It’s amazing how often you have to go back to the beginning in order to find the end.
More often than not I begin to write with no clear concept of where I’m going. About half way through I begin to get some kind of clue of what I am trying to say and, by the time I begin to understand the point towards which I am painfully inching, I find that it has been there right from the start.
When you write, whatever you write, there are only three places you can be: the past, the present or the future. The past is ok, but it requires such a lot of research. Everything is checkable. Everything is verifiable. Everything is refutable. Even if the past is only used as a backcloth, it has to be correct. There will always be someone to tell you if it is not. The way I write, I tend to focus whatever concentration I can muster onto the voices rattling around inside my head. These internal conversations lead to everything else and when they take wing, it is a little too easy for me to take my eye off the factual ball. I don’t want to know that he couldn’t have switched the kettle on as electric kettles had not been invented at that date or she couldn’t have hidden the samovar in her knickers as no-one wore them then: the concentration necessary to get the background right would mean that I would have no chance of keeping up with the narrative popping around inside my skull. I would become the poor man’s AJP Taylor – and, for my money, one of those is quite enough. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. If you want to read what can be done by gloriously mixing together fact and fiction (both your own and that of others) have a gander at ‘W.G.Grace’s Last Case’ by the magnificent William Rushton and understand why I avoid even the slimmest chance of comparison with him like the plague.
The present, I find, is such a difficult tense to write in. The grammatical hoops through which one has to jump, chew you up (I know, I know, but these hoops can chew) and spit you out. Most fiction written in the here-and-now is actually written in the past tense (as, intriguingly is most fiction set in the future) because it makes things so much easier. The present is, however, a great place to write because it needs relatively little research – unless the taxman is reading, when it needs loads. I know what happens if I switch the kettle on – it blows the fuse because I never remember to put any water in it; I know what happens if I get on the number 9 bus – I arrive two hours later than planned, on the other side of town to my destination, with a fungal infection I most certainly did not have on departure. There are few constraints to setting your work in the present, for a start, most of us have absolutely no idea of what is actually going on, so we have no factual basis for saying ‘Hang on a minute, that would never happen’, and therefore opportunities to tamper with reality (or something similar to it) are almost limitless. You cannot deny that Donald trump is currently President of the United States of America, but I defy you to find any good, solid proof that he is not an alien lizard.
Push hard enough against the present and you will fetch up against the future. It waits in store for all of us: we are all heading towards the self-same exit door, but we will not all reach it at the same time. But (and this, I have just decided, is my point) what we do all gain with age is the belief that we can see how things are going – that having seen where they have been, we are somehow more able to understand what lies ahead. In that, we are, most of us, sadly deluded. Just take a glance at Brexit (sorry): whichever way it ends up going, whatever the eventual outcome, vast swathes of us will have been proven wrong in our prophecies of doom or in our visions of a golden tomorrow. That’s just the way it is. Few of us can assemble our experiences of today and somehow use them to accurately predict the shape of tomorrow. There are, of course, exceptions. ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ for instance, was written in the past, predicting a future that, for much of the world is now the present. The world is full of Big Brothers, China alone (it would seem) has a million Room 101’s. However, for every prediction of thoughtcrime we have one of a world ruled by mutant frogs. The thing about the future, it seems to me, is that it is actually just the past dressed up in a different way. The uniform has altered, but the righteousness of incontestable ‘truth’ remains unhindered. There will always be those that ‘do’; there will always be those who control those that ‘do’, and there will always be those that ‘do’ those that control those that ‘do’.
Maybe the ability to predict the future relies simply on the ability to observe the past and to understand just how, exactly, it evolved into the present. Change the names, throw in a pacifying drug, a constantly wittering radio companion, an overarching discipline, a war-mongering despot, a gullible proletariat, a never-ending war, a totalitarian regime and Presto! Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the future. As I say, it’s amazing how often you have to go back to the beginning in order to find the end.
There is a feeling we all know
Something happened long ago
When you remember who you were
Makes you what you are today
*‘Wingful Of Eyes’ – Gong (M. Howlett)