This week at Northumbria University it was graduation day, or congregation as we like to call it. Our chancellor, paralympian champion Tanni Grey-Thompson, was handing out the symbolic scrolls, with an honorary one going to historian David Olusoga. Both gave eloquent and uplifting speeches, much like ones heard at similar ceremonies around the world. Easy in fact to be cynical about wise words from the great and good if you happen to be a young graduate fidgeting in fancy dress, eager to get out and throw your mortarboard in the air, less certain what will happen after that. For the parents in the audience, as I know from experience, the encomiums sound different; fitting tribute to one’s offspring and a welcome signal that they’re now on their way to, well, something less expensive. My presence on this occasion, though, was for a different reason; not as graduate or guest, but as creative writing PhD supervisor. Beside me in the front row was novelist John Schoneboom, whom I was to accompany onstage as he was awarded his degree. It was a truly happy and proud moment.
John initially came to Northumbria as an MA student in creative writing. He was working on a novel – surreal, off-beat, hilarious – from which it was immediately apparent that here was a very special voice and distinctive talent. I suggested that when he completed the novel he should send it to Dedalus; he did and in 2014 Fontoon was published. Like most works of literary fiction it did little to shake the dogmatic slumber of mass consciousness or – to put it another way – make either John or Dedalus rich. That’s not why we do what we do. John had stuck his first flag into the great pimply backside of posterity, and now he’d better try and come up with another.
This was what he worked on as a PhD student at Northumbria. His thesis was to consist of a 70,000-word novel and 30,000-word critical commentary, written under the mentorship of myself and co-supervisor Michael Cawood Green. Think of it like Andy Murray coached by Ivan Lendl; Italo Svevo and James Joyce; Steve Brookstein and Simon Cowell – heck, do I need to go on?
What I’m saying – a lot less well than Baroness Tanni or Dr David – is how genuinely satisfying it is to see the achievement of people to whom you’ve given a little help, occasionally a little push, hopefully some encouragement and maybe even, who knows, a morsel of inspiration. Having in the last quarter of a century made my own pinpricks on the bum of history – The Great Chain of Unbeing is the latest – I draw hope from those still in the antemeridian of their career. To John I say well done, and to all my students I say – keep writing!