In response to massive public demand (well, a couple of people have shown a polite interest), I have decided to go ahead and give you all a real treat. I'm going to preview the entire first chapter of my upcoming masterpiece on this blog (first draft, anyway). Now, be warned. It's heavy stuff, is this. Hermann Hesse, hold on to your hat...
Here you go.
Someone once told me that publishing is like a lifeboat. I can’t remember who.
I can’t remember where or why, either.
Be that as it may, the crux of the simile, (to the best of my recollection), was that you can’t risk a lifeboat carrying, say, fifty writers, for the sake of throwing a line to a fifty-first. Writer fifty-one might well be as good as the ones in the boat; it doesn’t matter. Better that fifty make it than fifty-one don’t.
I’m Writer 51.
This is my story.
I always knew I was meant to be a writer. Even as a tiny child, I sat on my bedroom floor weaving my dolls and stuffed toys into an endless series of terrifyingly trite tales, graduating, with my first crayoned letters, to little books, lovingly and carefully stitched together out of scrap paper, (first by my mother and later by myself). These I filled with the somewhat morbid soap-style antics of woodland creatures, progressing as I grew older to even more saccharine epics concerning Elves, Goblins, and cloyingly romantic Countesses in sub-Bavarian castles. My parents praised me, preserved my efforts in their own special drawer, and told their friends that I was “So Gifted”, and would certainly, in the fullness of time, prove to be the next Iris Murdoch, or at any rate Margaret Drabble. By the time I started secondary school, and won the Junior Writing Prize – thus stimulating, perhaps a more important landmark in my early development, the first of a long, long series of Booker Prize Acceptance Speeches – I was already verging on the insufferable.
It was also the year I first met Mabel.
I say we met; in reality, Bridgington being what it was (twin town of
winner of Most Heterogenous Village In The South-West every year since 1868), I
had worshipped her at a mute, whimpering distance since pre-school, gawping,
longingly. As a fat kid on a diet mentally stalks the plastic Sundaes in the
ice-cream parlour window. As a lazy-eyed cat-lover in peri-middle age presses up
sweatily against the jeweller’s Spring Weddings display, drooling hopelessly at
fantastical, unpossessable goods. But never, even in the most highly-dramatised
flights of my fancy, dreaming that she could possibly one day be mine. Alabama
Mabel was, ( I beg your indulgence for the cliché), everything I was not. We were the same height, yet she always seemed taller, except on those occasions when she wanted to make herself cute, protectable and petite. She had dark, curling hair that was allowed to grow long; mine was limp and fine, and always cut off before it could do itself any damage. Her eyes were large, brown, and expressive. Or vacuous, depending on her mood and your perspective. Her nose was small and stereotypically dainty, whereas mine had just started with that dirty adolescent trick that makes it grow faster than any other part of your body, excluding puppy fat and feet. She looked pretty in things like ra-ra skirts and pedal pushers; I looked like I’d eaten the previous occupant. Puberty changed nothing. Mabel remained the golden-limbed beloved; I was Job in the pit, scratching at my acne with a pot-sherd.In short, I adored Mabel with blasphemous intensity, and she in her turn repaid my love by using me, mercilessly and comprehensively, throughout our entire relationship.
I don’t know what impulse first moved Mabel to sit down next to me on the bench in the school playground. It might have been some uncharacteristic surge of kindness, friendliness even – we were all starting to experience the strange and sudden hormonal urges of a looming adolescence, after all. It might equally have been the stirrings of the killer instinct for a willing victim already awakening in her prepubescent soul. In the light of later experience, I rather suspect the latter, though somehow – God knows how – I find myself still wanting to excuse her, to find some scrap of genuine affection to fawn over with my untrainable cur’s mind.
I got up straight away, thinking automatically that she wanted the bench to herself. She pulled me back down, smiling. I sat, obediently, immobilised by her regal generosity and her beneficent beam like the proverbial bunny in the headlights.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Mabel. With an E.”
I didn’t know how else you could spell it, but I didn’t say so.
“I like Duran Duran. Who do you like?”
I didn’t like Duran Duran. I said,
“I like the blond one. He’s lush.”
I didn’t even know if there was a blond one. I presumed there was. There usually was.
“Do you want to be friends?”
Did I want to be friends! Did I want to be friends with Mabel Godalming!
It wasn’t even a question.
I must have sat staring for longer than I thought. “We could sit together at lunch,” she added, maybe thinking (Impossible!) that I was going to reject her magnanimous offer.
“Yeah, that’d be nice,” I said, not wanting to seem over eager, and possibly scare her away. “I mean, I mean, that’d be Lush. Cool.”
The bell rang just as my brain fainted, saving me from the mute confession that must surely have come, that I had no more words to say.
We were an item.
Every day we sat together on the bench at playtime, writing alternately Hilarious and Deeply Tragic pieces for inclusion in the school magazine, of which I was also the new, uncontested Editor. At any rate, I wrote; Mabel just had to Be. Occasionally, I included an article under her name; as my Muse and constant companion, I felt it was only fair that she should receive some credit for her input, even if only I, she, and our English teacher, would ever see it. (Of course I also believed, semi-secretly, that back issues of the “Bridgington Comprehensive Times” from our era would, some day, fetch record-breaking prices on the collector’s market).
I was on a roll. Drawing on a spectacular overflow of confidence and creative juice, I now completed, and submitted, my very first novel. Naturally, I had written “novels” before, but they had been just stories that rambled more than usual, in bigger writing. This was the real thing; a monster with more than fifty chapters and five hundred pages, covering the whole range of teenaged emotion from grovelling self-pity to screaming hysteria, and all dressed in a plot you could have invaded
with. I think it was about a kind of sad Vampire girl who is thwarted in her
love for a rather effeminate Knight Templar, his appearance clearly based
heavily on Mabel’s performance in the school production of “Ivanhoe”. Poland
Using only one finger, and the English department typewriter, (to which my editorial status gave me, fortunately, unlimited access) I typed out every one of the five hundred leaden pages to the correct double-spaced, A4 format, and posted it – to Penguin, if memory serves.
Two weeks later, I also received my very first Rejection Letter. I kept it for years. It was kindly phrased, and hand-written (unlike so many to come), and I cried like a great, flouncing baby.
By the following day, I had decided that Penguin books had simply made a terrible, Philistine mistake. Future generations would shake their heads over this one, I thought, and in a gesture of great trust and generosity, I gave the manuscript (which had been considerately returned to me, even though, in my egotism, I had quite consciously omitted to include a stamped addressed envelope), to Mabel for safekeeping, until such time as Future Generations should have got their act together.
She said she didn’t want it.
“It’s Not Quite the Sort of Thing I’m Looking For Just Now”, she parroted happily.
I stuck the manuscript in the top of her school bag and ran off in a deflated little cloud of doubly rejected misery.
I got over it. Soon the Team was back on the bench, Coleridge and Wordsworth, Riding and
Graves, Ezra Pound and T S Eliot (even if Ezra seemed to
spend a lot more time polishing her nails than her namesake would have.).
The future beckoned, wreathed in rosy-fingered, metaphorically confused glory.
* * *
We’ve both got the wrong names, Mabel said. You’re not a Gloria. I mean, “Gloria” is for actresses, and pop-stars. It isn’t you at all. And I’m not a Mabel. “Mabel”s an ugly name, it’s like fatties, and speckos. There aren’t any models called “Mabel”, are there? It’s just ugly, common and ugly.
I didn’t think “Mabel” was ugly. “Mabel” was a beautiful name. Of course it was, it was Mabel’s name. “Gloria” was ugly. How could she think “Gloria” was glamorous? “Gloria” was an old-lady name. If names had a scent, “Mabel” would smell like orchard apples, and minty gum breath, and romping in hay-lofts. “Gloria” would probably smell more like pink hair-curlers, old Lycra, and stress incontinence.
Still, I felt a little hurt that Mabel didn’t think I could have a glamorous name. But she didn’t mean it. And anyway, she was right – I wasn’t glamorous, not in that sort of way. But it didn’t matter, because I wasn’t going to be a pop-star, or a telly presenter, or a vacant, empty-headed actress. I didn’t need that. I was going to be a writer, wasn’t I? A famous, wealthy writer. Gloria Lambert, author. Novelist. Booker Prize Winning Novelist. Nobel Prize. Why not?
When you’re a really rich writer, of course, you can buy couture clothes, you can have designers design you things, you can be Sophisticated, which is actually much posher than Glamorous. And people still want to sleep with you. People wanted to sleep with George Sand, even, and she wasn’t Glamorous. She wasn’t even normal-looking, and she did all right.
I felt reassured. As long as I stuck to the plan, everything was going to be fine.