I have a small file of articles on my computer – the sick, but not yet dying – which I turn to when I find myself with nothing to say. Sometimes my fresh eye enables me to breathe new life into a piece that is gasping for air, and to inject humour into a discourse that is obviously struggling to keep things down. Occasionally, I emerge from the intervention with a composition that is rejuvenated and ready to face the world. Generally, however, the patient is returned to its sick bed, where it waits, quietly, to have its bones picked over once again at some indeterminate future fallow date. In truth, once an article has fallen into this literary black hole, it is unlikely to ever be sufficiently restored to be laid in front of the discerning reader. The add-ons always seem, to me, to be blatantly apparent – like the poached quail’s egg atop a plate of beans on toast, they seldom belong.
To botch together a usable piece is not, however, at all the point of this exercise. The point is simply to get myself going: to rouse the mind. It is like walking the dog, but without the plastic bags. My brain is like one of those yappy little terriers, tearing about at a million miles per hour, pursuing imaginary quarry, barking up a thousand wrong trees, before collapsing into a deathless sleep. When it wakes, it needs Chum and a walk around the block before it can function again.
I have discovered that the worst thing I can do at this time is read, because what I subsequently produce becomes an inferior mish-mash of what I have just consumed, in both substance and style. My computer has seen thousands of these pieces which will, thankfully, never see the light of day. I don’t delete them: I leave them there, in plain sight, smirking; reminding me every day of what not to do; to teach me a lesson. Consequently, I read far less than I really should.
When I sit down to write, which I do pretty much every day, I am never certain which part of my brain is going to report for duty. I have a broad outline of where I am going, but no idea of how I’m going to get there. Style and form develops on the hoof, like some weird equestrian carbuncle. Sometimes I make myself laugh. Mostly I drive myself mad. As you will know, if you read this blog with any frequency, I never know what I am going to turn out, but at least I know that it is identifiably me. Or, at least, part of me. Whichever part of me has stuck around to help whilst the rest of me takes the day off, walking along the beach or watching cat videos, that kind of thing. To be honest, I have problems even with the part of me that has toddled off to the seaside: will it be the lounging about bit, the kicking a football about bit or the searching for shiny shells and starfish bit? It would be nice to know what to expect when it comes back with its stick of rock, and its Kiss Me Quick hat, smelling, vaguely, of salt and vinegar. I might be able to set it a suitable task instead of merely letting it off the leash and following it at a discrete distance.
I do have times when I am writing two startlingly dissonant pieces simultaneously, but they never spill over into one another. I write longhand and I often have different sheets of paper in either breast pocket, dipping into and out of each with no particular regard for rationality or order. I am the man in charge of the deep-fat fryer at a Chinese wedding. Yet I do tend to obsess a little bit whilst I’m writing. Eddie Braben – the genius behind Morecambe and Wise – would pore over scripts time after time until he found a joke for every line. I’ve given up on that – I just try to find a semblance of sense.
So, this has all occurred to me because I have just been re-re-reading a piece about the Power of Numbers which will never make the cut, whilst writing a poem about a cardboard box for my grandson. One of them made me smile – and the other one was about numbers. Earlier today, whilst trying to cobble together one of those ‘About the Author’ kind of things, I paraphrased Anthony Burgess: All of my life is here, but the reason for it seems to be somewhere else, and it occurred to me that, if you should happen to find it anywhere, you could possibly let me know…
There are 10 types of people in the world – those who understand binary and those who don’t – Johnny Ball