A. Craig Copetas
McEwan, I tried to call you on the radio telephone, when our old flatmate, John Webb, fell overboard in a gale off the coast of Long Island a few years ago and was nearly swept south to Bermuda. But the old Oxford number had been disconnected, and your publisher told me that you were ‘indisputably a hugely important literary phenomenon’ and not taking any calls. Jonathan Cape’s posture is completely understandable given the current funeral atmosphere in England, but the psychic ramifications of Black Dogs are global in reach, and people we know are calling with questions. This is the reason the London Review has made contact, and why I’m sitting in a seedy hotel room in Uzbekistan writing about Black Dogs, instead of filing a report on the gunfire outside my window. Which is getting closer, by the way.
Shaking the memory of some of our experiences together as young writers at the University of East Anglia and in London might get you in the mood for what’s to come, not the stuff about the late-night tattoo sessions and the three-week hunt for Mr Hashish, the Afghan border guard who stole your US Army fatigue jacket with the ‘vitamins’ sewn into the lining. Those stories are probably best kept under wraps, at least until you die, or until I can use them to fulfil the ransom demands when you’re kidnapped, probably by a gifted amateur entomologist like Bernard in Black Dogs. And people will be coming after you. Lighten up on the 17th-century flute concertos and the Olympia Press reprints and crank up the Lou Reed. This kind of macabre stuff about frothing hell hounds spooks the animal liberation crowd, stimulates the devil-worshippers, and cultivates police interest in your whereabouts whenever a serial killer is discovered stalking the English moors. I warned you about this years ago, when you first started weirding-out the crowd at the Mitre with stories of pickled sexual organs floating in mason jars and when the Catholic bartender wanted you burned for blasphemy. We made it out of Norwich’s psychedelic underworld alive and intact, but these are different times.
You always wrote whipsong fiction and Black Dogs is not different, but I’m distressed about this fly-agaric gloom that your characters are stuck in. Webb locked himself in a closet after reading this book, screaming that Roman Polanski was coming to get him. As soon as I make it out of Tashkent and back to Paris, I intend to rip my shirt off, run into the street, and start spitting garlic at the first English couple I can find honeymooning in France. ‘June came to God in 1946 through an encounter with evil in the form of two black dogs ... But it is the black dogs I return to most often. They disturb me when I consider what happiness I owe them, especially when I allow myself to think of them, not as animals, but as spirit hounds, incarnations ... fading as they move into the foothills of the mountains from where they will return to haunt us, somewhere in Europe, in another time.’ United Europe or not, if the French minister of culture reads this book, there will be an immediate law passed ordering every British honeymoon holidaymaker back across the Channel before sunset. Jesus, Ian, what do Bernard and June do in their next adventure, invade Poland to rape the Black Madonna?
The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 14 No. 14 · 23 July 1992
The Craig Copetas I knew was a regular visitor to my flat in West Parade, Norwich during the autumn of 1972. He was a loud, friendly American with a tendency to mythologise; overnight, a puff on a joint and a bag of crisps would become a two-day orgy. My flatmate then was John Webb, who now lives in Vancouver. We welcomed Copetas in, as we did many others, but later on we began, rather guiltily, to avoid him; he was perfectly harmless, but he was also too excited, too garrulously amazed by his life to be interesting company. Who would want to hold that against him now? We were all young and excited. But today he pops up in your pages (LRB, 25 June) reminiscing in the Gonzo style, twenty years older and curiously unchanged.
Things have come to a sorry pass in a fellow’s life when there appears to be advantage in posing as a flatmate of mine, and I would have let the matter rest had not Copetas also offered me his advice on writing and ‘reality’. I think I catch his self-loving drift – he wants me to write like a stoned hippy. But I never did that, even, or especially, when I was one. I write like this.
For the record then: I never shared a flat with Craig Copetas. We were never writers ‘together’, and we never picked up girls together. This person Claude, whom I do not recall, did not set out on his journey to oblivion from my flat, I threw no party for him and nor did I accompany him to the airport – and so on. But who cares what happened? Only me, I suppose, and my old friend, John Webb. I am sure Craig Copetas remembers those times well enough to write an honest, amusing piece, but here he has attached himself into my past, or me into his, in a way that is predatory and fraudulent. The whole piece is, as William Burroughs might observe, a tissue of horseshit. Yaaaggghhhh indeed!
Craig Copetas writes: Is it not amazing how, as our generation gets older, our perceptions of the past diverge? I am grateful that the Ian McEwan I knew let me live in the back room at West Parade for as long as I did. I am sorry, however, that he has lost his sense of humour.
Vol. 14 No. 15 · 6 August 1992
Since my name was invoked in delirium in a piece called ‘Yaaaggghhhh’ (LRB, 25 June), please allow me to clear my name and clear the air. I was quite surprised that London Review should grant A. Craig Copetas enough column inches to exhaust his readers and his entire vocabulary, and to cobble together what, in effect, amounted to a second review of Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs in the same issue. Mr Copetas was far too modest when he disclaimed his own fictive aspirations, for there was certainly a good deal of fiction in ‘Yaaaggghhhh’. Despite this apparent modesty, however, there was a sufficient undercurrent of self-congratulation in the piece to show that his red-blooded, straight-shooting, Mid-Western candour has not been undermined by the English cultural malaise which he so boldly takes to task.
Ian McEwan must powerfully regret that he doesn’t have the kind of objective correlatives which would have made Black Dogs more congenial to good ol’ boys like Craig: firearms, narcotics and dog-eared first drafts from the trash-cans of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. ‘I’m sitting,’ notes Mr Copetas, blushing furiously and wringing his baseball cap in his hand, ‘in a seedy hotel room in Uzbekistan writing about Black Dogs, instead of filing a report on the gunfire outside my window. Which is getting closer, by the way.’ Black dogs be damned! Copetas had the dogs of war snapping right at his heels. Meanwhile Ian McEwan – his radical, now-generation credentials sorely discredited – is sitting in Oxford without so much as a single bullet to jolt the creative synapses.
What are Craig Copetas’s recommendations for the real ‘McEwan novel’ which he accuses the author of not having written yet? Go to the ‘Front’, he says, which for some reason he seems to think is a hotel with inadequate room service. Ride a Harley Davidson. Write about businessmen ‘who suck their brains out through cocaine pipes or get side-blinded [sic] by Aids’. Think more earnestly about abortion clinics. Get real, get stoned, get shot of all your mincing inhibitions. Take note, English writers everywhere. Throw your cardigans away and walk and fly. Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Graham Swift, Fay Weldon and Wendy Cope must be smacking their heads and wondering how they could have ignored such a grand prescription. Who will take up the gauntlet? Who will publish and be damned? Who will write The Hound of Uzbekistan?
Vol. 14 No. 16 · 20 August 1992
Even if he were right, which intuitively I doubt, I wonder about the necessity of Ian McEwan’s mean-spirited attack on Craig Copetas (Letters, 23 July). His cruelty makes for ugly reading and diminishes him in my mind as both a writer and a man.
Vol. 14 No. 17 · 10 September 1992
J.L. Sievert announces (Letters, 20 August) that ‘Ian McEwan’s mean-spirited attack on Craig Copetas … diminishes him in my mind as both a writer and a man.’ This news would be as unremarkable as the rather silly but more innocent article that sparked this correspondentce, but for his protecting Copetas much as one would a wounded bird, an attitude which – judging from the other’s consistent tone – is unnecessary. Personally (and I realise that this is no more significant than Sievert’s view: but you printed his), I think McEwan no more capable of exercising ‘cruelty’ to his alleged old flatmate than the latter is of any sound criticism of his work. They seem to be speaking different languages. Having read Black Dogs and the rest of McEwan’s writing, I do have an opinion as to which is the more communicative.
I’m on a C-130 out of Belgrade en route to Sarajevo. A. Craig Copetas is still on the ground trying to amuse the Serbs, and I’m extremely unhappy. I happen to have found in the cockpit a copy of your influential magazine which contains a somewhat derogatory attack on my colleague and friend Craig (Letters, 23 July), by this person of whom I’ve never heard, though Mr Copetas assured me over the sat-phone a few moments ago that this person truly exists.
I’ve also just consulted Dr Hunter S. Thompson and other medical experts as to the validity of Mr Copetas’s existence and background. These experts assure me that everything that happened during that period with this chap McEwan is totally and utterly true (surprise!). If McEwan honestly believes that he shares no past with Mr Copetas, I suggest that he contact Woody Creek directly, where I’m told McEwan’s book, Black Dogs, is about as popular as The Life of Lenin, and should McEwan arrive within the immediate community, he might consider having a flak jacket (which Craig might reluctantly lend him) in his wardrobe. It seems that McEwan and others have reacted like mad dogs over Craig’s humorous and extremely poignant piece on Black Dogs. Now the British literary establishment is daring to take up McEwan’s call to arms … Yo, Saddam!