My glittering career: 10-shilling cheques and rejection slips by the score
Peter Cunningham looks back on his early glory days and inglorious moments as a writer
Author Peter Cunningham at his home in Donadea. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
During these unwelcome days of fear and confusion I sometimes think back over the decades to the first time I made what might be called a literary submission.
One snowy afternoon on the upper floor of my aunts’ bookshop in Waterford I came across the Christmas supplement to a local newspaper. Squeezed between large advertisements – the sole rationale for this publication – were articles with titles such as, The Yule Log – A Brief History and Bethlehem Today. It dawned on me that I could do that – I could write about Christmas. And so, like someone hooked on a very long line, I began.
A year later my first contribution appeared under the heading, The Christmas Pudding. It was little more than a recitation of my grandmother’s recipe accompanied by a description of how the children in our house all took turns at stirring the mixture and then licking the empty bowl. A cheque for 10 shillings and sixpence followed. I was delighted; I was 10 years old. My father read my article and when I asked him what he thought Dad replied, “A newspaper never refused ink”.
I learnt subsequently that my old man and the proprietor of the paper in question shared a long history of mutual disenchantment. This provoked me to think that Dad had really liked my piece, but because of this particular newspaper had been unable to say so; on the other hand, that the editor had only accepted my piece in order to get one up on Dad. It was a first lesson in dealing with reviews: don’t analyse; don’t brood; move on.
Around this time, I came across the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Arranged in a neat row in Dad’s study, these tiny volumes involved premature burial, decomposition, torture, murder and reanimation of the dead. I began to try out Poe’s techniques on my two little sisters with bedtime stories and judged success as the moment when they screamed so loudly that our mother came upstairs and told me to stop.
Writing is a way of life. It’s often been said that writers only think when they write and although I didn’t know this at the time I was probably no different. At the age of 12, when I found myself incarcerated in a remote, Poe-like castle in Co Limerick, a boarding school with hidden stone staircases and secret doors, I wrote to deal with my crushing loneliness. All the anguish of my separation spilled out in copybooks and letters.
Since tortured souls were common in this Gothic environment, I began to write ghost stories. Prefaced by solemn assurances as to their authenticity, these fictions involved details of which Poe would have approved: plate-sized spiders, banshees, zombies, howling spirits and the grateful dead.
A fee of a guinea arrived one day from the Evening Herald, half my pocket-money for a term. My submissions promptly extended to UK publications, including Woman’s Way. This strategy came unstuck when Matron intercepted a letter from London addressed to a Miss Anne Cunningham, thanking her for her submission but declining with regret. Matron was not amused and I was ordered by authority to desist.
In school I was part of a group of like-minded individuals who competed to see how many novels could be read in a term. Each book was recorded; in this numbers game, Agatha Christie who wrote 66 novels, was a good place to start. Eric Ambler, Walter Macken, Graham Greene and Alistair McLean followed. We smuggled in Ian Fleming in our tuck boxes. These many novels helped the weeks fly by until it was time to go home for the holidays.
For my 15th birthday my mother gave me a Remington portable typewriter.
“For your glittering career,” her birthday card said.
With a solid green chassis, white keys and a nifty, zip-up case, the Remington sealed my fate. Soon no provincial newspaper was safe. Rejection slips became familiar. I spent long hours devising narratives, all of which ran into a dead end after five or six pages. I discovered the delicious suspension of time that occurs during the writing process, an experience that has not changed.
In my second week in UCD, Earlsfort Terrace, I found myself seated beside someone whose enthusiasm for reading matched my own. I was staying in digs and must have looked malnourished, for Antoin Murphy invited me home for tea. We became the best of friends and I became a regular feature at the kitchen table in the teeming Murphy household in Rathgar. Mrs Murphy was ever warmly welcoming, and her husband, WP Murphy, the chief sports reporter for the Irish Independent, acknowledged me gracefully, although he must have wondered if his already sizable family obligations now included a stranger with a bottomless appetite.
Mr Murphy would have been further forgiven for becoming unsettled when I began to show up in the newsroom in Middle Abbey Street. Antoin, his son, who worked in his free time as a copytaker for the paper, had wangled me into some of the match reporting jobs that were going on weekends. Soon, early on Sundays as the city slept, I was on my way to sports grounds in the Dublin suburbs where the bleak life of a low-level hack was played out on the touchlines. The scores I brought in appeared in Monday’s Indo. No other copy was required.
At frosty pitch-sides, seasoned reporters, men with families to support, would sidle up to me and say, “Would you mind keeping an eye on things here, chief? I have to nip over to Portmarnock. And don’t forget to write down who scores.” They were probably covering half a dozen of these Sunday morning matches, and for several newspapers, to try and make ends meet.
The golden opportunity finally arose when I was instructed to file 50 words on a hurling match due to take place not far from Dublin Airport. I got up that Sunday morning, lit a Peter Stuyvesant and set out by bus in a haze of blueish smoke. I saw myself as a character like the one in Scoop by Evelyn Waugh. I eventually disembarked and walked half a mile to a field where the players were awaiting a thaw in the ground. As someone who was just discovering the prose of Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, I decided that the monochromatic north Co Dublin sports scene needed to be enlivened. My report, typed on my Remington, and delivered that evening to Mr Murphy in the Indo, contained the sentence: “The captain of Dunderry, a magnificent Irish warrior in the mould of Cuchulainn or Saint Patrick, was banished from the field of play for showing sublime but excessive exuberance in the thirty-ninth minute.”
The wind whistling from Mr Murphy’s nostrils could be heard in O’Connell Street. The next day’s matchbox-sized piece included the line: “Paddy Duff was sent off at the start of the second half.”
My glittering career had never seemed so far away.
Freedom Is A Land I Cannot See, Peter Cunningham’s most recent novel, is published by Sandstone Press