I’m on the Scilly Isles once again, the setting of my last novel, Somewhere More Simple. Walking round a low headland I am confronted by boulders sculpted by wind and waves into strange forms. I think of Uncertain Light, of Rahul Khan being moved by strange markings on boulders in a valley high in the mountains. They’re just scratches in the rock, the people who live there say; how will we ever know how they got there?
My novels too are scratches in the rock – my small refusal of mortality. With each one I have written, at some point the thought has come that I don’t want anything to happen to me till it is done. Being run over by a bus – a disabling stroke – let it come if it has to, but not yet. I still need to scratch this mark of my existence where others may find it.
It seems, on the face of it, a self-important feeling. But we are each important to ourselves – where would be the value of life if we were not? Having a strong self-concept doesn’t prevent you focusing on others; quite the reverse. I remember as a child watching my mother dress to go out to a meal with friends. She was a woman of great depth, but not confident socially. She didn’t feel sure about her choice of clothes and wore minimal make up, just lipstick without which no woman in our small 1950s town would venture out into company. Yet here she was in front of the mirror, taking great pains over dressing, asking me whether she should wear earrings. Perhaps she saw the question in my face, for she said, ‘I’m thinking about how I look now so that I can forget about myself later.’
When I am in writing-flow I am focused entirely on others – the people in my novel. I move with them as they live and love and face dilemmas. I am without self-consciousness. I am scarcely present – my spirit is transmuted into realising theirs. But when I lift my head and look around me, I know of course that it is my understanding of life that gives life to those people, that is scratched onto those pages, and it seems to matter profoundly that it should go out into the world, to survive after I have gone.
‘Writing,’ said a Persian scholar 200 years before Shakespeare, ‘is the offspring of thought, the lamp of remembrance, the tongue of one who is far off, the life of one whose age has been blotted out.’ That our lives will end is of all facts the most inescapable, yet we seem psychologically structured so as to be unable to absorb it. We think, we feel, we love, therefore we are – how to conceive of a time when there will be no I to love those close to me, to watch the sunrise over still sands, to feel the grainy hardness of the rock as I trace my hand over the scratches left by some other hand, aeons ago?
I am 70. I am happy to be whatever age I am, but it’s definitely a surprise. How did I get here without noticing? How did my daughters get to be 44 and 40 – in middle age already, my girls? Turn to look the other way, and so much less of life lies ahead. People I love have gone already; every few months, it seems, we lose another. I feel them with me still, in the influences that have made me who I am, but they are not here to talk to, to hug. And one day I too, like them, will be gone.
I think of my friend and mentor Ralph Russell, whose translations of Urdu poetry weave tendrils through ‘Uncertain Light’. He had a full 20 years after the age of 70; maybe I will too? Until he died his mind was undimmed, his spirit alert. Till his last moments he was responding to those around him, asking about their lives, their children, their work, with a slight pursing of lips as he tried to blow a goodbye kiss even when he could hardly swallow. You should write about that, he used to say to almost everyone, and he himself had been writing his autobiography in one form or another all his adult life. It was a way of reflecting on everything that happened to him, he said. Of all the people I have known he perhaps had the strongest self-concept, yet that freed him to focus most powerfully on others. The mystery of death defines the mystery of life. He is gone but the impact of his being is there still, not just in me but in all the people whose lives were touched by his; and because he wrote, the number of those people is beyond counting.
‘Why do you write?’ someone asked me. It’s hard to say. I write because life is valuable, because each moment moves by so fast; you think you’ll never forget it, but you do. I write to capture the quality of being alive. I write because I am interested in people – in what has happened to them, in how they feel and react. I write to hold on to what matters, to say, This is life, this is how I have experienced it: is it like that for you?
The words we write are just scratches on the page, but they have the power to move across the air we all breathe, to penetrate another’s consciousness. Last week I had an email from someone who can look back over eighty years and more of life. He said that on reading Uncertain Light for the second time he realised ‘that it is above all a book about complex families, about deep, deep friendships, about managing overwhelming love, about my life in other words.’
I write because that sometimes happens.