The column: Running on empty

A day spent hunting down a few blank sheets of paper teaches Howard Jacobson one thing: if you're going to do futility, at least do it big
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There's something wrong with me. It's been the most wonderful high summer's Melbourne day: not a cloud in the sky, an atmosphere of spontaneous carnival on the streets, the tuneless lady with one leg who sings Ivor Novello favourites on the corner of Burke and Swanston Streets hitting all her notes, the mariachi musicians happy to perspire under their Andean horsecloths, the Big Issue sellers careless of whether anyone buys or not, for it is enough just to be alive on such a day as this - and I have spent the entirety of it going from shop to shop looking for a personal organiser.

A whole day! Let a literary magazine come looking for an article that could take me half a day to write, let some charitable organisation wonder whether I'd like to address the dying one evening soon, on a subject of my choice, and I fly into a rage. Are they quite mad? Do they think I have days I can just toss aside? Do they not comprehend that a day I expend on them is a day I could have written Give me that man that is not passion's slave and I will wear him in my heart's core. Days never come again if you are a writer. A day lost is a line unborn, a truth aborted, a song that never will be sung ...

I shepherd my days, that's my point. I count them as a miser counts his gold. And I have just thrown one away searching for a personal organiser.

What makes the loss worse is that I don't want a personal organiser. I hate the things. I hate the concept of being personally organised almost as much as I hate the idea of having my words processed. When I hear that someone has had his Filofax stolen and with it the very shape and meaning of his personal life, I give a little cheer. He who lives by the Filofax must die by the Filofax. Not that it was a Filofax I was looking for. What I was actually after, if you insist on knowing, was organiser stationery - a diary, an address book - to go into a soft svelte leather wallet, made in China out of genuine cowhide, which I'd bought precisely because it looked less like a Filofax than any organiser I'd ever seen. I liked the Chinese wallet, that was the thing, but not the stationery that was already in it. The trouble is, no paper on the market fits the wallet. I have to go to China for it. And it took me all of one beautiful summer's day to find that out.

It's axiomatic that writers get high on stationery. We fetishise the stuff. We marvel over paper, incited by its virgin blankness. An empty pad is to a writer what a mouth is to a President. It's possible we only became writers in the first place because of some stationery- associated incident in early childhood. Being struck behind the knees with a ruler - was that it? When my sister was little she pushed a paper- clip up her nose, forgot about it, and had to have it surgically removed 25 years later. Was that what made a writer out of me? Was it me who told her where to hide the paper-clip?

Sure, we are all electronic now, but you still need to carry paper around with you in some form, for when the big idea strikes. My Chinese wallet came complete with a naff tablet entitled Ideas, which was why I had to look for something else. It matters what you enter your ideas on. The ideal tablet may be square or oblong, lined or unlined, the paper see-through or opaque, but it must never under any circumstances say Ideas on the front. However little we know of Shakespeare we know this: he did not inscribe his first thoughts for Hamlet in a notebook that said Problem Plays.

In the course of my day haunting the stationery shops of Melbourne I observed that you can now buy wallpaper-covered journals saying Travel Diary. Five pounds to the first person who sees Paul Theroux writing in one of those.

If I had any balls I'd finish what I've started, fly to Beijing and not return until I have the stationery that does the job. A single wasted day is an uncrowned act of puny idleness, but maintain the fatuity for a fortnight, go on and on squandering your life's blood over trivia and we're talking heroic dissipation. Isn't there someone in Jane Austen who goes from Bath to London for a haircut? Not approved of by Emma or whoever, but noticed, definitely noticed. That's how a man wins a reputation for himself. If you're going to think small, think small big.

Take Bill Clinton, who any observant reader will by now have noticed is the real subject of this piece (the soft svelte cowhide wallet being nothing if not a metaphor). How many lovely never-to-be-seen-again summer days has Clinton put paid to in Arkansas and Washington, looking for someone to temporarily relieve him of the tedium of high office? Sex in the workplace - what all the world now understands the dictionary to mean by sexual relations - needn't be trifling, but it usually is, even when it's the full operatic number, down on the carpet, mariachi band playing, lights dimmed, I love you, I love you. But serial fellatio, with you on the receiving end, uncreased, unbending, barely breaking a sweat, the door to the Oval Office all the time ajar - can there be any activity on earth more piffling than that? So piffle big, that has been Clinton's lesson. Let the wide arch of the ranged empire fall, the nobleness of life is to do thus ...

Wrong, of course. Bold, but wrong. A personal assistant no more exempts you from futility than a personal organiser. Nor fellatrix nor Filofax can save the wasting day

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