Gardening: Novel rebuff for the real Rhett Butler

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The Independent Online
Fortunately, I do not need a refuge in which to write, having provided myself with one here above Killiney Bay, where all the houses, mine own included, are named for the Bay of Naples - which, strikingly, it resembles. ('Quite the most vulgar spectacle I ever encountered,' wrote Evelyn Waugh upon his first sight of Mount Vesuvius in the early hours of the morning.)

Extinct volcanoes also present themselves to me from the Wicklow side of the bay and, indeed, I stare one in the face every morning when I shave.

Complete tranquillity will be assured when the builders who have allegedly been working on the house for the past 10 months finally leave this weekend. The hammering and banging will finally cease (lately, they have been working on the roof which, I assure you, is no fun at all), and I shall have no further excuse for suspending work on the various novels and screenplays I have promised the world.

Others flee north under such circumstances, to Annaghmakerrig where is to be found, just this side of the border, the Tyrone Guthrie Centre.

The centre, upon the American model, entertains and sustains artists of one sort or another in idyllic splendour, so long as they get on with their work. I have checked out the place myself. The woods and the lake come up to expectation and there are twin connecting doors to one's apartments, which permit peace and quiet so long as one ignores any insistent tapping outside which might betoken fellow artists eager to embark on a skite in the village of Newbliss, four miles distant.

Some, of course, feel compelled to read from their work-in- progress and others, worse, to give recitals of music newly composed. Some insist upon playing recordings of Hugh McDiarmid from Guthrie's extensive collection. (The house also contains his family library, which seems to consist largely of medical and ecclesiastical texts.)

These recitals, I found on a brief visit, provide an excellent stimulus for long, invigorating walks in the grounds, by which means they may be avoided.

Mavis Cheek, whose new novel, Aunt Margaret's Lover, was published this week by Hamish Hamilton, has been sending me bulletins from Annaghmakerrig, where several mishaps apparently befell her, she being more used to the urban landscapes found in Chiswick, west London. Some time was spent, I gather, shuffling around on her bottom while she got on with her sixth novel.

My daughter kindly introduced me to Ms Cheek at the Chelsea Arts Club some weeks ago and I had the pleasure of taking her to dinner in Dublin, she admiring my premises here, as all writers do. I devoured at a sitting her fourth novel, Janice Gentle Gets Sexy, which is also out in Penguin this week. It is, as you may imagine, a comedy. Mavis tells me that the inmates at Annaghmakerrig, upon hearing her name, had got up a sweepstake concerning her appearance. (Cheek, by the way, is an Irish surname, derived from a terminated marriage.)

Her age was guessed at, plus colour of hair and eyes, general shape, whether wearing glasses or not, and so on.

'Apparently, the reason they were all slack-jawed and unintelligent-looking when I arrived,' says she, 'is that the favourite contender was a 65-year-old granny with a grey bun, glasses, sturdy hips, dirndl skirt and a comfortable behind.'

This is not at all the aspect that Mavis presents to the world. She is in fact a considerable stunner, but if you want to know precisely what she looks like, I suppose you will have to consult the dustjacket of one of her books.

And if any one of you wants to go write or paint at Annaghmakerrig, you may contact Bernard McLoughlin at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Newbliss, Co Monaghan. FEMALE novelists continued: Finnegan has just introduced me to Judith O'Brien, author of Rhapsody in Time, which contains elements both of Barbara Cartland and of science fiction. Judy has been prowling Dublin looking for a role model for the hero of her next fiction. Apparently it is necessary for some lady novelists to fix upon a physical image of their putative hero before proceeding to construct his character.

This had never occurred to me before. A handsome chap, a Rhett Butler lookalike, was duly pointed out to Judy in the Shelbourne Hotel, only to be immediately dismissed. I could see her point. No character in that face at all.

'That's Timothy Dalton you've just turned down,' says Mary, 'and he is here to play Rhett Butler in the sequel to Gone With the Wind.'

'I want a man,' snorts Judy, 'not an actor.'

Her mentor was Maeve Binchy, another old friend and colleague who also has a movie in production, down in Kilkenny, called Circle of Friends. She dropped in on the set last week, thinking to cast an eye, just for the fun of it, over what was going on, only to be told the set was closed, even to her, due to the steamy nature of the scene being filmed.

'Steamy?' says Maeve. 'And I, who never wrote anything you couldn't safely put into the hands of a mother of eight with three sisters in the convents?'

She seems strangely unperturbed. I entirely agree with her. Any film producer, anywhere, may take anything I have written and do absolutely as they wish with it, so long as I get lots of money in return.