Terence Blacker: Be creative: think up an alibi to tell the wife

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The Independent Online

There was one small but significant omission from The Independent's excellent new pull-out feature 40 Ways to Improve Your Creativity, published this week and already pinned to the wall above my desk. Nowhere among the 40 tips ("Connect", "Be childlike", "Spitball", "Use distraction loops" and so on) was there a mention of the creative tool that has always been particularly popular and useful among the most actively creative: having an affair.

Yet, as virtually every new biography proves, many of our greatest artistic talents have been driven to acts of intimate self-expression that, at least on the face of it, would seem to have nothing to do with their creative work. The bad behaviour of writers, musicians and artists may have something to do with the working schedule, those long afternoons providing the perfect opportunity to recharge the batteries with a spot of discreet, well-planned infidelity.

There is also no lack of opportunity. Male poets have a strike rate way out of proportion to their looks or talent. A scrofulous lot, often suffering from poor personal hygiene, bad teeth, unfortunate table manners and a tendency to talk either too much (invariably about themselves) or not at all, few poets will go home alone after a reading. As Wendy Cope has pointed out, the main reason why modern poetry is difficult is so that the poet's wife can't understand it.

Even that cosy teddy-bear of a man Sir John Betjeman is acquiring a posthumous reputation as something of a stud. It had been known that, during his marriage to Penelope Chetwode, he had a long-term affair with Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, but this week another lover has emerged. For two decades, Betjeman was also seeing a woman called Margie Geddes, whom he met through the Jersey Literary Ladies' Club.

The seductive powers of the poet have never seemed more mysterious than in the context of the tubby, buck-toothed poet laureate. Ever since, in a late interview, he summed up his greatest regret as "Not enough sex", it has been difficult to ignore the gentle tug of melancholy erotic longing, a rather English type of frustration, in some of his poetry. Oddly, the information about this latest affair, revealed by Margie's son Andrew in this week's Spectator, confirms the impression. She was, he told her when he was wooing her, "such a rest and such a companion" compared to his wife Penelope, who sometimes, he complained, neglected him. "She left me when I had flu," he said. "You wouldn't have left, would you?"

It is hardly Byronic passion but, in his sex life as in his poetry, John Betjeman was reassuringly English. The public figures who have become associated with English sexuality in the second half of the 20th century - Cynthia Payne, Benny Hill, Barbara Windsor or the first great Sun page three girl, Sam Foxx - are notably more comical than erotic. It is tempting to think that, with a certain sort of Englishman, and perhaps Englishwoman, sex has somewhere along the line become confused with cuddling, security, warmth, the nursery.

None of which need worry those attending to the 41st way of improving their creativity. The promotion of Sir John Betjeman from sweet, gently-spoken Englishman to undeclared sex addict is thoroughly welcome. Apart from anything else, it will doubtless strengthen the current poet laureate's campaign to popularise the reading and writing of poetry. The satisfactions of the creative life can sometimes be unexpectedly personal.

Under-taxed, overpaid and over here

Swiftly and mysteriously, Britain has become a messier version of Switzerland, a bigger and greyer Cayman Islands. We are now, apparently, one of the world's leading on-shore tax havens.

Well, yippee. As the annual tax deadline for the self-employed approaches, I imagine there will be one or two people who remain unconvinced by the claims that multi-million pound City bonuses and tax breaks for the growing number of obscenely rich foreigners squatting in Mayfair offer such marvellous news for the country. They spend lots of money, apparently, before moving on to the next tax haven.

Is this really to be the legacy of a Labour government? How odd it is that footballers are regularly criticised for being overpaid while foreign billionaires such as Roman Abramovitch buy football clubs as a hobby exploit the tax system - and are seen as a national asset.

* It has been several weeks now since the last announcement of a grave danger to our health, and so perhaps it should be no surprise at the sudden reappearance in the press of our old friend bird flu.

A new type of patient care is apparently being developed within the National Health Service in anticipation of a pandemic. Every adult in the UK will be required by their local primary care trust to nominate a "bird flu buddy" who will be responsible for fetching medication when the disease strikes. At the first symptom, a person struck down by the virus will ring the trust, which will then contact the buddy.

Since, we are told, a pandemic would be likely to affect around 35 per cent of the population, one should probably be grateful that the NHS is developing what is described as "a new model of emergency care". All the same, it all seems a bit too Blue Peter to be taken entirely seriously. Will there be "I'm a Bird Flu Buddy" badges available?

terblacker@aol.com

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