February 7, 2014 6:20 pm

I live in worrying times

‘As you may know, there is nothing so unlikely that I haven’t fretted over it’

It was a day of two talks. I was speaking to a large girls’ school in the morning about being a writer, then going on to talk to a book group of “over-55s”, covering all age bases in one day.

I get very nervous before these events. I enjoy the attention but, sometimes, odd things happen: from nowhere, everything I say begins to rhyme, as though I have swallowed a court jester in red and yellow tights. Sometimes I aim for a light, self-deprecating tone and see people look at me awash with pity, as though an artwork entitled “Saddo” is flashing lime neon above my head. The part that I like best is the things people say in the questions, such as: “I don’t want to blow my own trumpet but when I was rector of a smallish parish outside Newbury, Rudyard Kipling’s former secretary used to do quite a bit of my typing.”

As you may know, there is nothing so unlikely that I haven’t fretted over it. Sometimes I almost think that the more improbable the outcome, the longer we need to spend anticipating it, just to keep it firmly at bay. But the worries worrying away at the schoolgirls I met were really something.

One young woman, a successful novelist of tomorrow perhaps, expressed fears that any future film adaptation of her works might be very unfaithful to her original vision, and this would feel like a dreadful violation. She listed some recent film versions of books she loved – wholly lacking in even the veneer of fidelity, to her mind – which had made her furious. It was like an assault. She shuddered at the very idea. How could she guard against this trauma in her professional life?

Well, I said, perhaps when your first book is published, maybe do a screenwriting course at the same time and see if you can do the adaptation yourself? Take the money and distance yourself from the project? Just say no? Switch to medicine instead? The chances of someone unfaithfully writing an adaptation of a surgical procedure you are particularly proud of seem more than unlikely. Or do they? (Hospital shows must get their material somewhere, I suppose.)

Another young woman said she was off to drama school soon and her parents were terrified she would get stuck in a soap opera, typecast for life as one particular character who represented only a small fraction of what she could do, and her career would be stunted, her creativity stemmed and stymied before it could ever know full expression. Wouldn’t that be just the greatest shame? I said it would be quite hard to wake up one morning and feel your life had passed you by if you had checked in with your heart, brain and nerves at regular intervals – say, every six months. She did look doubtful.

. . .

Things were even more fascinating with the over-55s. (I was closer to that age than anyone else in the room.) The subject of the discussion soon turned to hero worship. One of the women told me that when she was a schoolgirl, in the 1950s, all the pupils at the bus stop were contracted in marriage to the stars of the day. While they waited for the bus to come, they would discuss the ins and outs of their domestic set-ups with their hallowed spouses and dependants. Her “husband” was a pioneer hero from long-running American TV series Wagon Train who went by the name of Flint McCullough. “I adored Flint,” she said. “He was just so ... ” and her face lit up with a wonderful smile.

But, from the start, the marriage was fraught. Another child at the bus stop, it transpired, had already nabbed the actor who played this part, Robert Horton, for her husband. As the actor was taken, my new friend was only allowed by the bus girls to be married to the character he played. This had struck her as a disappointment, for Robert Horton, of course, would have another life (of parties and Miami Beach holidays and dinners at home), but the character of Flint was something of a rover. She barely saw him as he was always off pioneering.

Flint, according to a potted biography that Horton himself wrote of the man he played, had “a certain gracefulness in his habits” because his mother had been born in Virginia, and he was no stranger to education because his Scottish father had been a schoolteacher. He sounded the most civilised of cowboys. But he was a loner and she was lonely without him, and her bus-stop accounts of their life together had been thin and patchy, unlike the accounts of the girl “married” to Horton.

She shrugged as if to say, “Of course I am over it now,” but I could detect a small amount of residual discomfort. I sympathised in a way I could not quite with the more modern girls’ dilemmas.

Strange.

susie.boyt@ft.com, @SusieBoyt

More columns at ft.com/boyt

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