William Trevor, my father: ‘Writing was what kept him going’
Son of the late author on how his father worked in the morning, gardened in the afternoon and hosted some huge parties at the weekends
The writer William Trevor: “The only time I knew him to be unhappy was near the end, when he couldn’t write any longer.” Photograph: Frank Miller
Dad spent his last four and a half decades living in the Devon countryside. Mum was his constant companion, as well as – for 15 or 16 years – a beautiful, much-loved but rather stupid red setter called Rory. Dad’s way of life, which mainly involved writing in the morning and gardening in the afternoon, was deliberately quiet – the right conditions for the work was what mattered. In the 1980s and 1990s, lengthy breaks – on occasion, months at a time – were spent in Italy. However, that time abroad was not a holiday and the work never really stopped. In Italy, as elsewhere, settings were borrowed, conversations imagined or eavesdropped on.
Dad was rarely upset in any way that lasted. He didn’t talk much about his work to my brother and me, but writing was what kept him going. He needed it. The only time I knew him to be unhappy was near the end, when he couldn’t write any longer.
Before settling in Devon, we had lived in London, staying at Mum’s parents’ place – a three-storey house with a small garden on the edge of Putney. Dad wrote his first novels (or at least, ones he was satisfied with) during that period, including The Old Boys (published in 1964) and The Love Department (published in 1966), as well as the short story collection, The Day We Got Drunk On Cake (published in 1967). Initially, novels and short stories were written while he held down a regular job as a copywriter at a Soho advertising agency. It was the sort of organisation which probably no longer exists. Home to a number of aspiring poets and novelists, the boss turned a blind eye to his employees doing their own thing on the firm’s time.
After a while Dad left advertising – he said he was no good at it – and used a tiny upstairs room at home to write. Pretty much everything was regarded as potential material. Quite regularly in the early works, characters were based on real people, several rather close to home. They tended to be humorous figures, often with unusual or exaggerated mannerisms. Occasionally, I noticed Mum – in other ways a big fan of Dad’s writing – nervously reading the proof of a new novel or story, worried a barely-disguised acquaintance was about to feature.
Looking back on those London days, we seem to have had a happy, quite ordinary, middle-class way of life. One occasion at our house stands out: a huge party, or it certainly seemed so through my five-year-old eyes. It took place about a year before we left London for good. Apart from my brother, I was the only child there and I have a distinct recollection of it being too crowded to get up the stairs. Everyone seemed bizarrely good humoured. Friends of my parents, who played in a jazz group, had finished a gig locally, and performed an impromptu second gig at the party. At one point, I wondered why a man and a woman had been discovered together in a cupboard, both apparently there for some time. In answer to questions on that subject Dad simply smiled.
Much later, I asked if he missed the late 1960s London scene. I mentioned the party. Everyone seemed to have had a wonderful time, I said. “Yes,” Dad said, a little mischievously. “A couple of marriages fell by the wayside that evening.”
In Devon, we lived first in a huge, falling-down pile near Honiton. Here, in summer, Dad would type outside if the weather was good. There were rules of a sort about disturbing him (making a racket in the morning was frowned upon) but it was left to Mum to enforce them.
For a while in Devon, the London world wasn’t left behind completely. My parents’ friends would visit, often in groups at the weekend. Sometimes, I would ask my own school friends in Exeter about adults they knew and it seemed that my parents attracted a rather different sort. My father appeared quite down to earth to me – all my life, in fact. Invariably, he was polite. But he was amused and interested in lively, unusual or simply bad behaviour of others – and we saw a bit of that during those Devon weekends.
Once or twice it went too far, even for Dad. In the mid 1970s, a flashily-dressed man, about 25, turned up for a Devon weekend. He was part of a group who knew each other and must have had something to do with publishing. He drove a sports car – immediately attractive to me, aged 10 or so. Shortly after arrival, he took my brother and I into nearby fields and taught us to fire the pistol he’d casually produced from a bag. During the weekend, he also found time to seduce the French au pair. He was not invited again, although over the years Dad – who could be quite forgiving, particularly if someone had provided him with a good story – would occasionally wonder what had happened to the flashily-dressed man with the pistol and sports car.
At that first West Country house, Dad turned part of the garden into a grass tennis court. A net was bought and white painted lines marked out. The bounce wasn’t terribly true, even after the purchase of a roller. Nonetheless, I loved playing and our red setter loved jumping over the net, usually mid-point. Dad would play tennis too, but was easily distracted. I suspect his mind was more on The Ballroom Of Romance’s Bridie or Timothy Gedge, the teenage blackmailer in The Children of Dynmouth than anything I hit from the back of the court. In fact, he found an effective method of shortening the rallies. When receiving my not-very-strong serve, Dad had the infuriating habit of positioning himself at the net rather than the base line, a tactic which enabled him to volley an immediate winner. He enjoyed telling me there was nothing in the rules of the game to stop this, although I remain unsure. It certainly speeded up the game.
A love of watching tennis remained to the end. In recent years, he and Mum would tell me in detail about the latest match they’d watched on television. Roger Federer always a great favourite. Some of Dad’s other heroes – introduced to me as a child – are still my heroes. One Christmas, almost in passing, he said I might like James Cagney gangster movies – and I, aged nine, was entranced. Two or three years later he said something similar about PG Wodehouse, as he produced a copy of The Inimitable Jeeves. About the same time, we watched Some Like It Hot together, and Monty Python’s original TV shows.
Much later, Dad approved of my choice of career – as a defence barrister in criminal law in London – if only because it provided a decent source of stories. He enjoyed hearing about silver-tongued handlers of stolen goods and charming fraudsters. Most of all he loved tales of pompous judges encouraging a prosecution victory, but defeated by a jury having none of it. Often, he encouraged me to mess with the truth a bit. “Wouldn’t it work a little better if your man had said such and such?” he’d say. “Wouldn’t that ring truer with your jury? Could you not put that forward?”
Many of my memories of Dad are English ones from London and Devon. But he remained Irish through and through from his own very precise memories of a childhood spent entirely in Ireland to a lifetime supporting the national rugby team. One of the last times I saw him smile, two weeks before he died and when he was quite unwell, was when I told him that the Irish had that day finally beaten the All Blacks after more than a century of trying.
Last Stories by William Trevor is published by Viking today, May 24th (on what would have been his 90th birthday). Most of the stories have not been previously published. The International Literature Festival Dublin is hosting an event, Celebrating William Trevor: John Banville, Dermot Bolger, Roy Foster, Yiyun Li and Danielle McLaughlin, this evening. To book tickets, please go to http://ilfdublin.com/events/celebrating-william-trevor