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?
‘Yaaaggghhhh!’ I recall Ian screaming on the morning we first met at the UEA coffee bar, when the tea melted through his cheap plastic cup and spilled a second-degree burn on his thigh. I’d literally just walked into the place off the plane from Ohio University to spend a year studying political history at UEA. By noon we had met up with two girls Ian knew and, by evening, the four of us had consumed a clean lid of California’s largest cash crop. What happened over the next few days remains fuzzy, but I do remember waking up in the West Parade apartment in shock and confusion with a woman from Glasgow whom I didn’t understand, and the most horrible stench I’d ever smelled coming from the kitchen. Ian screamed he was cooking kippers, I thought he said mutilating Flipper, and the girl from Glasgow mumbled something about breakfast and bit deeply into my flesh. This was my introduction to the UK and later 20th-century English literature.
Ian wrote fiction for literary magazines, I wrote non-fiction for Time Out, and we were so good at it that there was never enough money to pay the electricity bill. Ian was my first British friend – a man of liberal sympathies, broad understanding, and a desire to spend vacations in West Germany. Despite the many years since our last conversation, I often find myself nostalgically drifting back to West Parade. The hellish North Sea wind tore through the third-floor apartment every day and I thought: wonderful, only lunatics would attend a university in Norwich. We had one of those rusted paraffin heaters, a huge, clanging metal beast with German markings that defeated its intended purpose because we had to keep the windows open to avoid death by poison gas. George McGovern was running for President, Edward Heath was prime minister, and our landlord had yet to discover how to make water hot. Sick dialogue came easy in Norwich.
What Ian always had was a great library, an ominous tide of titles that splashed out of rickety wooden bookshelves in the sitting-room. I remember him grandly holding forth on writers, his body freezing in mid-sentence to drive home a point. There was Gordon Wasson on mushrooms, William Emboden on narcotic plants, D.H. Lawrence on meeting interesting women, and Marcel Proust babbling about French society in a most peculiar syntax. I’d never heard of any of these writers; the slow-rising central horror of education in Middle America is that Great Expectations and that hollow little bastard Pip represent all there is to know about transatlantic fiction.
Meanwhile evidence was building up that Ian was going to be a great fiction writer. I was certain of this when I saw him being chased through one of the UEA’s concrete-bunker classrooms by a gnarled literature professor in a roach-eaten tweed jacket, the old bird screaming something about ‘agonising reappraisals’. Fortunately, Ian was quicker, and he managed to make it into the coffee bar without further incident.
It was a good crowd in Norwich, though. Paul, a soft-spoken Geordie, who drove us to every Guinness-drinking contest in Norfolk in a three-wheeled car built for war veterans crippled while fleeing Dunkirk; Guy Taylor-Smith, whose wild-man beard and icicle eyes scared small animals and UEA professors alike; and Claude Hislare, an American born in Geneva and invited to leave two Ivy League universities by the time he was 20. Claude and I shared an apartment for a short while – until he figured it was time to quit UEA because he was never going to be able to do anything strange enough to force the administration to ask him to leave. Claude was the product of a family of diplomats. He was fluent in three languages and a brilliant philosophy student. He could also consume more recreational drugs in one day than the entire student population at Berkeley could in a semester.
Claude wanted to hit the old hippie trail, head east, and find out what was happening in places like Uzbekistan. It was impossible to enter the sitting-room on West Parade in the weeks that led up to Claude’s departure. Books and maps and first-aid kits stuffed with everything from tetanus shots to industrial-strength tablets of Vitamin C had been scattered everywhere. We were all impressed with Claude’s dedication to the journey, and grateful when he finally emerged from the room to tell us that he would begin his trip in Amsterdam.
Ian threw Claude a farewell party that lasted the better part of two days. Then Ian and I drove him out to the two caravans that had been welded together and called Norwich International Airport. Smoke and the Velvet Underground filled my old Mini as we swung through the roundabout and into the parking-lot. Ian had just had his first major short story published in Time Out and London agents were hovering like buzzards over West Parade. Claude spun around on the tarmac to shout that he was going to read it on the way to Amsterdam. Ian ran over to him through the rain and jokingly signed the copy. We said little on the way back to West Parade, but Ian and I both sensed that Claude had been condemned the moment the plane took off.
Claude called 48 hours later, naked and in panic, from a police station where the cops had wrapped him in a blanket. He’d been befriended by some French junkies at the Amsterdam crash-pad he had discovered in the Hippie Guidebook. They’d robbed him bare while he slept, including the copy of Time Out with Ian’s autographed story in it. We took up a collection to bring Claude back, but he used the money to get down to Geneva, from where he disappeared into an oblivion that I’ve always wondered about. The ironic thing is that Claude approaches being one of the characters in Black Dogs, although I doubt Ian planned it that way. When Ian asked him why he was leaving school and his girlfriend to pound a hippie trail which by 1973 had been bottle-necked with decayed karma, Claude said, ‘To find what it good and what is missing,’ quoting some philosopher he had studied.
Claude was standing in the rain when he told Ian about his undertaking and Ian said that such pursuits defined both the joy and the sadness of our era. And I really never knew why I constantly dredged up that scene whenever I put down one of your stories until I finished reading Black Dogs. Explaining this to you on the fly in the Uzbek capital makes me feel like the announcer – and you the confused participant – in the old Firesign Theatre sketch of the woman who’s worked so hard to win a game show prize. ‘You’ve won a bag of shit!’ the announcer shouts. ‘A bag of shit?’ the woman responds. ‘Yes! But it’s a great bag of shit, Mrs Krezkie!’
I’m slicing off a tangent here, but you understand what’s going down. Twenty years is a long time between two separate lives, but I’d still bet you haven’t lost your great wit and the eloquence to chronicle what happened to out generation. The problem is that you’d never know it from reading Black Dogs. Okay, Ian.
I can see you think I’m a crank. It doesn’t matter. This is what I know. Human nature, the human heart, the spirit, the soul, consciousness itself – call it what you like – in the end, it’s all we’ve got to work with. It has to develop and expand, or the sum of our misery will never diminish.
That’s a glowing piece of deep writing, but the character saying it sounds like the blown tyre who hosts Master Chef 1992. Although the characters in Black Dogs are forged in the vacuum of chaos and natural human weirdness, they come across as long-dead corpses brought back to life to compare photos of Clement Attlee. Maybe that’s what you wanted to do, but I find it hard to get excited when someone with your jazz writes about an English couple setting off on a doomed honeymoon in 1946 to enjoy the new freedoms found at the end of WWII. That was a long time ago, and such underlying themes are fodder for old men on fortified wine and cookery school matrons who’ve never been further south than Calais. The cast of Black Dogs is certainly tormented with the wonderful dark and twisted curiosity that has always characterised your writing, but they don’t echo anyone we really know. Black Dogs is a crafty novel, but its scenes are like rubbings from a black marble tombstone on the outskirts of some forsaken English village. I keep waiting for you to write the ‘McEwan novel’ that defines our age, not well-written, critically-acclaimed books about whacked-out post-war Brits with no pulse, jabbering mystically about sexuality. Could be you need to crank up my Harley and head off to discover the sum of contemporary fears and miseries.
In the Twenties and Thirties respectable families were locking their pregnant daughters away in mental institutions. Unmarried mothers were marched through the streets, humiliated by the organisations that were supposed to be looking after them. Girls killed themselves trying to abort. It looks like madness now.
Have you been outside recently? I’ve been in Russia for what seems like a century and even I know that respectable families continue to lock their daughters away, unmarried mothers enter family-planning clinics stoned by fundamentalist animals, and that girls are dying every day trying to abort in secret. It’s still mad out there, and it’s still a hell of a lot worse and unearthly than the Black Dogs pack could ever imagine. In America we have one Presidential candidate whose problem is that he never inhaled marijuana, another whose problem is that he never exhaled marijuana, and a President who doesn’t breathe at all. I cover this stuff as a journalist, from a place where the powerful questions you raise in your novels arc obediently not asked. You need to get back to the Front for a while. The alleged novelists up here on the line now are hopelessly confused.
I accept the point that trawling the neon swamp of contemporary reality might no longer be your primary interest as a writer of fiction, but I’ve seen too many of the good guys from our lifetime – writers, artists, businessmen – get lost in the mazes you so captivatingly explain. They turn into rich thugs, suck their brains out through cocaine pipes, or get blind-sided by Aids. The novelists who have tried to capture these obsessions, cravings and blood curses have all failed. They need your attention. You’ve always written about life’s crossroads and the strange passions and intolerable wounds that make people grow and disappear. Nobody knows, for sure, what happened to Claude. Maybe you don’t know, either, but it would be more than worth the price of admission if you tried to find out. Enough is enough. The time has come. Other than that, great book; I’m leaving it on the desk in Room 507 in the Hotel Uzbekistan, right next to the Koran.