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Weal and Woe: Ronald Harwood, Victoria Glendinning, Jackie Kay and Hanif Kureishi on their struggles and successes

Maggie Fergusson

Filed under: Biography

RONALD HARWOOD

On 23 March 2003, Ronald Harwood was presented with an Oscar for the screenplay of The Pianist. As the Hollywood stars cheered him on, and the paparazzi snapped, television viewers all over the world watched him walk up to receive his golden knight from Marcia Gay Harden. Who would have guessed that he was, at that moment, in a state of paranoia and depression the like of which he had never before experienced in nearly half a century of working life?

A few months earlier, Harwood’s play Mahler’s Conversion had opened at the Aldwych Theatre. The fruit of years of labour, it was a piece of work closer to his heart than anything he had ever written before, in which he had attempted to explore the nature of faith. ‘I am deeply interested in faith, whether religious or political,’ he says. ‘I am interested by people who really believe things to be true.’ And what did Gustav Mahler really believe to be true? Like Harwood, Mahler was a Jew, and, as such, barred from positions he coveted – from being appointed conductor of the Vienna State Orchestra, for example. He then became a Catholic (Harwood’s wife, Natasha has done the same, and the couple make regular retreats at Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire). Was his conversion inspired by faith, or by pragmatism? This is the question on which the play turns.

Both in the review pages, and at the Box Office, Mahler’s Conversion was a disaster. ‘It opened just after 9/11,’ Harwood recalls, ‘so the mood was very low. And the critics were savage.’ His agent, Judy Daish – ‘loyal, buoyant, steadfast’ – filtered the reviews, but he saw enough of them to feel that his career was finished. ‘I was in my late sixties, and I thought “Bloody Hell, I haven’t got much time left!”. I thought it was all over.’

The attacks from the critics felt not just harsh, but very personal. They aggravated in Harwood a rumbling paranoia that because he was Jewish, and had not been brought up in England, he was somehow not acceptable. It is a paranoia, he accepts, that is self-inflicted: in all his time in this country, nobody has ever made him feel anything but entirely welcome.

But paranoia is no less crippling for being groundless. ‘You begin to imagine that people are smiling kindly at you in the streets,’ Harwood says. ‘You imagine they’ve read all the reviews, and they know exactly who you are. And the reviews keep coming back to haunt you. As Maggie Smith says, the worst thing about going to the dentist is the old magazines. Just when you think you’re getting over it, there’s some old copy of Country Life with a bad review from two years ago.’

Harwood had learnt, over the years, the very English trick of dropping a visor of brightness over depression, so as not to burden others with his problems. But this time it was extremely hard. Every morning he settled down to try to write, and found instead that he was ‘facing a chasm’. The irony was that, in the eyes of the world, both his career and his bank balance were flourishing. Following his Oscar, commissions for screenplays flooded in: Oliver Twist, Love in the Time of Cholera, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. ‘Screenplays I could manage,’ he says, ‘but I simply wasn’t able to write plays. I was unable to use that part of me that is the most profound. I was unable to do what Maggie Smith calls “dredging”.’

The block persisted for nearly two years, until one day Harwood came across an article about John Amory, the last person in this country to be hanged for treason. It had emerged, long after his hanging, that his father, Leo Amory, was half-Jewish – a fact he had tried to suppress. Harwood knew at once that this was a subject that he must explore, and immediately began work on a new play. But An English Tragedy seemed as if it would never reach the stage. It was sent by Judy Daish first to the National Theatre (‘I believe Nicholas Hytner’s words were, “I don’t get it”‘), then to the Donmar, then the Almedia. All turned it down. But, in the nick of time, it was picked up by Brigid Lamar at the Watford Theatre, and rescued. Performed in the spring of 2008, it was greeted with rave reviews.

Harwood’s next play got off to an equally unpromising start. Collaborationexamines the friendship between Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig, the Jewish playwright who wrote the libretto for the opera Die Schweigsame Frau in 1935, and seven years later committed suicide in Brazilian exile: ‘Once again,’ he says, ‘it was turned down by the National, the Donmar…’

Then, Jonathan Church, the artistic director of the Chichester Festival Theatre, read the play and had the idea of performing it alongside Taking Sides, Harwood’s play about the deNazification proceedings against Wilhem Furtwängler after the Second World War. Again, the reviews were ecstatic (‘the most thrilling production I’ve ever seen’; ‘theatre really doesn’t come more compelling than this’). The double-bill was sold out for six weeks, and Harwood now looks back on those weeks as the most exciting and affirming in his writing life. ‘It was a moment of vindication,’ he says. ‘I’d managed, just, to hold on to my belief in my work and my gift, and I’d won!’ In May, the plays will open at the Duchess Theatre, London. ‘I just hope I’m not going to get a kick up the backside now,’ Harwood chuckles. ‘God is a very good novelist – or playwright, perhaps.’

HANIF KUREISHI

For Hanif Kureishi, there is no doubt that the most thrilling successes have been the early ones. ‘The production of your first play, the release of your first film, the publication of your first novel: these are the best bits. You can only lose your virginity once. It rather wears off after that.’ He remembers with a mixture of joy and nostalgia the moment he heard that his screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette had been nominated for an Oscar. It was 1986, and he was 30 – ‘just a kid writer, living in a council house in Shepherd’s Bush. I was sitting in Stephen Frears’s office, and in came Tim Bevan and… It was incredible!’ He had to hurry down Oxfam to get his black tie: ‘and that kind of naïvety and excitement can’t be recaptured.’ His low moments, by contrast, have arisen not from failure, to which he remains a stranger, but from the nagging realisation that there is no escape from the feast and famine of the self-employed writer’s life: ‘that I’ve got to make a living out of this till I die.’ As a teacher of creative writing at Kingston, Kureishi admits, he sometimes quails when he contemplates the futures of even his most promising pupils: ‘I don’t envy them. There is so much luck involved, however much talent you have. Being a talented writer and being a successful writer are different things.’ For himself, however, he would not for one second turn the clocks back, and arrange his life differently: ‘I feel I’ve had a fantastic job – the best job in the world.’ And, even if they have not inspired quite the euphoria of his early triumphs, his more recent achievements have nonetheless helped to keep morale running high. ‘Winning the Whitbread, getting the CBE,’ he reflects, ‘things like that do cheer you up, keep you going, help you to believe that your work matters to other people, not just to you.’

JACKIE KAY

When Jackie Kay was sixteen, her English teacher was so impressed by one of her poems that she sent it to that grand old man of Scottish literature, Alasdair Gray. He was impressed too, sufficiently so to invite the schoolgirl poet to come to visit him in his flat in West Glasgow. ‘As he opened the front door,’ she remembers, ‘he said, “Well, there’s no doubt about it in my mind, you are a writer!”. He said it before I’d thought it. I don’t think I even believed it, but it sounded exotic and romantic.’ She still finds respect from respected peers ‘the most wonderful thing’, and, with over twenty books to her name, still feels ‘wildly excited’ when her work is published. But there is something about success when you are young, she admits, ‘that just blows your head. When you are older, and you see your name on a book, you do know that it is you. When you’re younger, you can hardly believe it.’ Only one thing now could exceed the thrill of that early affirmation, and that would be ‘to write the book that is in my head. I came nearest to it withWish I Was Here, but it never quite happens.’  Her lowest times, meanwhile, have not been triggered by failure – she has suffered very few bad reviews, though when they come, she admits, they are ‘embarrassing, because they are so public, like someone calling you a nasty name in the street’ – but by near-miss. In 2000, her first (and so far only) novel, Trumpet, was shortlisted for the €100,000 IMPAC prize. ‘I had a small child, and not much money, and this would have brought me years of writing life,’ she explains. ‘There were six of us on the shortlist, and we were all asked to stand by our phones at 1pm on a particular day to be told whether we’d won. It was like something out of a film.’ Shortly after this, it looked as ifTrumpet was to be turned into a film: ‘Jane Campion had written the screenplay. I was really excited, and then it didn’t happen. I learned then that it’s important not to invest too much hope in things; that I’d only get excited about something like that when I was actually in the cinema eating a bag of chocolate raisins.’ She ends by reflecting that, for a writer especially, good moments and bad are not necessarily as distinct as they might seem. Aged seventeen, she was involved in a serious motorbike accident. She was in hospital for a long time, and then for a year had to walk on sticks. ‘It made me see the world in a different way,’ she says, ‘and the trauma inspired in me the desire to write. The highs and the lows are connected, I think.’

VICTORIA GLENDINNING

‘The best day of my writing life was when I saw my words, and my name, in print for the very first time,’ says Victoria Glendinning. ‘I can’t remember the exact date, but it would have been around 1968. There was a magazine called Nova which ran from 1965 to 1975, during the height of second-wave feminism and student radicalisation. It combined fashion with politics in an adult and exciting way. The contributors were first-class, as were the design and editorial, with an edginess quite unknown hitherto in glossy women’s magazines. I – living then in Southampton, with four small children – thought it was wonderful.

‘On the final page there was always a 1,000-word feature called Backbite, on any personal topic under the sun. I wrote a piece, and sent it in. So far as I remember it was about why young women like myself went on having more and more children, basically because they could, and did not know what else they might do instead. There must have been a bit more to it than that, because the piece was accepted.

‘I bought a copy of Nova in WH. Smith on the main street of Southampton, and saw my Backbite in print, and walked along reading it. The phrase “walking on air” is not a fanciful image. The pavement really did go up and down, and I floated up and down with it, weightless.

‘The worst day of my writing life – so far, there is plenty of time for even worse – was a signing session in a bookshop in a rather downmarket shopping mall in Tunbridge Wells. I had just published a biography, I think it was Edith Sitwell. I’ve always thought that a great many publicity exercises were the very opposite of cost-effective, and that publicists used often to drum up absolutely anything they could in order to seem to earn their meagre salaries. (It’s all rather more professional now.)

‘On this occasion the very young publicist was waiting for me at the station generously armed with papers and magazines for me to read on the train. We reached the bookshop, which was staying open after closing-time specially for the event, just as everyone else was going home. As I sat there with a pile of books, there was bedlam as mothers screeched after their errant children out in the mall and the metal shutters of all the other shops clanged and crashed down, one after another. Then silence fell.

‘Only three people came, and they came together – my aunt who lives in Tunbridge Wells, my cousin, and a family friend. I don’t know whom I was most sorry for – myself, my embarrassed relations, or my publicist. This must have been the least cost-effective publicity exercise ever.’


Related RSL Fellows

Hanif Kureishi 2008
Jackie Kay 2002
Victoria Glendinning 1982
Maggie Fergusson 2010