Always keep your pencil handy
He'd been on a course. They'd explained about adverbs and told him that the secret of success was Writing About What You Know. So much for magical realism, then, and do they really believe that we sit here thinking, "Well, time to add descriptive colour by deploying a word or phrase which modifies a verb; call me old-fashioned, but I reckon an adverb would fit the bill"?
By the fourth Pernod, he started to get maudlin. A surgeon's life is a fascinating one, he said, and when he retired he intended to share the privilege with humanity. Look at the number of writers who have been medical men, he added: Somerset Maugham, Arthur Conan Doyle, er, er. They always pack up at that point, and it's no good saying "Sir Thomas Browne" because it only encourages them; either that, or they glaze over and say "Browne? Browne? Proctologist, wasn't he? Listen: what's the definition of a proctoscope? Twelve inches of stainless steel with an arsehole at each end, ha ha ha ha."
But he'd got it all worked out. Best advice he'd been given on the course (he said) was: always carry a notebook, then you can jot down ideas as they come to you and it will be a goldmine in years to come. You could tell he was an amateur. Any professional will tell you that you need to carry a pencil as well; nobody ever impressed women by sitting outside a Parisian pavement cafe with a notebook and a distracted expression, mouth open like a dead fish and patting your pockets frantically for something to write with.
And even when you manage to have notebook and pencil about your person at the same time, most of what you get down is rubbish. I checked. When I got back from the pub I went straight to my study and had a look through my old notebooks, and they weren't so much a goldmine as an abandoned clay-pit. Here's a typical verbatim extract: "Palimpsest pinguid frilly esurient echoic lubricious spinney gleet."
Well, I hope you enjoyed that. I also hope you have some theory about what it means and why I wrote it, because I don't. And how about: "People like Murdoch and Portillo aren't 'driven' as such. They keep going because nobody has ever held a gun to their eye and said, 'Stop it at once, or I will kill you.' "
Some truth in that, I suppose, but it's not exactly the basis for a best- selling novel, any more than entries like, "Being sick on stout and hake; smoking Park Drive cigarettes from a chromium case with an enamel Scotty on, lit with a Ronson Variflame in a suedette pochette. Tru-Gel. Fry's Five Boys" or, "How about a person who can't take 'yes' for an answer?" or, "The Music Police" or, "Amanda says there is somebody called Nimrod Ping."
And yet the overall effect, taken at one sitting of several hours' duration, is strangely hypnotic. Perhaps I have discovered a new post-literate form of fiction where, free of the trammels of plot and line-of-action, characters drift in and out in a hashish haze. "His father was a delicate, barely co-ordinated man whom Nature seemed to be constantly trying to hurl to the ground," we read, before inexplicably learning of "Willy Wigglesworth: his father was a postman" and who may or may not be "A jittery man who believes that God will never forgive him for becoming an atheist."
In a way, it's much more like real life than traditional fiction. In my notebooks, weirdos drift past mumbling homespun philosophy ("The quest for wisdom begins with silence and ends in despair"). One catches fragments of surreal conversation ("I see Messiaen's died." "Well, better out than in, that's my motto") and outlandish philosophy ("They weren't Presbyterians. They were Frisbeta-rians. They believed that when you died, your soul went up on the roof and got stuck"). Occasionally, a warm, cosy sentimentality pervades the scene ("A house isn't a home without a picture of a doctor in it").
Yet despite its aleatoric complexity, the Note- books - I think we should give them a capital letter, don't you? - are not without deeper structure. "Bentall's of Worthing sent Amanda a two-page letter saying she needed a mother's love," we read. Can this be the same Amanda who said there was somebody called Nimrod Ping? Had she told Bentall's about Mr Ping? What is the connection? Who, in the very next line, is the unnamed speaker who says, "Yes, that's all very well, but Jesus didn't have to put up with the sort of shit I do," and why?
And what about the tremendous exhumation of extras from the 1886 Highgate Directory who appear on the following page: "Alloway; Allworthy; Ambery- Smith; Ambo; Babb; Baggaley; Bledlow; Bloice; Cadwall-ader; Cressage; Crouchback; Cutbush; Diplock; Doggerell," chugging relentlessly on to "Tugby; Twemlow; Valentine; Whipple; Wincle; Witty; Woodiwiss; Yegg"?
I find I am dreaming about these people. Was it Bledlow, or, perhaps, Woodiwiss who, many pages on, announces, "Money isn't everything, but then neither is anything else?" What was "The Sticky End Club"? Did "The Bloids: An Everyday Story of Tabloid Folk" do well in the ratings? Is there really "a subatomic particle called the Beeble whose function it is to hang around on the edge looking sad," and if not, why not?
But, as in traditional literature, the answer is there, on page 45 of the big green notebook I got in Palm Springs. "The butler did it," it says; "but what?" !
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
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