|Jan/Feb 2008 Nonfiction
The day I asked Blake Morrison if he raced pigeons, there was a bad vibe in the tiny Goldsmiths classroom at the University of London. There was no air. The windows were shut and the blinds closed. The tension was unbearable. The others grew restless. Hostility broke out. One blonde Fiona took against another blonde Natasha over something very silly indeed.
"Leave it art," I said, in my best Eastenders. "She's not worf it."
The highlight of my Creative Writing MA was always going to be the Blake Morrison lecture. His Guardian observations at the Jamie Bulger murder trial were sharp: how Venables had gone to suck his thumb, and Thompson had verbally abused him. His book about his father dying of cancer, And When Did You Last See Your Father, was brilliant. The pedestrian rage incident was raw and vivid. The book was full of anger. I was looking forward to hearing a voice of reason amidst the bickering bints.
But months before the timetable arrived, before I even knew I had a place on the course, tragedy stuck. My girlfriend had booked us both to fly to the sun, and Blake's lecture would fall on the one day I couldn't attend. I was heartbroken.
With the new lecture timetable in my hand, I asked her whether she could possibly rebook the flight. No, she could not. It was too late in the day. She would lose the money. I would have to miss Blake Morrison. I asked if she was committed to me doing an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths. She said she was not. She wanted to know why the hell I'd walked out of my job at Cellnet. She wanted to know why I could no longer drag myself to work each day like a "normal person." I said I was sick of working for people who couldn't find their backsides with both hands. She said I would have to get used to working for people like that because she was not going to fund my MA, or whatever I called it. I said it made sense that one of us should branch out into the arts. We couldn't both be at the forefront of technology. Something had to give. One of us had to opt out, run a home, replace fuses, clean the loo.
She moved the holiday, and lost a load of money, too, just so I could see the great Blake Morrison.
But this Blake Morrison lecture, the one where I asked him if he raced pigeons, was not the original Blake Morrison lecture set down in the timetable of lectures. Oh, no. On that day, the day I'd persuaded my girlfriend to lose a load of money, the great Blake Morrison decided not to turn up.
I thought it wise not to tell my girlfriend.
"How was your Blake Morrison lecture?"
"Fine—I mean great—I mean—life changing."
"So, what did he teach you?"
"Not to... you know—give up."
"Yes, never give up. Keep right on writing—to the end of the road."
"How much did this course cost you?"
So the lecture was rescheduled, and eventually, to everyone's relief, Blake Morrison was in the building, Blake Morrison was in the corridor, Blake Morrison was in the classroom. He arrived with the tutor and sat down. He shuffled his books. Hundreds of post-its stuck out of the really good pages he was going to read.
The Fionas and Natashas settled down. Blake was going to teach these spoilt kids a thing or two about life, about the university of hard knocks. After all, their life experience was learned via their devotion to soap operas. Blake and me, we had so much in common, both being from the wrong side of the tracks. It was Blake and me against the world.
I listened to Blake's fascinating poem about the psychopathic Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, and of course, his tales of how tough it was to write about his dying father. What a guy his father was, having an affair and fearlessly facing cancer all in one lifetime.
And then I noticed something strange. Far from having their curls knocked out of place by Blake Morrison, the Veronicas were leaning on their chins and gazing at him with their mouths slightly open. They were enraptured by his rugged, north-country grammar school charm. He was not exactly the noble savage, but I got their drift. His accent sounded just north enough of Watford to remain on the London radar. His clothes were first class train traveler casual. Here was a northerner diced and served up in London style for people who think it's always Sunday evening in the north, and the Antiques Roadshow is always on TV, and it's always raining whippets. Here was a northerner who was man enough to look mass murderers and cancer in the eye and write about them both, and the Veronicas loved every bit of him for it.
At some point, I started repeating to myself, "Boys will be boys." Then Blake finished, and question time came. I went first. I started by asking why he always wrote about dangerous men, but as I progressed, I rambled, and as I rambled unchallenged, I moved into dangerous territory. Why was he so tough? Why was he such a man? Was it because he really wasn't a writer at all? Was it because he really raced pigeons?
The class roared. They were united for once, against me. The tutor clapped her hands together and looked at the floor. Mentioning pigeons to a northern writer of such high esteem was obviously embarrassing, uncalled for, and downright rude. I stood up.
"I'm sorry," I said. "Did I say something funny?"
Roars turned to howls. I jabbed a finger towards Morrison.
"That's what you are, aren't you? A pigeon fancier?"
The class went silent. Blake placed his book on the desk and looked up at me.
"I am a writer," he said. "I know nothing about racing pigeons."
I was disappointed. I thought he might at least have known the basics of that fine sport.