I wrote here recently about losing my ambition as a writer.
In case readers are in any doubt, the stuff I am no longer ambitious about is the attendant stuff around writing: the complaining, the gossiping, the deep wretched self-delighting in self-loathing for being unfamous/unloved/not picked enough/rejected too often, the endless comparing of myself to writer Y and poet X.
The writing itself, that I remain deeply ambitious about. As Jean Sprackland says: let’s keep it for what matters, the next poem.
Speaking to Jean as I was recovering from cancer was the moment that this new awareness began to dawn on me as a possibility I felt I could live into.
But the seeds of it were sown during my chemotherapy treatment, when I realised that I would have a new book of poems out in the world and be able to do absolutely nothing to promote it. As I have said, I felt as though I had completely disappeared.
The Totleigh reading, booked months in advance by my publisher Peter Carpenter, took place on a still April evening, the trees just starting to tinge with green. I came off the chemo ward at half past three, was picked up by Andy Brown at my house at four, and we arrived at Totleigh shortly after five.
As is his tradition, Peter had brought a group of boys from Tonbridge School to the centre. Their tutors (lucky people) were Ann Sansom and Alan Brownjohn. We sloped around the place drinking tea and catching up on news with Peter and his colleagues. I seem to remember Ian Marchant, the centre director, pacing around in a livid mandarin linen shirt in an alternately friendly and frenzied fashion on account of just having given up smoking.
What else do I remember from that evening? If you want a full account you will have to buy Love for Now, my memoir of my treatment and recovery. Burned into my retina is the way Alan greeted me with a slight bow; Ann with her hand on my forearm; and Peter with a kiss on both my cheeks.
I remember the way Andy stopped the car at the top of the hill above the house, just to take in the view and the early spring light. I remember Ian’s speech to the bread and butter pudding; the conversation in the snug afterwards, played out ever more raucously to Dylan on somebody’s iPod…and that I wanted to throw up, with a mixture of nerves, reaction to my chemo and overeating throughout all of it.
Handing me my cheque in the office Ian said to me two things. First, that he was certain I would be OK (How did you know, Ian?). And second that one day I’d look on this as great material. He might have been right.
But the point about the reading is that I don’t remember any of it. I remember the food and the banter and (I admit it) the gossip. The human stuff. What Richard Ford calls ‘low-grade high jinks’. The more I think about it the more my poems and my trembling attempt to put them across seem a frail kind of pretext to engineer the real event, which was to have the time of our lives.