Am I a writer? Part Two

It was of course a ridiculous ambition. I grew up in a home where they complained when I pulled away the heavy sofa and armchair to open the musty cockroachy cupboard where our books were housed: three or four slip-cased classic novels and the Books of Knowledge, a junior encyclopedia. When I was 13 or 14 I sent away for the New Imperial Reference Dictionary, which I think cost 30 shillings, an impossible sum, but you could pay it off in five shilling installments. It included a small dictionary of quotations about Life and Literature. And in those days before ubiquitous paperbacks there were book clubs which sent you hardback reprints once a month, novels by H.E. Bates and A.J. Cronin, autobiographies by writers like Cronin and Richard Church: the Companion Book Club, the World Book Club, the more highbrow Reader’s Union, which is how I got to read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at age 15. I joined the clubs, then figured out how to pay for the books. The rest of my reading was books from the Carnegie Library, but after I turned 12 or 13 I remember books being mostly unread while the fines piled up because I’d lost most energy for anything, sunk in my adolescent lassitude.
I lived for the daily English classes at my grammar school, but Mr. Grimes, the teacher who spoiled me with his attention, wasn’t a novel man. His forte was drama and poetry, so we discussed Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot at a fairly sophisticated level, though the Freudian implications of Hamlet were off limits. We had to study two or three novels for our school-leaving exams, but Grimes only mentioned them in a quick overview before the exams. I’d played a disturbed adolescent in plays on the Ulster BBC in Belfast, so why didn’t I want to write plays, or lyric poetry? Instead at 11 or 12 I was already preparing the cover pages of exercise books to write my novels: The Key to Bognor, with a drawing of a key on the cover; A Wind from Great Gable. But I couldn’t even think of an opening sentence, let alone characters or plot. Wait, I remember one opening: A man was walking along the seafront, and he looked suspicious because his teeth were too white.
Where did the ambition come from? Maybe the cupboard classics: The Cloister and the Hearth (but I never read that), Black Beauty, I think Kidnapped, maybe David Copperfield. Oh, I remember another novel: Joseph Hocking’s All Men Are Liars, an improving Protestant tract. The hero rescues a child from squalor and pays for her upbringing while he sinks into a life of depravity. Flash forward and he returns to fall head over heels in love with his ward. But consider where he’s been! To marry her would be to defile her! She spurns him! But he saves her life in an act of bravery, and so redeems himself. Unfortunately the details of the hero’s depravity weren’t even hinted at. But I still found the novel “harrowing,” a word unsuitable for use by a young Ulster lad.
The great leap occurred seemingly from nothing and nowhere: at 16 I wrote a novel. MORE TO COME

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