Ian McEwan: ‘We thought we were on the cutting edge of experience. Nonsense’

Prize writer Ian McEwan reflects on his younger self and outgrowing his adolescent ego

At 16 I was a very slim, pale fellow with Buddy Holly glasses and very thick pile of dark hair, and I was embarking on an amazing awakening. I’d been at boarding school, 2,000 miles from home, since I was 11 and been mildly depressed, though I didn’t have the analytical tools to recognise it, to even say it to myself. But around the age of 16 I realised that although it was school, I was in the most extraordinarily lovely place, in a beautiful stretch of Suffolk on the River Orwell. I was waking up to literature, reading a lot of poetry and music. I was listening to Bach for the first time. And a lot of jazz and the electric blues. I became wildly excited about life, roaring on all fronts.

The great lack in my life of course, at my all-boys school, was the opposite sex. So a lot of longing was channelled into this love of music and books. Huge sublimation was obviously going on. It was slightly unnatural. At 16 a very charismatic English teacher told me I was clever and I suddenly felt clever for the first time in my life. He introduced me to Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, Brian Aldiss, William Golding. I became very earnest and serious. And began to get the idea that the study of English literature was like a priesthood and I was going to dedicate myself to it and probably get a job teaching English one day.

I used to look forward to going home for the holidays but within a week I’d be restless and bored because there were no kids around. My father, a military man, was stationed in Germany, so since I was about 12 I would make the journey from Suffolk to Germany – boat, then train. I was very fond of my parents, they were very kindly. But the things that were fascinating to me were quite alien to them. They both left school at 14, and had a lovely commitment to my education.

However, the things that education gave me, that love of literature and the arts, didn’t mean much to them. That gave me a bit of arrogance which I condemn myself utterly for now. I went through a five-year stretch of thinking anyone who hadn’t read The Wasteland wasn’t worth talking to. How unbearable of me.

Much later on I saw the full humanity of my parents. And I saw that they were shaped by two great forces I’d been very lucky to avoid; the Great Depression and the Second World War. I realised a lot of my generation’s parents had stared into the abyss. They’d seen death on a scale that was unimaginable to our generation.

You are in a life with no danger and you must appreciate that people who have been in real danger find comfort in routine.

And so when it all ended, and the country began to get a little more prosperous, they clung to ordinariness, stability and regularity. Things that seemed like the most boring thing in the world to me, like polishing a car, I later saw how that was soothing for a man who had been through slaughter. So I’d love to send that message back to my younger self; you are in a life with no danger and you must appreciate that people who have been in real danger find comfort in routine. What did we do? Grow our hair and walk around with no shoes on, smoking a bit of dope, thinking we were on the cutting edge of experience. Nonsense.

I think my younger self would have been amazed that in 1972, just after my university days, I’d see the cover of a literary magazine – the New American Review – and it would have four names, all in the same size – Philip Roth, Günter Grass, Susan Sontag, Ian McEwan. I almost fainted. To see my name among these legendary writers, who I had such admiration for.


The year Ian turns 16

• Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is published

• The Ford Mustang hits the streets

• Soul great Sam Cooke is shot and killed aged 33

Around 1973, 1974 Martin [Amis] introduced me to Christopher [Hitchens] and they ran through some of their routines together, which were very obscene and… my ribs were aching. Whenever I came into a room Chris would go into third person mode and say, “Here comes the slim ironic figure of Ian McEwan.” During that time I met all the young men, or mainly men, who became lifelong friends – James Fenton, Craig Raine, Clive James, Julian Barnes. And yes, we had a lot of fun running around town together, having our first books and articles published.

I didn’t rack up scores of girlfriends the way Martin [Amis] was famous for. I quite liked focusing deeply on one relationship. And I loved fatherhood from the start, absolutely adored it. I got married in 1982 and we moved to Oxford and had two sons. And I had two stepdaughters as well. So we had this big household in Oxford and it was a lovely time actually. I loved kids from babies onwards. I see my children a lot. They have been a source of immense pleasure in my life.

Ian in 1954, as a boy with his 'kindly' parents in Singapore

If I could go back and have a final conversation with anyone I think I’d choose my first love. Her name was Polly Bide. We fell in love at university, and we stayed friends for the rest of our lives. Then around 2001 she began to get ill and she died of cancer in 2003. I did see her, but in all the busyness and the narrative of her illness – its moments of depression and moments of hope – we never sat down and had the kind of deep conversation in which we acknowledged she was dying. She was a lovely, lovely person and I still miss her.

Death is always there, like a distant mountain range you’re always approaching. I think you just have to try to live your life to the full. You’ve had the gift of this consciousness for 70 or 80 years, you hope you’ve made the most of it. I feel a sadness about it really. I feel that life is good. Then you have these moments when you think, this all has to end. Not even in nothing, but beyond nothing.

The fact that everyone else is going to end too doesn’t make it any better. There’s a line in Larkin’s poem Aubade; “Not to be here, not to be anywhere.” People who believe in an afterlife will never know they were wrong so it must be a great comfort to them. But not to me.

If I could re-live one day it would be when I was with a couple of friends and we went for a huge hike in the Big Sur in California. I must have been about 27 . We had this wonderful afternoon with the ocean crashing around us, and unbelievable vegetation. There came a point when we were heading back to our tents and we felt so happy, so good in our bodies, that we decided to run the last five or six miles along the path of the cliff. It was that wonderful easy running, and as we went through that landscape I just thought, I’m in heaven. This is beautiful. I felt the delight in it all – the physical act of running, the extraordinary landscape around me, good friends, the thought of the evening ahead of me just as the sun was setting. I thought, I’ve got a cove in paradise. I knew it at the time and that moment has remained with me ever since.

Ian  McEwan’s new book Machines Like Me  is out on April 18 (Vintage Publishing, £18.99); ianmcewan.com

Image: Camera Press/Andrew Crowley