I have two memories of childhood which have become per-manently entangled with each other. One is of being taken when I was very small to have my polio inoculation, an event anticipated with a mounting dread which the actual procedure did nothing to dispel. A special clinic had been set up in a local hospital, where small children passed through one door to the needle-plying doctors, then emerged through another where a grimly smiling nurse doled out sweets. There was a lot of screaming and blubbing, not only from those about to go in, but, rather more seriously, from those coming out, unconsoled by their sugary hand-outs. I can't remember if I cried myself. I've probably suppressed the trauma. But I do remember that the nurse with the sweets seemed as much a part of the ordeal as anything else.
I have the dimmest recollection of being prepared at my primary school for this event and of part of the dread being the realization that there was no route of exemption. As an infant, you could wriggle, almost by definition, out of most things, but this was brutal conscription aimed at the most tender. It was certainly beyond me to appreciate that the business of the two doors was my lucky birthright-the National Health Service in its own zealous infancy-and something for which I ought really to have been very glad. A whole generation, for the first time in history, was being spared at least one very nasty form of being crippled for life.
I must have had my polio jab around Christmas time, because the second memory is of being with my mother in a Croydon department store where a lavish, glittery Santa's grotto had been constructed. Here again there were the small children entering through one door then emerging through another, with, instead of sweets, little wrapped gifts in their hands. True, many of these children came out gleefully smiling, but not a few, I noticed, came out in tears. The similarities were too vivid, the throwback to that hospital room too overpowering. If I had any plans for calling on Santa, they stopped right there.
Whatever age I was, I knew more about Santa Claus than I did about polio. I didn't know why polio (a rather nice-sounding word) had to be avoided or how having a needle thrust in your arm could possibly ensure this. But I knew about reindeer and chimneys. If superstition consists of submitting to bizarre rituals in the cause of something you cannot rationalize, then that experience of the syringe and of the nurse sticking a sweet on my tongue like a communion wafer was superstition unqualified.
The Santa Claus business, though, isn't really about superstition. It's about that stuff-or that partner at least-of fiction, the suspension of disbelief.
I can't remember ever utterly believing in Santa Claus, but I do remember, even quite consciously, suspending my disbelief-playing along with the parental conspiracy-for the sake of the magic of the fiction. My instinct, seeing those tearful faces leaving the grotto, was that here was magic being destroyed.
Children aren't stupid or impercipient creatures, but they have a benign, if also vulnerable, capacity to enter wholeheartedly into the spirit of an invention. The average adult is embarrassed by things made up. He or she prefers the no-nonsense efficacy of vaccine and syringes: magic made scientifically transparent. If you want to destroy the power of fiction the best way to do it is to attempt to give it material form-to hire real-life Santas and stick them in papier-mâché grottoes. I think those children crying after visiting Santa had suffered something much worse than the puncturing of their arms: the shattering of their dreams. Watching them, I must have concluded that if you got up close to a real-life Santa he might not prove so wonderful after all. If I'd been older I might have embellished this apprehension with cynical details. He might have broken veins and insincere eyes. He might have alcohol on his breath and even, after a hard day's ho-ho-ing, do things with those little boys and girls he shouldn't. Worst of all, he might simply not convince. My answer to all this, my way of protecting the magic, was to stay away from the dubious old fellow. So far, I have never stepped into Santa's grotto.
But I still have a pale floret on my left arm which has protected me, like some talismanic tattoo, from a real and cruel disease.
Fiction is also a kind of inoculation, a vaccine, preserving us from such plagues as reality can breed. But, like all true vaccines, it will work only if it contains a measure of the plague itself, a tincture of the thing it confronts. There may be no sure inoculation or remedy against the sufferings of an infant whose dreams of Santa have been broken by actually paying him a visit. Yet perhaps there is: that is, precisely to tell the story of just such an upsetting visit; to construct from that a new, less comforting but no less involving adventure of the little boy or girl's encounter with the real adult world lurking within the enchanted grotto.
After well over three decades of being a writer of fiction, I still believe that fiction-storytelling-is a magical thing. Why else do we still talk about being under a story's 'spell'? However we may analyse or try to explain it, the power of a good story is a primitive, irreducible mystery that answers to some need deep in human nature. I think it's salutary for even the most modern writer to recognize this-that you are, as it were, dealing with something beyond you, with a force you can never outguess. Once you make a complete and exclusive equation between what you consciously put in and the effect that will emerge (and, time and time again, it's very hard to avoid doing this), you will have lost something. Your writing may be competent, but it will be diminished.
For writer and reader, fiction should always have that flicker of the magical, but it also does something that's completely the opposite. Repeatedly, fiction tries to embrace, to capture, to confront-often grimly and unflinchingly-the real. This is one of its supreme functions too: to bring us down to earth. No better vehicle for this descending journey has been found than the novel. Indeed, from Don Quixote to Madame Bovary and onwards, fiction has been centrally concerned with the demo-lition of magic and dreams; with the way in which our airy notions come up against the hard facts or downright banality of experience. This is entirely healthy: fiction as a corrective to our evasions of an uncompromisingly concrete world. But the remarkable thing about fiction is that it can perform the two apparently contradictory tasks at the same time. It can be both magical and realistic. When we read Don Quixote or Madame Bovary we don't feel coerced into bathos, we feel a thrill.
Back in the 1980s, when my first novels were published, a literary term had for some while been enjoying a vogue: 'magical realism'. I admit that when I wrote Waterland I even thought I was being a bit of a magical realist myself. The term has now long passed its sell-by date, and was fairly bogus in the first place. It seemed to encapsulate perfectly that twofold and paradoxical nature of fiction; but if that were so, it was really saying nothing new or revelatory and, in practice, it reeked of a rather programmatic specialism. It owed a lot to some then-popular Latin American writing in which surreal or supernatural events might be 'realistically' injected into the naturalistic tissue of a novel, or real events might acquire a magical flavour. Writers had been doing this sort of thing for centuries, but 'magical realism' implied that by the mixing in of such fantastical stuff, some much-needed magic could be put back into fiction. As if it had ever gone.
The real magic (if that expression is legitimate) of fiction goes much deeper than a few sprinklings of hocus-pocus, but we know when it's there and we feel its tingle in the spine. There can even be something magical about the perfectly judged and timed revelation on the page of an unanswerable truth we already inwardly acknowledge. In good fiction, without any trickery, truth and magic aren't incompatible at all.
To come back to Santa in his grotto-or rather to his real-life, historical originator. The actual Saint Nicholas was a much less cosy, if more saintly, figure than our Father Christmas, and well enough acquainted with the sordid realities of the world. One of his good deeds was to intervene to prevent a penniless father putting his three daughters on the streets. Posterity has turned him into a more magical yet more flimsy and sentimental creation-bound to come to grief in the form of a sobbing, disillusioned child in a modern department store.
Was it outside Santa's grotto that I had my first intimation of the dual nature of fiction? I doubt it very much. I just hadn't got over my polio jab. Our age believes implicitly in vaccines, in hard knowledge and clinical veracity, but it also makes an increasing commercial razzmatazz out of Christmas. Since the Fifties, in fact, Christmas has spread like some infection for which there is as yet no known vaccine. It stages its first outbreaks in early October, if not before. The razzmatazz may be manifestly grotesque and blatantly money-spinning, but within it is the neurotically spiralling symptom of our need for magic. If this were not the case, why not construct a consumer bonanza out of any old date? We have got our sense of magic wrong. It's gone far beyond the truth. Fiction can help to put the relationship right.
'Which writers have influenced you?' is a complicated question. How writers affect other writers is as mysterious and misunderstood as how writers are made in the first place. The word 'influence' itself is misleading. It assumes that one writer's writing can directly shape and inform another's, as it can, but surely the most important influences aren't influences in this sense at all. They are those other writers who, though they may not leave on you any stylistic mark, yet ignite or reignite your simple desire to write.
In September 1967 I found myself in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, with two days or so to kill before catching a train, for which I had dated tickets, all the way back across Europe to London and home. Five months before, at the age of seventeen, I'd set off in the reverse direction with just a rucksack and no previous unshepherded experience of 'abroad', and I was now at the end of a long, looping journey that had taken me from mainland Greece island- hopping across the Aegean, zigzagging overland as far as eastern Turkey, back again to Istanbul and European Turkey, then across the newly opened borders of Bulgaria to Plovdiv and Sofia, finally winding through the Bulgarian mountains and forests southwards again to Greece.
Less than a year before, I'd taken an exam which had won me a place at Cambridge the following October, and, with that secured, my school had very leniently allowed me and a few others like me to 'disappear' without completing the remaining school year. One drizzly lunchtime in December 1966, without ceremony or formality, I and a couple of friends simply sauntered out of the school gates, knowing we would never walk through them again.
I had already decided by then that I wanted to spend a good part of the free months ahead of me travelling and that my first destination would be Greece and the eastern Mediterranean. I got a temporary job that winter and by the following April had saved up the critical sum of fifty pounds, which, in those days of exchange restrictions, was the maximum you could take on any trip abroad. Meanwhile, there'd been a military coup in Greece, tanks on the streets, and the country was being placed, with consequences yet unknown, under one of the worst dictatorships to afflict post-war Europe. This didn't deter me. With a rucksack and fifty pounds and a rail ticket to Athens-the return ticket yet to be finalized-I set off.
I certainly knew then, in a secretive, submerged way, that I wanted to be a writer. I knew it as a schoolboy, which is what I still essentially was. When people ask me when did I first want to write, I usually say it was in my teens, it happened with adolescence, but I think it may really have begun a lot earlier, and my first and perhaps most significant 'influences' would have been the first real books I read. I'm not thinking of great literature, just of regular kids' books, boys' adventure stories, with a leaning perhaps to anything historical. They were the books that first made me thrill to what writers could put between the covers, and first implanted the idea that I might do something similar myself.
By the time I left school I'd read a fair amount of serious classic literature, and I would be going to Cambridge to do more of the same. My own literary ambitions remained in tacit suspension, virtually unacted upon, and this was to remain the case for several years yet. It was one thing-not a difficult thing-to want to be a writer; another to become one, though I genuinely felt I was gripped by something more than a mere fancy.
Looking back, I think the truth was that I was scared of my ambition, scared of discovering that I didn't have what it took to fulfil it. It's very easy when you're young to place yourself in a postponing, self-deceiving cocoon. If you never put your possible delusion to the test, you'll never suffer the pain of knowing it was a delusion. On the other hand, I think the fact that I was scared of my ambition was a measure of its being real. I knew that eventually I'd have to confront it, and I knew, since it was an entirely solitary, unfostered ambition, that I might need some external catalyst to push me to the task.
But I don't think I set off with my rucksack in some Kerouac- ish way, looking for experience I might 'use'. I think I just wanted to have an interesting time and, in a general, unliterary way, to discover what initiative I had. The cliché would be that I wasn't being so independent: I was simply joining the hippy trail. This was true to the extent that, though I travelled mostly alone, I quite often bumped into others doing something similar, following an east- bound, vagabond urge. But if I ever actually thought of reaching Kathmandu, the reality was I scarcely penetrated the Middle East. I don't think I really had any distant goal in mind. The aim was to wander. I followed my nose, my instinct, my whim, but I kept a fairly shrewd eye on how far you could stretch fifty pounds.
Copyright © 2009 by Graham Swift. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.