I am writing you this open letter because, well, because I have been meaning to for about 20 years. Our paths crossed once, not that you’d know it: it was at the American embassy in London six or seven years ago. I was with my band, waiting on our US work visas and you were in the queue, too, but I was far too flustered to say hello, and besides, those embassy officials had guns – it didn’t seem the proper place to come over all weird and stalkery of a sudden. It’s not often I get star-struck – I’ve met Macca for God’s sake – but then Paul McCartney didn’t shape me in the way you did.
I found The Cement Garden in the school library one lunchtime. I was probably 14, and terribly bored. I don’t know what made me pick it up, but once I had, and once I’d read its compelling opening line – “I did not kill my father, but I sometimes felt I had helped him on his way” – my life changed forever. As soon as Jack had told me his dark secret (one that seemed gut-wrenchingly familiar to me for reasons I cannot share), I couldn’t put the book back on the shelf, nor could I allow it to be borrowed by somebody else in three week’s time – somebody who didn’t understand Jack the way I did. No way! I had to own it. I ripped out the library tag, stuffed it in my bag, made it past the school gate, ran home, and devoured it, beginning to end like a famished animal, that afternoon. Now I had another dark secret: I was a cool kid, a wild child, a towny, the type to hang out at bus shelters and smoke joints, and drink Diamond White by the litre. And I had bunked off school to read.
The Cement Garden was my literary awakening. English lessons soon became a sanctuary from the rest of school. That this thick-as-shit slacker at the back of the classroom was actually ‘a reader’ confused teachers no end, and I took great delight in it. My rebellious reading career continued when I managed to enrol myself in Extra English (aka Rem), despite being in top set, too, just so I could get my head into more books. They didn’t notice. I devoured Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby, and Dracula, and The Color Purple, and The Virgin Suicides with the same insatiable hunger. You taught me that books were sexy things – and nothing, nothing, to do with school. In fact, they became my escape.
I still have that same spindly paperback – the 1980 film tie-in edition with its library-laminated cover and school stamp. It’s the only book I own – out of so, so many – that I refuse to lend out for fear it won’t come back.
Thank you, Ian McEwan. Thank you for everything.
First published in 1978 by Jonathan Cape