What a delight! Shortly before Mavis’s Shoe was accepted for publication by Waverley Books last October and I was immediately caught in a whirlwind of fast track re-editing and cover blurb, I was cooking up the latest draft of another novel. This work-in-progress was variously filed as ‘Hopping the Twig’, ‘Strange Fish’, ‘Essentials’, ‘Elementals’, ‘Stranger Fish’ (a later version) and ‘This Book Smells’, (its first title - a warning seemed in order). It was simmering on the back burner while I ignored it and tried to get some distance. The exact distance I took was from Glasgow to the south of France via the airwaves plus the 400 kilometres on my beloved old bike along the Canals de Garonne and du Midi. This took me from the Garonne in Bordeaux to Port La Nouvelle on the Mediterranean, effectively linking the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas. Being flat, it wasn’t difficult and took less time than you’d expect, despite a couple of days of head winds and one of heavy rain; nine days in all plus a couple spent with family and then the journey home. I have to admit to some smugness about this at the time, although it’s greatly tempered now by limited exercise since those heady days.
Anyway, in total only two weeks had passed, not enough for any mental distance to have worked its magic. Due to the furore over Mavis’s Shoe it is only recently that I have returned properly to this multiply-named novel. Today I reached the end of my read-through with a tear in my eye. The obvious reason for weepiness is that this book is partly about death and what counsellors (which I used to be one of) call ‘complicated grief’. The tear was eyestrain too, but the main cause was writer’s terror. It is always worrying going back to a piece of work that has been left. There is the fear that you were deluded when you wrote it and that it’s actually not worth the computer chip it was written on and you’ve wasted a year of your life, or more if you’re Garbriel Garcia Marquez or Donna Leon to name but a couple who allegedly take a decade. The tear is for fear unfounded, a sigh of relief, that despite the still considerable editing task ahead, all is not lost and the thing was worth doing whether it is ever published or not. Unfounded fear is a great delight, a variation on ‘Better to have loved and lost’ etc. Only a seriously worried person can experience that kind of relief.
I saw a documentary recently about Peter Howson, the Glasgow artist famous for being brave enough to go to Bosnia as a war artist and being so seriously disturbed by what he saw there that his life fell to tatters on his return. Whatever you think of the whole strange idea of a ‘war artist’ or of Howson’s dark portrayals of disturbing events, he is astonishingly prolific. Apart from a certain commission which seemed to stop him in his tracks for a quite a period, I wonder if any of his paintings ever took a year, and doubt it. And although paintings can take some artists even longer to complete, I doubt there are any novelists who finish a book in a couple of weeks or a day, and if they do, whether it is their best work.
I’m not as brave as Howson and have never been in a war zone, apart from once wandering with a friend through Armagh (I think) in the dead of night and suddenly being surrounded by soldiers with big guns and being asked what the hell we thought we were doing. ‘Hitching,’ I said, wide-eyed and very young, and they escorted us to the edge of town where we erected a tent beside the border post.
But Howson and I share a common subject in war and its effects on ordinary people. Howson, as an artist, takes snapshots which don’t tell stories but suggests them, in the way a poet might provoke an image in a reader’s mind. The beauty of novels is their very length. There may be ugly brutal scenes but a good book will throw them into contrast with hope or generosity or humour then throw you back into despair and on further to disgust or love. You stay with it for hours at a time being moved through all the different experiences a human can have. Quite a bargain really for as little as £7.99 a pop.