This post features an extract from the opening chapter of Just You and the Page by Sue Gee. Part biography, part memoir, she has interviewed twelve distinctly different writers about their craft. As she examines what has shaped them and their careers, several themes emerge: struggle, inspiration, dedication, and above all, resilience.
Just You and the Page opens in 1971, with the dramatist Michael Wall hammering out his plays on a portable typewriter. It concludes in 2020, when the novelist and academic Josie Barnard is teaching students to compose novels on Instagram. Between them are Booker prize winners; a poet whose life was changed by a profound religious conversion; a translator for whom Pushkin has meant everything; a distinguished environmental journalist; a famous diarist; a nature writer who restored a wood, and a political activist who fled her country and is writing now in exile. The perfect gift for aspiring writers this Christmas.
At New Year in 1972 I answered an advertisement and moved from an attic room to a rambling great flat overlooking Highbury Fields, north London. I was living with six strangers, who became close friends: all of us young and idealistic, thinking of money as a necessity, not an end in itself.
It was a turning point in my life, an exceptionally vivid period, and I always knew that one day I would want to write about it. Just You and the Page began as a novel about that time and place but it didn’t work, and one person in particular refused to turn into a fictional character: he was too vividly himself. This was the dramatist Michael Wall, who became the subject of a long essay: this, I found, was a form that worked.
In the end, commissioned by Mick Felton, Seren’s publishing director, I wrote twelve essays, exploring the life and work of writer friends I’ve known for a long time. Some are famous. All, working within different genres, are distinctive. But it is Michael Wall, brilliant, idiosyncratic and very funny, who opens the book.
The Dramatist: Michael Wall
‘When I write, I want to smash through something – lack of feeling, indifference, cruelty. I’m shocked by callousness or indifference.’
Someone is talking to himself in the bath. It seems that a soldier has returned from the front to find his wife in the arms of another man.
‘But what ees zis?’
Falsetto: ‘I vas going to write you a letter, darling.’
There follows much laughter, and splashing about, then the taps are turned on and the geyser roars. Eavesdropping on the long dark landing outside the bathroom door, I can’t hear what became of this doomed wartime couple, though I’m dying to know.
It is the spring of 1972. We are still in the age of the geyser, and the dreaded pilot light. We are deep in the age of Time Out, with its yards of small ads, and five of the seven of us now sharing a vast two-floor flat on Highbury Fields, north London, have each answered one. We’ve been through a long selection process, as Clare and Anna, old university friends, made their choices.
We each have an airy bedroom. I paint mine purple. With a lowly job in publishing, I’ve come from a tiny attic in a rambling, run-down place overlooking Hampstead Heath, even larger than the one in which I now find myself, sharing with six people I’m getting to know.
Clare – dark curly hair, appealing blue gaze – has a much more impressive job in publishing. It’s the age of Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape, and she’s copy-editing The Rachel Papers, a first novel by someone called Martin Amis. ‘He’s Kingsley’s son.’ She’s also proof-read Kingsley himself. ‘He won’t let you change a comma.’
Anna has a Pre-Raphaelite cloud of red hair and lovely skin; she’s teaching at Goldsmith’s College, right across the city. Cultural studies, though it wasn’t called that then.
Who else have she and Clare selected to live here?
Jackie is a potter, tiny, pale, with wistful-looking dark brown eyes. Improbably, she has married Jay, a tall, lanky American photographer, who yodels at the kitchen sink and at thirty is older by far than any of us.
Patrick is a post-graduate art student, treating his bedroom as a studio. Tall and loose-limbed, with long curly hair and a gorgeous smile, he spends hours listening to music with Mike: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Pink Floyd.
It is Mike who talks to himself in the bath. He talks to himself all the time: we can hear him trying out scenes in his room. Brought up on a council estate in Hereford, he left school at sixteen and is the only one of us without a job, living on toast and the dole, and announcing himself as a writer.
There are books on his shelves by writers I barely know, or have never heard of: Jean Genet, Richard Brautigan. On the table there’s a heap of manuscripts in ancient folders. There’s also a chess set, spirited away from his last job: a packer in a giftshop factory. On Sunday afternoons, he teaches me to play. He’s good, and chess means a lot to him.
Mike is of middle height, tow-haired, with little round specs and a moustache. There’s something of E.M. Forster about his appearance. His clothes are ordinary – jeans and old shirts and jumpers – but he has a wine-coloured velvet jacket for special occasions. Wearing this, with newly-washed hair, he’s adorable.
The first time we kiss, the morning after a party, I remark upon the moustache – and is that a bit of a denture? He tells me that he lost a number of teeth while hitch-hiking in Europe without a toothbrush. It’s not until much later that he reveals that he was born with a cleft palate and a hare-lip: the shaggy moustache conceals the scar; the denture hides the wounded, toothless palate.
I have forgotten the cat. The cat is lithe and black and adopts us from who knows where. It’s Mike who gives him his name: Spassky, after the Russian chess champion. It is Mike who puts him down on the electoral roll as a merchant seaman.
But he’s a serious person. ‘I can’t see the point of life without writing,’ he said once.
It’s Mike who will be the first of us to die.
This essay about those distant Highbury days is about him.
It’s about you, Mike, after all this time.
Excerpt taken from pages 15-17 of Just You and the Page.
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