I’ve just run the Race for Life, although here the word ‘run’ is employed loosely to mean ‘walked with a little light jogging’. I firmly believe that humans should only run towards things they need to catch – buses, trains, escaping small children – and away from things they’re trying to evade – bears, tigers, etc, and given the shortage of feral beasts in South London I usually run only because I use public transport a lot. My sister, however, is a club runner (she also loves football and doesn’t drink – so you can see how well the genes were distributed in our family), and to stop her despairing completely I take part in one race per year, and that one is here on the Heath, so it’s only a 15 minute stroll to the starting line. I know Murakami has written a book about running, but on the whole I don’t think many writers are cut out for sport.
As I’ve been visiting universities with my daughter I’ve had to suspend the process of phoning round independent bookshops to ask them to stock my book. Although I don’t enjoy repeating the same spiel over and over again, it has been good to speak to people who seem genuinely to like novelists. This is by no means as common as you might suppose in the world of publishing, where the writer often seems to be regarded as a necessary evil. The independent booksellers have all been very polite, have nearly all agreed either to order a copy of the book or at least to look at it, and a couple have suggested I might come and do a reading. A few even had it on their shelves already, in which case I tried not to sound either surprised or pathetically grateful.
The university visits have been a revelation. Much has changed since I was an undergraduate: in Edinburgh we booked into student accommodation rather than a hotel and I thought we’d be roughing it, but in fact it was by far the swankiest place we stayed in. Breakfast was an all-you-can-eat buffet at the end of which you put your trays on a conveyor belt and watched them disappear into the kitchen. In my old university the shop where I used to buy my vodka and Gauloises (they probably did sell some foodstuffs too, I don’t remember) has been replaced by a supermarket that stocks sushi mats. Set against the improved facilities is the sad fact that in most places the tutorial, where 1 or 2 students would present their essays to a tutor each week, has disappeared, and the smallest group of students taught together at any one time is 5 or 6. The relationships people of my generation and earlier often had with their teachers is probably a thing of the past. I remained friends with one of my tutors until the day he died, and although I realised at the time it was a privilege, I didn’t know it was something my children wouldn’t have the chance to experience.
Speaking of children: I ran a workshop on Saturday in the Ideas Store, Whitechapel (for those of you who don’t know, that’s what they call the public library) Given the heat, and the fact that Wimbledon was still on, I doubted that anyone would turn up, but three people did. There was quite an age range – from 6 to early teens – but they all got stuck in. We did a brief warm-up exercise and then began our fantasy stories, but even though I tried to move it along, it became obvious that 2 hours isn’t enough to produce a finished story, and they were just getting to the exciting bit when we had to finish. I’m doing it again next Saturday, in Bethnal Green this time, so I may have to have a rethink before then. It’s asking a lot, though, to complete a piece of work in one session, and I doubt many adults could manage it.
To finish, I’d just like to say God bless Philip Hensher, for his comments about the New Yorker list of young novelists and its possible unfairness to women writers who start late due to family commitments. It’s good to know that someone other than the women themselves has noticed that the baby at the breast is even more of a distraction from work that the pram in the hall. When he added that ‘Novel writing isn’t necessarily something that young people are very good at’ and said that he regretted publishing his first novel at 29 he made at least one old lady very happy.