Books: Inspirations Novelist and Journalist James Hamilton-Paterson

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The Independent Culture
I can't begin to fathom this column's usual list of categories, having never in my life been inspired by anybody's play, painting, film or book. It is not other people's works that provide the germ or impetus, unless they are so bad (like Tippett's librettos or X's poems) that one half-dreams of re-writing them out of sheer exasperation. The promise of a cheque, or the threat of a deadline, are more potent for the flow of ideas than any amount of grand influences or aspirational flummery.

Those apart, I find most fertile the constant little trances induced by a passing scent, the nape of a neck glimpsed, an overheard snatch of conversation, the feel of poking a finger into the skin of congealed custard. Such details often provide the raw beginnings of things. They will probably never wind up in print as their literal selves, however. What counts is the creative attention they focus, like Proust's madeleines. Given the right mood they can set in train all sorts of productive fantasy.

As for that mood itself, like many people I find that inspiration can be encouraged by a daily minimum of basic habits, supplemented by silence.

I like a brief, early start at the piano to get hand and eye co-ordinated; quantities of Brahmsian coffee of carcinogenic strength; and a lyrical workout with Wallace Stevens's Collected Poems which I keep beside the lavatory.

Thereafter, I can usually rely on the exhilaration of the blank page, which I find the most inspiring thing of all. If things are going really badly one may be reduced to what Sylvia Plath described as "The long wait for the angel/ For that rare, random descent".

But it does have to be my own meagre angel, unfortunately; no-one else's masterpiece will do. Such are the tricks of those who make their own luck.

James Hamilton-Paterson's new book is `America's Boy: the Marcoses and the Philippines', published by Granta at pounds 20

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