I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!’
A writer is someone who is most alive when alone: I knew this to be true long before I was a writer. I knew it at the age of eight, when I was already a reader. All my life, I have wanted to be left alone with my book. My favourite time of the day as child, teenager, traveller and writer, has been when I could say ‘Good night’ and scuttle off to bed with a notebook.
Why is it, then, that thirty years later, I still struggle to be alone? That is to say, I struggle to get alone and stay alone. Always, there is noise. Always, there is someone clamouring for attention. Often, that someone is my own social ego, interfering like an ambitious parent or a party bore who buttonholes you with boozy breath.
Well hello! my social ego says… Remember Facebook? You haven’t posted anything for weeks. It’s time to tweet something – don’t tell me you have nothing to tweet – or people might think you’ve fallen off your perch. Oh, and remember all those emails that need answering. And go on, Skype that friend on the other side of the world. Now is a good time because it’s morning there. Now. Do it now. If you don’t do it now, you will sink into obscurity. You will become nobody. Nobody, I tell you.
No! I yell. Leave me alone. Can’t you see the door is closed? I just want to scribble a little poem. Read this novel. Sit here staring at a fly on the window. Lie in the dark and breathe. Here is my dirty secret: I want to be nobody. If that’s what it takes.
But the social ego doesn’t care that too much activity makes me unhappy. That making myself available to loved and unloved ones every single day feels like I am less, not more. That my battery is charged when plugged into silence.
No. My ego offers a twist on the Sartrian statement ‘hell is other people’: in fact, hell is the need for other people, the anxiety to be heard and seen all the time. Hell is being in the company of those frenetic Facebook friends who are perpetually logged on and posting hourly photos of their baby. Or themselves. Or updates on their ‘status’, which comes to the same thing in the end. My social ego wants me to be in hell.
But I’ve got news for it: I am alone now. I write this from Church Cottage, the kind of rural hideaway Emily Dickinson would have enjoyed. There are English roses on my desk, as big as heads, the kind you inhale like opium. My neighbours are dead – that is to say, they are gravestones in the churchyard next door. The church clock strikes every hour. I have no watch and no mobile reception. On the rustic front door hangs a bag printed with the Penguin cover of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. There is a heavy glass ashtray in my bedroom, a wine-bottle opener, a bath with claw feet, a small writing table in case I feel like writing late at candle-light, tipsy with happiness – which of course I do – in other words, I am in writer’s heaven. And best of all, nobody knows, except a couple of people in my life who do need to know, so as not to report me as a missing person.
Welcome to Clifford Chambers, a cul-de-sac village near Stratford-upon-Avon, where I am spending some of the summer as writer in residence for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Hosking Houses Trust. Sarah Hosking is the remarkable woman behind this cottage (literally – she lives next door), and the cottage will be her legacy: a room of one’s own for women writers who need to be alone. Sarah has a dog and a polite rooster (‘one of the nicest men I’ve met’) and is that rare kind of woman who doesn’t age because she is full of passion.
‘Please promise me that you’ll never settle down,’ she says. ‘It’s always a euphemism, isn’t it. Other people have boring grandchildren duties, and I have brilliant writers in the cottage all year round. This is exactly how I want to be spending my retirement.’
And this cottage is exactly how I want to be spending my summer, all of it – in the fertile shadow of the Bard.
I suspect that V.S. Naipaul was speaking for all writers when he said that the best of him is in the pages of his books (certainly true in his case). This is why the pages of my books is where I want to be, and where I want to be seen and heard. Not on Facebook, Twitter, lecture halls and festivals podiums. Not if I can help it.
And therein lies the problem. I can’t entirely help it. This is an Olympic, public kind of summer, and I can’t help croaking my name the livelong day. The problem lies not just between the writer and her social ego, between our need to be left alone and our need to be seen and heard. That would be easy – talk to a therapist and meditate; or alternatively, tweet every minute, whatever.
No, there is the very real problem for a writer to be heard and seen at all, amid the cacophony of self-celebrating voices that dominate our culture. Most of them have little to say, but what they have is volume and audience. For the writer, on the other hand, it goes like this: if you are not publicly heard and seen at all, then your books won’t be either. And it is no dirty secret that every writer – with the remarkable exception of Emily Dickinson – wants to be somebody. Preferably before they die.
* * *
The first reason George Orwell listed in his Why I Write essay is ‘sheer egoism: desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. […] The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class.’
I witnessed the embodiment of this last week, during the mammoth Poetry Parnassus gathering of world poets in London, a kind of poetry Olympiad but without the (overt) competition. Here were, in turn, some of the most stubborn, most idiosyncratic, most individualistic, most vain, most unpredictable people on earth.
Some of them were quiet, understated types, with much to say on the page – like the young Macedonian poet Nikola Madzirov who lives out of a suitcase and whose poems in Remnants of Another Age get to the heart of the European malaise. Others – identities must be withheld, despite the temptation – were deluded maniacs, the kind you have to drag off the stage to shut them up.
Many of us felt ambivalent about representing a nation, precisely because it is a public, official act, in contrast with the private, subversive act of being a poet. Being a poet is a state of mind, not a state of citizenship. The Cypriot poet said to me: ‘I have a difficult relationship with Cyprus. Cyprus is the place I grew up and had to leave in order to become the person I had to become.’ He has lived in Britain and Ireland for twenty years. The poet from Sierra Leone has spent half his life in the US. The poets from Samoa and Tonga live in New Zealand. I represented Bulgaria which I left twenty years ago. This is our world and our century.
Two hundred world poets in one place felt a bit like the Big Bang. Or in the words of the curator Simon Armitage, a mixture of ‘the Tower of Babel and the Eurovision Song Contest.’ Except that you will hear Eurovision next year, but you will never hear from most of these poets again because their voices will be swamped by the noise of louder egos and larger admiring bogs. This is why it was strangely moving to be there, immersed in poetry, and feeling that what we do matters in some fragile but lasting way. I embraced the poet from Hungary (who lives in Shef-field) and the poet from South Africa (who lives in London). The Francophone poet from the Republic of Congo crushed me in a farewell hug and somewhere inside it I left a lipstick smudge on his pink polyester shirt.
Then we all went separate ways, comforted by the knowledge that, while poetry has never been in fashion, it has never gone out of fashion. Why? Because it has something to say, even if the audience is small.
You can plug yourself into the largest screen on earth and broadcast a video of yourself tweeting. Millions might hear you and see you today, and it won’t mean very much. But in fifty years’ time, a handful of people will still be reading Nikola Madzirov’s poems and they will mean as much to them as they mean to me now, which is a great deal.
And now excuse me, I must make the most of my social ego sleeping on the sofa (it’s easily bored), and use the little writing table with the ashtray upstairs. Good night.
We are the remnants of another age.
That’s why I cannot speak
Of home, or death
Or preordained pain.
When time ceases,
Then we’ll talk about the truth
And fireflies will form constellations
On our foreheads.
(from Remnants of Another Age,
BOA Editions, NY 2011)