So the new novel is in the hands of my agent, and I’m itching to break ground on a new one. But about what, and set where, and in what form? There’s something odd about this searching for a subject – a period of vague preoccupation. It feels faintly undignified. ‘Nothing to do?’ my father would ask. ‘Come to me. I’ll give you a job.’
I’m descended from doers and makers – carpenters on my father’s side, tailors on my mother’s. I was brought up to respect the dignity of labour. Shoulders were to be kept to the wheel, noses to the grindstone. ‘Make way for the working man,’ my father would say, coming through the kitchen with his tools and his saw-horse. He was never happier than when he had a job on. He saw university education, out of the reach of a pre-war working class boy, as the route for his children to professional lives – in medicine, preferably, or the law. But book-learning in itself had an uncertain value. And paying attention to dreams (see Marx, Hitler and Madame de Pompadour) like other forms of introspection would have come under the heading of ‘worrying about yourself’, which was not to be encouraged.
My mother, who was sometimes visited in dreams by saints or by the dead, and had been known to act on their promptings, would have had more sympathy.
Depending on such irrational sources of guidance is, of course, ridiculous. Except that the rational sources are no more reliable. A female writer friend tells me that people (not in the business) are constantly urging her ‘do a Fifty Shades of Grey’. But the random success of mummy porn, like the random success of boy wizards, teenage vampires, and Vatican conspiracies, is not useful data. You can only create what you’re inspired to create and hope someone buys it when it’s finished.
My father earned his living as a spec builder – putting up one house at a time, or small developments of two or three houses – always dependent on a prompt sale to pay down debts. Alongside the stresses and the frustrations, no doubt compounded by the pressure to provide for nine children, he regularly experienced the pleasure of a day’s work done for its own sake rather than for an hourly wage. Once a house was near completion, buying another site meant having somewhere to move the shed, the scaffolding and the cement mixer, and offered the prospect of future profit. But it also expressed a creative impulse. He too was always looking for his next plot.