Thursday, 18 October 2007

The benefits of a university education

Shortly before New Writing 15 came out in June, I entered the title into Google to see what pre-publication attention, if any, it was getting. The faint, almost inaudible buzz I did find came from the blogs of a handful of the contributors, including my own and that of someone who operates under the name of Kingfelix. Kingfelix’s post said that he’d just received advanced copies of the anthology. I added a comment:

I got my copy today. Naturally, the first thing I did was read my own story. Now I’ll read yours… See you at the party!

This was his response:

Ah, sadly I can’t read your story as you attended Cambridge and I have a single-person boycott against all Oxbridge literary output (too much of it, too easily published), but nevermind, enjoy the party.

I would have left it at that, but someone called Tom interceded on my behalf:

Kennedy, will you please control your vituperative urges. Wait until you’ve met him before you insult him …OK, maybe if he was from Oxford. But Cambridge is fine.

Kingfelix, now revealed as Jason Kennedy, replied:

I did not insult him, I rebuffed him.

At this point, foolishly, I commented:

Your loss, boyo.

To which Kingfelix responded:

Of course, those of us who did not attend Cambridge are always incurring losses of one sort or another.

As far as I was concerned, that was the last of it. But I was unwise enough to mention, in a post about the NW15 launch, that I’d enjoyed Tod Hartman’s piece in the anthology. Kennedy, ruffled, rose to what he presumably saw as bait and intervened:

The boy's reading was excruciating and his story has less jokes and of a lower quality than my own story.

Ah, but he works at Cambridge!

Once again, the wisest policy seemed to be to ignore this. Kennedy’s issues with Cambridge and apparent conviction that praise of anyone else’s work automatically implied unfavourable criticism of his were outside my remit. Nonetheless, I continued to visit his blog every now and again, and enjoyed his posts in much the same way I enjoy John Fowles’ journals, for their self-effacing wisdom and intellectual modesty. And what should I find there a few days ago but news that his story from NW15 is about to be translated into Chinese? I click on comments with the intention of congratulating my fellow-contributor and find this:

I thought the fact my story is about work, rather than the gay scene in Tuscany as experienced by a Cambridge man… (yes, it is tough to accept that such a story and author profile has an easier time reaching market, but there you go).

It isn’t quite a sentence (just as nevermind isn’t quite a word and less jokes isn’t quite grammar), but the gist of it is clear enough. He’s referring to me. And now I’m beginning to get irritated. My first thought is that, if he had been to Cambridge, he would probably have known that Rome, the setting of my story (which you can read by clicking on Entertaining Friends here, by the way), isn’t in Tuscany but Lazio, an altogether less glamorous (as in Cambridge-y) region. My second thought is that no one who has been to Cambridge in the last half-century would refer to himself as a Cambridge man. My final thought is that the person who wrote this knows nothing about me, has no intention of finding out anything about me because that might shake his convictions, and that these convictions are, essentially, racist because rooted in ignorance of the worst, most wilful kind. It’s the kind of mindset that assumes Africans have rhythm, or that Jews are scheming and mendacious. It assumes that someone who has been to Cambridge has floated to success on a cloud of privilege. In my case, it assumes wrongly.

Kennedy was born in Tamworth, the son of an engineer. (You see, unlike him, I’ve done my homework.) I was born, just down the road, in Lichfield, the son of a quantity surveyor. I went to a series of state schools and then, with no assistance from my last comprehensive, won a scholarship to Cambridge, which I attended on a full grant. Cambridge may have been, and may still be, a bastion of privilege, but it never made me feel that I wasn’t entirely within my rights to be there. Since then, I’ve travelled and cobbled together a living in a variety of ways, much as Kennedy seems to have done. I’ve been writing throughout this time and now, a week away from my 54th birthday, I’m about to publish a novel, the sixth I’ve written over a twenty-five year period.

I found my first agent after sending a manuscript, blind, to Cape. The editor who read it (Neil Belton, not a Cambridge connection) turned it down after 18 months, but recommended I get in touch with AP Watt, literary agents. They tried, unsuccessfully, to sell it and, soon after, we parted company. I entered a short story competition organised by the Independent of Sunday and Bloomsbury and was among the winners, without any mention being made of my degree or its origin. My second agent (Malcolm Imrie, not a Cambridge connection) worked hard to sell a novel, but was unsuccessful. My third (Isobel Dixon, not a Cambridge connection, although she lives there) was more successful, selling a novel of mine to an editor at Picador (Sam Humphreys, not a Cambridge connection).

As far as I know, the only use (in the vulgar, self-aggrandising sense Kennedy intends) that my degree has been to me is to facilitate entry into the staff room of one or two cowboy language schools – hardly a glittering prize.

Kennedy might not like my story for a number of reasons. He might have problems with what he refers to as the ‘gay scene’; he might see Italy as irredeemably fey and bourgeois when compared with the grittiness of Guatemala. He might assume my short story is an autofiction, as the French say, and that I and the narrator are one, and equally despicable. But to dismiss my work and me, out of hand, as ‘such a story and author profile’ in the public space of his blog, and to do so without even having the courtesy to name me, is indefensible.


Tyla said...

I could read this a thousand times and thrill at each word anew! (Is that correct grammar?!) Bravo!

Charles Lambert said...

Thank you, my darling! And welcome home...

I should be posting some party photos very soon now...