Once upon a life: Caryl Phillips

Phillips writes for the Guardian’s Observer Magazine about the process of becoming a writer.

Newly graduated from university, Caryl Phillips headed to Edinburgh to find the peace to write, exploring its Georgian streets with wonder. Until his dole payments were stopped, and things began to look grim…

Shortly after my 21st birthday I jumped on a train to Edinburgh. I took with me bundles of files stuffed with hastily scribbled notes and as many books as I could carry. I was a student at Oxford and finals were looming, but I could neither concentrate in the feverish atmosphere of the faculty library, nor relax in the claustrophobic dankness of the college beer cellar. Everybody seemed to be coming apart at the seams, myself included. Edinburgh suggested peace and a retreat of some kind. The previous summer I’d worked as a theatrical stagehand at the International Festival where, apart from sweeping the stage before every performance, my principal responsibility was to hand Dorothy Tutin her sword as she made her breezy entrance in Antony and Cleopatra. Beyond the glamour of the theatre, I met an art student who became my girlfriend. My flight to Edinburgh was both a temporary escape from university and a return journey to her.

I worked in Edinburgh Central Library, but spent a great deal of time gazing out of the window at people caught up in the daily business of their lives. I soon pushed to one side my notes and stopped ordering English literature books from the stacks. I now found myself filling out request forms for contemporary plays and novels. I’d already decided I wanted to be a writer and so, perhaps unwisely, I refocused my attention. I eventually returned to an Oxford that I felt detached from, and went through the motions of dressing formally for examinations I now regarded as obstacles to be negotiated before attempting to claim my future. Having completed finals, and cleared my room of the accumulated detritus of three years as an undergraduate, I immediately took the train back to Scotland.

Officially, I was now an unemployed resident of Edinburgh and I was learning to survive on a fortnightly dole cheque. At the end of my girlfriend’s street was Arthur’s Seat, the main peak of a group of rugged hills which make up most of Holyrood Park. Beneath its summit the steep cliffs of Salisbury Crags form a dramatic border, and around their perimeter runs the Radical Road, a track that was paved in the early 19th century. Two or three times a week I would walk the road and marvel at the view of this Georgian masterpiece of a city which I had begun to explore.

I grew to love the raffishness of the Grassmarket, which seemed even more compelling and attractive when I discovered it had been the location for the city’s public executions. I began to lean purposefully into the wind as I crossed George IV bridge, and I rambled to the north of the city where I coveted the terraced houses of Stockbridge. I enjoyed the elegance of George Street, and the sight of the castle from Princes Street always took my breath away. Though I had little money to enjoy a social life of any kind, it never occurred to me to consider myself deprived in any way; discovering the grandeur of the city was ample compensation for my traduced circumstances.

When not tramping the streets, I began to write. First, an article on contemporary British television, which I sent to The Listener; then a television script, which I mailed off to BBC Pebble Mill. I then began work on a stage play. My mornings were spent in my girlfriend’s cramped one-bedroom flat hammering away on an old manual typewriter, and in the afternoons I wandered the streets and explored the bookshops of Edinburgh.

Occasionally, I’d hear news filtering back to me of friends from university who had headed straight for the bright lights of London. Already dreams were crashing against the realities of parental demands, and terse notes from bank managers were beginning to undermine the fancy-free lives of my contemporaries to the south. Meanwhile, I was safe in the north and enjoying the relative anonymity of my exile.

And then I received a letter informing me I was no longer eligible for unemployment benefit. The recently elected Mrs Thatcher had begun her campaign of targeting spongers and hangers-on and so, suddenly, in the depths of what seemed to me a particularly bitter Scottish winter, I had to get a job. Perhaps I was over-qualified, or just visibly unenthusiastic, but I was repeatedly turned down for low-level positions in various factories and warehouses. Finally, I gave up and advertised my services in a local newspaper as a recent graduate who could teach English.

A Scottish schoolteacher responded. It transpired he ran an agency out of his living room which placed teachers with foreign students. He dispatched me to an address on the fringes of the city where I had foolishly agreed to teach English as a foreign language to a Saudi businessman. I sat in a cold, nondescript pub for an hour and a half before my scheduled lesson, the reality of my cluelessness as a language teacher beginning to overwhelm my semi-terrified mind. Eventually I showed up to my appointment drunk and barely capable of standing. The teaching of English as a foreign language held no future for me.

Lothian Road is in an unglamorous, semi-industrial, part of the city I hadn’t bothered to explore. Suddenly I was becoming extremely familiar with Lothian Road. I’d lied about my qualifications and ambitions and finally got a job cleaning out returned rental cars. This was dismal, mindless work, the monotony of which was broken only by the occasional trip to the airport to drive a vehicle back to headquarters. Financial expediency meant there was no time to write, to go to bookshops, to walk around Salisbury Crags, or to stride purposefully along George Street. Like countless other workers in the city, at the end of the day I punched out and took the bus home. This was not the exile I had signed up for. After two weeks, I quit.

With no job, no money and no prospects, things looked grim. But I consoled myself with the thought that at least I was not in London besporting myself as a writer and fumbling in my pockets for coins to buy drinks in pubs that would be full of other struggling “artists”. There was no communal complaining. My failure, my frustration, my destitution was my own. And then I received a phone call from the BBC to tell me my television play was “not quite right” for them, but surprisingly the producer asked me if I had anything else. I mentioned the stage play and sent it off to them. A week later, the producer called again and, somewhat improbably, announced he had passed it on to Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, and they liked it. In fact, they wanted to premiere the play in their autumn season. It was a matter of some urgency that I visited Sheffield to speak with the artistic director about the production details, and it was suggested I find myself an agent.

A few days later I returned to Edinburgh. I had signed a contract for the production of my play, I now had a London-based agent and there was also the possibility of regular work for BBC Schools Radio – in London. As the train pulled into Waverley Station, I looked up at the castle. It was a beautiful spring day, almost a year exactly since I’d left Oxford and come up to “finals camp” in Edinburgh. Now I had the awful secret in my pocket – a return ticket to London.

I felt ready. Instead of taking the bus back to the flat, I walked out of the station and up and beyond George Street and down into Stockbridge. I then turned and walked back to Princes Street and up to the Royal Mile, before crossing over George IV bridge and continuing in the direction of the university. I was reintroducing myself to this wonderful city and saying goodbye at the same time.

The city had taken me in at a crucial time in my life and not mocked my ambition. It had left me alone to grow, to stumble, to discover a purpose and to embrace good fortune when it came my way. In the end, I never had that conversation with my girlfriend. Like the city, she understood. One day I had arrived, and one day I would leave. Back then, I thought life would always be this simple: struggle, clarity, a dash of good luck, breakthrough, moving on with gratitude and without complication. It has not proved to be so.

Caryl Phillips is a novelist and professor of English at Yale University. His latest book is In the Falling Snow (Vintage, £17.99)

The original article can be found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/oct/17/caryl-phillips-edinburgh-once-upon-a-life

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