The time: September 1989 The place: Maynooth, Co Kildare The man: James Hawes, novelist
I tried to be a writer throughout the 1980s, living on no money in bedsits in Shepherd's Bush, and I found that I just couldn't function like that, because all I was thinking about was how I had no money. There was nothing romantic about it. I'd worked out by 1987 that I had to at all costs get some kind of job to stop me thinking about money, so I could think about something else. I'd given up being a playwright and actor entirely, having failed miserably at both.

By then all my friends were making good money and doing well for themselves, and suddenly almost overnight I thought, "God, I've got no CV at all," and was almost destroyed. When you're 23 or 24 you're bullet-proof to fate and you can go around busking and doing crap jobs, but I suddenly found when I got to 26, 27, it stopped working for me and I saw this pit approaching. Which is where all the stuff for my first novel White Merc With Fins came from, living in bedsits and being obsessed with ... the shadow of crime approaching. I don't want to go into detail, but things were not good.

I was sitting in a pub in Greenwich, bemoaning my fate, and someone said, "You're always going on about Kafka, go and do a PhD, for Christ's sake," and it was like the road to Damascus - of course.

I was brought up all over the place and had no geographical loyalty, so the only centre I could find was to go back to the old German lit, and my battered copy of Kafka that I'd been carrying around for years.

I'd done a degree in German at Oxford, and after that I became an actor, including utterly hideous low spots as a kiddies' entertaining actor - "Hello boys and girls" as a ferret and that kind of thing. It was horrible. Reviews are water off a duck's back now - if you've been screamed off by seven-year-olds, reviews mean nothing.

Everything I tried got given up in despair, and I was trying to write at the same time, but I was living on the dole. Academia was one way to get a grant, but it was also the one thing I'd kept an interest in - I had this extraordinary phone call when I called University College London and said, "I might want to do an MA," very shyly, because I had no self- confidence left. And this voice said, "Well, who are you, then?" And I replied "I'm no one ... well, my name's James Hawes," and the voice said, "Yes, I marked one of your finals papers five years ago, didn't I?"

I was thinking, what the hell? And I suddenly felt at home again, so that academia became my one refuge from the Eighties.

But by 1989 this seemed to have failed as well - there seemed to be no work. I'd failed to get two academic jobs that summer: in the late Eighties you had to quote Derrida at everyone, especially if you were doing Nietzsche. For anyone doing lit crit, Post-Modernism had a big role and I knew nothing of it and I hated it - I still do. All my academic work is rabid polemics against deconstruction.

I was 29 and faced with the ultimate horror, the last safety net of the unmonied lower-middle classes, which is teacher training. In two weeks' time I was going to have to go London, to this college I had booked into, so I'd do a year of platitudes and despair from teacher-trainers.

One of the two unforthcoming jobs had been at University College, Dublin, so I'd gone there for the interview. I'd met all my old Irish friends, of whom I have many, and I'd fallen in love with the place and let myself get in that mad Californian people's way of thinking, where you say, "If I want something that bad I must get it," as if there's some sort of live Nietzschean connection between your will and the law of the universe - everything is for the best. And of course there isn't, so I didn't get the job. I was in complete despair.

And suddenly, at the last possible moment for the academic year, this advert came up for a job at Maynooth, the big priests' training college in Ireland. I decided I must pull all the stops out this time on the Irish connection. I'd been visiting Ireland regularly since 1981 to see friends and do 21-year-old drinking, because it was such a good place to do that. It just turned out that the people I knew had influence in Catholic circles. I called a friend of mine - I'd better not say his name, because his father has a very high-ranking Catholic Gaelic title, but I'll call him Rory - and I said, "Look, Rory, this is desperate, can I drop your father's name, because it's a Catholic training college?" And he said, sure, no problem at all.

So I turned up with no hope at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, a huge seminary that looks like St Pancras Station, with a lay university beside it. I would not let myself hope this time.

I did the interview, about which I can remember nothing except I'm sure it was dreadful. I went down to see Rory, and left the number of a pub in County Carlow where they could contact me. They phoned the next morning and said: "We're very sorry, you failed the interview. But we created another job for you overnight. Can you start next week?"

Suddenly everything changed, the awful sense of the inevitability of the railway line taking you towards your fate as a teacher like my parents had gone; this world of limitless possibilities had come and this mad new life of going to Ireland was in front of me - fantastic.

The next day Rory and I drove up from this pub in County Carlow, and went for lunch in the priests' refectory. All these old priests kept coming up to me and saying, "You must be so-and-so, give my regards to X." It was becoming more and more obvious that this was just pure 18th-century clientelism, this job as a German lecturer was basically a gift from a Catholic magnate, which no one looked askance at, this being Ireland. I was a bit embarrassed about it, but everyone kept saying, "Sure a man with good friends is always a good friend to have," that kind of thing. I'm quite proud in a weird way of the fact that I didn't get my job through merit at all but through pure fluke.

I had a really, really good time in Ireland for two years. On a practical level it gave me the vital first job, so that at the age of 29 I had a salary of pounds 10,000, which was immensely more than I'd ever had before, and it just gave me a sense that I was worth something again. I rented a fantastic gate lodge in Kildare, and it gave me the time and confidence to start writing again.

I go over to Maynooth whenever I can and pop in to say hello to people - and a lot of them will appear in the next novel in a very favourable guise. It's going to be a bit like shades of Decline and Fall, but in Irelandn

James Hawes' second novel, `Rancid Aluminium', is published by Jonathan Cape at pounds 9.99

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