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when her children returned to school, and she could go ‘guiltlessly’ to her desk. I’ve fallen prey to most of Connolly’s enemies at one time or another. Never drink or drugs, I


WHEN I WAS young, someone for whom I forgot about writing for a long time gave me, with irresistible irony, Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise. I loved it from the start, and go back to it regularly, both when I’m writing and when I’m not. It’s a glorious companion in both conditions. The enemies of promise Connolly fixed in his brilliant, baleful glare in 1938 were the same then, several decades later, and are still the same today. They are: poverty, and all the things writers have to do to avoid it, instead of writing. Politics, which (he agrees) is vital, but which requires coarser thinking than literature, and which above all ‘is apt to become a whole time job’. Daydreams, drink and drugs – or anything that is easier than writing, including conversation, in which ‘a good talker can talk away the substance of twenty books in as many evenings’, like Desmond MacCarthy. And last but not least, sex and its common consequence – a family to take care of, and to be always with us, like the poor. From these pages on marriage glitters the most famous line of the book, and my own favourite: ‘there is no more sombre enemy of art than the pram in the hall’. This is nothing more or less than the great battle between art and life, which artists have waged since the beginning of time. How do we balance the most serious claims of life with our art? Must we seal ourselves off from them entirely, like the aesthetes of the 1890s and 1920s, or the ivory tower purists of any time? Or must we, on the contrary, devote ourselves to them – to drink, as it sometimes seems among American writers, or to political engagement, as classically among the French? What is the right balance between art and life, between writing and not writing, for a writer? Connolly was clear. Even when politics was a matter of ‘life and death, peace and war, fascism and democracy’, as it was in 1938, he wrote, ‘A writer must decide at what remove from the conflagration he can produce his best work and be careful to keep it there.’ As for taking care of your family, we know what he said about that. Everyone, I find, agrees. E M Forster said that a writer should live and read for thirty years, then stop both and start writing; even Jean-Paul Sartre, apostle of engagement, called the first part of his autobiography ‘Lire’ and the second part ‘ÉÉcrire’. All writers who are good enough for us to remember spent every waking moment writing: a glance at their collected works will show you that. And all those who hope to be similarly remembered do the same. I recently heard Michael Ondaatje apologising for it on the radio; and this year’s Booker winner Anne Enright recalling her joy

must admit. But the pram in the hall, for several years; poverty, and its costly remedies; and conversation, which, since I don’t prop up bars like Desmond MacCarthy, means friends to me. I don’t regret a moment spent on them, and even less those spent on the pram. Perhaps if I’d been rich, childless and friendless, I’d have written more, but I can’t feel it would have been worth it. Now, however, I have encountered two of Connolly’s most powerful enemies. The first is a version of the pram in the hall he himself never dreamed of, being only thirty-five in 1938: the wheelchair in the hall, or the need to care for ageing parents. The second is politics. People normally begin as wild revolutionaries, and become steadily more resigned to the injustices of the world as they age. It has been the other way round with me; and it has played havoc with my writing. There are many crises that could have drawn me from my desk: climate change, terrorism and the erosion of our liberties, to name a few. But the one that has enrolled me is asylum: the Western response to the arrival at our rich gates of poor and oppressed people from war zones and failed states, which has been to shut those gates as fast and as hard as we can. This seems to me the worst humanitarian disaster of the twenty-first century, and the one most within our control. So for the last ten years I have been involved in trying to do something about it. For the first five I got deeper and deeper in; for the last five I’ve been trying to get out, but failing. Once you have seen such need, you cannot turn away; that’s why sensible people prefer not to look. For writers, Connolly would have said, it is right not to look. It is not passing by on the other side; it is not a crime. ‘There is but one crime,’ he thunders: ‘to escape from one’s talent’. Often a writer who is escaping from his own talent, from the hound of heaven, will run into what appears to be reality ... And after a time the hounds will be called off, the pursuit weaken ... Thus among the hardest workers in political parties will be found, like Rimbaud at Harar, those whom God has forsaken. It’s terrific. But is it true? Which is the crime? If your work is truly good, perhaps not writing is the crime; but if it is 1938, perhaps not acting is. Only time will tell; but you have to decide now.



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