My mother and I were in a shoe shop once, in the small town where I grew up, and the salesman started talking to my mother about all the varied people that came to buy shoes, and the odd way in which they behaved, notably the way in which most women chose the shoes for most men. I can see, looking back, that if you are stuck in a shoe shop all day long, your experience of life is limited to the people who come to buy shoes. Of course, that includes everyone. On the other hand, people who come to buy shoes are in a certain frame of mind. Surly, in the case of children; solicitous and caring, in the case of mothers.
‘I could write a book about the people who have passed through here,’ he said, chuckling and getting another box down for my mother to hesitate over. ‘I do not exaggerate. A whole book.’
This remark stayed with me for a long time. Indeed, as I can still remember it, it must have stayed with me ever since, so deeply impressed was I with the idea that a shoe salesman could write a book. I was about eleven or twelve at the time, and had never met anyone before who showed any interest in writing a book. I knew all about writers, of course, because I was already deeply in love with Sherlock Holmes, who had been written by somebody called Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the first person I had ever come across with three names and a title), so clearly there were such people as writers. It’s just that I could not imagine what they were like.
Equally, I could not imagine ever getting to meet them. By that time I had started learning Latin, which meant that I had already done a bit of Julius Caesar’s Campaigns, those military histories written in gruff simple Latin as befits a gruff simple soldier, yet I don’t think it had ever occurred to me how odd it was that a man would lead an army all the way across Europe as far as Britain, conquering everyone in his path, the Belgae and the Gallae and whatever the British were called in those days, and then go back to Rome and write it all down in a book.
How did it come about?
Did Caesar say to his wife one day: ‘You know, darling, the things I’ve done and the people I’ve slaughtered. I could write a book about it, I really could!’?
And did his wife say: ‘Well, write it, then! Honestly, if you’re going to be home all day, mucking up the place, instead of being away conquering the Germanicos, you might as well DO something to make yourself useful!’?
And did Caesar say ‘All right, I will!’?
So that two thousand years later children were still wishing his wife had minded her own business?
These are the kinds of thing we shall never know about Caesar, because he had the good sense to keep personal details out of his books, and because he was born before the day of the modern author interview, the kind in which the writer is asked to reveal everything about his book, the writing of his book and the funny stories about the writing of the book.
‘So, Caesar, you have brought out another volume of campaign reports. Who have you conquered this time?’
‘Yes, my new book, Campaigns in Britain, tells the story of how we have finally cleaned up the last unoccupied part of Europe, the huge windswept island across the seas from Gaul known as Britannia. It was tough, because these British are really good fighters, and the weather was awful, but we did the job anyway, it’s all there in the book, now on sale for twenty-three libra.’
‘Can you tell us why you decided to write the book?’
‘I thought it was time to set the record straight. There has been a lot of uninformed gossip about the behaviour of my men and the expense of the whole expedition, so I just wanted to present the facts, as well as tell a rattling good yarn with lots of excitement and killing.’
‘Great. And is it true that you now intend to become Roman Emperor?’
We really have no idea what Julius Caesar the writer was like, and I never had much idea what Conan Doyle was like either (I once heard an ancient recording of his voice and I was surprised at the time either by how Scottish his voice was, or by how there was no Scottish tinge left in his accent at all - I only wish I could remember which) but I have a clear memory of what the shoe salesman was like who told my mother about the book he could write. He was middle-aged and pale and balding, and had glasses, which tried to fall off every time he bent forward to force my foot into a shoe, and for the first twenty years of my life he was the only person I ever met who expressed any desire to write a book.
I am glad of this, because it put my own writing ambitions into proportion. Others of my contemporaries who thought they might become writers one day tended to want to pit themselves against Hemingway or James Joyce or Dylan Thomas, and not surprisingly none of them ever made the effort. The challenge was too great and the thought too daunting. I, on the other hand, wanted to write a book better than the shoe salesman in my home town, which I thought was an eminently reachable target. Especially as he had never written one, only thought about it.
(First draft introduction to “Someone Like Me”)