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Saturday 11 May 2013

Lorna Sage - bad blood into good

I was introduced to Lorna Sage by my tutor at University. She had been taught by Lorna, and, up to that point, my tutor was the most fascinating person I had met in my life. She once took a Henry James novel and caressed herself with it in front of our amazed class of innocents. Clearly, there were more to words than we had realised. Academia became life defining. What would Lorna be like, if this was her protege? Somehow I had to find out. I had a hunch I was onto something.

So, armed with my British Academy Award, I ended up at UEA in Norwich to take a Master’s Degree.  They say you should avoid meeting your heroes because the image you build is infinitely better than the real thing. Not with Lorna.  Her beautiful brilliant mind cast the rest of the famous UEA Literature and writing departments into dark shadow. Under Lorna’s eccentric style, Literature and philosophy turned into comic one-liners and quips that revealed new depths to Plato’s Cave.  I had never laughed so much; I had never thought so hard.

Lorna was a Socratic treasure trove of stories. The day Bobby Sands died, she had walked into a Republican Irish bar in New York. It was early. People moved away as they heard an English voice call the barman over; but when she ordered an extra large gin and tonic, the pub relaxed, including her in stories of troubled times-  through the currency of intimacy, she said, politics no longer mattered. I’ll always remember the day an American student dared to suggest that Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum was not worthy of study because of his portrayal of women. Lorna, as passionate a feminist as she was a fan of Eco, used the deftest of touches to disarm the student's argument, and rebuked us all to ‘pick one’s fights with greater care’. Eco and Lorna were heavyweights.

Beneath the smile and laughter was someone with tremendous steel and insight. She had thought hard for her success. Women of her  background and generation weren't meant to go to University, let alone teach in them. I realised that for Lorna teaching and writing was a calling, and with it came huge responsibilities.  When her friend Angela Carter died, she felt the pressure of being left behind to put the pieces of her life together. She gave us a tutorial on her writing just the week before, and  referred to her only in the third person. Some of us left the classroom in tears.   ‘It’s what we have to do,’ she said to me. ‘You go to the party, you soak up their drink, canapes, and words, and the next morning you wake up and turn it all into something else, something essential, because you have to – it’s inside you.’  I didn’t have a clue what she was trying to tell me at the time. It would take another 15 years before I realised what she meant.

I was worn out when I went to UEA. I found myself battling doubt in the first few months, unable to focus, stuck with writer’s block from finishing my first essays. Trying to copy the lifestyle of philosopher John Dee didn't help either - two hours of sleep, with bread and port, and you too can start believing in angels. Lorna could see through me straight away. When she invited us round to her house for a party, she sat next to me in the circle and we realised that we both had the same habit of drawing impenetrable doodles that nobody else could understand. People thought we were writing notes on everything said, but what we were really doing was secret thinking, processing for gold to store among the flowing rivers of words inside us.  ‘You look like you need a drink, go get us one next door’. Next door turned out to be a room with crates of wine bottles from her beloved Florence, piled to the ceiling, from wall-to-wall. Her drinking might have been legendary, but when she had a glass of wine or gin to the lips, it was her eyes that shined with clarity of spirit.  Language and meaning had a potent thirst  for life in her.

Later that night, we made a pact together. Lorna revealed a strange box of papers and said she was going to write a book called Bad Blood, based on the influences from her family’s past and her belief in the transformational power of writing to change personal narratives.  She told me that I should choose a novel from the writer Colin Falconer, who had taken my name instead of his own Colin Bowles, and rewrite it in the style of the 'real' Colin Falconer as a form of postmodern tongue-in-cheek reconstructionist revenge.  

I forgot all about it. The only thing I followed was her advice to get a teaching qualification, something that would change my own story forever. I tiptoed out from Eco's scriptorium and closed the door behind me.  Farwell to Foucault, Derrida, Barthes. My thesis on the 'Hermeneutics of Susipicion' vanished in the toxic haze of a MIddlesbrough sunset.

Years later, I saw Lorna’s younger face pasted all over a shop window, like a Warhol screenprint. Bad Blood was out. The book felt cold in my hand, like marble, a choc ice in winter. I ran straight home with my copy clutched to my heart. I already knew that it was too late.  By the time I could write to her, she had gone.  Bad Blood stayed by my bedside.  I have never been able to read it though. Even now, when the pages open, Lorna’s voice cracks another joke about Borges, raging against the dying of the light. Wake up and write. Not because you want. Because you have to. The words are our blood; make them into something good...

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