I left school in 1980 and after a spell on the dole got a job in Crane’s bookshop, then just opening in Rosemary Street, Belfast. This was, though we didn’t know it, the twilight of the independents. Our main city-centre rival, Mullan’s, still closed on Saturday afternoon. Crane’s didn’t, which gave us an edge. As did our extensive children’s section. As did my legs. Crane’s could get you any book you wanted in five minutes flat: if it wasn’t in stock I would run from Rosemary Street to Eason’s warehouse in Donegall Street. I didn’t mind. I learned how to run and smoke; and, then too, Crane’s might have been big on paperbacks as well as children’s books, but we had nothing on the Eason’s warehouse. It was floor-to-ceiling in there, aisle upon aisle, spine tight to spine. Where we might have had three or four titles by a particular author, the warehouse had, literally, the works. In the fifth year at school we had been given a list of books we must read to be better human beings, but, not (and this was the clincher) to pass our O Levels. So I stuck the list in my bag and forgot about it. Some of the names came back to me now. Animal Farm and 1984, Decline and Fall, The Old Man and The Sea. If these books would make me a better person think how much better I would be if I had all of George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh and Ernest Hemingway. Especially if I had all the Orwells in the great black jackets; the Waughs in their Deco-inspired matt jackets; the Hemingways in their, well, crap jackets, frankly, but, still, uniformly crap. So, one by one, on those daily runs, I got them all. And despite my entirely superficial attraction it did seem, the more I read, that the three authors were connected in some deeper way. There was—in practically every line they wrote—a clarity, of image, voice, thought.
When I quit the bookshop for university a couple of years later they were the first books I unpacked on to the shelves of my room in halls. (Who am I kidding, ‘halls’? It was a breezeblock maisonette.) I noticed people glancing at them curiously when they came into the room. I noticed, to be honest, more than one person smirking. It occurred to me that these books were the literary equivalent of Saturday-afternoon closing. The White Hotel was pretty big then; Marquez was God. Campus politics was dominated by ‘No Platform’. I shouted it as enthusiastically as the rest when anyone we decided was fascist (Conservative would do) got up to speak. Orwell would have been too far right for our Union meetings, Hemingway too unreconstructed. And as for Waugh… Forget it.
How could you forget the porter’s words to Paul Pennyfeather as he leaves his Oxford college in disgrace: ‘I expect you’ll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir. That’s what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behaviour.’
At the end of my first year I wrote a short story that reworked the first line of Hemingway’s ‘In Another Country’. When, two years later, I started work on my first novel it was Orwell I wanted to emulate, cutting through the cant.
I still want to. Still can’t, quite, achieve that clarity.
Which is why each time I finish a novel, I begin again.