Rather to my surprise, I am working on a real book at the moment. As a writer I have always been better at the short sprint, not the long distance race, and I know in my heart of hearts that I could never write a novel, nor even want to very much, so it came as a slight shock when I started fooling around with some chapters from an imaginary autobiography and realised that it was beginning to build into a book.
"Yes, but what do you mean by an imaginary autobiography?" people ask me, when they are foolish enough to ask me what I am working on. "Is it about someone totally different? In that case it must be a novel."
"Oh, it's just that I've noticed that the most interesting bits of an autobiography are usually the bits that the author has invented," I say airily, "so I thought it would make sense to invent the whole thing."
Which, if true, is something I thought of after I had started work on it. The truth is that I just wrote one or two bits of fake memoir and liked them enough to do some more. But when you tell people about it, you have to sound more purposeful than that. I was at a party the other day and a woman who lives in a nearby village asked me what I was up to, and I said I was writing a fictional autobiography, and she asked me what was in it, and I said, Well, I had discarded my real parents for not being interesting enough (though they were) and invented fresh parents and new siblings.
"For instance," I said, "Although my real parents were not religious at all, the parents in my fake autobiography have a real religious difference. My mother is a very keen Catholic and my father doesn't like religion at all."
I have already used this schism to create one or two interesting scenes in the book, but I think it is going to cause problems; I am aware of the tradition that if you have one Catholic parent, then the children have to be brought up as Catholics, and I didn't want this to happen to me in the book, and I cannot as yet see any way round it.
"It was the same with me," said the woman I was talking to. "I had a fiercely Catholic mother and a proudly atheist father."
Aha! Live research before my very eyes! This woman had been sent to me by God, or equally possibly by blind chance, to help me with my book.
"And how has it left you?"
"An angry, non-practising, ex-Catholic."
"Angry against nuns, chiefly."
"For beating me."
It turned out that she had been to a Catholic primary school until the age of eleven where the dear kind sisters of God had beaten the children every time they made a spelling mistake. She had not enjoyed this. She still hated the memory of it. She had made a bargain with her atheist father that if she passed her 11 Plus she could go to the local grammar school, and this is what happened, and she escaped for ever from the vicious nuns.
"Mark you," she said reflectively, "I am now a very good speller."
But she was still angry. One night not so very long ago she had gone along with some friends to a singalong night of The Sound of Music, one of those camp events like Rocky Horror Show or Blues Brothers reunions, where everyone knows the words and sings or acts along with the screen version.
And dresses up for the occasion.
Which meant that she had been surrounded by lots of people dressed as nuns.
Which had freaked her out a bit.
"It really all came back to me and I felt angry and horrible and depressed all over again . . . "
And there I was, of course, sighing and sympathising and all the time thinking what a wonderful scene this would make in my book, if one of the siblings was assaulted by nuns in an early chapter, went to a Sound Of Music evening later on, and actually went berserk and started assaulting fake nuns.
I can talk about it all quite cheerily, because I had the great good fortune not to have a Catholic upbringing.
I still remember Christopher Logue at the Bath Literary Festival telling us that before he had come to do his talk, he had visited Prior Park, his old school at Bath.
"I actually found the radiators against which the Christian Brothers held me each time they flogged me," he said quietly.
Ah, God of love and mercy. How devoutly I thank you for not being there during my childhood.
Now, back to my memoirs.
The Oldie Wed June 23 04