Spurred on by the positive comments in response to my previous post, I’ve logged reasonable distances over the past week: on Thursday, a couple of miles around the perimeter of Highgate Wood; close to three on Sunday, a good number of those making my way from Herne Hill station to Dulwich Picture Gallery in what, to me, was excesssive heat, and today an amble to the boating pond on Hampstead Heath, a destination since I was old enough to walk from where we lived on the far side of Tufnell Park.
I came here with my father
to sail the yacht he’d crafted
lovingly all summer;
a gift on my winter birthday.
The wind carried it proudly
to the centre and left it there,
from ‘Setting Sail’
In recent years, it’s been my habit to bring a book, then sit and read on one or other of the benches at the southern end of the pond, glancing up occasionally at the movement of moorhens across the water or to nod a greeting to passers-by. Today I’m reading Geoff Dyer’s ‘The Last Days of Roger Federer and Other Endings’: as the title suggests, a zigzag through the final effective years of those whose glory days are largely behind them – whether they are prepared to admit it or not. The points of reference, as one would expect from Dyer, are wide and sometimes surprising – John Berger and Nietzsche, of course (too much Nietzsche?), D. H. Lawrence, Dylan, Larkin, Amis and all those heroes out on Centre Court: Sampras, Becker, Murray and Federer himself. But Hemingway? And Larry McMurtry’s ‘Lonesome Dove’?
Throughout, the underlying questions are the same: how do you know when, as an artist, an athlete, you’re getting towards the end of your productive life? And what do you then do with that knowledge? Quietly retire or – and the dangers of this are manifold – attempt the big comeback? One last job? Where writers are concerned, Dyer seems to suggest, better to let the ink dry, leave the cover on the typewriter, let the latop run down uncharged. Better that than labour to create something a poor shadow of its former self.
In addition to the pleasures of reading Dyer’s prose and following the quicksilver way in which (even at middle age) his mind switches direction, it should be obvious why this particular book of his appeals. The Last Days of …
I thought writers never retired, people say, when I tell them that’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve had two jobs in my life: for a dozen or so years I taught English and Drama in secondary schools, and after that I earned my living writing. At this stage, this age, it’s good to be reminded of both: the occasional message from someone I taught many years ago who remembers with pleasure a particular lesson, a drama production in which they took part; someone in whose life I made a small difference.
And the writing? One thing I’m not going to do is set out on another novel, knowing full well I no longer have the physical or mental resources. But, hopefully, I have a slender collection of new poems on its way before the end of the year, and then, just perhaps, I’ll get around to writing that short story that’s been bugging me since before Covid, the first paragraph of which remains virtually unchanged, despite the number of times it wakes me somewhere close to 4.30 with the suggestion of a small alteration, shift the adverb here, the comma there … Something to cling onto before I’m rendered down to the obituary writers and remainder book dealers …
They found the man’s body first …