At this time of year, as summer builds and I head to the coast, I remember my old ambition to be a novelist. This usually comes with a sense of embarrassment and regret. I’ve written a few novels, and they’ve been mostly unsuccessful, although I’m lenient enough on myself to think of this as a taxonomy problem rather than a failure of talent. An easy route to peace is to grow into your own lies.
The idea of being a novelist was meant to allow me a certain amount of freedom. Novels represented money, and with even a small advance (so I thought) I’d be able to jack in whatever low paid job I happened to be working at the time. The peak of this longing came when I was working in a library on the edge of North London. I wrote in the evening, or squirrelled away in one of the rooms around campus. During the day, I happened upon a website of a relatively young novelist who described himself as ‘living on air’ while writing in Hawaii. I didn’t really like his work, but I thought I’d like that life. A novel might open up the world. I remember breaks from the city I took around those times, in Normandy, Cornwall, Pembrokeshire, Sardinia, Spain, and each time that sense of freedom called to me. It’s pretty clear I had it the wrong way around. I should have broken the cycle, taken myself off, given into the wanderlust, and then written the novel. The book is not the key. The book is only the book.
The other week, K and I headed to the east coast, after weeks of lockdown confinement. I swam in the Thames estuary at low tide, and watch the sea crawl back over the sands, while a container boat pulled itself across the horizon, like fallen spacecraft. The feel of the water evaporating from my skin in the sun, the smell of ozone and salt, that sense of freedom stolen from a routine… for some reason I’ll always associate it with those old dreams. Illusory, captivating, the kind of ideal you never reach, but one that ends of warping the pattern of your life.