An almost perfect day, talking to (Elizabeth) Jane Howard for a Guardian profile; and looking around her extraordinary garden, meadowland, and island in the river Waveney. Two large chub lurked under the wooden footbridge. She fed a widower swan which approached us very slowly up the narrow stream. The apple and willow trees that overhang the stream would often hid the body of the swan in its journey, so we could only see the reflection float slowly towards us, upside down.
Its feathers were the purest white that I have ever seen. Normally swans have a dirty, aggressive yellow tinge to them close up. But this one was almost luminous.
Later, I went to talk to her neighbour, the painter Sargy Mann, who is going blind. He stood in his garden, about fifteen feet from the easel, scanning it through a small telescope. then he walked forward, sure-footed across the uneven ground, to the low table next to his easel, and knocked the side of it quickly with the handle of his brush to locate it. Once the edge was found, he could feel to the jar where his brushes were kept; and to the palette. He studied one colour through his telescope, smeared a little with a finger, still watching through the eyeglass, and then, with the paintbrush at the end of his long arm, went back to work on a small patch half-way down the right-hand side. The painting, by the way, was wonderful and fierce, with every colour as vivid as the swan’s.
We talked about life with Kingsley Amis — Sargy had lived with Jane and Kingsley for eight years — and the difficulties of living with an artist. “But you think you’re an artist, too, at what you do. Of course you are.” he said. I remember it unexpectedly which is probably false. It must have flown from the main stream of the conversation. Well, yes, I said, defensively. I’ve written two half-decent books and half a decent one. But defensiveness was wrong. So was the dishonesty. there’s a lot less than half the next book done, and nothing more will be done on it this week. But the vision of the tall, kind blind man working in his garden rebuked me all the way home. All I must fight against are idleness, stupidity and cowardice.
Driving home, lost in the Suffolk lanes, and still hoping to get the launch party of Francis Wheen’s new book, at a transvestite club in Soho, my mind was brim-full and bubbling with the piece I’d write about Jane Howard. I turned on the radio and heard that “Two British scientists have won the Nobel Prize” and, next, John Sulston’s voice. There followed twenty minutes of drivel about the Conservative Party before they actually said who had won and why. It was then that I realised that I spent hours last year talking to three Nobel Prize winners, not just one. Then I rang Annalena, the profile editor at the Guardian, to point out that the one I finished of John Sulston three weeks ago would need to be amended.
It was twenty past five in the middle of nowhere: too late to get an op-ed into the next day’s papers. But when I got home I sent John a note, thanking him for being so considerate as to arrange for the prize announcement at the beginning of the Frankfurt book fair.
But how will I ever remember what needs to go in the profile of Jane, which yesterday, before the cup ran over, I knew perfectly?