As I grow older, weak of heart, eyes fading, arthritis exerting its ever-escalating grip, I have become a cranky and increasingly reluctant traveller. So as I wait on a frosty platform at Leuchars for the train that will bear me through the night south to London, I should be racking my brains for any excuse to give up and turn for home, where my music and my books live. This journey is different, however, partly because I am heading south to collect a significant literary prize, and partly because, ever since the child I was first travelled to a new home in the industrial Midlands, I have been an aficionado of that purely incidental pleasure, the night train.
On that trip, I sat with my mother and sisters on hard seats in a cold carriage, balancing an empty birdcage on my knees; tonight, on the journey from Fife, I will have a clean white bed in a “solo” sleeper compartment, where I can lie alone, listening to England’s cathedral towns and railway yards sliding by in the small hours, finally reaching Euston station at 8am, rested and fresh for whatever fray awaits.
A stoic’s guide to success
The award I am here to receive is the David Cohen Prize for Literature, now in its 30th year. Previous winners include Seamus Heaney, Harold Pinter, Julian Barnes and Muriel Spark, among other, equally formidable figures and, if I am honest, I am more than a little surprised to be added to that list.
When it comes to honours, I have tended to heed the words of Samuel Beckett, who famously remarked that “success and failure on the public level never mattered much to me. In fact, I feel much more at home with the latter, having breathed deep of its vivifying air all my writing life…” Of course, I like to pretend that I agree with this sentiment, but what I really feel is another matter – and if I were so sanguine about it all, I assume that I would not be so delighted by my selection. Besides, I do not think it a coincidence that Samuel Beckett was born on Friday the 13th, and so had plenty of practice in the kind of stoic equanimity that I, for one, have no hope of mastering.
[See also: Rubens and body positivity]
The night of the prize-giving ceremony arrives all too soon and I am still fretting over what I am supposed to say after the chair of the judges, Hermione Lee, welcomes me to the stage. I am, without doubt, a terrible public speaker; so the plan is that I will read a few poems, make some remarks about the circumstances of their composition and exit as gracefully as I can. This plan has been scripted down to the letter, which worries me, because I am not normally a planner. It turns out that my concerns are moot: for, as I step up to the lectern I realise that, even though I have printed my “speech” in 18 point Garamond (to my eye, the clearest of types) I still can’t see what I have written. Or not enough to seem natural and unhesitating.
Luckily, I have timed and re-timed this reading so often that I know it pretty much by heart anyway. And so, I come through unfazed, everyone is very kind and, before I can find time to linger, pleasantly, on the moment, the moment has passed and I am sitting in a nearby restaurant, grinning stupidly at the waiter who brings my order (which, for some reason, is choucroute, a dish I would never think of choosing, were all my faculties intact).
My sister beside me
I am not sure that God works in mysterious ways (the divinity I grew up with struck me as rather predictable, to be frank) but time certainly does. It always comes as a surprise to me that the happiest moments not only do not last, but seem to slip away even as they happen. At the same time, the past spends months, even years, being perfectly well-behaved and then, suddenly, it returns, in an almost unbearable rush of notions and colours and sounds.
On 12 November, my sister Elaine would have been 61 years old and, as always around this time, I am filled with memories of her as she was the last time we were together, wandering around the Christmas Market in Potsdam with our children, almost a decade ago. She died in the midst of Covid and, like so many others, we never got to say proper goodbyes, but she is somehow there as I make my way home this November night, not as a ghost, but as a reflected presence in a darkened window, glimpsed though the bars of an empty birdcage, both now, in this moment, and almost 60 years ago.
John Burnside’s most recent book is “Aurochs and Auks: Essays on Mortality and Extinction” (Little Toller Books). His poetry collection “Ruin, Blossom” will be published in spring 2024
This article appears in the 15 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Desperate Measures