Note: The following piece was commissioned by Writers’ Centre Norwich. Each year, WCN gathers up to forty writers and translators from around the globe in Norwich for the Worlds festival. Writers talk to each other about the art and craft of writing, spend time in each other’s company and join readers at public events. In 2011, Worlds focused on the notion of ‘Influence’, with commissioned provocations from Alfred Birnbaum, Maureen Freely, Natsuki Ikezawa, Gwyneth Lewis, Joyelle McSweeney, Christopher Merrill and CK Williams. A number of writers were commissioned to produce a literary response of their choice to the four day gathering.
– Just don’t fuck any writers, my wife said as I put the baby, who was now bawling with thrilling gusto, on the floor next to the bin, picked up my suitcase and left the house. As I waited for the Tube, I listened to a podcast about Aristotle. Because I was also watching a pigeon whose wing had become trapped in the netting that was strung up along the roof of the platform, I retained nothing but the word eudaimonia.
On the train up to Norwich I read Roger Deakin’s Waterlog. We passed over the broad estuary of a river that, using Google Maps and following the black gypsy hair of the train line out of London, I would later identify. Five sheldrakes crouched along a sandbar like cricketers in a slip cordon. I always wanted a cricket jumper to wear casually with chinos and slip-on loafers, but worried I’d look like a German tourist.
Name-dropping in a way that would become acceptable over the next few days, it was Geoff Dyer who told me that the accommodation at the conference was high-end luxury. A kind of modernist palace, he said. He was right. The lamp on the desk illuminated if you waved, or occasionally just looked, at it. The bathroom was a wet-room, a vibe popular in the houses of Kensington millionaires and Notting Hill celebrities. There were biscuits and a kettle and a flat-screen television.
I had dinner with people who were brighter than me, and whom I lectured about literature and celebrity television as if they didn’t know anything about either. A great lady poet asked me about my ex-sister-in-law. A notable academic recommended I read someone whose name I didn’t write down and forgot immediately. I went to bed with lips purple from mass-produced, high-sulphate, Australian wine.
I gave a reading with a pretty Sri Lankan writer. Later, drunk, his silhouette against a sliver-blue midnight sky, I told him he looked like Gandhi. He pretended not to hear.
I went for a jog along the river. The quizzing, Egyptian head of a grass snake threaded between reeds as I stopped to stretch. I made my way back around the deep, quiet waters of the broad. Large signs frownedNo Swimming at me. I thought about swimming. I thought about Roger Deakin. A couple in matching white Sergio Tacchini tracksuits jogged past. Then a South African writer in lycra hotpants and vest trotted by, waving. I didn’t swim.
I went to a Granta talk on feminism. I thought about the river Granta where I had swum at night with a girl called Anna years ago. For the entire second half of the talk I carefully constructed a question about V.S. Naipaul, Diana Athill and Carmen Callil in my head but was too nervous to ask it.
After the talk we came outside to see a baby rabbit stretched out on the tarmac in the day’s dying light. It spasmed, back legs galloping like a dreaming dog, and then was still. Its eyes were filmed over and leaked tiny tears of blood. I had killed a paralysed rabbit a few weeks previously in Shropshire and had developed a taste for it. The Internet doesn’t say whether myxomatosis causes rabbits pain. This one certainly looked in pain.
I stood over the baby rabbit. I picked it up. Soft and downy. I carried it to a pile of rocks and placed it on a makeshift altar. A beautiful Croatian journalist, at the front of a crowd of eminent writers and academics, watched me with wide, hungry eyes. I saw others hurry away, horrified. I picked up a large flint that felt heavy and good in my hand.
– Couldn’t you just put it in the bushes? someone suggested.
This seemed like an ethical evasion to me. I wished Coetzee had been there. He would have known. I put down the rock and placed the rabbit gently at the foot of a tree. It squirmed and writhed in a way that I anthropomorphised as pain. We went to dinner. It was lamb.
I made an appointment to see Roger Deakin’s archive at the university library. I was meaning to read his notes on Sebald. I thought Sebald would be pleased by the way he now haunted the campus here, just as his ghostly characters haunt unpeopled Liverpool Street Station, the Bibliothèque Nationale and Orford Ness. Instead I found myself pouring over Deakin’s schoolbooks, in which his dead hand had carefully sketched and annotated a cross section of the human brain. Where my exercise books were decorated with phalluses spewing dense gobs of jism, his bore a cracked amphora, a skeletal tree, a skull. Written in his own hand, the quote from Cheever that started his swimming trip: ‘The day was beautiful and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty.’
That night we went to a library that looked like an airport terminal. I spoke to a famous translator in the entrance as we sipped not-from-concentrate orange juice, aware that I was boring her, but unable or unwilling to stop, watching her downward-sloping eyes scanning the horizon for possible escape routes. I recommended a book to her that I hadn’t really enjoyed but that seemed to say something profound about anger, or Frenchness, or something.
Two beautiful girl novelists read their beautiful prose. I sat between a great lady poet and a well-know novelist, feeling the bitter, impotent rage of V.S. Naipaul or Jeremy Clarkson (I get the two muddled) at how good these girls were. The great lady poet misheard the word flashmob as fleshmob. I wanted to go to a fleshmob.
I ordered beer over dinner and talked to a famous Balkan writer who was absurdly, wonderfully kind. I felt like I was standing on a cliff over furious white waves and she was holding my belt with strong fingers.
It was the summer solstice. When we got back to the campus tardy woodpigeons hurried homewards, searching out the last swatches of pale sky against which to hold themselves in brief puff-chested profile. The shadows of rabbits flitted across the lawns. The Russian poet who looked like he roadied for Megadeth told me that they didn’t have rabbits in Russia, that coming down to see the lawn carpeted with rabbits was as astonishing to him as if they had been unicorns. I wasn’t sure whether to believe him.
I found myself walking down towards the broad with a fragile young poet. She was – I think – Bulgarian, but hadn’t spoken to anyone so far. In the salons she took furious notes, sitting in a corner, her black hair falling in front of her eyes, occasionally sucking the end of her pen. I couldn’t remember what Emily Dickinson looked like, but thought this poet probably looked a lot like her, or wanted to. She was very thin, and her knees clicked as she walked. Her face was as narrow and sharp as an egret’s, cheekbones so prominent and close to the surface that I half thought of gnawing on one.
We came to the broad and began to make our way along the footpath that encircled it. Birds were calling in the reeds, a rat or vole ploshed into the water, bats flitted close to our faces, cuffing us with the wind of their wingbeats. When we reached the far side of the broad we stopped, looked over at the looming, still-lit campus, and made our way down to the water.
By the banks of the broad, aromatic night jasmine grew thickly around a stubby pontoon, creeping up the pole of the ‘No Swimming’ sign. We took off our clothes under a tree, leaving them in piles like shed skins. I dived or dove in, flatly, entering the water with a crack, sending myself away from the bank and into the dark, deep centre of the broad. I felt young and glabrous, every cell of skin thrilling in the icy deliciousness of the water. I watched the poet come down the pontoon and lower herself gently onto her knees, and then backwards over the edge, buttocks like two white moons reflected in the still surface and then submerged. She breaststroked towards me, her head held high like the snake. We lay back, float-paddling, and looked upwards at the brindled sky, stars sometimes visible behind the clouds. A thin rain began to fall. Bats swooped over us. We were nearly close enough to touch. She spoke, quoting someone or herself.
– Whatever we love, like a you or a me, it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.
Her voice was low and dreamy and, while I thought about pointing out that her quote didn’t quite work, that for me this was all about the freshwater experience, I didn’t. The black hands of the water massaged us, caressed us, connected us. It was cold, but a coldness we experienced removed, in the third person. I thought of the other writers who had swum here, connected to me by the water, distant only in time. The poet had drifted into the reeds and was lying there like Ophelia. I called to her gently – I think I just saidpoet – and she swam back out to me and lay beside me and the drizzle fell on the islands of her breasts and I thought about drowning myself and the rabbit from earlier. Perhaps, I thought, I’d walk up and see if it was still there, dying in the bushes outside the lecture theatre. I’d scoop it up and bring it down here and drown it, and maybe myself and maybe the poet. She was breathing heavily. Her knees clicked as she kicked her legs. We touched – my foot, her ear – and something fizzled out into the deep darkness around us.
We swam slowly back to the shore across water now pockmarked by heavier rain. I pulled myself up on the pontoon and then turned to help her out. She grunted as she left the water. We sat on cold earth underneath the tree that was a spruce or a pine, looking out over the broad. Our skin was goosebumped and we both pulled our knees to our chests, but were reluctant to dress until we were dry. She turned to me and her eyes were wet, but it wasn’t from the water. Finally, the poet rose and pulled on her clothes. Not waiting for me, she strode off, clicking, into the night.
When I got back to my room I threw myself into bed without turning on the light. In the morning I had developed a nasty cough.