Chasing rainbows

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.

Found in Amherst, lost in Harvard

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.

Reviews of ‘Lovers of Amherst’

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.’

The lovers of Amherst

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.

My father's death

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.

A deeper response to films

Two highly-intelligent articles I’ve read recently make me realise how shallow our public discourse on films tends to be. I suppose it’s because films are there to entertain us that most critics and commentators treat their failings so leniently. Any film that comes along with any complexity or surprise is greeted with wonder. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. But as I read Zoe Heller in the New York Review of Books on ‘Gone Girl’ I realise how casual my response has been. I enjoyed the film, was duly tricked by the twists, and came out saying that of course it was all nonsense, and the characters utterly unreal, but it was clever stuff. Zoe Heller – always so wise in her perceptions – showed me how lazy I’ve been. I don’t know how to be clever with links, but I think this will take you to the article: 

The second piece is from the New Yorker, I think maybe the New Yorker blog, as the magazine has a different review. It’s on ‘Birdman’, a film I greatly admire. But read Richard Brody – not a writer I know, but one I will now follow – and again I realise how casual my response has been. Try it here: 

The point is not to admire writers who write hatchet jobs, it’s to raise the demands we make of films. Somehow we’ve fallen for the notion that our choice is dumb-but-entertaining, or intelligent-but-pretentious. Both these commentators are asking for something more, for human truth and for deeper wisdom. I want that too. Their critical gaze calls on me to raise my game. Watch this space.

The power of attention

I’ve been reading about a book by Paul Dolan, who’s a professor of behavioural science at the LSE, called ‘Happiness By Design’. Dolan suggests that we can affect our level of satisfaction with our lives by controlling where we place our attention. This seems both obvious and revolutionary. Already I find that I limit the amount of time I give to reading about the horrors of our world: it’s so easy to fall into despair about humankind. Perhaps despair is the only truthful stance, but I resist it. On a more personal level, I don’t read reviews of my work, to protect myself from hurt. I feel guilty about this, and presume it to be a sign of weakness. Now, reading Dolan’s theories, it strikes me that maybe there’s something more powerful at work here. Maybe by choosing where to focus our attention we can and should enrich our lives. But can it be done by will alone? Isn’t the habit of feeding on misery something that is driven by some deeper need beyond our control? And anyway, if there’s misery in the world, shouldn’t we face it manfully?

I don’t know the answer, but a metaphor comes to mind. I take care to keep myself clean, and to put on clean clothes, and in general to maintain a certain standard of appearance. This takes effort, but has a real effect on my morale. If ever I’m tempted to stay in my pyjamas all day I always feel a little degraded. None of this is logical, but so it is. Maybe a similar process applies to the psycho-emotional self. Maybe if I impose some discipline on my thoughts I’ll be able to increase my day-to-day level of satisfaction. This sounds robotic, as if I’m to treat myself as a machine. We’re so accustomed to the notion that our moods are out of our control. We almost want them to be out of our control, because then it’s not our fault that we’re unhappy. And yet we accept that wealth, for example, does not automatically bring happiness. Why not? Because the rich man is fixing his attention on those parts of his life that are not as he would wish.

Many years ago I was attacked in my home, tied up, and threatened with a knife. When the ordeal was over – I was unhurt – I experienced an ecstatic rush, and for about twelve hours life seemed to me to be intensely beautiful. Simply to be alive was enough. Then the moment passed, and I returned to my usual levels of dissatisfaction, disappointment, and anxiety that manage to turn a life of relative privilege into a switchback of mood swings. How can one live in that state of joyful gratitude for more than a few hours? Most people will say it’s simply not possible, human nature isn’t made that way. But what if it’s a matter of making the effort? What if it’s all about training ourselves to direct our attention towards what makes us happier?

No more obsessive comparing of our lives with the lives of more successful friends. No more Fear Of Missing Out. No more lamenting the parts of our anatomy that fall short of the ideal. No more regretting the road not taken. No more ghoulish hunger for other people’s pain. No more rage at our own impotence. No more fear of the future. In the place of all these useless ways of beating ourselves up, we give our attention to the life we’re leading, to its purpose and value, to the actual people we encounter, to the world round us, and to now. To the mighty present moment.

Yes, I know. It can’t be done. We’re not saints. But then, I’m also not much of a fine dresser. But each morning I make an effort, and manage not to shame my family. So maybe that same small difference can be achieved when I rise in the morning and dress my mind for the day…

Being honoured

A little while ago a letter arrived, via my agent, telling me I was to be offered an OBE, and did I want it? This came as a total surprise. I still don’t know who to thank for this, or exactly what I’ve done to deserve it. I’ve been industriously turning out plays, children’s books, novels and films for over thirty years now, so maybe it’s a long-service award. It’s a curious feeling, like discovering the Headmaster has been noticing you all along. So should I accept? My late father-in-law, Quentin Bell, a lifelong anti-imperialist, declined his honour. I know, or suspect I know, several distinguished writers who have refused knighthoods. I have always taken the view that the honours system exists for servants of the public, not for egotistical show-offs like writers and actors, who give each other awards on an almost daily basis. But it felt a little churlish to refuse, and the truth is, I didn’t want to refuse. I don’t need to flash it about; so I’m  just saying thank you, and keeping on writing.

After more thought I realise there is a good justification for honouring celebrities from film and stage and so on. It throws a glamorous sparkle over the entire honours system, and that makes the honours more valuable to those who really deserve them, the public servants who toil unnoticed. I’ve no sparkle to spread myself, but the least I can do is support the honours system, in public and private.

PS: A friend assures me that now I have an OBE I’m entitled to have my children christened in St Paul’s Cathedral. None of the three have been christened, so this is very good news…

New films

Just seen ‘Birdman’: it’s a virtuoso exercise in directing by Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu. The screenplay too is extraordinary. Every actor in the piece is at the top of their game, most of all Emma Stone. I note that the New Yorker calls it ‘a mighty and churning machine of virtuosity that delivers a work of utterly familiar and unoriginal drama’. Sadly a misconceived or under-conceived ending does let the film down, perhaps even reveals that the film doesn’t in the end know what to say. But my God, what a film! I’m just grateful for so much style, so much energy, so much to provoke thought. Rob Marshall’s ‘Into the Woods’, the Sondheim musical on screen, is also a virtuoso act by a director, and tremendous fun, and is also marred by a last section which leaves me disappointed. This is not Marshall’s fault, of course: it’s Sondheim, reaching for a fourth act to deliver yet another overturning of expectations. Contrast these two fizzers with ‘Selma’, which is a worthy telling of a key episode in the civil rights struggle. An infinitely more important subject, and a far duller film.

Movie watching

I’m both an Oscars voter and a BAFTA voter, so this is the season when I watch a ridiculous number of films in a short space of time. I go to the Picture House in Uckfield, or to industry screenings in London, or sit on our giant sofa with members of my family, and enrage them by predicting the plots as the films unfold; and then when it’s over by pointing out all the ways the film could have been better. I try not to do this, I really do, as I should, given my own fallible record. But so far this does not seem to be a vintage year. I’ve been moved by ‘Boyhood’, (more potent about motherhood than boyhood), mesmerised by ‘Maps to the Stars’, and deeply impressed by Eddie Redmayne’s performance in ‘The Theory of Everything’. I admired the writing in ‘The Imitation Game’ and hope Graham Moore gets the Oscar, though I wish someone had stopped him, or the director, from repeating the ‘deep’ line three times (something like ‘It’s the people you can’t imagine doing anything who do the things you can’t imagine’). So many still to see, but thus far the only perfect film of the year is ‘Paddington’. Don’t be fooled by the child-oriented subject matter: this is an easy one to get wrong, and they got every part of it right. An instant classic.

Dark vision, light blind

I realise this will sound like a fancy metaphor, but it really is a simple fact I’ve observed the last few mornings. I walk to get the paper early, when it’s still dark outside. In fact it isn’t dark – I wonder if it ever is dark – and I can see pretty well. Some glimmer of light from somewhere gives a soft shine to the wet lane ahead, and the shapes of the trees is clear against the sky. It’s a fine time to be out, when all the world is asleep. But then as I round the first bend I am confronted by an outdoor light blazing away on a porch, and suddenly I can see nothing. Its power blinds me. As I come closer, I can see all that falls within its pool of light, but nothing else. It has achieved its goal of lighting up the little region round its own front door, but at the expense of sending the rest of the world into oblivion. Then as I walk on, and the light is behind me, so the world opens up again.

The same thing happens if a car comes driving down the lane towards me. It feels like an act of violence, the attack of the headlights. And the same sensation overwhelms me, that the driver, like the house owner, wants only to see his own immediate way, and nothing else. He has blinkered himself.

So to the fancy metaphor, which I find I can’t resist. All this is so like the way we go through life absorbed in our own affairs, which of course make us anxious and fearful, oblivious to the great otherness that surrounds us and puts our fears into perspective. Turn out the lights, and join the world.

Ebola and me

The current horror stories about Ebola take me back to a project I was asked to write in the days when David Puttman was running Columbia Pictures. Glenn Close, then a big star on the back of ‘Fatal Attraction’, wanted to make a movie set in the Congo, where her father had been a physician. The story Glenn had found was about an outbreak of Ebola that occurred in 1976, deep in the remote heart of the Congo. A group of Belgian missionary nuns refused to evacuate the area, and tended to the sick as best as they could. In the end all were infected and died. A team of scientists from CDC Atlanta flew out to trace the source of the outbreak, in order to stop it spreading. The twist to the true story was that the CDC team discovered the outbreak had been caused by the nuns themselves. They had been running ante-natal clinics, in which they inoculated pregnant mothers; but their sterilisation techniques were faulty, and the needles spread the infection. The nuns, unaware of this, paid with their lives. The outbreak ran its limited course. And everyone relaxed.

The plan was that Glenn would act the lead scientist. I travelled with her on a research trip to CDC Atlanta, to Kinshasa, and to the village where the outbreak had started. Glenn was magnificent: much more than a fine actor, a fine human being. Back home I wrote a draft as planned, with Glenn as the lead scientist. Then Dickie Attenborough’s film about Donald Woods and Steve Biko, ‘Cry Freedom’, came out, and was criticised for telling an African story through the eyes of a white man. The execs at Columbia took fright at making another African-set movie with Americans as heroes, so the decision was made to re-cast Glenn as one of the tragic Belgian nuns. I re-wrote the screenplay accordingly. Then David Puttman’s reign at Columbia came to an end, and as is usual in Hollywood his successors had no interest in promoting a project they had not initiated. Our movie was shelved.

I’ve often told the story as a Hollywood joke: how I had to turn my heroine from a scientist into a nun. It’s not a joke any more.

Walking in the rain

This morning it was raining steadily as I prepared for my early walk. For a moment I hesitated. But then I thought, If I don’t go now, I’ll never go when it’s raining. I need to know just how uncomfortable it really is. So I pulled on my walking boots and my hi-vis jacket, found a waterproof hat, and set off.

It was dark, but there was a sort of grey visibility. The rain fell straight, there was no wind. The lane was running with water. There were no cars. For a while I paid attention to the sound of the rain, which was soothing and interesting. Then I found I was following its rise and fall, the rain not constant in its intensity at all, but coming and going. I became acutely aware of those parts of the lane where overhanging trees provided respite. When at last, still in semi-darkness, I turned onto the village road and met a car, it was a shock. The brilliant headlights, the roaring engine, the great splash as it passed, were like an encounter with a monster. The eyes adjust quickly to pre-dawn light, and car headlights feel like a hostile interrogation designed to disorient.

By the time I got to the village shop my lower trousers were wet,  but the rest of me was dry beneath my coat. I rather hoped the lady in the shop would express admiration at my great daring, venturing forth in such weather, but she passed over my Guardian without comment. I folded it and tucked it into an inside pocket and set off once more. By now the rain was passing. I met a man with an umbrella who told me so much rain had fallen in the night that the Nevill estate in Lewes was flooded. I felt even more daring.

On the return loop the rain stopped entirely. The trees, formerly my friends, now became my enemies. As I passed beneath them, disturbing birds, they rose up, shaking the leaves, sending cascades of water down on me. Slowly the sky was lightening. The effect was powerful. I told myself Noah must have felt something like this when at last the floods began to recede. Of course I’ve walked in the rain before, but always in the city, and with irritation that I should have to suffer. In the country when it rains I get in the car. This was the first time for a long time that I had chosen freely to walk in the rain. Now I felt proud, invigorated. Meeting Virginia for breakfast I was mortified when she said, ‘I see the rain stopped in time for your walk.’ ‘No, it didn’t,’ I hastened to tell her. ‘It rained very hard for most of the way.’ Then, having established my courage, I had to provide my own virtue. ‘But I didn’t mind at all.’

No pasaran!

For some reason nothing makes me quite as angry as being asked to enter a password and finding I don’t know what it is.

I started out in the halcyon dawn of the internet age with one password that I used everywhere, disregarding all advice on best practice. I told myself that I’d rather have my identity stolen than suffer the bewilderment of multiple passwords. But the system has its own way of stopping this. Every time Apple updates its operating systems it seems I have to create a new variant of my password, with ever more kinks and wrinkles. My strategy is to add bits on to the existing password. By now I have about six versions of my password, and I have no idea at all which one applies to iTunes, or my email account, or O2, or Southern Rail, or John Lewis… All demand a password, all work to different rules. The result is that when asked for a password I spend indefinite amounts of time tapping in variants that don’t work, and end up limp and impotent with rage.

My only consolation is that when the online fraudsters tackle me they too will be as baffled as I am. I imagine them gritting their teeth as they go through all the passwords they’ve managed to find that relate to my accounts, only to discover that none of them are quite right, just as I do. Perhaps that’s the object of the exercise. Perhaps some stern but benign deity knows it does us no good to manage everything through computers, and is slowly and deliberately strangling the entire online world.

So the rebel cry goes up, as it has done throughout history, ‘No pasaran!’ – ‘They shall not pass!’

Into the sunrise

My early morning walks continue, and throw up new challenges. As I make my way down the lanes many creatures dash away from me in terror, pigeons clatter out of trees, rabbits burst out of hedgerows, pheasants explode like rockets from the tall maize. It’s all very disconcerting. I feel like some sort of ogre menacing their peaceful existence as I clomp by. But most disconcerting of all is the discovery that there is another human on the lanes, a fellow walker whose route follows mine. I come upon him at the halfway point for me, which is the village, from which he is presumably just setting out. He’s a courteous elderly man with a stick, but not for all that a slow walker. Twice now he’s appeared ahead of me. My own pace, being a little faster, means that I come up behind him like a mugger, and pass him slowly, and then feel his eyes on me for the next half mile. This is of course ridiculous. I should be happy to have company on my road. But I’m not. I feel aggrieved. I feel invaded. I feel the solitude of my early mornings has been compromised. There are cars that pass me, but they don’t count. Cars aren’t people. Another walker, on my route, going in my direction, at almost my pace – that’s crowding me.

Virginia produced the obvious solution: go round the other way. This morning I did this. Setting off just after 6.30 I found that the sun had not yet risen, and I was walking into the sunrise. It was a crisp early morning, the air sharp, my hands chilly, the pre-sunrise sky pale blue, streaked with white cloud. This was a bonus that I had not expected. With each gap in the hedge I got a new glimpse of the brightening sky, until the sun itself appeared. And then so did my fellow walker – but of course, this time he was heading towards me. This was just fine. We passed, greeting each other, and he was gone.

As I looped back down the far side of the circular walk, there he was coming towards me once more. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘take care, you’re going anti-clockwise.’ ‘But I’m walking into the sunrise,’ I said.

Joy ambush

Here’s a puzzle: from time to time I catch some unexpected piece of music on the radio and find myself flooded with joy; I then go out and buy the CD and play it at my leisure, but the the experience isn’t the same. Somehow it’s just less magical. It’s as if as soon as I have it at my command, its value diminishes. Is this yet another instance of that cruel rule that declares we only long for what is out of reach? Or is it more to do with coming upon the moment unprepared, unexpectant, innocent?

In our car we have a system that plays six pre-loaded CDs, which means if the radio music isn’t to my taste I can switch to music I’ve already selected and know I love. But I don’t do this. It seems I’d rather hang on grimly though some piece I don’t enjoy in the hope that I’ll be ambushed by the next piece, and the joy will return.

I remember when I was about 13 buying my first pop single, which was ‘Wonderful Land’ by the Shadows. I played it over and over, and at last tired of it. Then I turned it over, and found a curious number on the other side called ‘Stars fell on Stockton’. It was fresh, it was surprising, I found I liked it better than ‘Wonderful Land’. But of course I tired of that too.

As a result I’ve never built up much of a music library. I go through life waiting for the experience C.S.Lewis called being ‘surprised by joy’. It’s a good phrase, but unfortunately it’s been torpedoed for all of us who know that C.S.Lewis was indeed surprised by joy, in the form of Joy Gresham, the New Yorker who broke down his defences and married him. So I’m proposing ‘joy ambush’.

The habit of walking

Last Friday I began what I intend to be a new habit: walking to the village each morning to get my daily newspaper. I’ve been convinced to attempt this by reading about the many benefits of regular walking, both for body and mind. I’ve been in favour of a daily walk for a long time, but somehow there has never seemed to be a good time of the day to fit it in. Then it occurred to me that the pre-breakfast time, when I sit and drink coffee and listen to the Today programme, was an available slot. Moreover, it’s the time when my brain is waking up, and potentially at its most creative. So why not walk then?

So far, the plan is working. I get up shortly after 6am (a long-time habit, and no hardship), wash and dress, go out to my office (the garage block by the house), make a mug of coffee, and listen to the radio (by then it’s the financial news on the Today programme). Then at about 6.30am I put on trainers and set off up the lanes. Right now, of course, the weather is perfect: the air cool but not chilly, the sun rising over the fields of tall maize. My walk is a circular trip, a little under three miles, and takes me forty minutes. As I walk I think about my current writing project, and listen to the birds, and glimpse the scurrying rabbits, and nod at the odd passing car (most often I can’t see through the windscreen because of reflected light, but the chances are I know the driver, so I nod anyway). At the start of my loop there’s a long rising hill, so by the top of it I’m warm. As I go through the village, most of the houses are dark. The village shop is bright, the paper boy getting ready for his round. I carry my paper in a light nylon rucksack so that my arms are free as I walk. I don’t know why this is necessary, but it is. And so on through the village and back past farms and fields of grazing cows, my brain now buzzing with ideas, down the ever-narrowing lanes, to home.

I arrive warm enough to shed my jacket. By 7.15am I’m having my breakfast and reading the paper. By 7.45am I’m at my desk and at work. My body feels thoroughly awake, as does my brain. So it’s all working as planned.

But will I keep it up?

Two tests await me. One is bad weather: rain and cold and early morning darkness. Once the clocks go back my entire walk will take place in the dark. The other is weakness of will. At present the idea is fresh and exciting, and I’m secretly proud of myself. How will it be when going on walking has no novelty, but causes me mild distress? My great hope is that before that time comes I will have created a habit. I’m a great believer in habits. They deliver me to my desk, and cause me to work hard every day, simply because I’ve been doing the same thing for so long now. Once I establish a habit, it’s easier to repeat the pattern than to break it. For example, long ago, chastised for not cleaning the bath, I forced myself to clean the bath every time I used it. Within a very short time I was unable to leave a bath without cleaning it. But I also have a long history of broken habits, or habits that I have attempted to form and failed. I’ve tried to stop myself having a glass of wine in the early evening, and to stop myself accompanying that glass with some crisps, but every evening my yearning body says, Just this one more time.

It may sound as if I have a puritan drive in me, but I don’t think I have. I’m a great indulger, I like wine with dinner, I love good food. But I’m 66 years old, and I don’t want to grow obese, and I don’t want to become immobile. I want to stay physically  and mentally active for the next thirty years. So I hope to create this habit of walking early every morning, and make it so powerful that it carries me off even as I protest that I don’t want to go.

Four mornings down. We’ll see how far I get.

My eyes wide shut

At an event last night, organised by The Space in Brighton, I shared the platform with Jan Harlan, the veteran producer of Stanley Kubrick’s movies. In conversation over dinner beforehand I told Jan that I thought Kubrick’s last film, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, was terrible. I spoke forcefully about its adolescent immaturity on the subject of sex. Jan was courteous and tolerant, and asked me how long ago I had seen the film. I told him I’d seen it on its release, fifteen years ago. ‘Stanley thought it was his best film,’ said Jan gently. ‘Why don’t you take another look?’

I was at once ashamed of myself. I realised I’d launched into my rubbishing of the film not because I retained any clear notion of its faults, but because I wanted to present myself in a certain light: as one who has passionately held opinions, that he is not afraid to utter. My comments were in fact a pose; I was adopting a pose, not with my body, but with my words. I do have vague memories of thinking ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ was a poor film, but given Kubrick’s achievements in his other work, this, his last film, deserves to be taken more seriously than I was doing. So I will watch it again.

Meanwhile I’m left with the shame. Am I still so immature, so insecure, that when I meet a new person I must perform like a stag at a rut? The artistic merits of the film are irrelevant. I was opinion-barging. I think this is a real fault of mine. How much more graceful it would have been to begin our meeting with happy memories of, say, ‘Barry Lyndon’. I still recall with wonder the scene in which a distant carriage crosses the landscape lit by a shaft of real sunlight that tracks it like a follow-spot. Or the almost-perfect ‘Dr Strangelove’. ‘Or ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, a film I’ve loved since the day it was released. Then, perhaps, we could have eased into my disappointment with ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, and I could have listened, and Jan would have told me why Kubrick thought it was his best film, and I would actually have learned something.

Instead I have to come home, and sit at my keyboard, and learn something else.

The Happy Cafe

Last night I was at an event at the Emporium, a former church in Brighton now converted into a multi-purpose venue. It’s a delightful place, both very big and very welcoming, an unusual combination; a sort of giant living room. It’s also, so a leaflet told me, a ‘happy café’, part of the Happy Café Network. This is new to me.

‘Happy Cafés.’ reads the leaflet, ‘provide a warm welcome for anyone interested in happiness and wellbeing – and encourage them to meet together for a drink and a friendly chat. Happy Cafés also display inspiring and informative material to help people discover new ways to improve their wellbeing and make others happier too. Action for Happiness supporters may also identify themselves by wearing a sticker provided by the café, to help them connect with other likeminded people. Let’s make the world a happier place together.’

Why does this make me want to punch someone in the face? I agree with every word of it. Am I so sorrowed by cynicism, or maybe by irony, that I can’t handle a direct appeal to me to ‘make others happier’? Why am I even now itching to write witty and sneering putdown comments on the campaign and its thumbs-up logo and its smiling poster boy? It’s almost as if I’m ashamed to admit to a desire to be happier myself, and to live in a happier world. Why should this be so?

Part of it is that dreaded concept, ‘cool’. It’s so very uncool to grin at everyone and seek to improve their wellbeing. Cool people don’t smile; they show in their every move that they know the world is a dark place. I, however, am simply too old to be cool. Too old also to behave like a child, and there’s something child-like in this chirpy sharing of happiness. And yet they’re right, surely. If we all behaved more like children, and shed our miserable self-consciousness, and just enjoyed ourselves more openly, wouldn’t that make life more fun? Then I recall that as a child, for some of the time at least, I was tormented by self-doubt and fears of being friendless. So maybe the problem with the Action for Happiness campaign is that we sense it to be unreal. You can’t take ‘action for happiness’. You do what you can to get through the day, and happiness happens by, if you’re lucky.

Begonias and wine

We decided a little while ago to replace the Japanese prints that hang on our stair walls with paintings bought from artist friends, or from shows where the prices are modest, looking not for investment value but for pictures we love. We have six to date, and lots of wall space waiting. Two local artists, Rachel Wyndham and Sasha Turnbull, have a joint selling show in Lewes at present, and we’ve bought lovely paintings by each of them. Rachel has a habit of painting still lives of quinces, which she says makes her a ‘quince tart’. We now have one of them. Sasha’s painting is of begonias.

When I told Sasha what we’d bought, she said that it had been inspired by a painting of begonias by William Nicholson, the painter (and father of Ben Nicholson) who died just after I was born. From time to time I get requests on my website from people who confuse us (“Have you illustrated any other books as well as ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’?”), and have to explain that not only am I not the painter, but we are in no way related. Even so, I feel a connection; and I’m also a very great admirer of his work.

I looked up this painting of begonias by William Nicholson, and found he painted it in 1939, at Bretton Park in Yorkshire, while working on a portrait of Lord Allendale. In a letter to his daughter he recorded that it was painted “with an urge”, during one long overnight session, “after a perfect dinner (O! the wine)!” I love this. It’s a beautiful painting: a glass jar of begonias alongside notebooks, an ink bottle, and red sealing wax, all lit by the glow of an oil lamp. It’s in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

He seems to have been a most loveable man, my namesake. He made artistic virtue, I read, of considered understatement and controlled freedom. I can only aspire to emulate him. I’m already there in one respect: O! the wine!