The Value Of Clichés

     What will be the first great cliché of the new decade? My money is on ‘curate’, which seems to be sidling pretentiously out of art galleries and into the mainstream. Tickets for the evening to celebrate Seamus Heaney’s work at King’s Place in London earlier this week bore the legend ‘curated by Poet in the City and the Royal Society of Literature’, which made the great man sound like a taxidermist’s handiwork glowering from a glass box. What’s wrong with ‘organise’?

     Grinding my teeth over this in the middle of the night, I came to the realisation that clichés, maddening though they are, serve a useful purpose as a kind of shibboleth. Talking on Desert Island Discs recently, Professor Mary Beard gave a good account of herself until she let slip the word ‘empower’ – arguably the greatest cliché of millennium so far, with the possible exception of ‘putting measures in place’. In that moment she betrayed an insensitivity to language and a laziness of thought which made it impossible to take anything else she said entirely seriously.

     Anyway, I am happy to report that Seamus Heaney proved to be very much alive and in great good spirits. Four other poets paid homage to him by reading from his work, and it was particularly interesting to hear Andrew Hagan declaiming Irish verse with his Scottish accent; but the highlight inevitably was the Nobel laureate himself reading, and conversing with Bernard O’Donoghue. It was particularly moving to hear Mid-Term Break followed by The Blackbird of Glanmore and be told that the anniversary of the death they commemorate was to fall the following day. He also read ‘Had I Not Been Awake…’ – about a ‘visitation’ – which he announced as the first poem in his next collection.

     At the end of the evening he remarked that, just as Flann O’Brien had said that there was no such thing as a large whiskey, there was no such thing as a short poetry reading; but I doubt that anyone leaving the hall begrudged their one and a half hours there. It was one of those events which leave you more alive to the world outside, your senses more finely tuned. I’m delighted to say that Professor Heaney gave an interview to one of the four other poets, Jon Stallworthy, which will appear in the next issue of the Royal Society of Literature Review.

     If anything cast a shadow on the evening, it was the death of Patrick O’Connor, many of whose friends were to be seen at King’s Place. I was lucky enough to have Patrick as my first boss when I joined Harpers & Queen as a trainee sub-editor, am deeply indebted to him for his kindness, patience and encouragement. A fine obituary of him, evoking his extraordinary range of knowledge and enthusiasms, can be found on the Guardian’s website. Ironically, I had been reminded of him a few days earlier by a headline in the same newspaper: Learn To Write Fiction. Patrick used to keep pinned above his desk a quotation from Juvenal deploring ‘this plague of writers’ and I can imagine him throwing up his hands in horror at the current notion that anyone who half fancies himself as an author could and should be putting pen to paper.

     One project he would undoubtedly have approved, though, is Ariane Bankes’s plan to write a short biography of an aunt she never met – her mother’s twin, who became Arthur Koestler’s first wife and died within a year of parting company with him. The question is whether there are any publishers left with the courage to take on biographies of people who are not famous. In the meantime Ariane is busy arranging the programme for (not curating) the next Dovedale Arts Weekend with Mark Chichester-Clark. This delightful small festival takes place in Derbyshire from 10th to 12th September, and will have Lynne Truss and Thomas Pakenham among the speakers. (More details can be found at

While You Were Sleeping

     I am always fascinated by other authors’ working habits (see previous entry), so I was delighted when P.D. James and Andrew Motion brought up the subject at last week’s Royal Society of Literature discussion of writers in public life. Both described themselves as larks who like to put pen to paper soon after 6am; and since P.D. James considers two and a half hours’ writing a good tally for the day, she must often finish work before I have begun. I felt embarrassed enough about this until I discovered that Jonathan Keates sometimes comes home and works on two books after a day’s teaching: he is at present writing a biography of Donizetti, and a novel about Henry II’s beloved Rosamond Clifford – as it happens, the subject of Donizetti’s opera Rosmonda d’Inghilterra.

     Sadly P.D. James does not have a book under way at the moment – she explains that she has too much correspondence and administration to catch up with – but she hopes to begin on ‘something quite different’ at the end of the month. As she celebrates her 90th birthday in August, it is a splendid thing that she should be breaking new ground.

     A mere decade behind her is Miles Gladwyn – published as Miles Jebb – who turns 80 next month. He has recently completed a biography of Patrick Shaw-Stewart, the brilliant Eton-educated scholar and poet who died in action in the First World War, to be published this summer. In the same tradition of Etonian classicists is Harry Eyres, who is writing a book on his love of Horace’s poetry and its effect on his life, for which the newspaper-editor-turned-literary-agent Richard Addis is inviting bids.

     I have to thank Miles Gladwyn for introducing me to Philip Ziegler, whose life of Edward Heath will come out just before the Conservative party conference in the autumn (he is hoping for renewed controversy over the party’s stance on Europe to give it topicality). With a book on Harold Wilson already to his credit, he was asked by Heath’s executors to suggest an authorised biographer; he then realised that he couldn’t resist writing it himself, since the two were two sides of the same coin – men from very similar backgrounds who had risen to the leadership of the two great opposing parties. Which did he like better? ‘To have dinner with, Harold Wilson, certainly. As Prime Minister, Edward Heath – at least he had some scruples.’

     Admirers of Aamer Hussein will be glad to hear that he has completed his novel The Cloud Messenger, though they will have to wait until March 2011 to read it. Michèle Roberts is at work on a collection of poetry. And as for me, I have just been in China on an assignment for the Sunday Times Magazine, and took the opportunity to do some research for my next novel, which is partly set there. I first visited the country in the 1980s, and a good deal has changed – though in many ways the mentality remains exactly the same.