, I said, only what I could call an affinity. Maybe there are three types of affinity, I suggested. The affinity of love, the affinity of friendship and a vocational affinity: certain people one finds who have found a way of living their lives according to a purpose. We might never meet these people, however they allow us somehow to be ourselves in their absence, but in their vocational presence: in what we know of their work as artists, writers, sportsmen or whatever it might. I wouldn’t have even attempted to describe this thought to Robert, but there had always been an aspect to Jonathan’s personality intrigued by the incomprehensible. He never wanted to close an idea down to its comprehensible components; he wanted to remain open to its inexplicable dimension. As he got older he perhaps even yearned for it.
Over the next twenty years I lived according to what I would call my own life, but I would sometimes wonder how easy I would have found it if it weren’t for this exiled Glaswegian whose interviews I would follow and whose books I would read. Over those twenty years he became increasingly famous: his books were nominated for major awards, a documentary was made about his peripatetic life, and he was ageing very gracefully indeed. As a young man he had been attractive enough, with wavy dark brown hair, and eyes that carried a smile the mouth didn’t feel obliged to duplicate. It would have given his face charm while retaining mystery, and it was as though over the next couple of decades the mystery remained but the charm increased. It was as if, by the time he was fifty, part of his charm lay in a mystery that could hint at a world he knew, but felt under no obligation to reveal. Many writers who would play up the mysterious aspect of their personality did so darkly: they suggested they were people unhappy with existence; that they had seen enough of man to know that it was better to keep much of it hidden. The Glaswegian writer indicated the opposite: that each person could find the pleasurable mysteries of existence if they remained open to the opportunity.
The fiction indicated a man who was a constant womaniser, but the interviews suggested he was someone who had a series of meaningful and faithful relationships. In one, the interviewer asked him what love meant to him. He replied that it was fidelity, honesty and a commitment to the future in feeling, but not in fact. The interviewer asked him to elaborate and he said he believed in the possibility of love lasting a life time, but the moment that it becomes a stated claim, a legal obligation, he felt resistance. He drew an analogy with a story he vaguely remembered. Each day a man would be going along the road in his horse and cart. One day he sees someone standing by the side of the road and offers him a lift. The person gratefully accepts, and says he really ought to give the driver some money. The driver insists he won’t accept it, and over the next few weeks he sees the person often and keeps giving him a ride. He looks forward to seeing this man by the side of the road: each day he finds him there he picks him up. But the man again insists that the driver should receive some money for this, and the driver reluctantly accepts. He still gives the man a lift, but with a much heavier heart, and in time, feeling a pleasurable activity had been turned into work, finds himself taking a different route into town to avoid the man altogether. Perhaps, the writer said, that was how he felt about marriage.
Reading it I wondered if that is how I felt about writing, perhaps how the writer felt about it too. That writing was an activity that should always be wary of remuneration. But how to survive? I suppose that was a question every writer had to answer for him or herself, as if, like religious questions, one could speak only about personal belief, not absolutes. Should all writers teach; are real writers only those who can make a living from their written work; should one rely on other media: radio, TV, newspapers? It seemed the Glaswegian had answered it for himself by owning a writer’s retreat-cum-workshop. In the south of France, a few miles from Rimes, his partner and he had bought a ruined farmhouse with money he had earned from teaching English in Saudi Arabia, and money she had been left by her grandmother. She was from the region, had trained as a lawyer, and managed to get planning permission to expand, and grants to renovate. They had space for up to ten people visiting at any one time, and the writer said they survived quite nicely off the income.
My own answer to the solution of how to survive was much less glamorous: I continued working as a postman, moved to Edinburgh after a couple of years in the town where I went to university, and managed to retain my position whilst moving my location. Yet what I kept in my mind, or perhaps as a feeling in my body, was that summer reading the Glaswegian writer’s work, and believing I had found, in his perspective, the strength to pursue my own. What I noticed as well while reading his work that summer was that he never published with an established publisher; that he would publish with little known ones in France or in Scotland. In one interview I read, at the end of that summer, he said he wasn’t far off vanity publishing, but had no problem with the idea even if he had problems with the term. To regard it as vanity was a nice way he said of discarding personal work under the guise that it was irrelevant: if a publisher wasn’t interested, surely it must be of only personal interest. He listed examples from the past of self-published writers: Proust, Woolf, Dickinson and Hawthorne. Of course these were exceptions and most self-publishing is out of vanity, but why should mainstream publishing dictate completely what is allowed to enter the world of literature?
My own solution was much closer to vanity than his; just as my profession was much more menial than his writing courses, and I am not so sure that I would have wanted it differently. I had no idea whether what I was producing was any good, was worth the name literature, but after sending a few stories over the next couple of years after university to magazines, and receiving less rejections than suggestions, I believed that the best way to publish was through paying for it myself. The magazines didn’t dislike the stories, but they wanted them to be something other than what they were, and maybe I didn’t see the work I was doing as an issue of vanity because I never wanted to make the changes suggested simply to get published. Publication seemed far less important than expression.
Over the years I published books initially in small print runs and then through print on demand. I have never sold more than a few hundred copies of any one book, even though some of them have been kindly reviewed in the very magazines that I had sent stories to. I wouldn’t say I have much of a reputation, but someone did write an article, using my work and that of three other self-published writers, to explore what they called a micro-movement. None of us, the writer of the essay said, used the internet as a means by which to publish our material, and all four of us offered our work in print form as art object. We would publish on good quality paper and all of us cared for the product that would find its way into people’s hands. He said that if in Scottish literature in the eighties and early nineties numerous Scottish writers were offering what one academic called the ‘typographical muse’, the four of us were interested in what he called the obsolete object: the book as an archaic form made all the more so by remaining outside not only generic demand, but also mainstream publishing expectation. I never met any of the other writers (one from the Outer Hebrides, one from Caithness and a third from Argyll), but I have read some of their work, and now all of them are with mainstream publishers. I assume they were asked; I haven’t been, and so I have no idea if their independence faltered or my failure has become all the more pronounced. I feel no ill will towards them, or sense of deflation: they were never my heroes.
Yet I am no so sure if I have ever felt what others might call a sense of failure: the success has been to follow a path of intent that always appeared much more important than the path of success. I don’t think I have ever countenanced the possibility of the two coming together, and it was talking to Jonathan about this recently after meeting the Glaswegian writer that these thought became especially pronounced. I would visit Jonathan every couple of months through in Glasgow, and Jonathan would occasionally come through and visit me when he could justify time away from the family. Though he has chosen a very different life, one in which he can earn twelve hundred pounds a week directing daytime TV, he wishes in time to make feature length documentaries. He started out making corporate videos, then adverts, and now day time shows, but over the last fifteen years he has interviewed people in Glasgow about several topics and hopes within the next five years to edit them into features. The first will be about Italians in Glasgow whose families settled in the country after their fathers were POWs in WWII. A second, about people brought up in post war Britain and how it felt being part of a new welfare state. The third about people who still work in crafts, making tables, chairs, jewellery. Perhaps he has been procrastinating with these projects he would say to me, but over the years they had gained texture and depth; they have become works of time as he has gone back every year or two and interviewed many of the people several times. I have sometimes asked if they had become frustrated with the delayed nature of the project, but he says he thinks not. He feels for some of them it is oddly psychoanalytic: they get to talk about themselves, and suspects many of them rarely can with people they know. It is not quite the kindness of strangers, but at least the curiosity of one, namely him. Of course these projects have been undertaken during the time in which he has gotten married and had two children. Any idealism is countered by reality: he has made the films as best he can over the time made available to him.
He knows most of my work has come out of numerous fixed ideas about what I want the work to be, and the life I want to lead so that it can be done. But at the same time he has had no role model upon which to base his career: he has he feels lived an accidental life. He could have married another woman as easily as the one he is now married to (though he loves her and has nothing he would call a regret), believed he could just as easily have had children as not (his wife persuaded him into it and he is glad she did), and he would not have predicted twenty years ago that he would be directing daytime TV, and accumulating vast amounts of footage for three films of his own.
It was on one of this last visit to see Jonathan that I also had the opportunity to meet the Glaswegian writer, though it wasn’t until the next one that I told Jonathan what had happened. The writer rarely returned to Scotland, it was known, and when he did so it was usually for a private visit. But on this occasion, and for his seventieth birthday, an evening was arranged with three other writers whom he admired, with music of his choice thrown in as well. It also coincided with the publication of his Collected Stories. I decided I would go along. I didn’t want an autographed copy of the book; I wanted to convey to him an admiration that wasn’t only about the work, but also about helping me find ways to live, and finding literature through them.
I planned to stay at Jonathan’s for two nights and, on the first evening after his wife was upstairs reading to the eldest, he asked me whether I was nervous meeting my hero. He said it with some irony, knowing of course that I’d spent my life avoiding hierarchies, but also no doubt remembering well the structure he helped give to my life that summer after leaving university; a structure I’ve retained ever since. I asked him who he would wish to meet, anybody who had been so important in his life that he would be almost afraid to meet them. He thought about it for a moment, went and put the kettle on while doing so, and came back and said he really couldn’t think of anyone. He supposed he never felt the need to have an idea about his life as we discussed details I well knew. He finished university and made corporate videos for a time, and someone he knew while making them got a job in TV, and she helped him get one too, and so on. He met his wife through a friend and they got on very well, and she wanted children and he couldn’t find a good enough reason not to have them. His was, he insisted, a very happy life, but it had no fixed notion behind it.
When he said this I thought that his life had been generally happier than mine. What had I sacrificed to my idea of how I wanted to live? No wife, no children, perhaps nothing casual. It seemed a life based less on saying yes than on saying no, and I wouldn’t want to pretend that some of those refusals hadn’t caused immense pain, both to me and to others whom I could not continue seeing as they wished for things I believed I couldn’t provide. But I knew that sometimes Jonathan would express admiration for my way of living, as if he needed not to live an alternative life himself, but to know there were alternatives capable of being lived nevertheless.
I arrived at the event around eight. It was non-ticketed and free, but by the time I got there it was standing room only. The hall had space for around two hundred people, and the band was playing. At the same time I noticed in a corner of the hall the writer signing copies of his book. I moved over in that direction and saw the writer signing copies with enthusiasm and energy. He looked younger than his years and there was in his demeanour the attitude of a man who looks like he had steadily been accumulating status consistent with an upward trajectory. I’ve been to signings of writers much more famous than the Glaswegian, gone with casual curiosity, to see the gap between the writer and his characters, and often they are figures who have long since peaked professionally. I have seen that they have a certain obligation to their own fame, and turn up as if trying to find some of the enthusiasm in their old self in the admiration of those asking for an autograph. The Glaswegian didn’t seem to possess this; as if he knew that he had lived not so much for success, per se, but for its steady, modest accumulation. There he was at seventy savouring its full flavour having only in the past taken the occasional sip.
I thus still admired him from afar, from a distance of about twenty feet. What curtailed it was getting even closer. I had waited until there was no queue and he looked at my hands and saw they were empty. I said to him I had all the stories already from various magazines and earlier collections. I said I wrote too, gave him my name, and said I’d come through from Edinburgh to say hello to him, to say that for many years he had influenced my own work, how to do it, what ethos could sit behind it. He laughed, a little exasperated: he asked what it was he expected me to sign: a hand, an arm, a leg. This is a book signing he said; that is why he was there. I appreciate what you are saying, he said, but I no doubt knew artists couldn’t eat out on compliments. What was perhaps odd was that I didn’t respond with a pathetic apology that the authority of his voice might have appeared to demand, but with the curious inner resources that this man had many years before given me. I said that yes, artists do survive off compliments if they come from a deep enough place; was credence from others not what an artist seeks most, beyond the credence he can find in himself? He was someone who had given to me a sense that my own work was worth pursuing. He couldn’t quite take that away from me, even if I couldn’t any longer credit it to him.
Back at Jonathan’s place I explained this is how the exchange went, and said any disillusionment I felt in finding my ‘hero’ rapacious and cynical, was offset by my ability to retain dignity in the face of surliness. As I talked to Jonathan I knew there was little in his life that had impacted on my own decisions, but there was a friendship there that I knew on meeting the Glaswegian writer would not have been possible. I had to admire him from afar, or perhaps from acknowledging the gap evident between a writer and his or her characters: that it had always been about this intermediary position.
A couple of years ago the writer passed away. I read in an obituary in a Scottish newspaper that he had been quite ill for several years, and of course I wondered if this had contributed to his mood of that evening. Yet it seemed to me an aspect of his personality, and I knew that in some of the fiction there was sometimes this need to see people as functions and obstacles, as people to sleep with and people to take advantage of. There were other sides no doubt, and his fiction usually ended with any cynicism of perspective countered by sensitivity of feeling. So perhaps I was not as surprised as I should have been when, a year or two after his death, a final book came out, made up of unfinished articles, interviews and three or four stories he had written after The Collected Stories.
In one of them there was a version of our exchange. Narrated in the first person, it was an account of a writer who found himself wishing he could stay in bed when he instead had to entertain a hall full of people. His kidneys were hurting, his shoulder was offering a sharp pain, and he couldn’t easily swallow as at the time he tried to relieve the catarrh from his throat. Yet the event had been planned months before; he was being celebrated; lauded. He was coming home to Glasgow and finally receiving the welcome he probably thought he had always deserved. But there he was at seventy, willing to swap it all for an early night. Yet when he arrived most people were so warm, so welcoming and so complimentary that he half-forgot his body, and as each new book came to be signed, he felt as though he were accumulating a readership that would survive him, however small it happened to be.
Then, near the end of it, someone at least thirty years his junior came over and said how much the writer’s work had influenced him. The young man talked about buying his books in the past, but there was no sign he was buying any in the present, and the narrator believed this young man was telling him to move out of the way, that there were other people coming through. The pain in his shoulder, the ache in his kidneys, the phlegm he was continually swallowing painfully, became more pronounced. He started to show irritation to this person even if he would later wonder if his response had been not only unfair (we of course should never take our irritation out on others) but that he had misinterpreted the situation also. Had the younger man not said he had travelled to speak to him; had he not suggested that he was a writer because the narrator’s own work had impacted strongly upon him. Were there not compliments there greater than someone coming up and asking to have their copy of his book signed? The narrator thought about his own younger self, and realised that he had never announced to anyone that their work had impressed upon him. He supposed he lacked the modesty for it; though he might over the years have couched it differently: that we shouldn’t suck up to other writers, shouldn’t be servile in front of them. Yet the younger writer hadn’t at all been sycophantic, which is partly what probably annoyed the narrator. No, what the narrator couldn’t tolerate was that the younger man had come to him as his equal; as if it had been only chronological order that meant the younger writer had been influenced by his work and not vice versa. It was this he couldn’t countenance that evening, as time was cruelly eating away at him. The young writer had acted with an unusual dignity he concluded: he achieved the balance between admiringly acknowledging the impact of another, whilst also making clear, in the direct and comfortable body language he possessed, that the narrator was his predecessor, certainly, but not necessarily his superior.
Was this how I felt that evening when I talked to the Glaswegian writer? I have no idea at all where I am placed when it comes to the quality of my work. I remain little known and little read, but he may have been right that I see no hierarchies in literature except those of time (who comes first), and subjectivity (who do we find ourselves responding to). I responded very strongly to his work and he came before me. This was where my admiration happened to lie. But it as if what we respect in art (and what we should respect), is neither quite the writer nor the work. The writer is a person who has a life we do not know, usually because we don’t know them as we know our friends. And the work is an object, something we perhaps shouldn’t project certain states upon. Do we admire that house, that spoon, that dress; or are we not really saying we admire the person who made it, owns it or wears it? Yet a novel or a painting for example are not just made; they are often imbued with self, yet this isn’t surely quite the self who walks around and buys the shopping. It is a new creation, something between the work produced and the person making it.
It was this intermediate self I could still admire, and it was this self that I read about in the story he had written. It wasn’t of course the Glaswegian writer himself who had made any impact on me at all. I only ever met him once and then negatively. Jonathan as a person had done so much more. Yet there was I had to admit nothing in what Jonathan had created which had influenced me or changed me as even a few lines of this writer. And now as I write this he is of course dead, and I will soon be visiting again Jonathan who I hope is very much alive. And I know that if I were to hear that Jonathan had died, or three or other friends with whom I feel very close, their death would devastate me. But this writer’s death made me no more than sigh sadly, as if there would be no more he had to say that would be of any importance to my existence. And yet there I was reading a story as if from beyond the grave, and one where he was addressing me much more directly than the day on which we met. I feel I should return the compliment.