Frances Fyfield
Connie Bensley, C.A.R Hills
Peter Parker, Jonathan Steffen, J.W. New

At last I’ve heard from Frances Fyfield. Apparently, she replied to my post-London email the day she received it but her reply bounced back. She then left it until after Easter before trying again.

I’d met Frances in her central London flat. An ordinary door on Southampton Row is the gateway to an enormous first floor flat whose walls are covered with paintings, all of them portraits. We talked for about an hour-and-a-half. As soon as I got home, I followed up the meeting with this:

Dear Frankie,

Just back at my desk meeting seven authors in four days. No two alike or anything like it! Thanks again for taking the trouble to read most of the stories in the anthology and for talking to me.

I wish I had taken a look around at the portraits that were in the room we were sitting in. Could you now introduce me to one (or even two)? Any writers?

You had a book by Frances Hegarty, which I know is/was a pen-name of yours, on the table between us. Did you mean to say something about it? Do say now. 

Here's hoping that the decks you had cleared are still clear (notwithstanding this email) and that you are seeing your way into your next book. By the way, why write a fourth book in the current series if you feel you've written out that seam? You've sold so many books in your career it would be nice to think that you could write what you like these days. And if that fine series of books (I've read
Gold Digger) is not selling particularly well, why would the publisher want you to stick to the contract? Forgive my curiosity.


Hoping to hear more from you. Duncan

Her second attempt to reply was a précis of her first. So it may not have the freshness of her original attempt. Her most vivid paragraph concerns the collection of paintings that adorn her London flat: ‘Portraits around the room don't feature anyone famous, or writers, except for one of G. Bernard Shaw, an oil sketch for a group portrait at Cheltenham Lit Fest in 1938, where he's telling the Artist to hurry up, because he's more worried about Mussolini.  Then there's a central one of a woman in red hat sitting in a Bauhaus chair, which sort of represents a movement and moment, rather than anything else. Half the paintings I look after are by unknown Artists.’

Frances goes on to tell me that the book Let’s Dance by Frances Hegarty was lying between us when we spoke at her flat. Hegarty being her father's name, Fyfield her mother's. The book was there because it relates to her 1987 PEN story, which was in effect a dig at her mother.  Frances tells me that Let’s Dance is the cruellest thing she’s ever written. 

Obviously this is a book I must read if I want our exchange to flourish. Do I put Jeff New’s
Satires on hold in order to do so? Let’s just see what I feel like reading on a day-by-day basis.

I’ve also had a reply from Connie Bensley to an email of mine. She tells me that she likes the look of the family house that I have put up for sale, and, in answer to a question, tells me that there is a poem about her father on page 114 of
Finding a Leg to Stand On. Here it is, ‘The Optimist’:

My father, in his last hospital bed
on the eve of a critical operation,
negotiated to buy from another patient
an electric razor, slightly faulty
My mother, realist to the end
discouraged this purchase.


They argued the pros and cons
until the porter came with the trolley.
It was something to talk about
at that time, which is so awkward –
awkward and sad as waiting for a lover
to be carried away, waving, in a train.

That poem intrigues me, partly because I've inherited my father's shaver. It’s slightly faulty in that you've got to have it plugged in - and with electricity flowing directly through it - for it to work. No sign of me wanting to replace it with a new one anytime soon though.

I used Dad’s shaver this morning. Apart from that I’ve done nothing constructive today. Tell a lie, I’ve transcribed Charles’s latest missive from Brixton.

Dear Duncan,

Well, like David Bowie, I can’t give everything away, and nor, I suspect, can you, but I’m willing to tell you quite a lot, and I absolutely love receiving your letters, so please keep them coming, as many as you like. It is just possible that I will be moved out of the prison before June 24
th into a probation hostel somewhere in London, but if so I will let you know, either by letter, or more likely, because we know each other now, by telephone.

I’m so glad that you seem to have decided on the title
Bitter Sweet, and as two words rather than hyphenated. You’ll need a strapline, perhaps to go on the cover, explaining the slightly enigmatic title. I suggest something like: “How the dreams of 32 writers turned out in the thirty years between then and now,” I also (if you can bear more of my advice) think that “One is incandescent” is wrong. People usually say they are incandescent with rage, and that doesn’t seem to be an appropriate state for you to be in when you contemplate the 31 other PEN contributors! One possibility that occurs to me “One is a Wanderer”. After all, writers, more than other human beings, have to wander sometimes, and get into scrapes, to try and impress the world with their talent.


I love the idea of the two sections called “Many are Called” and “Few are Chosen”, and am so glad to be among the chosen people (pun intended). As you said that I was the last of the 7 writers you saw in London, that probably means that my chapter will be the last of the second section, and, if so, it is a very great honour, and I thank you. I already know that Elaine Feinstein and Peter Parker are among the seven (and what a snub to Rankin that he is not included – but in Liberace’s phrase he’ll be crying all the way to the bank) and I’m sad that old friend Mansel didn’t cut it. But who are the others? Surely David Taylor came down to give you an interview at some smart but sympathetic place? You couldn’t leave out someone so influential, charming, and basically agreeable.

I can’t blame Charles for thinking that I’m still writing chapters that are predominantly about a single writer. And I can’t blame him for thinking that, because I didn’t meet Ian Rankin in London, he will no longer be a major presence in PEN PALS. But he remains as much a touchstone as Charles himself. Of course he does.

And is there an 8th chapter for the many-named Mr New (I know – pot calling the kettle black), whom I know you met in Witney, presumably near where he lives in silence, exile and cunning? I quite liked his little extract, and I thought the idea of the “crying boat” in his first chapter was absolutely hilarious. I’d own his book for that one chapter alone. And his writing is good – sparse, well structured, with a good turn of phrase. As you know, I’m prejudiced against experimentation, but I’d certainly be willing to look at more extracts, should you wish to send them. But I fear he will never break through with such a book – that sort of sub-Beckett, sub-Kafka surreal absurdist writing is the stock-in-trade of amateurs. But the adaptation of Der Prozess with Hebrew letters (do they stand for “Josef K”?) was an idea that not many amateurs would think of. No, Mr New is not uninteresting, but nor did he have an iota of the promise that Ralph Goldswain did. My 2nd novel Lorne Park (sorry to go on plugging it) is also a little sub-Kafka and post-Barbara Pym, their bastard child conceived in a broom cupboard, but I hope that before you sign me off as a writer you will read it.


I’ll now tell you another thing about Peter Parker & Christopher Potter, which relates to the short story “Wolf”, which the Australian magazine Quadrant has been holding for so many years. That story takes place during a day when I met a youngish German, whose real name was not Wolf, in Essaouira on the Moroccan coast in early April 2001 (I sometimes used to escape my mother’s villa in these days by going over to Morocco. – by the way, when you picture me feeling overwhelmed by The Beeches remember that I own a house in the Algarve with 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms and 7 trees in the back garden!) Anyway, in the interval between my increasingly alarming encounters with ‘Wolf’ I was sitting at an outside café table, there were some Oxford and Cambridge undergraduate types at the next table discussing the boat race, one of them had a copy of The Guardian, I asked to borrow it, and, lo and behold, it contained a review by Peter. And I was so desperate by that time to achieve big success that I immediately phoned Peter to curry favour by telling him how far down the coast of Africa he was being read. How he must have despised me! I mentioned this briefly in the story (which only becomes fiction at the very end) to increase the feeling of alienation it expressed, but because that story was never in fact published, no one knows about this incident except me and you (for now). I called them “a reviewer and his partner, a powerful publisher”.

I liked the way that you structured your last letter around your account of the sale of your father’s house, following his sad but long-delayed death. You made it all seem so atmospheric, even a little spooky. Could there be a murder or ghost story here? I am gradually piecing together a little more about your life (and look forward particularly to your life of Evelyn Waugh, as well as
Bitter Sweet, and your one of the 32 stories that I hardly read), and I have a suspicion that, just as I never escaped my mother’s shadow until I was ruptured from under it by force, so your life has been led slightly under the shadow of a father (and a house) that were problematic precisely because of what they offered. The fact that you stored your books there from 1989 surely means that you must already have left London in your heart. Well, those far south-eastern suburbs are so dreary really! The whole city is, if truth be known. The beautiful parties, they come to us only once or twice in a lifetime. Be a Scot! Sell the Beeches and live somewhere that is not haunted by memory! And carry the name of Bitter Sweet, and C.A.R. Hills with it, to the ends of the earth!

Love, Charles.


I mow the lawn that I’ve kept trim for the last thirteen years. I eat my lunch, a meal that has become slightly less healthy since I’ve stopped catering for my father as well as myself. And I walk up and down the house, entering all the rooms long enough to pick up all the little piles of Jeff’s book, which I place in a single pile on an otherwise empty shelf in the library. I’ve realized that the challenge of reading Satires has been stopping me from reading a couple of other things that I want to make headway with.

First, I get on screen. Am I going to order, The Impossible Dead, the second Malcolm Fox novel? Well, let’s see what the little video that goes with the book has to say for itself. There is Ian Rankin standing on Portobello beach in Edinburgh. Rankin explains that he’s being filmed there because Malcolm Fox’s father stays in a care home in Portobello and in one scene of The Complaints, Fox takes his father to the beach and they buy fish and chips from the shop that Ian Rankin is standing in front of. In other words, this Portobello beach represents a tranquil spot in a far from peaceful series of books. And having said that, Ian Rankin turns from the camera and walks reflectively along the beach and out of shot, the sound of the waves lapping gently against the sand… A low-key and tangential introduction to The Impossible Dead. It has me hooked.

The webpage offers me a button that would take me to Amazon or Waterstones or WH Smith. But I want to buy a signed out-of-print hardback from Abebooks. Sorted.

That done, I sit down in the lounge and make a start to
Let’s Dance, a smart but unsigned hardback that came from Abebooks a few days ago. I’m immediately into it, because Frances Fyfield’s novel concerns a house that parallels this one.


‘A perfectly beautiful house which also managed to be ugly. There was a glory in its pretence to be a truly grand house whilst being, in reality, a mansionette masquerading as a mansion. There was no spitting of gravel as a car turned into the drive, since the gravel was half-submerged into the weedy earth, leaving a smooth tread and puddles.’

An old woman called Serena lives alone in the house. She has dementia, and her 33-year-old daughter Isabel moves to the house to look after her. Does it reflect what happened to Frances Fyfield? I would guess so, given what she said to me about her own mother and the book’s cruelty. But it also reminds me that I left my single life in London in 2003 to come to this house to look after my parents, one of whom, my mother, went on to develop dementia as a result of the strokes she suffered in 2003. That job is now done, both my parents are dead. I did what I could to help them get the most out of their later years, and now I must look to my own future.

I stand at the window and stare out. That is, when I’m not lounging about the house, reading. Several days later, I sit down in front of my computer in order to type this:

Hi Charles,

Great letter, thanks.

You may be interested to know I've no longer got Jeff's manuscript strewn about the house. As I was picking up the largely unread piles, full of potential as they are, I had another idea, which was to phone your friend, Phil, and ask him to send me a copy of Lorne Park.


He was able to send me an electronic copy within ten minutes of my getting in touch. But it was a few days before I could bet stuck into it as I had books by Ian Rankin and Frances Fyfield to get under my belt first.

Lorne Park is clearly written, succinct and I enjoyed the characterization. You seem to spread yourself around a bit, with an Oxford graduate called Charles, a gay man and, of course, your compelling protagonist, Mike Newman.

There was a tenuous team spirit that developed at the mysterious and sinister country house, and it’s that which has stayed with me, though I am aware that the main thrust of the book is entirely otherwise. So with that in mind, and in the absence of anyone showing the slightest interest in
buying my father’s house, I have decided to offer a summer residency for writers. 

The conceit is that I write to all the
PEN New Fiction 2 contributors and invite applications for the writing residency. It would be an opportunity for people to say whether they would envisage such an environment a creative one. People could suggest what room they wanted (of the five bedrooms and two lounges) and what they might do to personalize their room. They might also use it as an opportunity to say what it was they wanted to write about next.

When the launch of PEN 2 took place, Jonathan Steffen was actually doing a residency at a Scottish castle, so he couldn’t be of our party in London. The project he was ostensibly researching in the castle didn’t work out, but during the residency he found out for the first time that he could take himself seriously as a poet. Apparently, Jonathan had access to horses and so would go riding regularly. He could do that here too, keeping a horse in one half of the double garage.


I don’t think Ian Rankin would go for the PEN PALS summer residency. He is writing a book right now in his Highland hideaway and is contracted to finish it by June. He will not want to write anything at all for a while after that.

Similarly, Gary Armitage writes to the school year, because his wife is the breadwinner and she has a teaching job at a secondary school. He starts a new book each autumn term and so is unlikely to be tempted by this PEN PALS opportunity, hypothetical though the whole thing is, though I know he would add intellectual curiosity and idiosyncratic personality to the mix.

I wonder if Connie Bensley would come up here. I like to think Connie could write a new collection of poems based on everyday objects she finds hidden away in the cupboards and drawers of this house. I’m thinking of the innumerable pairs of Dad’s old glasses. I’m thinking of my parents’ wedding photo in which my father is sporting a ridiculous moustache. Of course, there would have to be a comfortable bed for her, as well as cooking facilities, a phone in her room and a wifi connection. So that the residency was, in effect, a home from home. But all that goes without saying, really.

I’m really hoping Frances Fyfield would accept a residency here too. She needs to stop writing books about a big house overlooking the sea, a house that has an art collection in it, as she has done that to death. This summer she could write about this house instead, a house full of writers not paintings.

If Mansel Stimpson did a residency I don’t suppose we’d see much of him. He would have to get the bus to Dundee every day in order to watch films at the DCA. And when he got back in the evening he would write up his reviews and post them onto his website. Not sure if it would be worth him coming all this way just to carry on his usual routine. By providing friendship and inspiration we’d make sure it was worth his while!


I would encourage DJ Taylor to create a new library in this house with a view to him writing THE PEN LIBRARY: Literary Life in Britain 1987-2017. This book would feature only contributors to PEN New Fiction 2 in its index, nobody from the class of ’83 in particular. He can have all the books I’ve collected to start him off, including signed editions of Robert Edric, Thomas McCarthy, Elaine Feinstein and Connie Bensley. But Ian Rankin, Robert Edric, Frances Fyfield have all been publishing a book a year since ‘87, in all thirty books each, so David would have to be very active on Abebooks, ordering stuff in. The library would include manuscripts as well. So David would be getting in touch with your pal in London in order to arrange for the Sainsbury’s plastic bags containing your novels to be transferred here. Plus I’m sure Ralph Goldswain would have a van full of short stories. Actually, the more I think about it, there would be masses of material. I alone have had articles printed in a hundred or more issues of The Independent on Sunday. My texts appear in about twenty art world books plus a dozen issues of Contemporary Visual Art and eight issues of MAP. And you too have produced your share of articles for the press. I know you’ve written for all four broadsheets and many magazines. David may have to make use of the spacious loft. Good job I’ve cleared it out for him. Well, no, I’ve not cleared it completely. There are 200 copies of my first book, Personal Delivery, up there. Just because David Bowie loved it doesn’t mean it was a commercial success. I’m giving them away at the rate of about one per year.

I envisage Peter Parker and yourself sharing the large lounge, maybe with a curtain down the middle of it, hanging from the beam in the ceiling that goes across the room. Perhaps it’s naughty of me to say so, but I can picture you taking a copy of his
Ackerley to bed and saying, once the light has gone off on his side of the curtain. “Peter, do you know how far up the horn of Africa you’re being read?” If Frances overheard that remark she might be able to make something of it in her novel. Perhaps the same sort of animosity would develop between you and Peter as does between Mike and Toby in Lorne Park. Or would it be more of a love-hate thing?


Writers-in-residence would be free to work on their projects during the day, but there would be some group structure to the evenings so that they didn’t descend into solitary drinking sessions. I’d be asking Carol Barker to run a workshop entitled: ‘To suffice to herself: Female self-sufficiency in the Work of Women Writers 1740-1821.’ In other words, we’d all get to know her PhD. I’m figuring that she would start off session one with a game of Chinese Whispers by whispering “Frances Burney,” into another resident’s ear, and that by the time the message had got all the way back round to Carol, it would have become unrecognizable. But by the last session, I believe that we’d all have absorbed so much gender politics that if she started another round of Chinese Whispers in the same way, she would be rewarded by having the words “Frances Burney,” reverently whispered into her ear at the end of it all. By me, you, or whoever.

Another evening course, led by a different resident each time, would be concerned with our parents. I would like to hear more from Alex McAdam Clark about what her mother achieved in the Second World War. So she could kick off the season. But every writer has got something to say about one or both their parents, and so it would be just about obligatory for everyone to lead a session on this. Mansel has written an unpublished book about his mother. I have written 100 blogs about my mother’s life in a care home. I’ve just finished reading what I believe to be an exploration of Frances Fyfield’s mother’s dementia. You had a very close relationship with your mother, a distant relationship with your father, and I for one would like to hear you talk about where this leaves you. There is no end to the material. Though I’d appreciate the opportunity of rounding off the season with a talk which I would title: ‘My Father’s House’.

Ralph Goldswain would be in one of the bigger bedrooms and I expect he would have female visitors even though he’s now in his mid-seventies. He might even make a friend of Frances as she liked his story back in ‘87 and had a laugh with him at the launch. Ralph would be a night owl during the week, I suspect, and I can see him hiring another writer-in-residence to prevent the dawn chorus (as happens in his short story ‘Concert’) from waking him in the morning. Maybe, it would be Jeff New whose role it would be to get up at 5am and strike the various trees in the garden with a stick. That’s three holly trees, two beech trees and a Scots pine. Not forgetting two coniferous trees plus various stretches of privet and leylandii hedge.


I envisage Jeff in residence either on the upstairs landing or even the cupboard under the stairs. I say this partly because earlier this week, before putting away his manuscript, I was struck by the following piece from Satires, which I read while sitting on the broad window ledge of a west-facing bedroom. (Both west-facing bedrooms have window sills you can comfortably sit in.)

A Satyr’s Afternoons

When holidaying multitudes form up waveside, when their shouts re-echo from bay to sounding bay, I keep myself hidden—

It is too much noise for my animal ears, too many sights for my eyes to see how quick they run, and in colour.

But on the scorch of noon, when heat-dulled torsos snooze on towelling like painted dolls laid out to dry, it’s then I might steal through shrubbery in the park, edge behind a tree, make a dash from bush to bush, until I gain the sands.

There to chance my arm inside a sleeper’s lunchbox, squeeze myself a handful of oil for head and horns, or view at my leisure a wholly naked back, the airbed’s burden, and peer inside a bustline (phew!) But I don’t let it go no further.

Then should occasion offer I will lift a chilled beer to foam my snout with, secure in the conviction that they can’t catch me.

Off-peak is oldfolk, while in the winter season men walk dogs that track my hoofprints down the shore as gales sweep the beach until, with plastered fleece (sand and sleet), I long to sip coffee by the gasfire’s glow, nibble breaded chicken pieces and relax, slots crossed upon the armrest of a leather-cushioned sofa, to enjoy the news of evening.  But too much the beast to sit with people in their houses.

Then yearn to sleep the winter through, warmed in straw, but (too much the man to nest with badgers) must find what shelter I am able among wastebins stored behind the boarded-up cafés, where shivering I seek comfort in the notion of my non-existence.



I hope you can picture me, Charles, living on my own in what was my father’s house, in the month before I can get this writers’ residency up and running. In a neglected corner of the garden where no human eye can see me, I can be found foaming my snout. By this I do not mean as a preliminary to shaving. For I have inherited a machine that does this without the need for foam.

What a lot of nonsense from me (and precious little common sense from Jeff) to be going on with. But I hope it might amuse you in places, and stimulate your imagination.

By the way, a line from your
Lorne Park to put together with Jeff’s ‘I seek comfort in the notion of my non-existence’, might be this: ‘I want to know the emptiness, if emptiness there is to be.’

Love, Duncan

Of course, I’ll have to wait a week to get Charles’s response to this, and I want something straight away. So I ping off a slightly shorter email to Jonathan Steffen as he is usually quick off the mark. Sitting there in his Cambridge office as alert to me as to any of his clients.

Hi Duncan,
Many thanks for your email.

I hope the process of selling the house is going well, and also that you’re in good health again. Grief is utterly exhausting, and our society allows no time or space for proper mourning. We’ve become very cruel in that regard, despite our sentimentality in many other areas.

Many thanks for the kind invitation to come and stay. That really is a jolly thought! According to Italo Calvino (in the opening of
If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller), people in the Middle Ages often rode on horseback during long journeys, so it all fits into place, really. Not sure about the garage. Back garden might be more the ticket in the summer – just as they do in Andalucia, as it happens ...


I must say that the account of the satyr’s afternoons is terribly sad, and strangely haunting. If you had 400 pages of that material strewn about the house, you must have needed the odd stiff whisky to jolly you up, I imagine!
Am currently clearing my bedside table to receive
Personal Delivery, which I think Jo has finished with now and which she has really enjoyed. Very much looking forward to reading it.
All the best as ever, Jonathan

That really helps my mood. I feel Jonathan’s words of condolence are genuine. Just as Connie’s are. It’s great to have PEN pals, the warm ones and the cold, the occasional correspondents and my regulars, the free-spirited and the banged up. Maybe I really should organize a summer residency program. Anyway, soon I’m writing:

Hi Frankie,

Just finished your
Let's Dance. Compelling portrait of what it's like to have dementia but also how it is to have to cope with a parent who is afflicted with the disease, as my mother was. I dare say there's a lot of your own experience in there but it does transfer to fiction very convincingly. I found there was an even-ness about the characterisation that was admirable. Obviously the real depth was in the portrayals of Isabel and her mother, the unserene Serena, but George and Andrew were always interesting to be with too.

I'm glad that evil Derek got what was coming to him and that good-hearted George somehow didn't. I mean he did get some positive return for his kindness. It makes me think about the roughly equivalent characters in my own book. Actually, there are no evil characters in my book, only understood and misunderstood ones.


This PEN project has stretched me in my capacity for reading. After all, there were 32 contributors to PEN New Fiction 2 and they've all had thirty years to come up with stuff. You must know what I mean, having been the judge of a literary prize.

I now feel it’s my duty to tell Jeff New that I’ve had to put off reading his book because I’ve been reading yours, one by Ian Rankin and one by the prisoner Hills.

Wish me luck with that.

All best, Duncan

So I write to Jeff, telling him that I’ve had to hold off from racing through the second half of Satires in order to ensure PEN PALS doesn’t get out of kilter.

I can’t resist pasting in the paragraph from Charles’s letter that responds to ‘Process of Admission’ from
Satires. How will Jeff in turn respond to comments such as ‘experimentation’, ‘quite like’, ‘sub-Beckett’ and ‘stock-in-trade of amateurs’?

While waiting for Jeff to get back to me, I decide to
précis one of the satires, ‘A Worm in the Tooth’. The first person protagonist is a worm that infests the tusk of a walrus. One day a sailor kills the walrus and on realizing that the tusk is infested, gets out his fumigation kit. He spreads a special gum around the tusk so that the worm emerges from its hole and eats much of the ivory, guided by the gum, leaving a filigree construct that proves to be of great commercial value. But having created the thing of immense beauty and value the worm dies from having swallowed a surfeit of gum.

Aha, the worm is the artist. Aha, the artist dies in ignominy. But no doubt there are other ways of reading the story.

Dear Duncan


So there you are at last. For the last week or so I've been composing annoyed emails in my head, in a variety of styles --

The miffed: 'When you find yourself free from your busy schedule and have time to finish my book, perhaps you might be able send me a comment or so...?'

The bitter: 'Great -- you take my book off you go and then what? Big... fat... nothing!...'

The sarcastic: 'Are you maybe having trouble with the long words...?'

The abusive: 'What the fuck you doing with my words, Bookboy?...'

The English polite: 'I hope this isn't too much to ask, and I don't want in any way to be a nuisance, but perhaps when you next have a moment to spare you could let me know what you think about...?'

The Scots colloquial: 'You are no very gleg at the reading, Duncan...'

The quasi-beckettian: 'What now? The silence. The silence.....'

The quasi-Borgesian: 'Que?...'

The plaintive: 'That's nice. That's lovely. I go to all this trouble writing the bloody thing, then nobody can be bothered to even...'

The quasi-C.A.R. Hillsian: 'It would appear, mayhap, that your (no doubt limited) reading capacities have, to some extent, abandoned you completely, otherwise how is one to come to terms (nay), come to grips with (nay), comprehend the otherwise inexplicable fact of your continuing lack of an adequate response to my delicately imagined and effectively chiselled assemblage of textual offerings?...'


The admonitory/exhortative: 'Can you not get your arse out of its sling and start reading!....'

The couldn't-give-a-monkey's: 'I couldn't give a monkey's....'

And so on. But I see you've been busy, so no hard feelings.

I'm beginning to think the slammer's the best place for your mate. Frankly, I'd slap another 30 years on said Brixton buddy’s sentence for his 'experimentation', and life with hard labour, for his brace of 'quasi'-s. Still, nice to be patronised I suppose. ('...the stock in trade of amateurs', eh? )

Well, I'm trying to spin this out, as I have an urgent and important copy-editing job I should be doing this afternoon and anything's better than that, but I fear I'm going to have to go back to it.

You don't want to 'race' through the second part of
Satires (I grandly refer to it as 'book 2'), or through book 1 for that matter. But it's nice of you to scatter the fragments around among your partners in crime. My readership has rocketed from a persistent and steady 0 to a dazzling 3 thanks to you. So -- Thanks to you.

And all the best, Jeff.

I need to reply to this straight away:

Ah Jeff,

How do I write this?

With shame streaming down my faeces. (Is that how the Romans used to spell face plural?)

I interfered with my PENitentiary PAL's critique by replacing the word ‘sub’ with ‘quasi’. I just didn't think that sub-Beckett, sub-Kafka was fair on your writing. But I see that all I've done is muddled the waters. Apologies to both.

Your PENitent PAL, Duncan


Having cleared my conscience, I read Jeff’s mail again, marveling at the sure display of humour, seriousness, annoyance and non-annoyance.

I do hope Jeff finds a publisher for
Satires. Of course, if my ‘old classmates’ find it in their hearts to forgive me, and PEN PALS turns out to be a roaring success amongst the masses, then my publisher at Harbour Books, Jeremy Beale, may be emboldened to publish the works of C.A.R. Hills and J.W. New. Perhaps PEN PALS could even become an imprint. Is that the word I’m looking for?

Of course, the path to publication never runs smooth, and I can see the day coming when Jeff writes to Harbour Books a letter along the lines that his fellow St John’s scholar, A.E. Housman, wrote to an editor at Grant Richards, the latter having had the audacity to publish
A Shropshire Lad in a notable series. That letter, referred to in Peter Parker’s book, Housman Country, goes like this:

Dear Sirs,

Mr Grant Richards included my book
A Shropshire Lad in his series ‘The Smaller Classics’ without consulting me, and to my annoyance. I contented myself remonstrating, and did not demand its withdrawal; but now that I have the chance, I take it, and I refuse to allow the book to be any longer included in the series. I hope that you will not be very much aggrieved; but I think it unbecoming that the work of a living writer should appear under such a title.

I’m about half-way through my third reading of Jeff’s last email when I realize I haven’t shaved today despite much thought of doing so. And so I’m shaving - and smiling bitter-sweetly - as I read on…

And when I get to the end of Jeff’s words for a third time, I say aloud into the silence created by the switching off of my father’s old shaver:

“I wish you could have met my PEN pals, Dad. There’s Connie, Wendy, Jonathan, Peter, Dan, Ian, and Frankie, amongst others. But my special chums are Charles and Jeff.


“Charles is going stir-crazy in a cell in HMP Brixton. He has written a novel called Lorne Park that one friend keeps safe in a Sainsbury’s plastic bag and another friend keeps available in electronic form. The novel is the bastard love-child of Franz Kafka and Magnus Mills, conceived in a gents’ toilet located in a graveyard found in the neglected grounds of a once-opulent country house.

“Jeff is going stir crazy at home because the only people who have read even a bit of his
Bumper Book of Worms are PEN pals Jonathan, Charles and me. I’m Jeff’s principal reader but I can’t take any more, not for a while at least. This Perthshire lad is all Satired up.

“I’ve also got a book that I want people to read just as soon as I’ve written it. Charles wants it to be called
Bitter Sweet while Jeff, who wanted it to be called something like PEN PUNS, now, reading between the lines, couldn’t give a monkey’s what it’s called.

“What do you think, Dad?”


I try downstairs.

“What do you think, Dad?”


I try lying down on the lawn with my ear to the grassy ground.

Silence. Apart from the buzzing of worms. What are they doing down there – shaving? Perhaps, like the worm in the walrus tooth, they are making a silkweb palace suspended in a paradise of creepers and blossoms, where hummingbirds and monkeys and their offspring will disport themselves.


Which gets me to thinking about my PEN pals from another angle. What happens to writers? They either have children or they don’t. Which of the PEN writers have got children and who amongst us is childless? Sticking to the PEN pals I’ve met in person in 2016, this is the situation as I understand it:

Connie Bensley has two sons. One is a film editor and the other lives in Suffolk and has two daughters. It’s to Suffolk that Connie has gone for a few weeks while some building work is carried out at her own flat in South London.

Elaine Feinstein has three sons, which she mentions in the prelude to
It Goes with the Territory. She was staying with one over Christmas and another – perhaps the same one – happened to phone Elaine when we were talking in her North London flat.

Jonathan Steffen has a 15-year-old son, who has made a video to accompany one of his father’s songs, and a 20-year-old daughter who he was going on to visit after our meeting at the St Pancras Hotel.

Jeff New has two daughters, one of whom is registered as living at the same address as Jeff and his wife. I made a point of not asking Jeff about his family when we met in Witney as I thought he might find it intrusive.

I did, however, make myself ask Wendy Brandmark whether she had a partner and children, even though I knew Wendy wouldn’t like that much. And she did me the honor of telling me that she has a partner and a child and that she would never write about them.

Ian Rankin has two sons who were born when he was living in France. They are now in their early twenties. The younger son has Angelman syndrome, a rare genetic condition characterised by severe learning difficulties. Ian wrote an article in
The Guardian revealing that emotions aroused by his son’s medical condition in the mid-nineties fed into his novels Black and Blue and The Hanging Garden in particular.


That means that when I painted a picture of Ian Rankin tearing his shirt off in joy, on hearing in 1998 that his books were suddenly earning him a lot of money, it was not the whole picture. Any roar that he let out also involved anguish. Similarly, when sitting in his study in 2005 surrounded by new editions of his work and a newly published autobiography, in the knowledge that a street in his home-town had been named after him, self-satisfaction would have been tempered with concern for Kit Rankin’s welfare. Would the stream of money from Ian’s books be enough to ensure his son never wanted for the goods and services he would need for as long as he lived?

Those, then, are the writers who, when lying on a lawn like this one, are likely to hear children’s laughter and crying rather than the sound of worms sharpening knives.

And so to the four of us who don’t have kids. Peter Parker and C.A.R. Hills are childless, as far as I know, and their sexual orientation is likely to have contributed to that. Frances Fyfield discovered she couldn’t have children in her late twenties, and that partly led to her desire to be creative in another way.

Let’s Dance tells things slightly differently. In the last chapter, Isabel’s mother lies down in the snow, which is as welcoming as cotton wool. She lies down and listens to the silence. She crosses one hand across her bosom and conducts the music of the stars. It is her dying act.

Her troublesome mother dead at last, Isabel vows that there would be no dynasty. She was never, ever, going to be some child’s mother.

For whatever reason then, whether by choice or necessity, Frances Fyfield was not going to have children. Which just leaves me.


I did not discount the prospect of having children. I just never did anything about it. What I meticulously planned instead was how to protect my time so that I could devote my energies to writing. (As I said before, it’s called giving it your best shot.) I went from one writing project to another - without making any progress up the literary ladder - and imagine that I will continue to do so. Grounded, you could say.

Having observed the frailty of both my parents from the age of eighty - how dependent they became on help from me, their first-born child - I predict I will be in a very vulnerable position in about twenty years time. By then, if I’m lucky enough to have survived into old age, I’m likely to have run out of clarity and vitality. Though Elaine Feinstein and Connie Bensley both show that it needn’t necessarily be so, and I may even push the time of greatly increased vulnerability as far as my ninetieth year.

Let me summarize where I’ve got to with the help of one of the two
alumni of St John’s College, Oxford, that I’m familiar with:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills, What spires, what farms are those?   That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain, The happy highways where I went And cannot come again.

What happens to writers of a certain age and pedigree, who have lost parents and realize, childless, they are on the way out themselves? They lie flat on their backs wondering what the fuck, what the absolute fuck (careful, let’s not stray into Martin Amis territory) those worms are up to.


pen pals - Version 9

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