Quite some time ago, and I don’t know why, I seemed to come to understand a certain and rather important distinction; it was the essential difference between ‘action’ and ‘activity’. And all too often activity is taken for action. Indeed, all too often activity, in our private as well as in public life, is presented as action.
To give an example from the public sphere: most governments, when presented with a problem, resort to a useful ploy. They set up a committee to investigate it. Doing so is useful in two distinct ways: it gives the impression of action, that the problem is being taken seriously and that the government has now set about tackling it; and it does the complete opposite, it manages to sideline the problem and, in a sense, gets rid of it.
The problem is by no means solved, but if called to account, the government can honestly claim that it is tackling it: ‘Look,’ it can in say with apparent honesty and admirable candour, ‘we, of course, are well aware there is a problem and are certainly resolved to do something about it and so we have set up a committee to investigate what can be done, which will, in due course, report’. Until that report is ready, of course, other, perhaps far more pressing problems will present themselves, and the particular problem in hand will more or less be forgotten, relegated somewhere where mention of it and the lack of a government solution to it is out of harm’s way. Job done: a great deal of activity but precious little action.
That is in the public sphere.
But we - or at least I, though I suggest that given that even though I make up just one nine-billionth of the world’s population but am essentially no different to the
The house is empty. My daughter and son have taken themselves off to toil at their part-time jobs at the Red Lion in St Kew Highway, she serving behind bar (and doing so officially now, as she turned 18 two weeks ago) and waitressing; he, still 15, relegated to washing dishes (although he proudly tells me he has been bumped up to helping ‘prep’ food which as far as I can tell involves taking the steaks out of the fridge and grinding pepper all over them, before they are cooked).
My wife has also taken off, to help a friend engaged in providing one of the stages in a ‘safari’ of some kind, where folk move from household to household for the different courses of a meal - ‘starters’ here, ‘mains’ there, and finally ‘dessert’ somewhere else. Pertinently, as is, unfortunately her wont, she simply walked out the door without bothering to give a farewell, and although that is pretty much what has been her habit these past 18 years, it still, to this day, quietly upsets me. But I shan’t go into that here, if ever, except to record that her wordless departure pitched me into a somewhat reflective mood.
So I took myself out into the garden, to finish off a bottle of cheap Rioja and enjoy a cigar or two. (NB I am not some rich bugger: as I pointed out in a previous entry, if we cigar smokers here in Britain buy our smokes online from Holland or Germany, they come down in price substantially. My La Paz Wilde Cigarros - which I can recommend as being a mild, but satisfying smoke, would cost £11 for just five if I bought them here in Britain. But purchased online from abroad they come down to a far more realistic, not to say far less wallet-denting €28 for 50. And as the cost of postage is the same whether you buy 50 or 100 - or, for that matter 1,000 - I have taken to buying 100 each time.)
Until now, when sitting outside for a drink and a smoke while the weather allows me to do so, I have taken with me a laptop on which I set about surfing the net busily - ‘activity’ again - looking at this news website, eBay, Digital Spy, The Economist, check my emails in case someone has emailed me in the past five minutes since I last checked, taking a look at Facebook, look at eBay again, do everything, in fact, to keep busy. But tonight I didn’t.
Tonight all I had with me was little Russell, the Jack Russell our household has recently acquired who busied himself gnawing incessantly at a ‘bone’ of cow hide. And there I sat trying very hard to think of nothing. But thinking of nothing - often rather more grandiloquently and in admittedly other circumstances, described as ‘meditating’ - is by no means easy.
So there I sat, failing to think, but my mind whirling around like a toy windmill on a windy day. And that is another example of ‘activity masquerading as action’.
No action was, of course, needed. There was no need for ‘activity’ to masquerade as any ‘action’. There was nothing I had to do, no action of any kind was necessary. I was, after all, obliged to do absolutely nothing whatsoever except every so often take another sip from my tumbler of wine and, a little more often, take another drag on my cigar. Yet there was still a great deal of completely unnecessary activity.
My mind, as most certainly does yours, would not keep still but flitted here, there and everywhere and settled nowhere, considering this, pondering that, but moving on incessantly and busily, forgetting the last ‘thought’ as the next arrived to crowd it out, rather as a pompous bore continually interrupts conversation so that eventually nothing is discussed though a great deal has been said.
So that’s how I came, on again, to reflect on how so easily we deceive ourselves and convince ourselves that if we are eternally busy, busy, busy, even if that business consists only of shapeless, inconsequential and ultimately utterly shallow thinking’, we are somehow usefully engaged.
. . .
I did have something to think about, though, and it was something I have been trying to think about or several days, and it wasn’t the pitiful, barren state of my marriage. With my retirement coming up ever sooner, I have fully resolved finally to put my money where my mouth has been these past 50 years: to put in the sheer effort, the thought and the hard work involved in ‘writing’.
It is no consolation that, quietly and very privately, I have been castigating myself - for the past 50 years - for being just another wannabe. (That’s another, related, facet of ‘activity masquerading as action’: we fully believe that a full confession, readily and pitifully made, grants a full absolution. So when I - and, of course, you in your own way - prostate myself and weep, weep, weep that ‘I am not worthy’, we think that does the trick and that we are not longer guilty. Job done. Well, as the great man said, ‘up to a point, Lord Copper’.)
I want to prove, if to no one else, that I am more than just that, just another bloody wannabe. (There is the story of Peter Cook meeting some chap or other at a cocktail party and asking him what he did. ‘I’m writing a novel,’ Cooke was informed’. ‘No, neither am I,’ said Cook, who spotted cant a mile off.)
I can, I thank the Lord, reflect that I have in the past done just that, put in the effort, thought and hard work, and if I did it once, I can do so again. It’s just that when I did so before - and was not married and didn’t have a family - I did so for six or seven hours at a time, and I can’t be doing with 20 minutes here, 30 minutes there.
You have to be brutal with yourself, which, of course, means with others, too.
I also know, given that I find writing which is for me just the same as chatting inconsequentially, that the ‘thought’ is not just the hardest part of ‘writing’ but the essential part of ‘writing’. I don’t find it at all difficult to put words to paper (so to speak). But those words - or rather the mass of them which constitute whatever is being constituted - and the thought they reflect - and much, much more - need to be shaped and ordered. That’s the bit I’ve got to learn.
I have recently started a short story (which might well become a rather longer ‘short story’) and I know exactly what I want to do with it. But it needs a great deal of thought. And I am not yet in the habit of thinking.
I have banged on before about my novel (the third of three, but the first two were less than crap, though I am proud of the third in which, even though I say so myself, I achieved exactly what I set out to achieve), and it irks me - but just a little because it is futile to be irked for too long and far more sensible just to take it on the chin and move on - that no one, but no one - of the 12/15 people who have read it, has cottoned on to what I was trying to do.
It’s not as though what I was trying to do was ‘difficult’.
From where I sit it was, in fact, insanely simple, though admittedly really not what might have been expected. The trouble is that what I am now planning, the story I have just started and which I am trying to ‘think about’, will be equally oblique. Basically because that’s where the fun is. In a sense, what you get is most certainly not what you see. (Yes, I know I have reversed the phrase, but it sums up very well what I tried, and still want, to do).
The irony is, of course, that blathering on here is a prime example of ‘activity being a substitute for action’. But I can live with that. As I recorded in the last post, I find I sharpen my ideas more in discussion and debate and in getting words down on paper than in any numbers of hours spent cogitating.
Two links: the first is to Amazon where you can buy, for a comparative pittance, my blood novel (Lord, this is embarrassing).
Then there is an earlier post about ‘writing’.
. . .
And now - sorry but it doesn’t play in the Opera browser - for the bonus musical track for young lovers of all ages (great shagging music):
Party Wit Me - Brownstone
And if you are after some of those cigar at less than rip-off prices, try here or here.