Laurie Graham, Escape Artist
I was a demob baby, conceived when my Dad came home from WW2, and I grew up in Leicester, England’s geographical equivalent of North Platte, Nebraska. I was an asthmatic only child, cosseted and cherished, but for reasons I’ve never worked out I began planning my escape almost before I could read. On my first breakout, aged 4, I got only as far as the Rawdykes Gas Works, headed off at the pass by a search party, but I was a repeat offender and I believe I may have been the only member of Third Year Infants who collected railway timetables.
Apart from being a wanderer I was famous as a heavy user of the lending library—I developed a six books a week habit at a very tender age—and also for my fibbing. Not fibs of the ‘a big boy broke it and ran away’ variety. Just gratuitous, transparent, but rather thrilling whoppers. As in, “Michael Quigley ate a worm from the compost heap and now he’s dead.” Enter stage left Michael Quigley, in bouncing good health.
Leicester is now famous for its curry houses. Back then it was a shoe making city and I came from a long line of people with job titles like ‘clicker’ and ‘closer’. No writers. Or so I thought. It’s only in very recent years I’ve discovered that my Great-Uncle Alfred did a bit of journalism. Nor was writing on the career cards for me, though it should have been. Now I look back, it was the only thing for which I ever showed any aptitude. I was a duffer on the sports’ field, a no-hoper in the handicrafts’ class, and a lackluster home economist. While others scored goals and sewed beautiful seams I kept the school supplied with shows which I designed and directed and quite often made up mid-performance. I guess it was what we’d now call improv.
I had a spectacularly miserable time in college, trying to force myself into the square hole of science and quite unable to quit. In my family if you started something—a science degree, a second helping of pie, anything—you finished it. So when the opportunity of marriage and motherhood came along I leapt at it. In the space of five years I produced four wonderful children and surrendered happily to a life of sieved prunes in my hair and continuous loop readings of Chicken Licken.
In the early Eighties I was given a pre-war typewriter on which I developed upper body strength whilst writing my first attempt at a novel. The rest, as they say, is a history of rejection slips and filled wastepaper baskets. With the curtain about to fall on my first marriage and desperate for money I worked for a while behind the scenes at the Royal Courts of Justice, until I received the phone call that changed my life.
“Judgments and Executions,” I said. Answering the telephone with the name of my department was really the best part of the job.
“I’m Carmen Callil,” said the voice of cutting edge British publishing, ‘and I want to publish you.’
Twenty years ago already. It hardly seems possible. Since then I’ve gone through a series of minor transformations: debut novelist to rookie feature writer and columnist; out-of-work journalist back to hard-slog novelist. Wife and mother, divorcee, back to wife and now grandmother. I met Howard in the summer of ’96. A New Yorker transplanted to Europe and a fellow rover. We married in ’98 and spent our honeymoon planning the escape to top all escapes. In 1999 we moved to Venice—our idea of heaven on earth—and there we thought we’d stay for the rest of our days. As well we can’t know what’s waiting around that bend in the canal.
Ill health can arrive out of a clear, blue, Adriatic sky and Venice is no place for the frail. Look what happened to poor old Dr. Aschenbach. And so we’ve relocated yet again, this time to Dublin. A culture shock, but a pleasant one, to be bathed once again in my own language, and to be in a country whose staple crop is writers. Some wiseacre once remarked that all a man really needs is crisp bacon and the love of a good woman. For my husband’s sake I hope it’s true.