08 May 2011
Posted in Books and Poetry
Edited extracts from Rosemary Friedman’s new memoir, Life Is A Joke
Being asked the question ‘are you still writing?’ reminds one that in the mind of the questioner, at least, the writing is on the wall. ‘Would that God the gift had gi’ us to see ourselves as others see us.’ But he/she hasn’t. The psyche does not age. Inside we feel no different from how we felt at five, at 15, at 25 and so on down the decades and although we may scarcely recognise the image of ourselves reflected in the mirror, we regard with some surprise the fact that the questioner has had the temerity to ask at all.
Yes, I am ‘still’ writing. Even if we accept that our bodies can’t last for ever, nobody wants to spend their latter years as a shrunken grasshopper. We seriously want to keep our minds intact. The question, however, with its element of surprise at confronting the lines on your face and your silver hair, contains within it the thinly disguised amazement at the fact that not only are you ‘still’ writing but that you are ‘still’ alive. It is no consolation to know that the death rate for the human race is never less than 100 per cent.
‘Are you still writing?’ is usually followed by ‘Are you still living at . . . ?’ with its sinister implication of retirement home or sheltered housing. It was a neighbour who persuaded us, long before we needed it, that we would not always be able to cope with the physical demands of a house on five floors. Ten years ago, and in what we mistakenly thought was still our prime, we laughed him out of court. Not long afterwards, in response to estate agents’ particulars that mysteriously began to come through the door, we began to look at flats. Not seriously, mind: after a series of family houses with gardens, who could contemplate living on one comparatively minuscule and boring level with no outside space? Other people’s homes, like other people’s lives, reflected their lifestyles and had no bearing on our own. Paying lip service to their box-like rooms and their alien modi vivendi – we were not flat dwellers after all – we wondered where we would stash our boxes of papers, our thousands of books, our computers and printers in what passed for living space but was not how we lived. There is more than one death: one’s childhood, one’s youth, one’s middle, and often most productive, years.
We sold the house with its lares and penates and its happy memories, and mourned the passing of our ‘young old age’ in an apartment we stumbled upon, which was blessed not only with ‘outside space’ but with room, beneath the eaves, to store the piles of manuscripts (umpteen drafts) and old lever-arch files and receipts and playbills and unsold copies of novels unwisely purchased from the publishers and desiccated cans of paint (in case any touching-up was needed) and inextricably tangled spare leads for technical equipment long extinct, and dusty hampers of family photographs and slides, which had accumulated over the years. The move, traumatic as it seemed at the time, has not proved bad and the well-meaning neighbour has been proved right. We could not have managed the five floors for very much longer.
Hard on the heels of ‘are you still writing?’ and ‘are you still in the same house?’ comes a further enquiry containing the pregnant ‘still’. ‘Is your husband still . . . ?’ What the questioner is trying to establish is whether you are still part of a couple or are a widow discreetly ‘Looking for friendship, companionship, or even love . . .’ from a ‘delightful, well-matured man’, ‘a friendly quiet widower planning a move to France’, or a ‘personable, tall gentleman’, plucked from the Getting Together columns of The Oldie. My husband and I are extremely lucky. The long-service medals, ruby, golden, diamond, superseding the platinum of the wedding band, have been duly presented on the appropriate anniversaries and, in the shape of rings, adorn my fingers on high days and holidays. Where is the defeat here? If we are honest with ourselves, we know that, like the perfect car and the perfect holiday, there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ marriage. How utterly boring that would be. There have been times when we have toyed with the idea of divorce (or murder), times when the wheels of cohabitation have squeaked for want of oil. When the chips were down, however, as they sometimes are in every partnership, ‘we loved and laughed and cried, and did it our way’. The storms have subsided. We have entered waters so calm, so pacific, we wish them to go on for ever. Yes, my husband is ‘still . . .’ As I look at the daily-increasing number of widows around me and think there but for the grace of a God, in whom I no longer believe, go I and hope that my number is called before his and that after so many years of the kind of happiness to which many aspire and few are granted, I will not be required to go it alone.
As far as dying is concerned, no one, even in the condemned cell, even hearing the sound of his friends and comrades being shot, ever really believes in his own death nor can he imagine it. If we try to do so, we realise that we are still present as spectators.
As far as ‘facing it’ is concerned, it is a daily exercise particularly when it comes to wondering how long we will be around to see the launch, and success or failure, of our current projects, the trajectories of grandchildren at their various and exciting stages on the ladder. We know that life has been good to us. We are greedy. We want it to go on, at least until we are incapable of converting life into fiction through novels, plays and short stories, of filling up the bin bags of our writers’ minds from the smouldering rubbish heaps of experience, from everything we think and see and feel and notice around us, and trying to make coherent and significant arrangements of them. Time, the great scavenger, is no longer the ally but an enemy; not a benefactor but a creditor, systematically destroying first this faculty then that, liquidating the wisdom, destroying the images, the unique private collection – the friends and acquaintances, the triumphs and the failures, the homes and the holidays, the cafés and the concerts, the memories and the music, the bridges and the beaches, the laughter and the learning, the pomp and the circumstance – that is the human personality. Often I catch myself wondering what I am going to do ‘when I grow up’. I am not alone. With very few exceptions, life ceases for us just when we are getting ready for it.
For the artist, art is the best way to fight the years. I know that my work will be nowhere near finished by the time the ‘fat lady sings’ and I sincerely hope, as the end approaches, to be able to answer ‘yes’ to the question ‘are you still writing?’ Among the folders on my computer there is one labelled ‘expectations’. It is what keeps me going. In it there are three entries:
1) ? Magna Large Print ed. early novels;
2) ? Eng. Lang. re-issue Aristide;
3) ? An Eligible Man tour.
Although 11 of my 20 novels have already been published in large-print editions, eight of them have until now slipped through the net. A recent generous and unexpected offer from Magna Large Print books to publish four of the remaining titles – one of them first published 42 years ago! – represents the success of No 1 in my list. The outcome of No 2, Aristide, one of my two books for children, which has already seen several reprints and has recently been republished as a classic by the prestigious Gallimard in France, was less happy. Having initially reacted enthusiastically, kept the book for several months and declared ‘. . . both myself and our reader think that Aristide has ongoing charm, good plot and lovely illustrations . . .’ the assistant editor of Hodder Children’s Books wrote:
“We had our meeting yesterday afternoon . . . and I’m afraid it’s not good news…As you are probably aware, the market is very difficult at the moment and we are having to be very selective. Stand-alone books are notoriously difficult to get attention for. This is obviously disappointing and I’m sorry we couldn’t take things further for you, but may I say how charmed I was by Aristide and how much I enjoyed the narrative voice you employed for the story. All the best in getting your work placed elsewhere . ”
Expectation for an extended life for my third play, An Eligible Man, which has already had a successful run, is taking longer to come to fruition. My hopes were raised by Brian Russell Daniels, owner of the New End Theatre, Hampstead, North London, where An Eligible Man was first produced, who thought that, with the right casting, the piece would be an ‘excellent play to tour’ and he is keen to organise a commercial production.
To this end, he asked that a script be sent to Ian Dickens of Ian Dickens Productions Ltd, the largest touring drama company in the UK. Looking up Ian Dickens on the faithful Google, I discovered that five or six of his company’s productions are on at various major British theatres at any given time of the year and that these included such hardy perennials as Rattle of a Simple Man, Dangerous Liaisons, A Woman of No Importance and Abigail’s Party. If anything were to come of the proposed tour, An Eligible Man would be in excellent company. Producer Ian Dickens was ‘very keen’ on the script and, five months later, it is not only still ‘under serious consideration’ but theatres such as the Mercury in Colchester, the Everyman in Cheltenham, the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford, the Theatre Royal in Windsor, the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage and the Capitol Theatre in Horsham have been pencilled in. Budgets are being put together to make sure the play would work financially and names such as Nigel Havers for the title role are being bandied about. The upside of the negotiations is that while the responses on the artistic side are extremely favourable, the downside, as far as the all-important finances are concerned, is the current credit crunch. As I write, the chances of a tour for An Eligible Man are 50:50, but the jury is still out.
So what’s new? You win some and you lose some. The favourable outcome of the ‘expectations’ folder to date is (almost) two out of three. Could one regard this as success or merely another of George Orwell’s ‘series of defeats’, which is the writer’s lot? If the plans for An Eligible Man come to fruition, I can look forward to seeing parts of the UK I would not normally visit and revelling in audiences who would (I hope) appreciate my work. Applause is the writer’s personal laurel wreath, it is what we live for. If, and when, details are settled, the play is put on – everything in the writing game historically takes a very long time – and the first night comes round, I trust that my seat will not be ‘in the gods’! If it is, I hope it will be a good one.