The Paper Trail

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The routine seldom varies. I get an ‘idea’ over the weekend and spend the next few days jotting down associated thoughts and notions on random pieces of paper as I go about my routine daily humdrum. Mid-week, I gather the assorted detritus together, tip it onto the desk in what we compulsive organisers call ‘a pile’ and painstakingly transcribe it onto the laptop. I then stare at it blankly for a few hours wondering ‘what was I thinking?’ before panic sets in and I cut and paste it into some kind of shape, after which I fanny around with it for a few hours in an attempt to impose some sort of grammatical structure onto it. And fail.

Editing, for me, usually involves a printed manuscript and a rainbow of coloured felt-tip pens. The end product is a jumble of variously-hued words, numbers and symbols that even an indefatigable Rosetta Stone Scholar would struggle to decipher. By Thursday I have reached the point of ‘enough’s enough’ and I make one final transcript before my brain melts. Now, one brilliant by-product (for me) of this archaic and ill-disciplined approach is that amongst the frayed and tattered discarded accumulation of scribbled-upon paper, tissue, card and sometimes flesh, I usually find the germ of the idea upon which the following week’s gallimaufry will be based. A discarded phrase, a half-finished sentence, a single word even, can be enough to send me careering off along some weed-strewn, pot-holed single-track byway of thought that leads to something like this. Why do I mention it? I mention it because last week it did not happen. Last week I was overtaken by some sort of missionary zeal in which the usual cacophony of varied and various voices that reside within my head achieved a unanimity of thought that allowed me to bash out the blog, from start to finish, entirely digitally. No paper. ‘But that’s good news,’ I hear you cry. ‘You have at last awoken to the planet’s plight. You have saved, if not a tree, then at least a sizeable twig.’ And it did, I agree, feel like good news – last week. This week, however, I have no discarded bits of calligraphic flotsam (or is it jetsam?) on which to work and, to tell the truth, no idea on which to nag my week away.

There are people, plenty of them, I know who would say ‘what does it matter, you’ve never had anything approaching a decent idea in your life’. True, possibly. A harsh, but defendable position I think, but not the point. You see, it matters to me. And the reason it matters to me? Well, I’ve just emptied the crumpled and torn content of my pockets onto my desk this week and there it lies, leering celibately up at me. Unsullied and unmolested. Like me, it has nothing to say.

Strange, isn’t it, how a blank sheet of paper can mock. Like most of us, I guess, I remember my teenage years and the mocking gaze of pristine white answer sheets as I sat nervously nagging on my pencil in a feet-smelling, gloomy and fetid gymnasium, waiting for the invigilator to say ‘you may now turn over your paper…’ Somehow those bright, white sheets, void of even feint lines and margins, completely numbed the mind. ‘Remember to fill in your name in the top right-hand corner of every page.’ Name? My name? What is my name? Do I have a name? Do I even exist? Whirr, whirr, fzzz, bang! Having thus collapsed, my brain thence refused to co-operate by carrying out its ancillary duties of co-ordinating the functions of other parts of my body: I couldn’t hold a pen; I couldn’t swallow; I couldn’t breathe; I couldn’t avert my unblinking stare from the intense white nothingness of vacant foolscap… Forty odd years on and I still occasionally wake in a cold sweat, certain that I knew who Foucault was when I entered the room…

I have taken exams since, and they still have the same effect on me. The rooms are brighter, cleaner and have fewer wall-bars, climbing ropes and painted lines than in my day. I am sure that in reality they do not smell of socks, but somehow that is all I can smell. I am sure it is only in my imagination that the dinner ladies are dropping cutlery into metal trays at the other end of the corridor. The instructions remain the same: don’t look around you, don’t speak, raise your hand if you need more paper. If you need the toilet (yes, yes I do) somebody will accompany you (presumably to check that you haven’t written the answers on your willy).

It’s hard not to resent the effect that modern technology has had on exam taking. Depending upon the circumstances examinees can now call upon their tablets and the sum-total of human knowledge that is available on the internet. Not to mention some cute skateboarding cats if they finish early. We even had our chewing gum wrappers checked for illicit revision notes I recall: labels had to be peeled from water bottles. I took my exams in a pre-calculator age. In our math’s exam we used a slide rule. If you have never seen one, allow me to attempt to describe it for you. It was the size of a twelve inch ruler (I know, I know – 30cm until the rules change again). It was always kept in its hard plastic case – unless your parents wanted everybody else to know how affluent they were, in which case it was kept in its leather case. It had a middle section that could slide to and fro along its length and a little clear plastic collar-thing with a line on it. Still with me? Good. Each of the three sections of the ruler was liberally covered in all manner of miniscule tables and indexes; numbers and symbols in such variety that it would probably keep Bletchley Park occupied for years. The theory was that you slid about the two moveable sections of this ‘space-age’ tally stick until certain values aligned and, by knowing where to look, you could work-out vital values like sine and cosine; calculate logarithms (if, indeed that is what you do with logarithms) and probably the rate of inflation in Ulan Bator – you name it, a slide rule could do it: although always incorrectly in my experience.

With a few exceptions: a recently anaesthetized frog, a sharp knife and a box of tissues in Biology; preparatory sketches in Art; la plume de ma tante in French, there was nothing between you and the expressionless velum save a nibbled ball-point and the distant memory of something that Churchill said about The league of Nations – or was it Bessie Braddock – in 1924. Want to know the answer? See how useful Wikipedia can be? Many of my friends fried their brains and loaded their memories with life-shattering doses of ‘further reading’ and revision in preparation for exams: a period of joyless endeavour and desk-lamp illuminated research, the price they were prepared to pay for future success. I watched Monty Python and The Goodies and did very badly. They trooped off to university whilst I spent the next three years measuring inside legs and asking clueless men on which side they dressed.

Still… After the torture of the exam, there was always the promise of five Park Drive from the corner shop and a crafty pint in the pub up the road that would serve you, even if you were wearing your school uniform, as long as you didn’t cause any trouble. Bet you don’t get that now hey, Mr. Twenty-First Century Smart Phone Smarty Pants…

Anyway… Point is, I’m not actually certain what the point is, but I can’t sit here reminiscing all day. I have a blog to write and just this blank, unblinking white laptop screen to write it on…

3 thoughts on “The Paper Trail

  1. It is flotsam…. You could maybe write a short dissertation on ‘Feet’… Mine are killing me but they are cruel executioners! They are taking it slow and cranking up the pain before they inflict the final coup de grace… Ba*****s!

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    1. Well now, I will have to have a little think about feet – not easy to find an angle on that one, but you never know…
      PS if your feet really are going to deliver the coup de grace, you must have a much more flexible back than I.

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      1. To be honest, my back, knees & ankles have formed an uneasy alliance with my feet. Whilst each wants to take center stage in the ‘How much can I debilitate him today’ stakes, they are all quite prepared to join forces and support one another if any of them should feel the need to take a rest to recuperate in order to return refreshed the following day ready to continue the onslaught!

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