Chapter Eight: Writers, and Boars
My first glimpse of the fighting boars on December 26, 1962 appeared as a sculpted tableau in miniature. That was because the boars were a hundred fifty yards away, not far from the entrance to the south shelter, which was a fifteen metre-long culvert about two metres in diameter half buried in the chalky clay of the Sussex Downs. I stopped dead at that first sight of the boars, and then had to hustle, head down behind the sheet of plywood I was carrying in order to catch up to Ronald, lest he think I was shirking. Thus my next experience of the boars wasn’t of miniatures, but a live action sensory assault on my ears, eyes and nose. Had I been just a boy walking behind a man until then, struggling not to drop an icy sheet of plywood? Or was I in dreamland, gazing at the light on the snowy uplands beyond the field we were crossing?
I was both. The struggling boy and the dreamer were each active states of imagination that easily cohabited in my teeming brain.
What I can’t recall at all is how long it took me to admit to Ronald and Joan that I wanted, some day, to be a writer. It’s possible that I confessed it within days of my arrival, but somehow, I don’t think so. Where I came from, being a writer was something beyond daring or exotic, sort of like being a unicorn. It was impossible, preposterous, and so to announce such an aspiration would have been to risk derision and ridicule—or, if I’d announced it to strangers, they might have put a beating on me simply for being a weirdo. That’s why I would have waited to make such an admission to Ronald and Joan, probably impatiently, for the right social cue.
I don’t remember exactly how they responded to my revelation, except that both of them, in different ways, took it seriously. That’s probably why I don’t remember it: no laughter, no insults. To them, writing would have been a normal if prestigious aspiration, and my wish to become a writer was automatically worthy of serious consideration, whether or not they thought I would ever be capable of it.
Their acceptance surprised me, but maybe it shouldn’t have. I hadn’t, after all, claimed that I was a writer, and both Ronald and Joan were careful listeners. Teaching me to listen to what people actually said was an important element of their informal pedagogy, and I think they practiced what they’d preached—which made them, to me, as wonderful as unicorns.
It wasn’t possible for me to be a writer. How could I claim such an honour? All I’d written was a few dozen poems as maudlin as they were clumsy, and the first stumbling pages of seven or eight novels, several of which bore a suspicious resemblance to Jack London’s Martin Eden, featuring central characters it was easy to see were going to die young and melodramatically. In the longest of them, actually, the protagonist was preparing to throw himself over the side of a boat when I was forced, by circumstance, to give up on it. The over-the-side-plot point was so obvious a steal from London that I noticed it while I was trying to describe its contents to Joan, to whom I then showed several more of what I thought were my better efforts. I called the protagonist’s leap over the rail “an homage”, mispronouncing a word I’d never heard anyone say aloud, so that it came out closest to “home page”. She kept a straight face, somehow.
What I wasn’t fully aware of was that the protagonists of those novels I was never to finish, all young and all male, had all sprung from a different source: my readings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. This was a little odd, because I’d stolen all of the physical settings for the novels from Jack London, transposed to the Northern British Columbia landscape I grew up in, which wasn’t far from London’s Klondike and Alaska in a number of ways. I missed the biblical reference Dostoyevsky was making, too, which also involved some self-inflicted drownings: two thousand of them, actually, and the victims were pigs.
If I’d had the skills, concentration and knowledge to finish any of those novels, I suspect they wouldn’t have felt much like the novels of Jack London. I’d have written—or rather, rewritten—The Possessed according to the minor characters in that novel that truly moved me: Shatov and Kirilov. Shatov was the schmuck who is murdered by the young and amoral Peter Verkhovensky as a scapegoat for his revolutionary aims. He—along with Verkhovensky—were characters I was to meet over and over while I was a university undergraduate. But at eighteen I thought Shatov needed better friends than Dostoyevsky had contrived for him.
The other character in The Possessed who’d gotten my attention, Kirilov, didn’t quite qualify as Shatov’s friend, even though he’d offered to commit suicide in his place to prove his existential disdain for all but the sublime. I shared something of that existential disdain with Kirilov but I didn’t have a suicidal bone in my body. “If God does not exist,” Kirilov says (in Russian) somewhere in The Possessed, “then all will is mine, and I am obliged to proclaim self-will.” My 18-year-old’s novels were good to go on god being dead and us humans being in charge so long as the reader was okay with every character—good or evil, minor or major—wearing raingear or mackinaws, caulked boots while driving pickup trucks, and speaking the vocabulary-constrained version of English typical in Northern B.C. But my characters, and me with them, just didn’t quite get that third part about proclaiming self-will. “Kill myself?” we scoffed. “Not bloody likely with all this interesting stuff swirling around.”
That may be why, in December 1962 and for quite a few years after that, I recognized that constructing any sort of sustained narrative was not only beyond me, but somehow ontologically immoral.
Still, like my parents, I was practical to a fault, and so the obvious course of action for the period of my literary apprenticeship, however long that turned out to be, would be to record the glimpses of beauty and order and meaning around me with as much integrity and precision as I could muster. My Great Narratives would materialize eventually from the matrix of my record-keeping. Wouldn’t they?
At the time I wasn’t close to being able to articulate any of this as clearly as I just have. But here’s the thing: It’s possible for an intelligent being to have a plan without having a conscious grasp of it. The pigs at Great Crouchs Farm had that sort of plan, for instance.
Getting around to actually believing in my plan was more complicated than you’d think. The landscapes in which I’d grown up, Northern British Columbia, are arguably the most organically incoherent and unfinished landscape anywhere on the planet. The rivers change their course by as much as several miles from one season to the next, the landforms are regularly transformed either by snow or the destructions of logging—or obliterated by the annual floods in late May and early June as the snow packs melt in the mountains. Everything around me, at near, middle or far distances, appeared to be (and truly was) temporary and provisional, and thus interfered with conventional description, expectations and planning. Then there was the vicious cold of the winters, thick swarms of blackflies in early summer, forest fires that could rage out of control from the moment the snow melted until the leaves fell, and the steel grey monotony after first snowfall and the beginning of the long, long, winter. Each of those, in their distinct way, tended to militate against the contemplative life, and sometimes against even the simple accumulation of meaning.
Well before I escaped northern B.C., I ‘d understood that the glimpses of beauty I was starting to get brought with them a strange problem. Given the people around me, and the way we lived, there was always going to be little time or opportunity to sit in an armchair and think those glimpses through to something with substance—and that armchairs were always going to be in short supply. There were, as my father was fond of propagandizing, fortunes to be made, cities to construct, businesses to build, blah, blah, blah.
This noise could have been worse than it was. My father never once said “a world to conquer, or an empire to rebuild from the rubble of the last one.” There was very little history to trample in the Northern British Columbia of my upbringing, no half-buried piles of human bones in those forests to cover up and forget, European or Aboriginal.
What I didn’t see, at eighteen, was that this would send me out into the world without at least one of the tools that seems to be essential to conventional fiction writers: I had neither skills nor the inclination for describing an orderly landscape in which one thing led organically to another. I didn’t naturally have the habit of looking for such order, or for deciphering it when that order was oblique or obscured.
This is how you see the world when you’ve never encountered an ordered—cultured—landscape. Neither my geography/climate nor my community showed any evidence of coherence, cosmic or everyday. My role models were transient people coming and going, arriving and leaving, people who were skilled at reacting to contingency but were without any world view, and with shallow ethical values. They built provisional structures, and they lived in and worked on them as if they were as impermanent as lean-tos in the forest, moving on without second thoughts for better opportunities elsewhere, whether that “elsewhere” was a mile distant or a continent away.
Northern British Columbia was a frontier, sure, but of an unusual sort: it was a frontier without settlers. People came to exploit the land and its resources, mine them, cut them down, then, to avoid locking in accumulated capital, they shipped them out with as little secondary manufacture as possible.
It was a frontier with only the barest concept of commonwealth and heritage. I didn’t know, in 1962, that I was looking straight into the globalist future that is now upon us all, the one that has cognitively transformed the planet into a vast supply chain in which nothing is accorded meaning and value unless it can generate economic growth and enhance the private fortunes that, theoretically, come from exploiting the world.
This chaos of barely-constrained human busy-ness and artificially-elevated contingency didn’t fill me with zeal of any kind, except to escape. I felt no need to impose order on anything so that god could be pleased upon his lordly throne and all could then be well with the world, and I didn’t detect any demons that needed to be cast out. Given the pervasive proximity of chaos, the logical response was to play everything as it lay, or better still, manipulate it for gain while it ran amok. I wanted something more than that, something different, something better.
Even in subsistence cultures, individuals can and do make choices about what matters to them. One person may have an interest in insects, and will supply themselves and others with protein with his or her expertise at extracting grubs from nests of termites. Another will make weapons or tools, another will nurture children, cook food, or investigate spiritual matters. This, and not skin colour, genetic similarity, or ersatz commonalities designed to exclude others, is what diversity and culture consists of. Culture is sheer, adulterated particularity, and it permits no gangs of zealots or police.
I happened to be interested in ideas, history and language—and in about that order. Given the era and the harsh geography I grew up in, those focuses pointed me straight at the Left Bank Paris cafes where I imagined Sartre, Camus, Dostoyevsky and Joseph Conrad sat together talking about issues of social justice and art while (because I could read and had an eye for slapstick) Simone de Beauvoir plotted to seduce the bemused Nelson Algren—all of them waiting for me to join them.
While I was en route to the Café de Flore, so to speak, I had landed in Sussex, which turned out to be different from anything in my experience or my imagination. People had lived in its lush green weald for more than a thousand years, possibly two thousand. The buildings were constructed of stone and brick, some of them so long ago that they had begun to sink into the ground. The Surry’s three–story brick and timber house, for instance, dated from the 1640s; the pub in the village, with its embedded timbers, was a century older, and only God or an architectural historian knew the origins of the half-derelict manor house that sat behind the tall stone walls at the north end of Rushlake Green.
Despite all of this history, Sussex didn’t strike me as “antique” or “quaint,” the standard North American tourist’s response to permanence. The permanence of Sussex’s stolidly tangible past gave me the bewildering sense that whatever I touched would enjoin me to the dozens or hundreds or thousands of people who had been there before me. But this bewilderment wasn’t confusion. It was enchantment.
Maybe it was because I was in an enchanted state that my normally vigilant ego had disappeared and I was able to admit, accurately, that I wanted to be a writer, someday, after a long checklist of cultural and educational shortcomings had been remedied. And Ronald and Joan’s endorsement of this ambition allowed me to wonder aloud what I would need to gain the tools required. They had little advice to give me except to thrust books into my hands. They weren’t writers themselves, didn’t know any writers, and as far as I could tell, hadn’t themselves entertained so ridiculously lofty an ambition. But if they respected my ambition, I reasoned, being a writer must be possible.
Just once, very late on a Merrydown-soaked evening, I worked up the courage to ask Ronald why he didn’t write about all the things he’d seen, and what he knew. In my simple view, that he wasn’t a writer seemed urgently wrong. Weren’t we obliged to do our best, to use what resources we have to make the world fairer and sweeter—and more understandable—to others? Everyone on his side of the family had plenty of language whizzing around inside their skulls, and Ronald had been, arguably, the brightest of them all. And if I could write—or hope to, someday—then why didn’t he? Or rather, how could he not write?
Ronald had been about to empty his wineglass when I popped the question, but the glass didn’t reach his lips. Instead, he placed it, very carefully, on the small side table, atop a pile of two or three books. “Oh, no,” he said, his voice dropping almost to a whisper and his eyes not meeting mine. “Not for me.”.
“Not for me” is precisely what he said that night, and both his choice of words and the constriction of his voice to a whisper stopped me from pursuing it. Oh, and there had been his expression, which wasn’t that of a fearful man so much as one humbled and humiliated at the same time. But I kept going over it in my mind: why not? How can he not write, with what he knows, and with all that language and experience?
It has taken me a half-century to understand that for Ronald, writing or not writing wasn’t about language or facility. He knew the toolbox was sitting in front of him, that it was full of tools, and that the box wasn’t locked. It was complicity that prevented him, disqualified his voice, his talent. But what was the complicity? With whom? With what?
Ronald, himself a prodigious reader, did tell me I would have to know far more than I did to be a writer, and be a much wider and better reader than I was. My response was the sensible one: “What should I read?” I understood what he was suggesting when he said I should read more widely, but the second part—read better—was meaningless. A better reader? What was that? Wasn’t it enough that I wanted to read instead of buying a car or going off logging?
The next day he took me to a bookstore in Eastbourne to demonstrate his idea of reading better. He had picked out and listed several dozen books for me, at least a dozen of which he insisted on paying for himself after I showed him how many of his recommendations I’d bought while he sat in the car waiting outside. All but one were Penguin paperbacks with their orange and white-covers. And all but one or two were over my head.
Books that were over my head didn’t trouble me. In those days British middle class literacy was a step and some above its outback Canadian equivalents, which outside Toronto and Montreal were usually grounded in the Readers Digest condensations my parents’ small living room bookcase had been loaded with, mostly purchased to impress visitors. These condensations were of popular novels by writers no one today recognizes. I tried to read a few of them while I was in high school, and even then, they seemed arbitrary or foreign, and very slow. I was eager to move up to the real stuff, and I’d been intellectually primed for a long time—which is to say, weeks or maybe months—before I arrived in England.
The Penguin paperbacks Ronald Surry selected for me included The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, Plutarch’s the Rise and Fall of Athens, Herotodus’ The Histories; Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, and the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld. I buried myself in Homer, the Greek historians and Malory, despite their pedestrian prose translations, but La Rochefoucauld struck me as a little too pompously ready to belittle—sort of like Ronald at his worst. There was a William Golding novel—Pincher Martin I think it was, that I never did penetrate past the first ten pages, and Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, which I read as local colour, the first book I’d encountered about a place I could then visit. When Ronald discovered that I already knew Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, he got Homage to Catalonia for me. I devoured it before any of the others, and have reread it every two or three years since, thinking, at various times in my life, that it is the book responsible for preventing me from being a political idiot.
Just two of the books Ronald recommended weren’t Penguins. One was Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, which my friends and I had already discovered in high school, and which Ronald and I were to argue over for months. Ronald thought Wilson was a genius; I thought he only provided a doorway to better books.
The second book that wasn’t a Penguin was a personal favourite of Ronald’s, and the one that was so far beyond my 18–year–old Visigoth’s intellectual reach that I simply swallowed it whole: Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave. The book was Connolly’s dyspeptic and very mannered memoir of divorce and exile from one of his wives and (equally important) all his beloved travel locations because of the Second World War. He’d been in his mid-forties while he wrote the book, roughly the same age Ronald Surry was in 1962. The Unquiet Grave and its sensibility, not surprisingly, sailed over my head and captured me at the same time—how could it not, when every time I wondered about it, I found myself gazing at Ronald, who was its spiritual embodiment.
I couldn’t see this at the time, but Connolly was among the sharpest minds of twentieth century British literary criticism, a rare sort of reviewer who was prepared to stand respectfully in the shadow of writers in order to illuminate them accurately. In the 1930s, he’d been the first to recognize the genius of George Orwell and Henry Miller, two writers who could hardly have been more different, but were equally in danger of being disappeared by the combination of readers unwilling to engage with the unfamiliar, and the tacit critical disapproval that faces any writer who challenges orthodoxy. Connolly was the sort of literary journalist who knew virtually all the important European and English language writers personally, thought well of most of them, and himself lived a private life characterized by incessant travel, domestic pet menageries, wild marriages, wilder divorces, and constant partying. As literary critics—or writers—go, he led an extraordinarily active and adventurous life, one that would have challenged the best of his contemporaries to capture in fiction.
Joan, meanwhile, did quite a lot more than merely walk me around the Sussex Downs looking for edible mushrooms. She was a skilled naturalist and gardener, a mycologist, and an educated walker of ancient pathways, and she insisted that I accompany her on her expeditions. These went progressively further afield, and not just because she sometimes bundled us into the Mini and drove to them. While Ronald was broadening my reading, Joan was teaching me to look at the world around me more carefully. I think she sensed that I’d decided that East Sussex was heaven, and she didn’t want me to assume that it was the exception to everything I’d known, but rather that it was firmly connected to the rest of the planet—even my distant part of it—and that I should integrate the two.
At her direction, I spent days wandering around Eastbourne, and made several non-optional return visits to London, with simple itineraries worked out beforehand so I wouldn’t again retreat to the farm wide-eyed with terror. It worked, too. After the second trip to London I started to get the hang of being a traveler, and actually began to enjoy it. I even became comfortable enough outside the farm that I applied for—and got—a job in Eastbourne delivering Christmas mail.
When I returned to Great Crouchs just before Christmas, Joan began to muse aloud that I needed to meet a real writer. When I asked—trying to hide my fear—why I needed to do such a thing, she said that it would be useful for me to observe their demeanor and their solitude. While I contemplated those human properties for the first time in my life, she was likely calculating that what I actually needed was to understand that writers were physical beings, that they stood on two legs, farted and got dirt lodged under their fingernails, and had, as the saying goes, to put on their leotards one leg at a time. She’d recognized that to me writers were mythological beings, and that I would have to demystify them if I was ever to work as they did. And since I was going to have to be a writer in the wilderness of Canada, I’d better meet a real writer while I could.
But which writer did I want to meet? I thought about this for several days and then remembered that the playwright John Osborne, whose Look Back in Anger I’d read in high school, lived somewhere in southern England. Joan found the address, not much further than ten miles from Great Crouchs, and had a sheaf of calling cards printed for me that gave my parents’ address in Prince George, B.C., but announced me, under both of my Christian names and my surname, as “Esquire”. Then she packed me into the Mini and drove me to John Osborne’s house. I sat in the car for nearly fifteen minutes arguing that this was not a good idea before I crept up the front stairs of his modest house and banged the door-knocker against the heavy wooden door. In retrospect, I was right to be frightened. Osborne would have almost certainly eaten me for lunch.
I got lucky. Osborne was out of the country—probably in Hollywood doing rewrites for the script of Tom Jones, and his then-wife, the actor Mary Ure, was probably off somewhere with the actor Robert Shaw, with whom she was beginning a long affair. No one answered my knock, and I was enormously relieved. I thought I was off the hook, but Joan wasn’t about to let it go, so she pressed me for another name. I thought about Homer, wished I could choose Orwell, who had died barely twelve years before—and suggested the writer I’d been reading and not understanding at all: Cyril Connolly. Ronald admired him, he was probably too old and frail to eat me the way Osborne would have. And wasn’t he really just a book critic?
Somehow Joan obtained his address in London—it has just now occurred to me that, given her cultural confidence, she may have phoned him for it—and a day or two later, I was standing on Cyril Connolly’s doorstep somewhere close to Hyde Park, ringing his doorbell with another of those calling cards that read, Brian Gary Fawcett, Esquire in my hand, my heart in my mouth and, as with Osborne, absolutely nothing of interest to say to him.
A stout round-face butler answered the door, and I asked him if I could speak to “Mr. Cyril Connolly”. The stout little butler gazed at me carefully without saying a word. Then he asked me to wait, and with a weary smile, disappeared into the house. When he returned a few minutes later with the news that Mr. Connolly was indisposed and couldn’t speak with me, I almost fainted with relief. I gathered myself together, thanked the butler and scurried off, perfectly satisfied, and glad that I hadn’t had to make a fool of myself in front of someone famous and wise. I told Joan that yes, indeed I had met Cyril Connolly, but that our conversation had been quite brief because he wasn’t feeling well, but that I was perfectly happy and enlightened. I don’t think she believed a word of this, but she let it go. Something had happened, and she’d done her job.
Many years later, when I purchased a second-hand copy of Enemies of Promise that happened to have a decent photograph of Connolly on the dust jacket’s back cover, I understood that Joan had done her job: I had met a famous writer after all. Cyril Connolly, who probably had as little to say to an eighteen-year-old Visigoth from the colonies as I had to say to a British literary critic in his late fifties, had impersonated his own butler.
Dooney’s is serializing, on a weekly basis, Brian Fawcett’s manuscript The Sussex Variations, and a companion piece, The Martian Invasion. Edited by Karl Siegler, this is one of the last books Fawcett completed before his death, from pulmonary fibrosis, on February 27, 2022. Fawcett is a founding co-editor of dooneyscafe.com since its inception in 2001.
You can find the full list of posted chapters here.