I had finished my first novel. I’d been over the pages many times and got most of the words where I wanted them. I had restructured it and redrafted it. At Granta’s old offices in Islington, a van was parked behind the pub ready to take the manuscript from Hanover Yard to the famous printers in Frome. In 1994, there were no digital files to send. But wait, it can’t have been a whole van just for my manuscript. It was a very slim book. Maybe the van was there to take a load of magazines to world’s end, or somewhere else. My problem was that I still had one page to fill. An empty page waiting for a suitable epigraph. A novel, I thought, ought to have an epigraph and I had left it blank as I was totally baffled. How can I find somebody else’s words to fit into a sea of mine without sticking out like a sore thumb.

It was impossible. There wasn’t much time left. The blank page threatened to sink the book even before it got to the printers. I imagine a reader opening the book and finding a blank page, and then another and another and another . . . I was on the tube, going to the day job, glancing at the books other commuters had in their hands – a few read – and scanning newspaper headlines about newly discovered fossil skulls in Ethiopia.

Nothing that could help me.

And then, I looked up.

Above the handrail Ariel’s song was printed in the welcome white sea of a Poems on the Underground panel. The line I needed was there, the missing piece, perfect in every way: ‘Of his bones are coral made.’

I could fill in the blank page. The van could go. The book could be printed. The sea would be obliged to let it float.

I should have known. As always, Shakespeare could be relied on to make things better. It is to his pages I return whenever I feel I am sinking. There I can be sure to find a lifeline.


Photograph © Basheer Tome

On Shakespeare and Aemilia Lanyer
The Beacon & The Bane