Oh yes, my novel's with Faber and Spielberg's bought the rights

Click to follow
The Independent Online

There are some things in life that you should never, never buy, only be given: watches and fountain pens in particular.

There are some things in life that you should never, never buy, only be given: watches and fountain pens in particular. There's something peculiarly intimate about these objects. As gifts they carry the mesmerising subtext, "Be on time for me, my darling; write to me, my love". A present of a fountain pen also suggests an investment in the recipient's talent. We are, after all, a nation of would-be writers, longing to leave our ink-splattered manuscripts like foundlings on publishers' doorsteps.

The collective British psyche pulsates with the conviction that the only real validation of self is a published book: I write, therefore I am. What else explains the rash of celebrity memoirs? Once you've had a book published, you can (and certainly will) preface your sentences with "as a writer ... ". No other medium invests people with so much instant authority. "As a writer" you can pontificate on world crises and behave as badly as you wish in the interests of authenticity.

Wednesday morning found me thinking of this word-mountain in sorrow while standing in a coffee shop in Regent Street. My greatest sadness was that I am a complete sucker for the whole publishing premise: I will never feel valid as a human being unless I have a book published. Alas, I fear I will never have a book published as I am much too lazy to write one. The photographs of that evening's Booker Prize contenders in my newspaper filled me with resentment. "Lucky bastards," I thought – they all looked so much crisper and more three-dimensional than I did.

It seemed sublimely appropriate that at that moment I glimpsed my favourite English teacher (my favourite teacher of any description) some yards behind me in the queue. It was Anne Evans who fully alerted me to the talismanic power of literature. She breezed into my staid girls' school in Sevenoaks dispensing hot new books like exotic contraband. Her well-thumbed copy of Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus still sits on my shelves. It was a brave new era, which coincided with the departure of Elfrida Davies, a terrifyingly Edwardian headmistress who had once been a missionary in some far-flung corner of the Empire. Miss Davies was given to preaching sermons on "the evil people who sell liquor" – which made me flush red with shame as the only girl in the school whose evil parents made their evil living entirely by selling liquor.

Anne had no such qualms. She even paid occasional visits to my parents' pub. Her classes were models of ordered study while still managing to enshrine her respect for the unorthodox. I can still hear her voice swooping with delight over Webster's more sadistic similes in The Duchess of Malfi. The reading was followed by a discussion of what we meant by "gothic". "Imagine," she said, looking at me, "that you are a drowned rat in a gutter wearing a diamond-studded collar." For a moment, I was.

Her mercurial influence spread well beyond my school days. In my gap year she tracked me down to Hamley's Christmas Grotto and persuaded me that I might eventually find a degree from Oxford more useful than till-training and queue-control. And last year, with typically intrepid spirit, she asked me to give a talk on erotic literature to her sixth-form gels in Dulwich. Who else, I asked myself, would infiltrate the editor of an erotic magazine into this citadel of middle-class virtues?

The trouble with charismatic teachers is that you stay trapped as a child in their presence, wanting to impress them. And you know only one thing will do: "Yes, that's right, my second novel is with Faber; yes, a record bid. Mm, first one still outselling Harry Potter – oh, did I not say? Spielberg's bought the rights." Falling some million miles short of this, I asked Anne what she was doing now that she's semi-retired. Silly me, I should have seen at once: the stronger definition, the firmer features, the cool, calm hand with which she held her espresso, her forceful views on the monarchy. And she's only halfway through the novel. I clutched my fountain pen tight with envy, and when I looked down at my hands they looked slightly blurred.

Comments