We are habit machines. We suffer from character sclerosis.

What comes across most strongly in How to Live is just how bloody difficult it is to change. Or, as is more often the case, to handle change. Deary had a choice – to stay in London or to go – but many of those he cites in the book don’t have a choice. Change has been thrust upon them – partners leave, work dries up, people die. “There are many ways our worlds can end,” he writes in the book. “It may start as a distant rumour, a noise outside your small world, or an unexpected intrusion within it… sooner or later your current world will change, the present season will end.”

And even the perfect people of Facebook, with smiling kids and sunny skiing holidays, are not immune. “They will fall for their lover, their dog will die, they’ll have to move house, they’ll go bankrupt, they’ll die, they’ll age and if they stay the same their circumstances will change so their old responses won’t produce the same response from the environment. So even if they stay the same, that will mean change.” The problem is that we are “habit machines”. We suffer from “character sclerosis”. “Left to [our] own devices, the result will be the downhill slide of a life dictated by whatever happened last, by happenstance and habit.”

~ Carole Cadwalladr, Vincent Deary: ‘Are you living the life you want to lead?’

Who’s in charge of your life right now?

We think we are in charge of our destinies, that it’s our consciousness that’s at the wheel, but in fact, he says, we’re mostly a collection of old habits and ancient routines that we drag around with us like a shrivelled limb. “Who’s in charge?” he says. “Ask to talk to the manager. Who’s in charge of your life right now? Are you living the life you want to lead?”

Gulp. But wouldn’t a lot of people say: “Actually, I’m not in charge of my life because I’ve got responsibilities. I’ve got three kids to feed, therefore I have to do this job whether I like it or not”?

"True, but there are bits of it they could do differently, or want to do differently."

~ Carole Cadwalladr, Vincent Deary: ‘Are you living the life you want to lead?’

And if he had to choose between his book and his family?

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And if he had to choose between his books and his family? There’s no hesitation.

Family.
I adored having children.
Work and fatherhood have kept me sane.
The impulse to work is like a survival instinct.

~ Robert McCrum with English Novelist Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan: ‘I’m only 66 – my notebook is still full of ideas’

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It’s actually one of the most delightful, privileges existences you can imagine

McEwan has always conducted himself as if there were many other worthwhile things to do besides writing fiction. “Don’t believe any novelist who tells you it’s all agony,” he observes with sardonic glee. “It’s actually one of the most delightful, privileged existences you can imagine – assuming you can live by it.” As a coda, he adds, “one of the great luxuries of civilisation is solitude, as opposed to loneliness.”

Robert McCrum, Ian McEwan: ‘I’m only 66 – my notebook is still full of ideas’

The sound of distant thunder at a picnic

Generally, McEwan, once a prince of darkness and artist of the danse macabre, is sanguine, optimistic and robust in his faithlessness, a convinced atheist. Lately, however, life and art have begun to elide. Mortality has reverberated through his life, as Auden says, like “the sound of distant thunder at a picnic”. He concedes that now he finds “death does press in on the writing, and it does become the subject, even if it’s not foregrounded”.

~ Robert McCrum, Ian McEwan: ‘I’m only 66 – my notebook is still full of ideas’