I have four prints hanging over my desk in the room where I work. This is one of them:
I brought that print back from the Prado after a short break in Madrid (the one in Spain, not the one in New Mexico). It shows Crown Prince Balthasar Carlos and it was painted by Velasquez. It sits over my desk for a reason; like almost every writer, I’m always striving to be better. There are some things I struggle to get right and a small number that make me despair that I’ll ever master them. When that feeling makes me think, “I’ll never be as good as I want to be. Maybe I should just give up,” I look up at young Balthasar Carlos and I remind myself: Velasquez was one of the finest painters who ever lived. Technically, he was right up there with Goya, Rembrandt and El Greco. And he couldn’t paint horses. Childish it may be, but it strengthens my determination to keep going and keep trying to improve.
Which brings me to Deborah Moggach. I’m just rereading her book, These Foolish Things. I’m a huge admirer of Moggach; I regard her as one of a tiny number (Three? Can I really count more than that?) of the English-language writers still writing today who are technically way out ahead of everyone else. Look at how she starts These Foolish Things:
Muriel Donnelly, an old girl in her seventies, was left in a hospital cubicle for forty-eight hours. She had taken a tumble in Peckham High Street and was admitted with cuts, bruises and suspected concussion. Two days she lay in A & E, untended, the blood stiffening on her clothes. It made the headlines. TWO DAYS! screamed the tabloids. Two days on a trolley, old, neglected, alone. St Jude’s was besieged by reporters, waylaying nurses and shouting into their mobiles, didn’t they know the things were forbidden? Photos showed her lolling grey head and black eye. Plucky pensioner, she had survived the Blitz for this?
Her image was beamed around the country: Muriel Donnelly, the latest victim of the collapsing NHS, the latest shocking statistic showing that the British health system, once the best in the world, was disintegrating in a welter of under-funding, staff shortages and collapsing morale. A hand-wringing why-oh-why piece appeared in the Daily Mail, an internal investigation was ordered. Dr Ravi Kapoor was interviewed. He was weary but polite. He said Mrs Donnelly had received the appropriate care and that she was waiting for a bed. He didn’t mention that he would kill for an hour’s sleep. He didn’t mention that since the closure of the Casualty department at the neighbouring hospital his own, St Jude’s, had to cope with twice the number of drunks, drug overdoses and victims of pointless violence; that St Jude’s would soon be closing because its site, in the centre of Lewisham, was deemed too valuable for sick people; that the private consortium that had taken it over had sold the land to Safeways who were planning to build a superstore.
Exhausted, Ravi drove home to Dulwich. Walking up his path, he paused to breathe deeply. It was seven in the evening; somewhere a bird sang. Beside the path, daffodil blooms had shrivelled into tissue paper. Spring had come and gone without his noticing. In the kitchen Pauline was reading the Evening Standard. The story had gathered momentum; other cases were printed, outraged relatives told their tales.
Ravi opened a carton of apple juice. ‘Thing is, I didn’t mention the real reason the old bat wasn’t treated.’ Pauline fetched him a glass. ‘Why?’
‘She wouldn’t let any darkies touch her.’
That’s just magnificent. She’s a master of brevity on the same scale as Graham Greene’s later work. Not a single word more than is required, but she gets the picture across to us perfectly. The NHS is in a mess. It’s failing those most in need. Its failures create a feeding frenzy for the press. And then that fabulous last line and suddenly, at a stroke, the picture is redrawn and we see it clearly. My God, I wish I could write like that. Perhaps one day? Can I possibly live that long?