Diary: Margaret Drabble
I may become addicted to athletics by 2012
I've stubbornly spent August in Somerset, as I did last year, when it rained every day, usually all day. This year, we have had sunny breaks, and yesterday, I took my favourite evening walk up to Culbone church above Porlock Weir. Simon Jenkins says it is one of the smallest, most isolated and most picturesque churches in England. The sun shone through oak and ash and holly on to the dark mud of the footpath and the carpet of golden leaves that look like and occasionally are chanterelles. A squirrel rustled through the branches, an invisible woodpecker drilled, a buzzard mewed high above, and I could hear the waves of the Bristol Channel breaking on the shingle below.
I always go into the church and sit for a moment. Samuel Palmer walked this way once, and Coleridge and Wordsworth knew it well. It is the path to Xanadu. When I walk, lines of poems repeat themselves in my head. It is the best of all literary landscapes.
I've surprised myself by watching some of the athletics this summer. They are compulsive viewing. I found them by mistake, tuning in to Gardeners' World, which I watch in deference to my presenter son Joe Swift, but Joe had been postponed because of drama on the track. How nerve-racking and brutal are these live events, and how intrusive the interviewers! You have just come seventh in the 400 metres, way below your personal best, and there is some guy squatting in front of you, seconds later, nostril to nostril, eyeball to eyeball, asking how you feel about it. And you have to gulp back your manly tears and be brave. It is hideous. How we love competition, defeat, grief. I don't understand cricket, and can rejoice only by proxy that we won the Ashes, but even I could see Usain Bolt streak ahead. I may become addicted in time for 2012.
Posters of Andrew Motion have popped up all over the village, anticipating his appearance at the Porlock Arts Festival (on 10 September). Everywhere has a festival now, and I am proud to be patron of ours. One of our regulars has been Graham Harvey, the agricultural storyline editor of The Archers, and last year we had Rose Tremain and Valerie Grove. Andrew spent seaside holidays in Porlock as a little boy, so it's welcome home for him. Stanley Johnson, the Exmoor-bred father of Boris, also appears this year, on the same evening as my husband Michael Holroyd and me. Boris's TV film last summer about his Turkish ancestors and his Exmoor "Granny Butter" was extremely funny. The juxtapositions were sublime.
The new glory of Porlock Weir is its aquarium, which opened at Easter. It is the most enchanting aquarium I have ever seen, and I am a connoisseur. It is small but perfect. It is home to the fishes of the Bristol Channel, not to exotica, and they all look so happy in their lucid tanks. There are tiny brill, turbot and sole, sea bass, whiting, gurnards, a sea cucumber, anemones, prawns and shrimps and crabs. It is a miniature sea world, at eye level for those who can no longer crouch over rock pools. There is an open pool with larger fish, including three small sharks. One of these is called a tope. As the word "tope" appeared as a typo for "trope" in my recent book about jigsaws, I am particularly fond of this one. Maybe I should try to adopt it. I presented the aquarium owners with a paperback of my novel The Sea Lady, which has a charming picture of
a little boy with a fishing net on its cover. I am hoping for a co-promotion.
A quick dash to London by train (a beautiful and scenic journey) for dinner with the distinguished Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher, whom I met at the Cairo Book Fair earlier this year. We are celebrating his new novel, Sunset Oasis, which won the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and has appeared in English with a beautiful golden jacket. I sometimes wonder what book fairs are for, but an event that introduced me to Taher and his work needs no further justification for me. He is a melancholy, humane, complex writer, with a sympathetic mixture of pessimism and persistence. Over dinner, he said that many readers tell him that his books are too sad, but that he finds tragedy deeper than (and different from) sadness. It was a convivial gathering, with a happy absence of the commercial hype that so often blights book launches.
Back to Somerset to greet the autumn, as the swallows gather on the telephone wires, and lines from Keats's "Ode" run through my head. It is Michael's birthday, and we take our guests to our favourite restaurant, Andrew's on the Weir, which by some miracle is within walking distance. (The nearest large bookshop, in contrast, is 40 miles away, which means that I buy a lot from Amazon.) I am worried that Julian Mitchell, who stays with us every year, will finish my Van Gogh Irises jigsaw puzzle in about half an hour. I have been working at it for months. And so the summer passes . . .
Margaret Drabble's "A Writer's Britain" is published by Thames & Hudson (£12.95) on 7 September