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Water In A Writer’s Life

A watery journey through a writer’s life

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

The Canal and Little Venice
It is the sixties.

I live in a glorious four-storey house in London’s Little Venice which faces the Regent’s canal. All the front windows look out on the waterway, one of the city’s best-kept secrets, which starts where we live and ends at the Docklands.

Though it passes by Victorian warehouses, a spread of parks, the chattering aviary of the London zoo, unusual craft stalls and quirky clothing shops of Camden Market, it is a peaceful hideout hidden by surrounding buildings, perfect for scribbling.

I haven’t yet separated my home from my writing. My husband (it was the era of husbands not partners) is a world-famous classical musician. Suddenly he decides in addition to his classical repertoire to add comedy. I’m ready to write comedy scripts around my husband’s supremely anecdotal life. He’d lived the life, he had the anecdotes but they needed welding together. It isn’t difficult. I’d been a national newspaper journalist. What is a mere script?

I can write it in my head, I think, when I walk leisurely by the canal.

Up on the fourth floor, I see below me a colourful collection of narrowboats. On the ground floor I see The Pram. It is The Nanny’s day off. (It is that kind of life!)

The Pram and I set off. The script forms in my head. The Toddler screams to get down. We watch a kayak, we pause at Lord’s cricket ground, I stop writing, I explain the game of cricket, The Toddler screams again. We hasten to the magical lights of the open air theatre. The screams increase. We are not paying The Nanny enough. I concentrate on the water. The words slip away.

At home The Toddler is fed. It is food she wanted, not the canal. Eventually the script works and is produced at a London theatre. The husband isn’t very grateful. It is only what he expects.


The Sea and Brighton
It is the seventies.

I have left the music, the musician, The Nanny and the canal behind. I have taken The Toddler and several notebooks and pencils with erasers on the end.

I am a single mother on welfare benefits but I am in Brighton. I have the sea.

I have a small run-down terrace house. The previous tenants had greyhounds with no toilet manners. I spend a lot of time cleaning. I have no job yet.

But I have an idea for a novel. The woman at welfare benefits doesn’t count ideas for novels as gainful employment. I shall learn over many painful years that she is right.

I think the sea will run through the novel. So every  evening, after I have spent hours looking for real work, The Toddler and I take the stroller and set off from the top of Upper Lewes Road straight down the hill to the sea. The colours change magically night after night. Sometimes  sapphire and turquoise mixed. Sometimes heavy salted navy blue. The Toddler loves the stones and collects them eagerly. I sit on the beach, and intermittently watch the waves and write a few lines. We end up at a decent fish-and-chip café. We followed chips with candy floss. I have no cooker yet but thankfully The Toddler has precious little gastronomic discernment. We love the oldest aquarium on Brighton Pier but disagree as to whether we shall take home sharks and stingrays.

The sea stays in place, the novel gets finished, but  publishers issue such edicts as ‘too original’, ‘powerful but alarming’, ‘emotionally clever but not commercial.’

I think they mean women with nannies won’t buy it.

I decorate the terrace house and leave one wall free for the mounting rejection slips.

Nobody buys the novel with the sea rushing through it. I am not depressed. It is early days.


The River and Cambridge
It is the eighties.

I have swapped men with money and singlehood without, for love and a lovely woman with three daughters, and I have exchanged the canal and the sea for the wonders of a river. It is the river Cam. The Toddler is now a Bright Young Schoolgirl. She and the other three girls join the not-very grownups at the edge of the river on Jesus Green (Cambridge overflows with greens) to listen to the band and tuck into a picnic.

The lovely woman goes to work. She has a real job. Thank goodness for that, we both decide.

It gives me time to write and lie by the riverbank thinking big thoughts. When they are translated into small chapters I send them off to busy agents. ‘Not original enough’ they say. ‘Not sufficiently powerful’ they intone.  ‘Too placid, not alarming.’ They all agree on one thing. ‘Certainly not commercial!’

The lovely woman says four children cost a lot to bring up. Indeed, I think.

I need a day job.

All writers have to have day jobs. I walk to mine by the river watching the punters train for the big race against the Other Place. I have chosen a health-food shop run by a collective. Very brown rice, very left wing, very poor wages. But healthy, sustaining, and you can take home the left-over food after you have cooked for the shop and cooked for the collective. Our kids and their mothers eat a great deal of home-made brown-flour pizza and wish it were white and came from a pizza parlour.

My low wages don’t help our domestic situation much. Maybe I can go for a proper day job. In Cambridge as well as the river there is the university. It is awash with real jobs.

‘Be careful’ warns the lovely woman. ‘It could take you over.’ As always she is right.

My own writing trickles away, I arrive home with important-looking folders and files. Inside are student essays and lists of meetings. All to be done by tomorrow. Suddenly it doesn’t seem like a day job.

Suddenly I have a new speech defect. ‘You’ve come home using The Voice’, says the lovely woman in exasperation. ‘The what?’ I say. ‘Don’t you recognize it?’ she says. ‘It is The Cambridge Voice. Rich, plummy, authoritative!’

Slowly I recognise that I have indeed developed a new voice. I have been taken over. The Voice isn’t me, it isn’t the voice of a writer, or an ordinary person. I drop the day job, that wasn’t of course a day job, that has eaten into my life.

I go back to unimportant tasks that pay badly but leave me free to scribble.

Slowly the scribbling pays off. We celebrate each small success with another picnic by the river. We have graduated from marmite sandwiches to pâté, vegetarian of course.



It is many years later.

I am still in Cambridge. It is a ten-minute walk to the Cam. My study looks out over a green field. Now crowded with language students from a dozen different European and Asian countries.

On my equally crowded bookshelves are fifteen published books of mine alongside many others, better written, jauntier covers, but none I hope so original or alarming.

No publisher has yet taken the novel with the sea running through it.

I’m not despairing. It is still early days.

Sally Cline is Fellow of the RSA and a research fellow at Anglia Ruskin University. Her landmark biographies on Dashiell Hammett, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Radclyffe Hall (shortlisted for a Lambda literary award in 1999) preceded her novel Lily and Max, which is published this year

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