February Fill-Dyke. But north Norfolk is dry, at least in terms of rain. Instead we have coastal flooding. Three years ago, a tidal surge caused major damage and destruction to sea defences, wildlife habitats, paths and buildings. Another surge last month was less dramatic but still reached the gate of a friend’s house, set well back, behind marshes and road. It is terrifying to experience this unstoppable force and hear its mighty roar. Whole shingle banks were flicked aside. As a small child, I stood on the cliff top above raging seas in Scarborough, and the storm seemed biblical. You never underestimate the force of nature, and possibly the wrath of God, once you have witnessed a tidal surge.
Brexit has been as bad as any surge in washing away hitherto strong foundations. I am talking about friendships. I have never known the like. To be called a racist, a ‘little Englander’ and worse was bad enough, but to have people one has long known and liked say they could no longer be friends with ‘someone like you’ was very shocking. My father was a Mass-going Roman Catholic, a Labour voter and a union shop steward. My mother was a church-going Anglican and lifelong Conservative. They were married for 33 years and although their union was alarmingly fiery, they made a pact from the beginning that they would never argue about, or even discuss, religion or politics. They kept it. I was sent to a Catholic convent school, but Church of England Sunday school and Girl Guides. If all that could be arranged amicably, heavens to Betsy surely friends can remain friends, whatever happens to the relationship between us and the EU — which in any case is a relatively young one.
I am writing two books at once — non-swanks. One is fiction, the other not, otherwise my head would be done in, but I think it works because one fires off the other. A change is as good as a rest and all that. I do sometimes wonder why I am more brimful of ideas in my dotage than I was in my youth. Is it like the light bulb which becomes suddenly brighter before it dies? The Catherine wheel that spins round faster and faster and faster before it exhausts itself into blackness? I am not going to delve any deeper, just be grateful. If ever my faith in God falters, as it does, I think of how all these book ideas, characters, plots, settings, pour into and so out of my head on to paper. I don’t lie awake straining to think them up, I don’t beat my brains out hoping for a new plot. I am walking the dog or scrubbing a pan or going off to sleep when they drop down, like coins into a slot. Given. I know they are given.
Having been educated in a convent from the age of three, I am on Christian-name terms, as it were, with a lot of saints. St Christopher, for journeys. St Jude, for lost causes and hopeless cases, but best of all, St Anthony, whose afterlife must be exhausting; he has to find so many lost things. Most of his regular petitioners seem to be unbelievers in all other respects, but he rarely fails. The other day, I had a hot argument with him when I lost my bank card. I knew it was in the house because I had not taken it anywhere since last paying a bill by phone. I ransacked the place. You know how hot and sweaty you become when this happens, and my blood pressure would have alarmed a doctor. As I panicked, St Anthony kept telling me calmly that the card was in the bathroom. I ignored him. ‘It is in the bathroom,’ he said quietly, again. ‘Listen, St Anthony, not being funny or anything, but that is such a stupid suggestion. How could it possibly be in the bathroom ? Why would I take it into the bathroom?’ He calmly repeated, ‘It’s in the bathroom.’ ‘OK, OK, OK, I’ll look in the bloody bathroom, just to prove you don’t know what you’re… .’ It was in the bathroom.
When President Obama left office, he confided that he had got through the eight years of stress by reading. He named some titles. I was surprised he chose V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival over his masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas, which I count as the best novel written in the 20th century, if such competitive judgments can mean anything. But I so hope he will read it now he has time, because I know he will love and cherish it and reread it 20 times over the coming years. But Barack Obama does not need me to recommend books to him. President Trump does. Has he ever read one, do you suppose, or should I start my list with Ant and Bee?
Susan Hill’s 28th novel, From the Heart, will be published on 2 March.