Today is my seventieth birthday: as always, too near Christmas to make me want to celebrate in any elaborate way, but a small gathering of friends and family will be joining me over the weekend. It's commonplace for people to say they don't feel their age, and that's true of me too: I am as full of ideas, and of early morning eagerness to be at my desk, as ever, and I'm working as hard as ever, if you can call what I do work. But in another sense I am fully aware that a milestone has been reached. Seventy can't be called middle age. Seventy is old. Seventy is the beginning of the last phase of life. The effect this knowledge has on me is powerful, and in its way exciting: I feel that time is limited, and I must use it well. My ambition, always a great driver, has changed, though not lessened. I feel there is still time - just - to do my best work ever, and nothing else will do. In personal terms I find myself wanting to treasure every day that I have with those I love. In spiritual terms - and after all, for the first twenty years of my life I was a convinced believer in an afterlife - my goal is to make myself ready for death. That may seem premature, but I think it's going to take time. The instinct is to cling on at all costs. I want, when my time comes, to look back on my entire life with gratitude, not disappointment; and to release myself without regret.Read More
I first began work on this film ten years ago, which is an indication of how long films can take to reach audiences; if they ever do at all. Jonathan Cavendish, its producer, told me the story of his parents, and I knew at once I wanted to write it as a screenplay, even though at that point there was no finance available. I was happy to embark on the project with Jonathan, and let it lead wherever it might. The result is now completed, and has proved to be one of the best experiences of my life as a screenwriter. Not since 'Shadowlands' has a work of mine been translated to the screen intact. I'm lucky to have fallen into the hands of a director as wise, as skilled, and as remarkable with actors, as Andy Serkis; and I'm lucky to have been graced with two lead actors of the talent of Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy.
So I love the film, and find it moving every time I watch it. But of course I'm aware that there are many who don't much like it.Read More
I want to pay tribute to one of the happiest experiences in my life. It took place in Cape Town, in July and August of this year.
A black township musical called 'King Kong' has just opened in Cape Town, a revival of an iconic show that was last performed in 1959. Back then it caused a sensation, and still lingers in the memories of South Africans. It was called 'King Kong' not after the great ape, but after a real boxer who had this as his nickname. The music - township jazz of the era - was written by Todd Matshikiza, and the show starred the then-young Miriam Makeba. It travelled to London, was acclaimed, then died. All these years later producer Eric Abraham has revived it. The original featured a number of glorious songs that are still well known in South Africa, and several spectacular dance numbers, but was weak on story telling and character. Eric called on me to work on the book and lyrics to embed the famous songs in a more coherent show.
In doing this I realised several of the characters needed songs of their own, so I ended up writing six new songs, as well as the revised and developed book. These songs have been set to music by the show's musical director, Charl Johann-Lingenfelder, who has brilliantly channeled the style of Todd Matshikiza. Eric then hired director Jonathan Munby and choreographer Greg Maqoma. We four, working in the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, then built the new show.Read More
A film I've been working on for a long time is finally completed, and will be in cinemas from late October. It's called 'Breathe', and stars Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy, and is directed by Andy Serkis. I'm hugely proud of this film - the performances by the leads are remarkable, as is Andy's directing - and the result delivers an unusually powerful experience. It's based on a true story, in fact the story of the producer Jonathan Cavendish's father, a story he first told me ten years ago now. His father, Robin Cavendish, contracted polio just before Jonathan was born, and became paralysed from the neck down. On learning he would only survive by having a machine breathe for him for the rest of his life, he begged his wife to let him die. She insisted that he live so that their son could know him. He lived, and what should have been a disaster turned into an extraordinary affirmation of life, centred on an extraordinary marriage. Yes, I know, it sounds like a downer. I can only tell you it's glorious, and you'll have to see it to believe me.Read More
Highlights of the reviews so far:
From Melissa Katsoulis in The Times: 'William Nicholson is a gentleman of a certain age who lives in the country and writes novels about marriage... and has produced half-a-dozen well-regarded novels about contemporary life... Nicholson's insight into the female mind is uncanny and shows that he is a man who really listens when women talk... hard truths unearthed in this honest summation of heterosexual mores.'
From Alan Massie in The Scotsman: 'William Nicholson is a master of the ordinary... Anthony Trollope, the master of the novel of the everyday, gave perhaps his greatest novel the title 'The Way We Live Now'. That is Nicholson's subject too, and he has so thoroughly and credibly imagined his characters, their families, homes, careers, hopes, fears and lingering ambitions that he gives us an illuminating and penetrating picture of one part of modern English life in one section of society... Nicholson is a masterly writer, and this is a thoroughly engaging novel.'Read More
My new novel, 'Adventures in Modern Marriage', is now published, and the first review, in the Times of Saturday January 14 2017, has appeared. It's the kind of review an author dreams of, and before things get worse, as tends to happen, I want to pause and enjoy the sweet moment. I was on the day flight returning from New York when the review appeared. I knew it was due, but was unable to access it because I was in mid-air. The result was an almost ridiculous seven hours of anxiety. Why should one review, in one paper, at this late stage of my career, have the power to make me so anxious? Well, it's the first, for this book. And the waiting made it harder, knowing it was out there, being read by others and not by me. And I suppose I was bracing myself, in a kind of protective flinch, for the pain of a poor review. After all, there are as many opinions as there are reviewers, and I had no way of knowing how this individual would respond. Virginia offered to wait for the luggage to come off the carousel, and I raced ahead to WHSmith in Terminal 5 Arrivals to seize the last copy of the Times. And there it was, like a late birthday present (I turned 69 last Thursday).Read More
Not so long ago I found myself listening with fascination to a radio piece by Tom Service in which he explained, as I felt to me personally, what had happened to serious music in the 20th century. I've always felt guilty that I have so little understanding of the work of so many celebrated composers, of whom Stockhausen is a prime example. Little understanding, and no love. Worse than that, I react with a dislike that is downright suspicious. Tom Service explained all to me. Stockhausen and others were attempting to free themselves from the stale grip of the musical tradition they had inherited, which, they felt, condemned them to repeat old patterns ad nauseam. They wanted to make new music, but found themselves trapped by the existing musical forms. Every arrangement of notes seemed to be no more than an echo of a composer from the past. Stockhausen's solution was to banish the very basis of melody itself: repetition. He ordained that in his work no note would ever be used more than once. At a stroke this put an end to what we had understood to be melody. One simple rule - no repetition - killed all patterns that, for example, begin and return to the same point.Read More
For several weeks now I've been sitting for my portrait. I met the artist, Charlie Schaffer, through my daughter Maria, and was very impressed by his work. He's still relatively new, but passionately committed, not only to painting, but to portraiture. Being painted by him - six sessions, each about three hours, was a fascinating process. He started work not by roughly sketching my whole head, but by painting one small part of one eye. He says his entire technique is based on close looking. Little by little a part of my nose appeared, then part of the other eye. The extraordinary thing was, I could recognise myself even in such a fragment. You can take a look by clicking on the button below, or by going to the Bio page on this site.Read More
I’ve been reading Montaigne. So long as you skip straight past all the chunks of Latin he inserts, I think because he fears his own thoughts are not sufficiently authoritative, there are some glorious moments. Here is his central statement: “The world always looks outwards. I turn my gaze inward. There I fix it, and there keep it busy. Everyone looks before him; I look within. I have no business but with myself, I unceasingly consider, examine and analyse myself. Others, if they will but see, are always going elsewhere; they are always going forward. But I revolve within myself.”Read More
I’m just home from a few days in Los Angeles, going to meetings related to my TV series, and because my trip was short I did what I’ve done before, and stayed roughly on UK time. This meant having no meetings after 4pm, and going to bed as soon after that as possible; so simulating a late night at home. So far so good. However, as a consequence, I wake at 1am in my hotel room with eight empty hours yawning before me before my day’s business will begin.
A perfect opportunity to catch up with writing, of course. Except I don’t. Something about hotel rooms renders me floppy. And the surprising truth is that I’m capable of doing lots of nothing. So I decided to jot down a list of the various forms of nothing that occupied me one night. Here it is:Read More
Today I turn 68: not a very memorable age, but within spitting distance of 70, which has to be counted as old age. And yet I don’t feel old. Of course this is commonplace among the ageing, and is part of the armoury of self-delusion which keeps us going. But there’s another reason too. For so much of our life we live through such tumultuous change, as the baby becomes a child, as the youth becomes an adult, as we make our rackety way to a sort of maturity: at which point, or so it seems to me, everything settles down, and from this time onwards, nothing changes. This second part of life began for me at about the age of 40, when I got married and took on the life of a professional writer. As a result I’ve felt much the same age ever since. The thought that I’ve in fact grown older seems not only improbable but unfair. Am I now to endure a dismantling as prolonged and uncomfortable as the making of me?Read More
Soon I must vote for Oscars and BAFTAs, so I've been having marathon screening sessions. Top of my list so far is ROOM, which is brilliant in every way. The boy actor, Jacob Tremblay, is astounding. But most of all, it's a film that never stoops to the rigged mini-plots so often used to generate viewer excitement: it goes its own way, always surprising, always utterly believable. The writer of both the novel and the screenplay, Emma Donoghue, has produced a perfect work. People seem surprised that a first-time screenwriter can be so good, but the truth is screenwriting's not hard, it's having something strong and real and true to write about that's hard. Emma Donoghue is original and wise: that's rare.Read More
I’ve never played the lottery. Secretly, I’ve prided myself on the fact that whatever rewards have come my way have been earned by hard work. So it comes as a small shock to realise that I play a kind of lottery every day. This happens without my conscious intention, but it underpins everything I do. More than that, it makes the process of living possible to me. It works like this: at any given time I’m nursing a secret hope, exactly like the hope of the lottery player that his numbers will come up, but my secret hope relates to me alone. Most commonly it’s to do with the work I’m engaged on: my film script will become the basis of an Oscar-winning film; my novel will be acclaimed; my television series will be the talk of everyone I know. As projects come and go, I shift my secret hope from one to the next, juggling all the time to keep open the possibility that my life will be transformed, at some unspecified time in the future. I think this is one of the reasons I work on so many projects at once. They can’t all die on me at the same time, can they? My actual experience is that most projects do either collapse before completion, or fail after completion, so my spread-betting makes sense. For example, right now I’m at different stages on a film project for a brilliant director; a ten-part TV series; a novel; and most embryonic and distant of all, a plan to write and direct a small film of my own. These projects may all die, but they can’t die soon. I reckon I’ve got at least two years of hope bottled up here.
Then there’s all the lesser beacons that I set shining on the path ahead: we’re planning to refurbish our London base, and I love to picture how it will be when it’s done. Christmas is coming, and all the children will be home. In January there’s skiing. In July there’s Corsica. And in the meantime, each day reaches out some little gleam of delight: the glass of wine in the evening, the sinking into my bed to sleep at night. All of which is commonplace, until I start to see the pattern running through my behaviour.
These are all childish longings for what’s not yet come. At no point do I seek my delight in the present moment.
As soon as one of these anticipated rewards arrives, I’m reaching ahead again; not exactly wanting something better, it’s not greed; but I have become addicted to living in hope. There’s something ridiculous about this. I’m now undeniably in the later stages of my life, but here I am, still acting like an eager teenager, for whom the best is all to come. When do I give up? When do I say, This is it, this is my life, it’s a good life, and it’s happening to me right now? When do I let myself off the treadmill?
I’ve always loved the Nunc dimittis, that moment when Simeon, who has kept himself alive until he finally sees Jesus, takes him in his arms and says, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.’ That’s a moment to live for, the moment when you tell yourself, There’s no more. I can be let go. I’m not on the way to somewhere else. I’m here. Now.
So I’m tired of the conditional life, the not-yet life, the waiting on the lottery draw. But I’m addicted to it. It’s the engine that drives me. How do other people get from day to day? As my friends age with me I want to ask them: how do you do it? After retirement, after the children have left home, after the phone has stopped ringing, after the emails no longer fill the screen, what happens?
This, by the way, is one of the main themes of my next novel, where it becomes known as the ‘half-death’. One life ends, but you live on, perhaps for decades. Doing what? Living a real life for the first time?
I love the evening prayer from The Book of Common Prayer:
‘O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.’
Talking with my son recently – he works in the field of international development – we turned to the current phenomenon of young British men being drawn to fight for ISIS. I put forward a view I’d read in a recent article, that this could be seen as a form of narcissism, a means of gaining attention from a society that marginalises them. My son suggested another view. It’s all about the joy of being right, he said, and everyone else being wrong. As soon as he said it, I found myself agreeing. It’s a much under-rated drive, this need to be right. It manifests itself whenever we have an argument about a fact and turn to Google for the answer. If the screen proves us right, a tiny charge of validation thrills through us. When we get into discussions most often our hidden objective isn’t the discovery of the truth, but the gratification of being proved right. Expand this small pleasure to a whole way of life, and you get a religion. A religion offers answers and makes demands that many, maybe most, others don’t accept as true – and in this lies its seductive power. In the days when I was a believer, I was most happy among non-believers, because my faith made me distinct, and their scorn made me proud. It’s a heady cocktail, being both different and quite sure that you’re right. Opposition only feeds your certainty. Opposition that threatens you with death is the most intoxicating of all.
So what’s to be done? It seems to me that we must add to, and make more subtle, the stories of what’s going on. At present we’re offered two stories: that ‘terrorists’ are being groomed, or brain-washed, and we must find and shut down these sinister masterminds; or that ISIS has lured so many through skilful PR, most of all with videos of beheadings: the glamour of violence. Both stories may be true; their limitation is that they are both other-stories. They’re about the behaviour of others, not us. What I sense we need to do is to discover that part of ourselves that could act as these young men act, so that it becomes an us-story. Then, with greater understanding and empathy, we may be better equipped to respond to this frightening new phenomenon.
The us-story is that we have all been drunk on righteousness. We have trumpeted our certainties on racism, or war, or climate change, or benefit scroungers, or transgender rights, or freedom of information, or vegetarianism. The cause is real, but the rocket-fuel is the conviction of righteousness. A few small steps, and a couple of larger ones, and we could be off to fight to defend our beliefs, and therefore to kill. There’s a terrorist inside each of us. The less power we have in our lives, the more our inner terrorist grows, feeding on resentment and helplessness.
So I guess the answer is empowerment. For most of us, growing older achieves this, in small but sufficient ways. For the young, not yet inured to compromise, their situation can seem desperate. When there’s no way out, you reach for the axe to smash down the walls.
I’ve no idea how to empower the disempowered. But I do know it’s not just about our immigrant communities, the ones we secretly regard as aliens-among-us. It’s about all of us. It’s about the values our society embraces, about who we respect and why. It’s about who we celebrate as heroes and role models. It’s about our modes of being right, and our willingness to be open to others.
Yesterday after a fraught rail journey – yet more ‘signalling problems’ on Southern Railways leading to yet more delays – to Buckingham Palace with Virginia and all three children, or grown-ups as they are now. A windy rainy day and a surreal experience. Crossing the forecourt of the palace, my son prompted me to turn and look back. There ran the long line of tall black railings, with the faces of the crowd pressed against them, watching not us but the world we were entering. The sensation of being inside. But strikingly there was no security, no bag checks, no X-rays, no police with guns. Only a rich array of strangely dressed figures – lifeguards in bright silver breastplates, holding long swords; elderly chaps in red with low-crowned top hats; black-clad footmen; grand panjandrums in black with much gold braid and gold spurs; and several versions of military uniform, grey, khaki and blue. The rooms through which we passed were glorious in a completely over-the-top way: immense, very gilt, with huge paintings that slipped out of the memory as soon as seen, more decoration than art, but perfect decoration. This is not a home, not a place of business: it’s a setting. Everything about the palace – this sector of it, I should say; I’ve no doubt there are cosy nooks elsewhere – is designed to frame formal events, and does so brilliantly. In contrast with the extreme grandeur the staff were all friendly and informal. There was no regimentation, only a polite desire to point us in the right direction, together with a shared pleasure in our awestruck response to the scene. It felt as if the staff were in on the joke alongside us, which was delightful.
My family went one way up a wide staircase, I went another, joining the 97 recipients of honours. We were directed into a long room where little removable hooks were attached to our lapels. Here television screens were set up, and water and glasses stood on side tables. A little shyly we talked to each other, fumbling our way towards saying, ‘So what are you being honoured for?’ I met a distinguished chemist, a man from the Ministry of Defence, a man who manages the Royal Cornwall Show, and the founder of a firm of plumbers. My own contribution – being a writer – seemed insubstantial by comparison.
Then a colonel with a handsome humorous face and a wry manner gave us a demonstration of how we were to receive our medals, acting out each step with the help of colleagues. My chemist friend, who had experienced this before, murmured to me that the only tricky part was the walking backwards after your moment was over. Then we were fed through in batches. I came about half way, and so had time to watch on the screens how the first to be honoured conducted themselves. To my surprise, Prince Charles, who was giving the honours, seemed to speak for several minutes to each recipient. How on earth could he know enough about 97 people to manage a coherent conversation? I could see that as each new recipient approached, an aide at his back leant forward to whisper information, but only for a few seconds.
Then it was the turn of my batch to go forward. We were led through the back of the huge ballroom where the ceremony was underway. A band was playing music from an end gallery. Prince Charles was standing before what looked like a throne. Between the two ends, the watching families sat. I located mine, and waved as I went by. Then we filtered down a side hall towards the front. Our names were checked again. My plumber friend touched up his hair in one of the many mirrors: he had a shock of spiky hair, which I told him made him the coolest person there. We talked in whispers about his business, and he gave me his card.
So my turn came. Oddly I remember little of my exchange with Prince Charles, except that he was very smiley, and seemed to know I was a writer. I asked him how on earth he managed to retain information about so many people, and he said, ‘Years of practice.’ Then I was walking backwards, bowing from the neck only as directed, and out to the far side to have the medal taken off its little hook and put in a box. The hook was re-cycled for others. And so round the back of the ballroom to join my family.
We then sat through the rest of the honouring, which was both boring and moving, an odd combination. I found time to study the six immense chandeliers high above us and wonder how they changed the light bulbs inside them. People were being honoured for ‘services to young people with life debilitating conditions in the Midlands’, ‘services to those with cancer’, ‘services to nursing and education in Africa’, ‘to tackling extremism’, ‘to Fleetwood Town Football Club’, ‘to sea angling’, ‘to theatre in Leicestershire’ – the sheer range of service was humbling. And who had I served? Nobody.
I still don’t know who put my name forward for an OBE, but I do feel honoured, and proud, and touched. Also extremely impressed by the professionalism of the operation. Time for the Royal Household to be given charge of the running of Southern Railways.
The novel I’m currently working on has as one of its themes the point in life when a person senses that they have passed their peak: their high point of strength, beauty, power and respect from others. The best is in the past, and ahead lies only a long decline. Because I’m pursuing such thoughts I pick up passing references to the theme, and I have a memory of an article recently read (I can’t track it down) that illuminates it. The subject of the article was a poet who, having reached the age of 70 without becoming famous, wins the Pulitzer Prize. He feels gratified, and vindicated, and all that you’d expect, but also something else, something strangely closer to dismay. To explain this he refers to the two climbers who recently spent nineteen days clawing their way up a sheer rock face. On reaching the top they were met by awed reporters, acclaiming their achievement. The applause bewildered the climbers. The moment they got to the top, the experience was over: the thing they climbed for had stopped. It was not a moment to celebrate, but to lament.
I find this a powerful image. Perhaps it’s no more than a re-stating of the old adage ‘To journey is better than to arrive’; the trouble is, no one really believes that. I want to arrive at my destination. I want to achieve my goal. But I live in time: there is no arrival. No sooner is a goal achieved than I must set a new goal. So in brutal truth, I had better pay attention to the journey. The goals I set myself turn out to be mirages. They melt away as I reach them.
This means, at its most basic, I should never do a job I hate because it pays well. I should never neglect my emotional life because I’m too busy becoming successful. Maybe even, and I write this as a hard worker, I shouldn’t work too hard. And it also means, I should give up punishing myself for falling short of self-created goals. I’m ashamed to admit it, but however well I do, I always reach for more, and when I hit the point at which the more is beyond my reach, I feel regret. I feel disappointed. But the regret is pointless, and the disappointment is missing the point.
I doubt if I’ll learn from this, or change my habits of mind. But I write it down to focus my thoughts, and to give myself strength.
I suppose if you write a novel called ‘Amherst’ you can expect friendly interest in the town of Amherst, and I got it. My visit there last weekend was glorious. The event was packed to the rafters, and all books sold, with demand for many more. So this is the secret. I must write novels named after towns, and then go and sell them there.
I left Amherst well pleased with myself, and headed to the Harvard Book Store. The lovely people at the store organised everything beautifully. The chairs were arranged in tidy rows. An elderly couple came and sat down. A distracted-looking man asked me what I was going to talk about, and thanked me for the information, and departed. Two middle-aged ladies settled down, perhaps to rest their feet. The friendly staff looking after me told me tales of the lines that stretched out of the door and down Massachusetts Avenue when David Sedaris came, and how they’d had to have security on the doors for Hillary Clinton. My own crowd grew by another one, a student, then by another one, a bearded academic (I know this because he spoke to me afterwards). The elderly couple got up and left. As I began my talk, there were about six people listening. I say ‘about’ because I didn’t have the heart to count. I prefer the phrase ‘not very many’. Perhaps when I use it you’ll be generous, and suppose I had an audience of twelve or fifteen.
The Boston Globe was due to review the book on the day, but the review came out after I’d flown home. It’s a fine, thoughtful review: Emily Dickinson’s spirit “fuels the drama, which switches between two parallel stories that illuminate the power as well as the often crippling delusion of romantic love… As Nicholson shifts between the two main stories, he lays the groundwork for an examination of the ways of courtship and connection, then and now (which one character astutely sums up as “Everything’s possible, so nothing seems enough”)… In Nicholson’s telling, Emily urges “Go further, Austin. For me. . . . Do you want to die without having lived?” The introverted, purportedly virginal Emily is cast as a voyeur, experiencing love by proxy.” As any writer will tell you, one intelligent reader makes the whole thing worthwhile.
The Times: ‘A beguiling meditation on poetry and love… After reading this I’m resolved to become more familiar with Nicholson the novelist and to learn more about Alice, Jack, Nick and Laura’s back stories in novels such as The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life. What more could you ask for?’
The Mail on Sunday: ‘William Nicholson’s masterly novel, zigzagging between two contrasting eras, weaves love, sex and poetry together so seamlessly that you can hardly see the joins. You turn the pages compulsively because you care what will happen to the principals, fearlessly following their hearts, deaf to the clamour of alarm bells.’
Financial Times: ‘A compelling reflection on sex and marriage in the 19th century.’
The Independent: ‘William Nicholson’s scrupulously researched story throws fresh light on the extraordinary love affair between Austin Dickinson, 55, and 24-year-old Mabel Todd. We cannot know for sure what they shared in the privacy of Emily Dickinson’s dining room, where they often met, or what she saw and heard, or the effect on her poetry. By interspersing his narrative with snippets of extant correspondence, diary entries, and secret notes, drawn, mostly, from Longsworth and his own research in the Sterling Memorial Archives at Yale, alongside some of Emily Dickinson’s passionate poems, Nicholson creates a solid historical base from which he imaginatively recreates the time period and personalities involved. Moreover, the physical act of researching “the very notes they sent each other with such secrecy” is an integral part of the story, adding an air of factual realism from which he speculates as plausibly as a biographer… While fictional stage directions are a reminder of the writer of Shadowlands lurking in the background, something deeper is afoot. Alice’s problem (aside from tackling her first screenplay) is how to find a way into a story she doesn’t fully understand. With Nick, she discusses the process of storytelling; how to frame her fiction, and whether she needs to care about Mabel.The Lovers of Amherst is a rich writers’ resource. Without Mabel Todd, we may never have known the extent of Dickinson’s creativity. It was Mabel who undertook the task of preserving the letters and poems that survive, bringing order to the 1,800 poems, and pushing forward to publication. Nicholson’s story continues on after the deaths of Emily and Austin to explore the motivations behind Mabel’s efforts. His greatest achievement, though, in The Lovers of Amherst, is to compel us to approach Emily Dickinson’s poetry with fresh eyes.
Sunday Times: ‘… a love letter to an intriguing genius. Nicholson manages to convey the extraordinary, mesmerizing power of her poetry without clumsiness. Indeed, the 19th century sections are so historically rich that at times they feel more like biography than fiction.’
My new novel, The Lovers of Amherst, is now out (published as Amherst in the US). It’s in some ways my love letter to the poet Emily Dickinson, who I first encountered over forty years ago. Her poems shock and thrill me as much today as they did then. She herself is so unfathomable that I’ve been shy of writing about her, though over the years I’ve accumulated a great deal of knowledge about her, as well as a first edition of her poems, published in 1890. Then when Polly Longhurst published her edited edition of the letters and diaries of Emily’s brother Austin, relating his passionate adulterous affair with the wife of a colleague, I became fascinated by the world of the Dickinsons. The result is my new novel, which tells the story of that affair, seen alongside a contemporary story, also involving a love affair. Austin Dickinson’s passion for Mabel Todd is fascinating because it was so defiant of all convention – so much so that in order to justify what he was doing he concluded that his love must come from God. Tracking his affair, and Emily’s part in it, led me to reflect on Emily’s own attitude to sex and passion; and from there to my own attitudes. The result is a many-layered meditation on passionate love, with all its self-generated delusions as well as its glories.
On Tuesday my sister called to tell me our father died that morning. He was 94, and his death has been expected. It seems he died peacefully, in the nursing home to which he’d only recently been moved when it became impossible for my step-mother, also 94, to continue to care for him. When I last saw him in hospital in Holyhead, near his Anglesey home, he told me that he was fully ready to die, and wasn’t afraid. He had become tired, the business of going on living was just too much. He was a man who made modest demands on life, and even in his dying wanted to be no trouble.
So now both my parents are dead. My father was always a distant presence in my life, but I knew him to be a kind, gentle man of absolute moral integrity; a man unable to hurt another creature; a man who always put the needs of others before any desires of his own; and yet, through the tragedy of an unhappy marriage, a man who lived with the knowledge that he had destroyed the happiness of his first wife, my mother. For forty years, in which he was able to build a strong and loving relationship with his second wife, my mother never recovered from the catastrophe of his departure. I saw, as a young man, how entirely unsuited they where to each other, and how miserable they made each other. I supported him in his decision to leave. But it’s just one of those bitter truths about life that sometimes one person’s survival is another person’s destruction. He lived with that knowledge. He didn’t deserve the grief it must have given him.
In the battlefield that becomes of a bad marriage, the children inevitably take sides, and I sided with my mother. This was not because I saw her as the injured party, but because she was the one hurting the most. But all the time I felt my father’s presence in my life, even if I rarely saw him. When we met we were awkward with each other, not quite strangers, but there was a clumsy kind of love between us. I remember as a child his scratchy cheek when he kissed me, and the game he played of Sleeping Lions on the sofa, and the bicycle he so laboriously painted for me, and the fort he laid out with two armies of toy soldiers for my Christmas present; and then he fades into a misty presence as he played less and less part in our lives. He never struck me, or reprimanded me, and yet I dreaded his disapproval. I felt, I think, that it would hurt him more than me. His quietness when he was there, and his absences later, made me grow up sooner than I wanted to. I was never a rebel, I was too busy filling the gap he left in the family: I became hard-working, high-achieving, ever responsible, refusing to allow myself to admit hurt. Not a bad heritage if you want to get things done, but there’s a price to pay, and I’m still paying it.
And now he’s gone: the father who formed my idea of what it is to be a father, the man who formed my idea of what it is to be a man. We were so different, and yet he’s inside me still. So much of me has been built up in a kind of opposition to him, out of a determination not to be him, and yet so much of me is him after all. He knew I never blamed him for the shipwreck of our family, but I don’t think he knew how much I loved and valued him. I wrote a play about my parents’ marriage, and he saw it performed, but he never was able to tell me what he felt about it. The shyness between us never abated. But when I last saw him in hospital he looked at me with such love – I can still hear his delighted cry, his hands clutching his bald head, ‘Oh, Bill! Oh, Bill!’ – as if it was me who had returned from near death, not him – and I felt so strongly that I was important to him, and knew that he was important to me. I’ve been a neglectful son, God knows, but I’m truly happy that he found peace and love with a second family. His step-daughter Hilary was with him through his last night, by his side as he died. I’m deeply grateful to her, and to Joan, his second wife, for all they gave him. Now Joan is widowed, and will feel his loss far more intensely than I will.
Rest in peace, Pa. You’ve earned it.