I’ve been writing, secretly and very necessarily, since I was seven, which is now seventy eight years ago – no, I don’t believe it either – and I’ve been around as a published author for forty years, which seems even more unlikely. But it encourages me to feel that I might have earned the right to say that it’s my convinced belief that artists are insects. We have a life cycle that corresponds in almost every particular – egg, grub/caterpillar/larva, pupa, imago. A lovely word, imago, it sounds so right, so perfect. Almost worth being a lowly grub if you can get to be an imago. The imago of the imagination. The ultimate imago. Could be a book title. Or a patent medicine. Or a new Ford hatchback.
I can remember being a caterpillar very clearly. Not an attractive stage of one’s existence, the grub, very self-centred, with a voracious appetite, deplorable taste and a tendency to wear loud colours. But it’s where we start as novelists, providing we have an adequate supply of literary fodder – which in this country, thanks to our public libraries, we do.
I was much evacuated as a caterpillar, being a war-time grub. But I gorged my way through every available library in London, Sussex and Hertfordshire – chomp, chomp, chomp. Dickens and Just William, Harrison Ainsworth, Louisa M Alcott, the Brontes and E Nesbit, H G Wells, J B Priestley, A A Milne, Mrs Gaskell, Austen, Hardy, Kipling, Defoe, the brothers Grimm. Wonderful, sustaining, energising stuff. So I owe a great deal to the public library service. It was and still is a great institution and long may it continue. For it is dangerously true that man cannot live by bread alone. If we fail to nurture the spirit of our young we will breed a generation that is self-serving, self-centred and destructively materialistic.
Some would say we have reached that unhappy point already. We’re certainly badly on the way. Our public libraries are under threat as they have never been before, and at the very time when our need for them is greatest.
During the last world war, the local authorities not only provided reams of invaluable information at every public library but also a nationwide, artistic feast of concerts, plays and exhibitions. Most of them were free because they were designed to lift us out of our misery and anxiety for a treasured hour or two and give us the strength to go on with the fight. I can remember hearing the Ritual Fire Dance for the first time in St Albans Abbey in my school lunch hour. What food for a grub!
But let us return to our artistic insects and the third phase of our existence, which is the pupa or chrysalis. (I prefer chrysalis. It sounds prettier.) This is the point at which we grow out of our obsession with ourselves and our appetites, learn to empathise and therefore become creative. Woven into our silken shells, sitting behind our eyes, we look out at the world and weave our stories, patterning what we see and hear into tales to entertain, shock, delight, or provoke. I think this is probably the calmest stage of our existence, and in my experience at least, a very enjoyable one. For there we are free to choose any character we are fond of, or fear, or admire, or wish we could have met, and we can enter into their lives, as often and as long as we like. It’s positively God-like. And if on top of all that, we get our stories published and earn a living from them and they appear in the shops and on the library shelves…! Can’t you hear the insect mind boggling?