These have been hectic, mad weeks, these last few months, and it’s difficult to relate, in a few words and impressions, how my life has been changed by what I’ve been lucky enough to experience in that time. That’s why I’m going to be staggering some blogposts about my travels over the next few weeks. There’s too much to tell in one single breath.
I have neglected many things, too, I have to say, putting all of myself into promoting Dead Men, of trying to persuade people that it’s not just a book about the Antarctic, that, above all, it’s a love story, a story led by strong women, and a book that’s well-written and deserving of a read (although, for the sake of completeness, I have to add that some reviewers don’t share my opinion).
This neglect I speak of is a choice all writers are forced to make. What to put first – a story of our own making or our own story, our own life? It’s not an easy choice, nor is the final decision one which is easily taken, for it carves the flesh from our minds, it presents us with regret which lasts forever, it removes from us the feeling of ever having been human. Honestly.
What have I neglected, what? I have neglected protestpoems.org, a much-needed and much-praised poetry blog which stands up for human rights in a time where those rights are increasingly threatened, subverted and attacked (and not just by greedy bankers and hypocritical politicians). I have neglected my next book, my writing, something I need as much as I need air to breathe. I have neglected my village cricket club and those who work so hard to keep it alive. I have neglected my immediate family; my children, my wife, those champions of my way of life, those who breathe the same air as I do, those whose support makes my existence possible. And I have neglected, too, my extended family, my sisters, my mother, the roots of my existence.
And therein lies another story. At the beginning of June, I spent a weekend in my mother’s residential home, expecting her to die, slept in the bed some old person had probably died in a few days before, in a sparse room, deprived of the belongings that had made it home for someone, spent most of that night awake, with a grey light from outside illuminating my insomnia, waiting for the call that Mum had died. It didn’t come that day, and I came home again, to pack for two weeks of travel I could not put off. I went to Norway, to spread the word about my book, to praise the strong women who had made my book, read passages from the book which moved my audience to tears, drank too much wine, spent a Friday morning with a man whose opinion I have come to respect, flew home, spent two nights at home, and flew out to New York to carry on my promo work. And all the while, there was the hope against reality that my 87-year-old mother might regain, not just her health, but her self, that the dementia that had been devouring her for eight long years, would somehow disappear. Of course, it didn’t, for dementia is not a symptom of old age, it is a disease as deadly as cancer.
Mum died five days after I got back from the US, five days before her 88th birthday. She had been without my father for nearly 20 years. She had been without her mind for longer than I would have wished on her. She wanted to go, but letting go is never easy. And so, when the call came, at 4 a.m. on 22nd June, I was still jetlagged, woke thinking I was still in some godforsaken hotel room in New York, mistook the quivering English shadows for American ones, pointed my face and hands in the wrong direction, and muttered monosyllabic words at those who had spent Mum’s last hours with her. The lasting impression is that this was a merciful release, that this was Mum’s time to go, that the only regret I will carry to my grave about my relationship with her is that she was not of sound enough mind to understand that her only son had finally become a published writer.
There’s no point wondering about the choices we have to make as writers, no point asking ourselves if it’s fair we have to make them. Life is not fair. It never has been, never will be. We have free will. If we want to leave something more than a pile of remaindered books which might be picked up, from time to time, by bargain hunters and name hunters, if we want to leave something we might regard as a true legacy, we have to make sacrifices, we have to push out the boundaries of our own existence, we have to believe in what we write, believe in it enough to leave our real world and skip, whistling dirges, into another world where we constantly smile, where we say the same thing over and over again, where we become the standard bearers for our own sentences, plots and endings, where we persuade others, and ourselves, that our art is extraordinary and perfect and true.
And in the midnight hours, a glass of wine in hand, we beg forgiveness from those who have given us their lives and faith.