Sunday 25 September 2016

Calder and Boyars, New Writers 1971, John Donovan

Every book has a pedigree. Some books are more pedigree than book. I have been reading a novella by John Donovan, who was a neighbour and friend of my parents when I was growing up. When I was 17 he was 32, a wind from other planets blowing in Maldon, Essex; I first had couscous in his house, for example. We had first read and he second, of last week's New Statesman (?) from the library (at the end of the week they gave them away). He came on all the Ban the Bomb marches; he looked after the bric-à-brac stall at CND jumble sales in the Quaker meeting house (I did the book stall), and went to WEA lectures there, which may have been where he and my parents met. They had a troubled education in common, a desire to understand and to protest injustice and their horror. I didn't know he wrote; I knew he taught art. Whenever he came round I seemed to be washing my hair, he said.

In 1971 he published Anne in a Calder and Boyars new writers volume. His expression on the cover photo is intense, concerned, a slight frown, three-quarter view: everything matters. I took the book from my parents' house after my father died a few years ago; I have also had on my shelves for as long as I can remember, The Worst Journey in the World, whose flyleaf is inscribed with a large mid-blue italic signature: Donovan. Now I learn that John Donovan died last year.

When I read him now I retrieve a fresh calque of my 16 or 17 year-old self. There was John Donovan, walking along the Prom in Maldon, as I was around the same time, flailing about in doubts and desperate distances, as I did, embedding them in everything he saw, as I did. I was writing my diary and he was writing a novella, if he called it that, if he called it anything, if he could extract from the morass of everyday life what happened with Anne. Did she go on Ban the Bomb marches, or was this a girl of a different ilk? Why did he feel guilty? So responsible yet unclear? A difficult relationship to everyday life. In fact no such thing as the everyday. Every thought up for knocking down.
— Why? Harmless enough in itself. Anyway it's preferable to feeling nothing at all isn't it? A quick switch back to the horror of all that makes such dull moments seem not merely acceptable but positively good and desirable, however much the innocent over-sensitive part of oneself protests against it.
Had he missed reality altogether? Had I? Anne is made of burials and silences, hesitation and frustration. Many sentences stop before they've started. There is no explanation, no, nothing that will hold, only openings. Fragments and riffs. Opening one discussion, one philosophy, after another, and then stopping, picking up the everyday, loose hay spread around Platform Nine, the virtue of the Blenheim Orange apple.
'—"justify" eh? That's got a nice sort of something about it. "justify"…'
What would they be using a word like that for nowadays Bert?''
I've no idea Jack.'

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