It always happens somewhere between pages 120 and 150. This is what they tell me, and I suppose there must be something in it, because I only have to get a certain look on my face and the daughter and ex-husband nod knowingly at one another and say: ‘Page 120.’ Invariably, between half and two-thirds of the way through a novel, the whole thing turns to dust. The choice is to take a deep breath and re-write, or chuck the whole thing into the dustbin at just the right moment on a Thursday morning so there’s no time to retrieve it before the dustmen come and claim it. After the event, with a slab of finished manuscript sitting on my desk, I call it a second draft: now with months of work a heap of ashes, a pile of incoherent words whose meaning I cannot for the life of me fathom, I wring my hands, drag my feet, and announce dully to anyone who’ll listen that this time (yes, I know last time, and the time before that, but this time) it’s an irretrievable disaster. And my loved ones yawn as if Karl Popper had never lived.
There’s very little leeway for temperament round here. I think of a long-ago lover who stormed out of my distracting bedroom with his manuscript under his arm, saying, ‘I have to concentrate on my work,’ leaving me entranced by the enormity of the paired pronoun and noun. I’ve tried it once or twice at home, but seem to provoke very little reverence for the magnitude of my task, unless I misread the cocked eyebrows and suppressed giggles. Things can’t be like this for Julian Amis and Kingsley McEwan.
However, this time (page 147) I do not dispose of the current manuscript in the garbage, nor do I roll up my sleeves and just get on with it like a plucky little householder, mother and lady novelist probably ought to. Instead, I pack my laptop into its snappy black case, leave housekeeping money on the kitchen table, give what I hope is an affirmative hug to the daughter, commend her well-being to her father, and bugger off for a fortnight to a place where I don’t have to do anything except sort out the random words of my manuscript into something approximating to a novel I once had in mind.
The place is a health farm in Hampshire. Where else can you go on your own, get a sauna and massage each morning, be fed three times a day and have no interruptions? Apart from Julian Kingsley’s house, if you’re Julian Kingsley, I can’t think of anywhere better. In reality, my haven is a place people go to shed fat and get fit, but by avoiding the exercise classes and the after-dinner talks on the uses of colour analysis in physical and mental well-being, what I have is a hotel with full board, unlimited work opportunities and someone to massage the chain-mail knots of anxiety out of my shoulders and neck.