How to gain a PhD while losing a father
Alex Lockwood (University of Newcastle, UK)
Like love itself, the doorway is magical.
— Nicholas Royle, Quilt
I hadn’t meant to start at the beginning. I tell my new students, as they struggle to rewrite a creative piece of prose they thought was working, that a story might have ‘dramatic unity’—a beginning, a middle and an end—but that doesn’t mean you have to begin at the beginning. The first paragraphs often get scrapped once you warm up. Where is the beginning, anyway? What was happening before you started?
“In the middle of the night the phone rings, over and over, but I don’t hear it.”
These are the opening words of Nicholas Royle’s novel, Quilt. The beginning. It is a novel about a son’s reaction to the death of his father (a novel is never “about” just one thing, of course). Or, they are not quite the first words. We’ve already had the title, a dedication and an epigraph from W.B. Yeats before we get to “in the middle of the night”. But the novel as we think of it begins not at the beginning, but in a middle. In the middle of the night. In classical terms, in medias res. The phone is ringing. Over and over. As the author (not the narrator—or perhaps also the narrator) tells us in the Afterword, this is how you know it is a novel that has begun: ‘The reader hears about what the narrator doesn’t hear. It is the novel calling.’
The novel calling. This, perhaps, is where I should begin.
The novel that is calling me is a nearly-finished manuscript of a Creative Writing PhD that I’m studying for at Newcastle University, in the North East of England.
It’s sitting downstairs on a side table. I have always wanted to write novels. To be a published novelist. One of my earliest memories is of learning to write joined-up words, linking together individual letters; those first loops and strokes in a red-lined book, knots made like string on my fingers; a code to remember. The psychotherapist Irvin Yalom would say that due to an incomplete parental container in my early years, I expanded my boundaries of self to include what felt safe to me, so that included writing. Another early memory: of my father leaving after an argument; then, a divorce. I remember deciding that instead of crying I’d get my head down and write. I finished my first story at six years old, 18 pages long; I kept writing, and then finished a fantasy novel, typed out on a Continental Silenta, aged 15. And now, the manuscript, waiting for me downstairs.
But any external object (in the psychoanalytic sense, a thing to which one attaches affect) knitted into the fabric of one’s boundary renders it fragile. This is what, perhaps, is at stake when people struggle to do what they love. If writing is part of the container that protects me from the rest of the world, I cannot risk anything happening to it/me. Select from the list: rejection, criticism, completion, finitude, abandonment, death. The certainty that once brought safety turns into psychological inflexibility; one cannot risk writing. The incorporation of writing as an object renders the boundary between self and world a blurry event horizon, and my writing life hovers over that line; sometimes free floating and out of my control, and at other times sucked into its black gravity. Occasionally I find balance and write well, feel content, breathe deeply, smile.
The novel keeps calling. No one answers.
So, I think, let’s go down there, face the music, open it up, get this over with. “Where have you been? I thought you said you’d be around today? Don’t you remember I said I’d call at this time?” says the young woman in Royle’s novel as she grows increasingly concerned at the protagonist’s behaviour as he comes to terms with the absence of his father.
The title of Royle’s novel, Quilt, comes from an obscure 18th century name for the manta ray. The protagonist has already built an aquarium in his father’s lounge for four freshwater rays, and is now building a donut-shaped aquarium in the upper floors for 12 eagle rays. He gives each one a name, the last being “Raymond (N.B. not to be abbreviated)”.
Royle’s (Nick’s) father died while I was a creative writing postgraduate student at Sussex University, he my supervisor, and I was present (in the most peripheral way) to the circumstances that he draws upon in his novel about a father’s death. Kindly, he let me know that he still has on his desk the condolence card I sent him at the time. He looks at it occasionally, he told me, and welcomes it as, I hope, a gift.
I do not count it a coincidence that I am reading Nick’s novel at the same time as facing head-on the disappearance of my father. In many ways, his novel has been a gift in return.
In the middle of the night the phone rings, over and over, but I don’t hear it.
Where should I begin? At the beginning, or in the middle? Alright then. Not to be abbreviated, but Raymond is my middle name. Named after an uncle. My father, Philip, didn’t get his way with my first name (he wanted to call me Ozzy, after the footballer Peter Osgood). Then when I was three years old, he left. A textbook departure, from what I remember. We lived in a flat on a sink estate in South London. An argument over Sunday lunch and spilt gravy, followed by a walk-out-the-door. Like most early memories, it is more dream than reality. A decree nisi followed, alimony, regimented visits each Saturday for the next fifteen years. Then my sister and I grew up. We were no longer children, a court settlement a flimsy reason to sleep over one-weekend-in-four. Now we had to choose to visit. My sister drifted away with friends, smoking and getting into trouble in our hometown’s shopping mall. My visits carried on. But my father had wanted a boy, so we held on for longer. He told me on one of our trips to the local pub (I never saw my father without a pint or can of lager) he’d wanted a boy so much he ruined my mother’s career by getting her pregnant. Or was it he got her pregnant to ruin her career?
The second time he disappeared from my life there was no fixed time or date. I’d stopped contact with him in my final year of an undergraduate English degree some years earlier. His behaviour as an alcoholic had become increasingly erratic, and I’d not been able to handle it. I’d made a few attempts to restart our relationship in the years that followed; all foundering on account of his alcohol-mushed brain or miserable non-stop tears. The latter when sober and cognisant of what he’d done. We lost contact again. Then I got a phone call. He’d been thrown out by Pauline, his second wife, after she found him on the pavement at the dog-end of a three-day binge of lager, vodka, dark rum. She’d had twenty years too many of that behaviour. Hotels and bedsits followed. Another uncle, the young brother Syd, maintained contact. Then my father stopped visiting his grandkids. Then he stopped working. Then the mobile stopped working. Then, nothing.
The last time I visited Syd we went for an Indian meal. Syd was in the navy for 21 years before retraining as a Tai Chi instructor. He and his second wife wanted to open a relaxation spa in the Caribbean—he’d visited during a posting and loved the islands. He told me about his son Gary’s drugs and debt problems. There was a moment somewhere among the poppadums and lime chutney when we both felt we had the wrong relations: his son, my father. Later, waving goodbye at the train station, Syd said: ‘Don’t worry. He’ll get in touch. He’ll show up, once he’s licked his wounds.’
He was talking about my father, although he might also have meant his son. I smiled and said goodbye. A month later we registered my father as a missing person.
It’s been sitting on that side table since the last supervision meeting. It went like this:
I knock. I can see the shape of Andrew, my PhD supervisor, through the frosted glass. He opens the door, I make my way in and sit in the low seat beside a two-tone filing cabinet. It’s a very narrow room.
‘Well, the writing is PhD standard,’ says Andrew, the seven-time (and award-winning) novelist. ‘But if we look at it as a novel that you want to get published…’ he looks down at the laminated cover. The library binding service has chopped out the last twenty pages. I try to fool myself that this makes a difference to what he has to say.
I like Andrew. He knows his narrative onions, as one fellow student put it. He’s seen a number of redrafts, changes in direction. Each time, he says, he’s been impressed with how radically things have improved. But that was before my ten-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week marathon to complete the latest draft. With July and August emptied of all commitments, the summer offered itself as a now or never situation. Could I give it my all? I inhabited the stereotype; set fire to things, didn’t shower. I enjoyed the self-confinement. I found “flow”. I recalled those first loops and strokes of learning how to write. I wrote in italics.
But listening to Andrew tell me that “there’s no story”, that there is no rush to get a novel over with, I realise I have conflated pace with commitment, rapidity with creativity. At times I was churning out over 7,000 words a day. Can there be anything good in such rapid production? Perhaps. ‘The novel must also be a work of love. Which means speed. It means moving, in Shakespeare’s words, “with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love”,’ says Royle, in Quilt’s Afterword. The novelist Gonzalo Barr says he does the same thing: write the draft first, the story later.
But if a novel must also be a work of love then “moving” is perhaps better read in that other sense: as touching, affecting, rather than “wings as swift” as a shag hugging the water’s surface on a pinkly-lit morning, as I walk to work along the river Tyne, my long summer over.
Back in the supervision, Andrew uses the word “disappointed”.
He uses the phrase “unsympathetic”.
I tell my own students not to defend their work; it should hold up for itself. But I do exactly that. My protagonist Maríne is struggling to come to terms with expressing her subjectivity in the emotional spaces of pre-war Europe, a time of rapid social change recorded by the avant garde of Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin etc., who appear in my novel. They write of a new way of expressing human subjectivity where the self is shaped, for the first time, by a formalised language of self-awareness, where a new breed of experts—Freud, and those that followed—use the “psy knowledges” (the term is Nikolas Rose’s) to shape the self. I wanted my protagonist to adopt that style, and resist it at the same time.
Sounds like a PhD, perhaps, but not much like a story.
‘I’d been expecting this relationship to, well…’ begins Andrew, thinking of Maríne’s love interest, based on the writer Lawrence Durrell, and then changes tack. ‘Your novel is all about books. Not people, but books.’
‘I backed away,’ I reply, struggling with my thoughts, ‘because I was uncomfortable with having things happen in fiction when it may not have really been like that.’
‘I think you’ve hit the nail on the head,’ says Andrew. It is my relationship with history that I need to think through.
You can’t have real people doing fictional things, can you? But what writing isn’t a mixture of history and imagination? And what else can you do when an award-winning novelist is telling you there is no story in your novel, and behind you his office colleague, who is really his research assistant, is tapping out the meeting notes they will examine later over a glass or two of…
‘I think there are doors here,’ Andrew says, tapping the manuscript, and with a finality that announces our hour is over, ‘that are still to be opened.’
My relationship with history; I’d backed away.
‘Stop trying to impress us,’ Nick Royle told me years earlier while I was his postgraduate student at Sussex. He was right, of course. Using my writing, I was looking for recognition from a father-figure. I had realised this then (without being able to do much about it) and now sitting with Andrew, perhaps more so. Yes: here I am, and there I was, the time is both now and the supervision happened both days and years ago, and now, even later, too late, the manuscript still rests downstairs on my side table.
My black cat, Misha, sniffs at it, and jumps away.
My father grew up in Glasgow, brought up by his grandmother while his parents, an army couple, were posted around the world, having five more children. As my uncle Syd told me, my father ‘just wanted to understand why he was left at home’. But it was a problem that neither of us felt we could help with. And so we didn’t look very hard for my father when he originally went missing. Instead we waited for him to lick his wounds.
‘What are the limits at which we withdraw our sympathy and support for a person?’ asks Kathleen Woodward in her book Statistical Panic. She is discussing Elizabeth Swados’s memoir The Four of Us, and the moment that Elizabeth sees two homeless men on a park bench and realises one of them is her schizophrenic brother, Patrick. Swados stops, hugs and sits with him, talks about his busking. And then she walks off, goes home and sleeps. Less than a year later Patrick is dead. Woodward tries to make sense of the situation: ‘When we can’t do something, anything to help, we may find ourselves taking refuge in sleep, sick with ourselves, depressed.’ Swados writes of herself: ‘I’ve asked myself many hundreds of times why I didn’t find an apartment for my brother, and I have no real answer.’
Perhaps the reason why my uncle and I do not search for my father is that we don’t have the answer to Woodward’s question: what are the limits at which we withdraw our sympathy and support? Or more starkly: What do we do if we find him alive? Do I bring him home with me, shave him, wash him, find him somewhere to live? Irvin Yalom, discussing a mother who has lost a daughter but still has two living sons who she is neglecting, suggests ‘one must learn to live with the living before one can learn to live with the dead’. But what happens if the person in question is both alive and dead? While visiting London last winter (when newspapers carried stories of homeless people freezing to death) I refused to look at the faces of men in doorways for fear that I would recognise one of them.
My partner K says I’m intellectualising the situation. But I’m just trying to write it out.
After seeing her brother, Elizabeth Swados goes home and sleeps for fourteen hours straight. This amazes Woodward. But I understand. I too take refuge in sleep, although I’ve only slept through the night once in my life. The condition is called Type 2 Insomnia, an inability to stay asleep. It is an anxiety disorder of the most mediocre medical importance—not serious enough to get serious about—but of a debilitating form even so: what would I have achieved, how many novels would I have written, if I hadn’t operated at seventy per cent for my adult life (through a sleeplessness which began when I was about three, when my father left)? This world knows and cares too little about the sleepless. ‘The insomniacs are the historians of the present,’ says cultural theorist Lauren Berlant. We may as well be homeless too, if home is never safe enough to loosen the anxieties of living, just for the night.
A few weeks after that supervision session I had dinner with a friend. He is a barrister in London. This is the friend who, when my novel is published, will receive the dedication. Repayment for the critical friendship he has deployed over twenty years in nagging me to become the writer I profess I wish to be. I had considered asking him for help in finding my father. Not because he’s a barrister who might understand where to begin looking, but because his mother, a successful local politician, was also an alcoholic, and died too soon. I used to spend my Christmases with his family because, if I was there, his mother wouldn’t drink. In the end I didn’t ask for help. Instead, we spoke about a book we might work on together, a case file that, he says, will make a best-selling thriller. The story has everything: ruthless characters, gruesome murders, family betrayal, but most of all, a phone call. ‘It’s where it began,’ he said. ‘I was in the office about to go home and the phone rang. It was this case.’
For Royle, ‘the novel is a kind of weird telephone exchange’. It is the mystery of being on the end of the line. It is a mystery that J.B. Pontalis writes about in his prose poem At the End of the Line where he records the phone calls from his aged mother, every night, at 8.15pm. By being there, every night, at the end of the line, Pontalis imagines he forestalls his mother’s death until after his own, so they can go through death’s door together, ‘go through a succession of rooms, or rooms whose double-locked doors would open one by one at the sound of their voices.’
As Joan Didion in her memoir of her husband’s unexpected death suggests, this is “magical thinking”: that the dead are not yet dead. That the sound of a voice will return to unlock doors still to be opened. It is this troubling and wonderful idea that is implicated in the power of the telephone call that is “the novel calling”. As Royle continues:
‘There is a literary telephony or, better perhaps, a literary telepathy, that has to do with the singular nature of magical thinking in literature. To read a novel is to enter a world of magical thinking. (This doesn’t mean you’re mad or “believe in superstition” or have to surrender your reason at the door: like love itself, the doorway is magical.)’
After dinner, my barrister friend and I went to the pub. We each drank four pints of Wandle bitter, brewed using water from the river Wandle that flows through south London near where my father lived, where I visited him every weekend for fifteen years. And then we walked home. I didn’t mention anything about my father being missing. I don’t know who I’ve told and who I haven’t any more. Telling people means I face his disappearance. It means the missing are really missing. It means his possible death, of course, but also his possible life. I think: If I finish my novel, will I get the call?
In the middle of the night the phone rings, over and over, but I don’t hear it.
These questions are all doors I need to open. I know that, but who will be behind them?
And is this why I’ve taken so long to finish the damn book?
Sunday afternoon. After moping up and down Longsands beach on the Northumberland Coast, I drive to the supermarket so K and I can buy vegetables and a bottle of sparkling wine for a roast dinner. To overcome my sense of desperation. It’s a Sunday thing; I’ve put an alarm into my mobile phone to go off Saturday nights as a reminder. It says: “don’t get depressed!” Has it ever been so down the centuries? Or is it a trait of late modernity, now that God is dead? Every day is like Sunday is a Morrissey hit, not a church hymn. The novelist Jean Rhys, too, knew the demon—the narrator of Good Morning, Midnight dreads Sundays. For Jonathan Franzen, writing in his Harper’s essay ‘Why Bother?’, depression is the result of realising writing novels will not change your life, nor your world. We raid the Sainsbury’s “reduced” section for red cabbage and Brussels sprouts; I grab a bottle of sparkling. All of a sudden life doesn’t feel quite so bad.
After a highly successful and cheerful Sunday lunch, I grab a piece of A4 paper and divide it into four, and in each quarter I write in turn the subheadings Peace, Achievement, Fun and Stability (the four self-help horseman of the apocalypse). I then ask K to help me note down all the habits, in their alarming specificity, that obstruct me from achieving the subheading and, therefore, my grander life goals (“Published Novelist” etc.). I want to note them all, good or bad, in the belief that any habit is a sign of psychological inflexibility, of that rigid boundary container. The first failing, under Stability, is “eating a bar of chocolate every day”. Other examples include, under Fun, “not answering the phone to friends”. Under Achievement I put “take on too many things at any one time”.
With this list exposed, I imagine, I can cure myself of my negative rituals, and just write.
A week later K is holding me to her as I cry and she is telling me that even as I was filling in my sheet of A4 she knew it was “bollocks”. That the habits were symptoms, not causes, and pointless things to focus on if I wasn’t dealing with my father being missing. As Irvin Yalom says of the therapeutic relationship (I didn’t quote this to K; she’s not taken with self-help narratives): ‘If something big in a relationship is not being talked about then nothing else of importance will be discussed either.’ I know this in my bones, and I know it applies to all important relationships. What is clear to me now is that one such important relationship is with writing itself. Or: as in life, so in the novel. If I cannot call my writing honest, it will not answer back. A case of (only being able to) write what (little) you know (about yourself).
Or, rather, there are doors here that still need to be opened. I need to face the disappearance of my father, because if I do not open those doors, I cannot write well. Because behind them is the only magic out of which a novel can be made.
It’s late. I’ve missed a call from K. I left my mobile downstairs and on silent. In the middle of the night the phone rings, over and over, but I don’t hear it. One of those habits I’ll need to break if I want my life to be full of Fun, Stability, Peace and Achievement. The mobile is on the side table with the manuscript of my novel. It is, quite literally, calling me.
‘To read a novel is to enter a world of magical thinking,’ says Royle. For Woodward, magical thinking is best imagined as that ‘enigmatic force of believing, really believing, that the person grieved for is speaking from beyond the borders of life.’
Somewhere in all of this magical thinking is a way forward. My father is still missing, but rather than avoid writing about him (by, say, setting my PhD novel as far from my life as possible, in 1930s Paris with a young woman as a narrator) I have begun to think about him in relationship to my work. Not to write a novel about him, perhaps (not yet…) but to write as a means to begin grieving. To write out of love and hurt, yes, as Hemingway instructs us to, but also to write as if one were opening doors. Although that is difficult when the person grieved for is not quite beyond the doors of life; not dead, but missing.
‘The novel,’ says Royle, is ‘a space for “quilted thinking”: instead of “narrative perspective”, “first person narration”, “indirect discourse”, “point of view”, “focalisation” and so on, there would be layers and pockets of voices, feelings, thoughts.’
My father was never a big reader. That was my mother. But it is something of my father’s shape and story that wait, behind closed doors, for the novel I’m writing to be finished. A novel full of voices, feelings, thoughts, I hope. Quilted thinking feels a way into this process.
And like love itself, those are the doors I need to open.
Alex Lockwood is a writer, researcher and journalist interested in, among other things, human impacts upon animals and the natural world. He has just completed a novel set in 1930s Paris that tells the story of the first lobotomy. He lives in Newcastle, UK, where he cooks vegan food, runs marathons and volunteers as an advocate for animals.