The infinite possibilities of language
How did you get into it?
I’ve written for as long as I can remember, but school was a bit of a disaster for me; my education really began after leaving. With few qualifications, but nursing a strong urge to go on learning, I read Greek tragedy, ancient history, Victorian novels, poetry and philosophy in my spare time. I sometimes sent poems and short stories out to journals and magazines while doing a series of truly awful jobs. Eventually my brother and one or two friends persuaded me I should apply to enter university as a mature student. I did and I was hooked…
What do you enjoy about it?
I’m a compulsive writer, dazzled by the apparently infinite possibilities of language. My writing, teaching and research emerge from and feed that fascination. I love teaching because I’m excited by what I read; I want to help others experience a similar thrill.
Best book for literature students?
That’s a tricky one because books ARE what I do. My office is full of books, my flat is crammed with books, and my car is littered with sandwich wrappers… and books. To ask me to choose just one is like asking Maria von Trapp to pick her favourite child. But if you haven’t read George Eliot’s Middlemarch, it’s probably time you did. When it comes to literary criticism Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending is hard to beat. I think of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology as the most important book of the twentieth century.
Most of my heroes are musicians, especially singer-songwriters: Bob Dylan because he redefined singing and reinvented the song; Leonard Cohen because seeing him live came close to being a religious experience; Joni Mitchell because her intelligent lyrics combine with rich and complex music (and she’s a terrific painter). Literary heroes include: Robert Browning (his long poem The Ring and the Book is an undervalued and little-read masterpiece); Marian Evans (George Eliot) is to my mind the greatest English novelist (she was also a philosopher, translator, scholar and rule-breaker). I’m a fan too of great comedy writers such as Victoria Wood, Caroline Aherne and Graham Linehan.
Advice to people considering this career path
If you are a writer you’ll write no matter what. But learning to write well demands wide reading. I found that studying English Literature at university made all the difference to my ability to realize my goal; it taught me about language, literature and the mechanics of written English. It fostered disciplined effort and provided me with the know-how to conduct the kind of research that underpins most forms of published writing.