Saturday, May 20, 2006

Clare Boylan

This week the brilliant writer Clare Boylan died of cancer. I was lucky enough to be taught by her on a course in Thailand six years ago. I was at a crossroads – about to take redundancy from the BBC for the first time (becoming a habit, eh?) and was also trying to tackle my fear of flying and see more of the world.

I’d read about Skyros, the holistic holiday company, and considered going on one of their holidays in Greece. But a) the Greek holidays involved some horribly complicated Labour of Hercules style journey involving boats, planes and stopovers and b) the Greek ones didn’t begin till Easter. So I took the deepest of breaths, booked a flight on Eva Air and took my confusion and my notebook to Koh Samet.

The course was held at Ao Prao, right on the beach. We had to wade through the sea for the final stretch of the journey, so the boat didn't get grounded. Clare taught a class every day – she reminded me of an Irish Tinkerbell, tiny, very pretty, sparky, full of energy and insight. She was one of the first real writers I’d spent time with (though I once interviewed Dick King-Smith when I was a reporter at Points West and he gave me a signed copy of The Sheep-Pig) and those workshops, overlooking the sea, were truly inspiring.

There were two main courses that fortnight – writing, and a rather deeper, more angsty one about finding your direction in life. Maybe I should have gone for the latter, given my impending redundancy, but the writing was much more appealing. We were a gang of slightly rebellious types: I remember one of my fellow students, Toby, proudly showing off his Prince Albert piercing when he insisted on stripping off and running into the sea, during the most spectacular midnight storm. Now you wouldn’t have wanted your lightning to be conducted through that particular rode of metal. Many of the Life course students arrived looking terribly anxious and, to give the other course its due, left with a genuine glow. Might have been sunburn, of course. I got my worst sunburn ever, singing songs from the shows as I swam about in the surf.
Every evening at sunset, the more dedicated students would file into a building resembling a village hall, and miss the spectacle.

But Clare and her lovely, witty friend Noeleen used to skip these sessions and sit instead, watching the day melt into the water, with cocktails and cigarettes to ward off the world’s most persistent mosquitoes. I used to join her with my new friend and room-mate Adele, putting the world to rights and laughing a lot. Those evenings are as important in my memory as the writing sessions: we felt we were in the best possible company.

On the final night, there was a party. I read out the piece I’d been working on, about a phallically challenged, two-timing man, which went down a storm: I realised the laughter was what I’d been looking for. I’m not much of a raconteur, and can get quite tongue-tied in social situations, but with time to put words on a page, I seemed to be getting something right.
It’s not that I’d never wanted to write before – I’d always loved scribbling stories in notebooks, or inventing characters - but what Clare did was make me believe I could do it. And show me what fun it could be to be a Lady Writer...

Two years later, I’d signed my first book contract – though not for the piece I began in Thailand, far too close to real life, thank you! Maybe I would have made the breakthrough anyway, but Clare’s intelligence and generosity of spirit brought that moment closer, I have no doubt.

I’m quite a crybaby, really, and when I saw the news on the internet, I did feel choked, especially after seeing her picture: I felt a fraud at this point, compared to the many people close to her who must be mourning her. But I remembered the nights on Koh Samet, and the mozzie bites, and the stories she’s left behind, and I realised that what I really felt was privileged to have spent time with her and Noeleen, in a wonderful place, where dreams could happen. I hope that doesn’t sound too naff or Pollyanna-ish, but it’s how I feel.

Lovely Link of the Day:
An obituary for Clare. Doesn't feel right to put those words together, but it sums up some of the things that made her special.

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