The public letter writer

I have been intrigued by the idea of the public letter writer for about forty years. In my twenties I was lucky enough to spend a fortnight in Ghana. That was wonderful in a number of ways. My enduring memories include the slave fort at Cape Coast, and a funeral at Elmina where the dancers were wearing costumes based on eighteenth-century grenadiers, floppy tasseled caps and all.

I can’t remember where it was I saw the letter writers. It wasn’t a big or impressive market. Some of the traders -mostly women – were just sitting on the bare ground with their meagre stock spread in front of them waiting for customers to come.

At the edge of market there were a couple of folding tables. Behind each was a folding chair. You cannot have an office without at least a table and a chair.

Each of the tables was protected by a tall umbrella from the sun. The umbrellas were secured in the ground. They must have had a spike at the end of the handle.

In the centre of each of the tables was an old Underwood or a Remington. I was still using my father’s old Remington at the time. I loved it.

Around the typewriters was the rest of the stock in trade. A packet of envelopes, a sheaf of paper, a pile of printed official forms.

The proprietors of the businesses were standing a little to one side. Business must have been a little slack.

They weren’t laughing or joking. These were serious men. I have the impression that one was wearing a traditional Ghanaian shirt with trumpet sleeves, and perhaps a skullcap, and that at least one of them was looking scholarly in glasses.

Public letter writers exist to write what their clients would have written if they could have written it themselves. I thought it was wonderful.

I hadn’t really settled down to anything when I left college. The fantasy of being a writer was still too strong. I was in and out of short-lived, unsatisfactory jobs.

If I had thought there was a market for public letter writers in England, I would have wanted to be one.

I have heard of public letter writers in other African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The narrator of Naguib Mahfouz’ Children of the Alley is a letter writer. He is the first person in the Alley to have made a living from writing. Nobody understands him.

Public letter writers must have been fairly widespread in the Third World at one time. When there is a modern government which does its business on paper, a population which is largely illiterate and unemployed school leavers public letter writers are going to exist.

I would imagine they were an urban phenomenon. There can’t have been enough business in the villages for full-time specialists in letter writing.

Nowadays the public letter writers are being made redundant by computers. I feel sad.

Many years later I had the opportunity to work as a community mental health advocate. My sister says I was paid to make trouble, and did it.

I used to do correspondence for vulnerable people, and fill in forms for people who were paralysed by their anxiety about the bureaucracy. I was instructed. I was supposed to do what the clients wanted, and not what I thought was good for them. I often used to see the resemblance between what I was doing and what a public letter writer did.

The young woman whose story eventually prompted me to write In the Night the Men Come approached me about a housing matter. On one occasion I made an appointment for her to approve a draft of a letter before I sent it.

We met in a community centre on an estate that I had occasional use of. It was much more convenient for her.

We sat round the corner of the big meeting table. I watched her read the letter with full attention.

When she put it down she said, ‘That is what I would have written if I could have done it myself.’

I felt completely validated.

She knows about In the Night the Men Come. All she said was ‘Wow’. She hasn’t kept in touch. I wasn’t able to offer her a copy.

I don’t think it’s what she would have written at all. I have been very careful to make sure she can’t be identified. I have changed almost everything. Anything else would have been presumptuous.

I still do public writing. My flatmate is the chair of the local community association. When she needs a flyer or a press release she cajoles me. She is very proud of her literary lodger.

I wonder about the novels.

I don’t think I write the stories that readers would have written themselves. But maybe I can write stories that my readers need to have told?

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Writing in retirement

A self-published writer enjoying his retirement in idyllic surroundings

Writing in retirement is such a cliche. Even my flatmate teases me about writing my memoirs, and my flatmate likes me. I walk the dog and feed the cat.

I reached 65, normal retirement age for men of my generation, just under three years ago. A few months before the small local charity I was working for lost the contract that funded my post.

I hadn’t assumed that I would retire. I thought I would continue working, at least part-time, till I was seventy. I applied for a few jobs in my field and got a couple of interviews. I came second.

Coming second in a job interview is a bit like coming fourth in the Olympics. You don’t get anything.

After about eighteen months I realised I liked not being tired and stressed the whole time. I think that is the point at which I accepted that I had retired.

I started In the Night the Men Come a few months before I left the job. At that stage I wasn’t writing in retirement, and I wasn’t expecting to retire.

I had been doing a lot of personal writing, off and on, for a long time. I had got to the point where I  wanted either to finish it, or stop.

I was trying to write about childhood sexual abuse. I was worried about narcissism, and there was quite a difficult technical problem. There appeared to be two timescales, one for the events and the other for the memories. It was difficult to reconcile them.

I had done an edit. I was trying to force myself to read it over, so I could make a decision.

I couldn’t do it. At that point I knew I had abandoned the project.

I asked myself if I would ever write again. The answer was, ‘Yes, probably.’

I asked myself if I would ever write fiction again. I was in the office at work. The answer was, ‘If I had a story’.

I realised at that moment that I did have a story. A client of mine had been gang-raped in prison in her country of origin by the security forces. They were trying to get her to denounce a close family member as a spy.

The young woman was still traumatised. She had had a very difficult time before she got ‘indefinite leave to remain’ in the United Kingdom. She was still struggling in some ways.

I had done what I could. I would have liked to do more. I was angry.

Within twenty-four hours I had a complete outline. The next morning I went to my local Ryman’s and bought an imitation Moleskin notebook.

I thought that was really weird. There I was. I was sixty-four years of age. I was on my local high street buying a writer’s notebook.

I struggled with the book. I stopped writing for a while before I left the job. I was just too tired.

I took time off and did something else between drafts. The ‘something else’ was usually a draft of an essay. I haven’t yet completed them.

I did a lot of revision. I did each version in a different colour. By the end the manuscript looked wonderful. It was also completely illegible.

I did ‘substantive editing’. I kicked whole chapters out and wrote new ones.

That made me nervous. I have never liked writing to order. It gave me a lot of confidence to find that I could imagine something new when I needed to.

In the Night the Men Come took about two years, off and on. The City that Walked Away took six months, and Survivor took four weeks.

I didn’t do a lot of revision on either The City that Walked Away or Survivor, and I didn’t do any substantive editing. I had found a technique and a style. The first draft was pretty good and the writing was easy.

Writing in retirement clearly allowed me to be more productive. I wouldn’t have written nearly so much if I had been working, even part-time.

I had a security I hadn’t had before. My old age pension is almost like a citizen’s income. Day to day I don’t need to worry.

I also in an almost ideal environment. I had to move about the same time I lost the job, which was a little nerve racking. In my new home I have room for a desk, I have four bookcases and I have a balcony. It’s perfect.

Clearly if I hadn’t realised I had a story I wouldn’t be writing, or at least I wouldn’t be writing fiction. I would probably be volunteering.

There are other processes involved. They are longer-term.

In 1993 I self-published an offset-litho paperback novel. It was a disaster. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did it anyway. I was manic.

That was bruising. I solemnly abjured fiction. I had in fact already become very sceptical about fiction. I wrote the novel anyway.

I decided that if I wanted good mental health, I needed to do the same things that everyone else did. I didn’t need to be special and different. That was essential to mental health recovery.

I also dismissed my conviction that I was a writer as a narcissistic adolescent fantasy. That was going too far.

I didn’t read fiction again until 2003. I was really angry with Tony Blair. I wanted find out more about the Arab world.

I stumbled across Naguib Mahfouz. Mahfouz restored my faith. I collected his novels avidly. I am not usually a collector.

I realised it wasn’t fiction I had a problem with. It was contemporary Euro-American fiction, and more generally ‘bourgeois realism’.

When I moved and retired, I had the leisure to develop my new-found interest. I discovered contemporary Chinese fiction. I am not just writing in retirement. I am reading in retirement as well.

Writing in retirement gives me the leisure to write and frees me from distraction. Retirement is a necessary condition for productivity.

It isn’t a sufficient condition. I had to regain my faith in fiction, and I needed good mental health. And I needed a story.

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