Michèle Roberts

Negative Capability

One Day In Orchard Street, London

Yesterday ended in disaster. Very late at night, I decided to write down everything that had happened, the only way I could think of coping. So here goes.

Yesterday I woke up at seven thirty in my white-painted wrought-iron bed, felt lazy, decided to have a lie-in. Almost immediately, above me, the neighbours’ bed began creaking. This went on for ten minutes or so, then stopped. Angus and Bettina got up and thumped to and fro on their wooden floor. I got up too. While coffee brewed, I went out into the back garden bearing yesterday’s coffee grounds – slug deterrent – and slices of used lemon – cat deterrent. The local cats like to shit in my flowerbeds and I like to swear at them, if I spot them, and chase them off. A dog fox ran along the bed at the far end. When I shouted at it and waved my arms it leaped the fence into my neighbour Mike’s garden. I deadheaded a few primroses, admired the hellebores’ pale pink flowers, the violets and wallflowers in bloom, counted three spikes of lily-of-the-valley poking up and went back inside. I decided not to do yesterday’s washing-up, left it still piled in the sink. I preferred to get down to work straight away.

Usually in the mornings I work on rewriting my novel, revising it line by line, page by page. I am determined to get it published, even though the Publisher rejected it several months ago, she and her reader finding it overall ‘too intense… too heavy’ though in part ‘stupendous’. Failing is part of writing, though not all writers admit to failing ever. Fail again, said Samuel Beckett: fail better. Accordingly, I had begun to rewrite the novel, expanding it, doubling it to inhabit two separate timescales, letting one strand of story haunt another.

Yesterday morning, however, I had a review to finish writing, so put my novel aside. I was in the middle of a spat with a friend, Susan, so felt pleased I had a commission to be getting on with, which might take my mind off hurt and anger. Nothing like work for giving back a lost sense of proportion.

Susan is younger than I am, beautiful, multi-talented, brave, cool. Recently, a particular piece of behaviour on her part had felt like a punch to the belly, knocking me off-balance. I’d protested, trying to explain my upset. After that I kept silent. Not being in touch felt right; peaceful; a relief. I had then made the mistake of replying to an email from Susan gaily inviting us to meet. So now I was involved in an exchange of explanations. Part of me felt I had to see them through, that it might be worth it for the sake of the friendship, part of me felt I’d been hooked back into something dodgy.

Thank heavens for deadlines. I went on with the work I had begun last night, the piece that I was due to send off this morning: a thousand words on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. I drank strong Italian coffee from my big breakfast cup. Two cups of coffee every morning: a ritual, an addiction, a pleasure.

I wrestled with language for four hours, finding it pleasanter than wrestling with Susan. Writing about the language of Brittain’s memoir, her weird, conflicted style alternating between pomposity and succinct brilliance, I worked out what I thought about her treatment of her subject: war. Initially she seems to have wanted to join in, to have resented not being allowed to. After the deaths of her fiancé and brother, the carnage she witnessed as a Red Cross volunteer nurse, she became a pacifist. Bravely she got on with the job: trying to patch up men smashed to red pulp. Brittain’s soldier patients had been forced to be brave on the battlefield, but now, in terrible pain, many of them lost control and screamed in wild abandonment.

Thinking about the soldiers’ suffering, I made a crass egotistical connection, remembered that I haven’t gone back to the dentist, because I haven’t yet screwed up sufficient courage. Last time, when Denis-the-dentist sprayed water into the tooth cavity, just washing it, the water jet hurt the sensitive tissue there and I screeched and jumped and the nurse put her gloved forefinger on my lower jaw to hold my mouth open and I wanted to clamp my mouth shut and of course couldn’t or I’d have bitten her. The pain and the helplessness combined with the rough whirring and grinding of the drill as Denis smoothed the edge of the newly fitted tooth, the drill clamped to me like a dog shaking its prey, revived the trauma of going to that sadist, Mr Watts, when I was young, as he drilled away with no local anaesthetic and often hit a nerve and I couldn’t scream because he was still drilling. We had to go to Mr Watts for twelve years and for twelve years I lived in silent terror of the next visit, the next bout of pain. Unthinkable to complain, to ask to go to a different dentist who might not hurt us. We were drilled in obedience and then Mr Watts took over.


Michèle Roberts is the author of fourteen critically acclaimed novels, including Daughters of the House, which won the WH Smith Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and, most recently Ignorance, which was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2013 and the Impac Award. Her memoir Paper Houses was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week.

Negative Capability: A Diary of Surviving will be published by Sandstone Press on 28 May.

Sandstone Press are the country winner for Scotland in the Small Press of the Year Award at the British Book Awards 2020.

To find out more and to buy a copy, visit Sandstone Press’s website.

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