Life and times

Nov­el­ist Michael Donkor

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

AS WELL AS WRIT­ING, to earn my keep I teach English part-time at a girls’ school in west London. The fi­nal few weeks of the aca­demic year can feel a lit­tle shape­less, but the pre­dictabil­ity of cer­tain an­nual fix­tures – sports day, for ex­am­ple – gives some sense of or­der. Be­cause I’m not a mem­ber of the PE de­part­ment, sports day is a jolly, re­laxed af­fair. Rather than com­pet­i­tive, the mood is car­ni­va­lesque; rather than suited and booted, staff are short-ed and flip-flop-ed; the girls don weird and won­der­ful cos­tumes – mer­maid tails and uni­corn horns; staff race against stu­dents, stu­dents win. This year’s fes­tiv­i­ties went with an es­pe­cial swing: an IT sup­port of­fi­cer proved to be an able DJ, flood­ing the play­ing field with Abba, Brit­ney, Michael Jack­son. As well as, erm, as­sid­u­ously at­tend­ing to my ‘crowd con­trol’ re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, I spent much of the af­ter­noon dis­sect­ing the power dy­nam­ics at work in Love Is­land and be­ing taught how to do that tricky floss­ing dance by the Year 12s.

IT WAS THE LAUNCH PARTY for my de­but novel, Hold, re­cently, so I went to Klas­sique, an Afro-caribbean bar­ber’s in Brix­ton, to get my­self smartened up. The scis­sor­smiths at Klas­sique are the only peo­ple I’ve trusted with my hair for the past decade. The fa­mil­iar­ity is sooth­ing and no one makes ap­point­ments; you turn up and wait, squashed in next to blank teens lik­ing things on In­sta­gram and el­derly men eat­ing pat­ties sheathed in brown pa­per bags. Most men will be in­volved in de­bates in Ja­maican pa­tois or watch­ing the television in the cor­ner of the shop. Some­times peo­ple stare out of the win­dow at the craft beer shop op­po­site – that stal­wart of the gen­tri­fied lo­cale – and crit­i­cise the lu­di­crous pric­ing of pints.

When it’s fi­nally my turn, be­cause I’m al­most al­ways seen by Glen – a wise, wiry gen­tle­man who calls me ‘Teach’ – I don’t need to give di­rec­tions. Glen is a mag­i­cal mul­ti­tasker. While he ex­pertly does my fade hair­cut, work­ing the clip­pers around my scalp in­stinc­tively, he chats on his phone and shoos away the char­ac­ters who walk in off the street to sell dodgy per­fume. He flirts with the mums who bring in their lit­tle boys for a trim. He ne­go­ti­ates with his own kids as they de­mand sweets, coins. He wel­comes in – and puts at ease – ner­vous white cus­tomers.

BE­CAUSE I’M IN my early 30s, I seem to spend all of my week­ends at wed­dings – in­clud­ing my own. I got mar­ried to my won­der­ful hus­band Pa­trick in Lis­bon in May. I wore a vivid pur­ple suit and the whole day was lu­mi­nous. In the fre­netic run-up, com­pos­ing my speech was one of the most ag­o­nis­ing jobs. Friends would say, ‘Oh, but you’re a writer! You’re so good with words’ – but this un­help­ful ex­pec­ta­tion of easy suc­cess made me feel even more ner­vous.

The wed­ding speech is an odd form. There’s a de­mand that it be con­cise but it can’t be glib. It’s got to bawdily en­ter­tain well-lu­bri­cated guests. It’s got to be per­sonal but ‘re­lat­able’. In the end, I de­cided to write about how the ex­pe­ri­ence of griev­ing for my fa­ther, who died eight years ago, brought my hus­band and me closer to­gether. I tried to phrase my thoughts in hon­est sen­tences that felt nat­u­ral and would be easy to say. There are many things I will al­ways re­mem­ber about de­liv­er­ing the speech: the ground­ing em­brace my hus­band gave me; the indigo of the sky over­head as I spoke. How fiercely I con­cen­trated on the pages in my shak­ing hands. The mo­ment I looked up and caught sight of ev­ery­one’s twin­kling, tear-filled eyes. Michael Donkor’s novel, Hold, is out now (Fourth Es­tate, £12.99)

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