Crossed swords and cross words

There is another writer on this island. Worse than that: he works every morning on the balcony of his apartment, right in my line of sight. Whenever I come out he’s already at his little wooden table, tapping away like an annoying smug woodchuck, like an unshaven woodpecker with opposable thumbs, and as the sun climbs higher over the bay he takes off his shirt and sits there banging away, bare-chested and wide-shouldered and I think maybe slightly younger than me. Who the hell does he think he is?

I sit on my own balcony pretending not to notice him. I try to act as though my own work and writing is so transporting that I’ve eyes and ears for nothing else, but I see him, all right, that show-off, that fraud. Who’re you kidding, buddy? No one writes that much or that fast who’s not Barbara Cartland or a courtroom stenographer. You’d think just once he would look up and notice a fellow writer and raise a hand in comradely greeting, or at least stare a moment, wondering what I’m writing and whether I’m being more productive than him. But no. He just stares at his screen, the unspeakable standoffish swine.

I have a competitive personality, although not usually with other writers. There’s something sad and small about writers who snarl and rattle their pens at each other and stand at opposite ends of cocktail parties. You both work in a hard and lonely profession with very small stakes – what’s with the attitude?

Of course, everyone likes a good literary rivalry. Where, for instance, would we be without HG Wells’ description of the arabesque prose of Henry James: “It is a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den.”

But the pleasures of literary feuding are all for the reader, none for the writer. Lulah Ellender has written about how she became irrationally competitive with another writer whose book was published on the same day as hers. She relentlessly stalked his social media, gnashing and grinding her teeth, measuring her column inches of review against his. His successes seemed to steal something from hers, as though there was only enough oxygen in the world for one of their bloodstreams. Finally she realized that she was checking his sales figures so often on Amazon that whenever someone searched for her book, his was suggested to them as one in which they might also be interested. As in some terrible cautionary folktale, her obsession was bringing about the very result that she feared.

For a very long time, the tiny world of South African letters tried to set me up against Tom Eaton, and vice versa. We’re both white male writers of a certain age – although regrettably I’m somewhat more of that age than he is – and we both wrote sports columns and occasionally there are passing similarities of style and outlook, so the assumption was that we must be jealous of each other, two viruses squabbling over the same cell, that somehow we represent sides in some imaginary choice. And I have to confess, sometimes I bought into it, even if very quietly. I was pleased to take this Friday column in this newspaper because it was my first new column in ten years, but then three months later who should come swinging through the window on Tuesdays with pirate’s shirt and flowing locks? The swashbuckling Eaton!

“And at my back I always hear,” I muttered to my partner, “Tom’s winged chariot drawing near.”

“That is a very good pun based on the famous couplet from the poem “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell,” she said helpfully, “and it’s such a pity you’ll never have the opportunity to write it.”

Writing, like any work worth doing, is an act of giving rather than taking, a sharing of oneself and whatever it is that one has been given and then grown. Openness makes life bigger, and writing should too.

Tom and I have collaborated on projects and will again. We’ve holidayed together and are pub quiz teammates and we’re friends with each other’s partners and they’re friends with each other. More importantly, he and I are friends, and we’re happy at each other’s good news, and we understand and commiserate with each other’s hard lot. We both have books coming out next year, and we both want them to do well. You don’t get that very often.

But I don’t know that guy on the next balcony. I don’t even know what language he’s writing, but he has made this personal and now I can’t back down. Tomorrow, for once, when he comes out to work I’ll be there already, and my shirt will already be off. So you think you can write, huh, pal? Well, I’m your worst nightmare! I’m a writer with a productive writer friend and a deadline for a book I haven’t even started yet. Come and ‘ave a go, if you think you’re ‘ard enough.

The Times, 9 October 2019