‘If you want to make God laugh, plan for the future.’ Woody Allen said something like that. He was, I think, quoting a Yiddish proverb: but the thought is everywhere in the Old Testament, from the comic fable of Jonah to the tragic insights of Job.


This is a very portentous opening to a blog post. But let me explain why it came to mind. Just before New Year, I was eagerly awaiting an event of scant importance to anyone else but of great significance to me. You may remember my May blog, ‘Frustrated’, about the travails of an author. Well, I thought that those travails  (for the time being – they will return) were over, and here is what I had written about a fortnight before that:


‘And in the end…


‘Do you remember John Wain’s novel, Room at the Top? Probably not: it was very much of my 1950s youth, and in 1959 they made a film of it, with Simone Signoret and Laurence Harvey, which they advertised as a “SAVAGE STORY OF LUST AND AMBITION.” There is a moment when the character played by Heather Sears, who is the Boss’s daughter, has just been seduced by the Laurence Harvey character, and, leaning back, she says – a phrase that has always stuck in my mind, “Do I look any different?”


‘Well, no. Or perhaps. But losing – well, what? Innocence? – is rather like having the book you have worked on for years, from its infancy through its adolescence to its final coming out, drop, as a finished object, on the doormat. Surely everyone must be looking at Me, the Author, with new eyes now? Well, no, they aren’t; they weren’t when the anticlimax of my first book happened, 21 books ago, or ever since, and won’t be now that Hungry Heart Roaming: an Odyssey of Sorts, has finally appeared after so many delays and vicissitudes.  But I think my brainchild is beautiful, and looks wonderful, with dear Rosanna’s moody, brooding photo of my shadow on the wet cobbles of a Berlin street as its dustjacket.


It has been a long haul, and I care about this book. It picks up and develops so many of the concerns that have become more insistent as I have grown older, which have been one the margin of other books of mine, like Latitude North, and are now demanding to be developed yet further in the next book that is trying to be born, Covering my Tracks: an Uncertain Pilgrimage.  It is indeed  about roaming – in time, space and thought: a boy on a western beach in the morning of his world; a shadow in a dark Berlin on those wet cobbles in a street  untouched by the bombs of 1945; lovers on a summer shore in Crete; a man and a woman hand in hand where Iona’s cliffs outface the storms of the autumn Atlantic – and that same couple drawn, sunset after sunset, to awed witness of the murmurations of the winter starlings against the Fenland sunset. So many birds, each moving independently, yet together as one changing form, changing direction, mysteriously purposeful. The writing of the book could not escape that memory: an apparently independent journey through life, from one shore, one place of departure, to another shore – but all the time utterly entwined with the lives of others, close and distant, then and now; a journey shaped by ideas, beliefs, by politics, by customs, but overriding all  these, by the great events in the past of our race, in our own lifetimes, and now, as we move towards an inevitably, increasingly, uncertain future. Powerless? Helped? Helpless?  Where do we fit into the swirling patterns?  So I had to write to seek, to look for my own place within those patterns, patterns often too big to see.  I am a part of all that I have met.


But, like that poor girl in the film, the anticlimax is real enough. The postman left the parcel out in the rain. Some kind neighbour put it inside the porch, certainly not recognising that int tha wet cardboard were my dreams. There is still the rubbish to put out, those dreaded emails to answer, undergraduate essays to read, and the dull business of day to day to be done. No glory and trumpets…not yet… but the next book might be different?


Don’t be silly: you should know better by now.’


You see, I already had the copies to hold in my hot little hands, and the pre- publication orders were being sent out: and then… an email from the publishers, Eyewear, to their  authors, earlier this week: ‘Due to the following two factors, we will be moving the release date for your 2021 books to March 1.  A full lockdown for England means all bookshops closed; therefore we cannot deliver the orders to them. As a small press, we rely on bookshop sales to run properly – when they remain closed, we cannot run a normal service. Furthermore, our distributor is based in Scotland, now under full lockdown, and we have been seeing delays from them to Amazon, and via the post and FedEx, and via printers, of 3-4 weeks or more.


Releasing your wonderful book in January as planned would be tantamount to wasting all the time, energy and talent and money and hard-work we spent on it.’


It’s some small consolation to know that the MD says, ‘we are really trying to avoid this splendid, handsome book from sinking without a trace, which I fear it might if  published at a dead time.’ I know he thinks a lot of it. But it is one hell of a disappointment.


What to do? Patience is a virtue, they say, and Job had things far worse. What really matters? In the end, it was the writing, the creating of something I (and others) could feel was beautiful, that did some small homage to the wonder of this puzzle of being human and sentient, and in a marvellous world. But I want to tell people about it… ‘Look! This is what it all means to me!’ So when it does come out, on March 1 or not, please let me share it with you, and please write what you think about it – good, bad, indifferent – in your own blogs, or to me, or (please!) put a review on Amazon or tweet about it.

Coronavirus Spring

2020: this spring will always be remembered as the Coronavirus Spring, and as I write this the outcome is wholly unknown and beyond guessing, whatever temporarily powerful politicians say. But what is certain, and obvious, is that like all things it will come to an end.

Paradoxical Pleasure & Pain – the puzzle of place.

Paradoxical Pleasure & Pain – the puzzle of place.


‘Dreich’: the word Rosanna used as we opened the curtains this late January morning was perfect: the Scots expresses the dourness, the glumness, the greyness of a day that is neither cold nor warm, just dull, still, sitting on your spirits, with even the woodpigeons not bothering to tell each other, ‘My toe hurts, Betty!’  I chose not to go down the Fen on a doolie day like this for my pre-breakfast walk, and so set off up what they call a hill round here – though to a man brought up in sight of the fells and moorlands up north the word does still seem optimistic. Still, from its 35 foot summit you can see for miles – at least, you can on a clear day – even to the tower of Cambridge University Library, and Addenbrooke’s hospital, and Ely Cathedral. But not on a day like this.

Going up the track with the lime and chestnut trees on one hand and Michael’s new yew hedge (growing nicely now) on the other, it was so hard not once again to grieve for dear Hector the Labrador, who would always choose this start to his busy walk if I gave him the choice. I do miss that tail waving a few paces ahead, and the important look on his face as he chose the place for his first squat. There has not been a lot of rain, but the slight frost is coming out of the marly ground, and where a tractor has run along – Andrew, I guess, going up to see to his portly Dexters – the soil is sticky.  I get into a nice rhythm in the wood, which is ideal for going into deep thought and a sort of half-awareness of one’s context. I find that useful when I am trying to sort out an intractable problem. The one that preoccupies me at the moment, almost obsessively, is how to structure the new book I am writing, what to call it, how to focus its themes. My agents, A. M. Heath, who have handled three books of mine, say they love the writing but it crosses so many marketing categories they will have difficulty getting a publisher to take it. (I quoted to Bill what old Mr Bertram Foyle said to me the first day I joined his publishing firm: ‘Forget all that fine writing, dear boy, just remember that books have to sell, just like frozen peas. Your poor wife can’t buy nice clothes on fine writing.’ Bill nodded, sadly.) As the book is at present, it’s a travelogue, a memoir of many things, place and people, a pilgrimage of sorts to some sort of acceptance of what we are as humans: both the glorious and the vicious are in each and every one of us. It goes from the amphitheatres of Rome to the gulags and the Holocaust – via the glory of Bach, the vision of Dante, the wisdom of Plato and Gothic arches aspiring to the uncreated light – and the fellowship and friendliness of food shared by a southern sea, and wine pressed on a guest who did not share their language and was born of their ancient enemy, in a little gasthof somewhere near Dachau.