Essert-Romand, Haute-Savoie, France.
I must come clean and admit that I have an itch to write as alcoholics have an itch to drink and kleptomaniacs have an itch to steal. The problem is, and it’s a very big problem indeed, is that I have absolutely nothing ‘to say’. Nothing whatsoever. And I am really not joking.
All right, then, you might ask, why not simply write to entertain? But that brings another huge problem: I am not a natural storyteller. Certainly I can make things up - can’t we all, especially those suffering from jealousy when they can invent without even trying. But there are those who are referred to as ‘natural storytellers’ and I am most certainly not one of those. And at the grand old age of 61 years, ten months and 24 days I have just one real principle: never, ever, bullshit yourself. Doesn’t really matter who else you bullshit, but leave yourself out. Even you do the most outrageously nasty thing, at least admit to yourself that you are doing something outrageously nasty. You don’t have to tell anyone else - in fact, it’s advisedly best not to, especially if what you have done is very unpleasant - but at least be straight with yourself.
This illusion I have had for the past 44 years, albeit ‘a writer’ who has written virtually fuck all, is ridiculous. I once explained in these pages how it came about. At school I had written a poem, which as I recall was very conventional, although that’s all I can recall. I showed it to Mr Hinds, an English teacher at the Oratory (known as C.T.S. Hinds for his enthusiasm for distributing tracts from the Catholis Truth Society) who diplomatically advised me to carry one. I now know, and have known for many years that he was merely doing what so many good teachers do: he was encouraging me. But in a stupid, though understandably teenaged way, I interpreted his encouragement rather severely. I imagined that he was telling me: you’re good, Powell. And so the illusion was born. It both helps and irritates me supremely that I share my illusion with, quite probably, one million other men and women the world over. It helps because I am not alone it being such a complete fool. But it irritates me because each of us, every last man jack of use, like to think we are unique. The liberals among you will no doubt cry: but you are unique. True, but then in that sense so is fly, worm, traffic bollard and grain of sand. As I said: don’t bullshit yourself.
So what of the plus side? Well, I have no difficulty with words, I feel at ease with them because of my long association with them as a hack, and when I read some of the abortions presented as prose, I thank God that, at least, I have that. But I don’t have a mind. And as I pointed out yesterday, there is far more to ‘writing’ than just getting words down on paper.
My brother Mark claimed earlier today that he had read somewhere that more women read novels than men. Who knows? And does it matter? Then there is the question of what kind of novel do they read. Off the top of my head I can list chick lit, macho lit (Zero Minus One, or something, and all that hard-drinking I’m a man bollocks SAS/memoirs of a SEAL crap), thrillers, sci-fi, ‘literature’ (you know, the kind of stuff which wins prizes), children’s fiction, ‘adult fiction’, pornography and ‘the classics’. The list can go on, but I have run out. Some of its is good, despite the critics, and some of it is crap, again despite the critics. When I first moved to London, suffering from depression, which wasn’t as deep as afflicts some but deep enough for me, I made an effort, conscious that I was pretty badly read for a chap who wanted to be ‘a writer’ to read, read, read. And I did. I read haphazardly, and even if a novel didn’t grab me, with only one exception - which I can’t now remember - I would finish it.
Some of what I read stood out: Lolita, which was better written by a Russian and many a book written by a Brit or a Yank was a special favourite. At the other extreme I read a novel by Jonathan Coe, who was a big noise then, though it wasn’t one of his famous ones. And I thought it was crap. I read Der Untertan by Heinrich Mann in German, which I thought was excellent, and I read, again in German Der Steppenwolf (which made a great deal more sense in its original language). I had previously - that is not as part of my somewhat pathetic period of auto-didactism - attempted Martin Amis and Will Self and thought both bollocks. But who was I to judge? They had a body of work behind them. I hadn’t. I read an utterly bizarre late-Victorian novel called Lilith and I read some Trollope. I read Darkness At Noon, which was OK, and I read A Streetcar Name Desire (which taught me that plays are meant to be performed, not read). I read several other novels whose titles and authors I can’t now recall. Two of those I can’t recall were by two other contemporary big noises, and I was not impressed but either.
I read Oscar Wilde. He could write, and write well, but what stayed with me was how little attention so many ‘good writers’ paid to language. I read, again in German Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll and Ungeduld Des Herzens by Stefan Zweig (whose title in English translation is Beware Of Pity, not a very good title but I must admit I would be hard-pushed to come up with anything better. I enjoyed and admired the latter a great deal.
I was the archetypical Tube commute, novel in hand on my journey to and from wherever I was working a shift. Then, in December 1995, I moved to Cornwall, married two months later and my period of autodidacticism ended. (I have just looked up ‘autodidacticism’ in a dictionary, and apparently it doesn’t exist. Well, it does now.)
Finally - finally - in late 1994 I started writing and eventually completed ‘a novel’. It wasn’t the first, but the third, but it was the first which I felt, while writing it, I knew what I was doing and which I had control over. That is Love: A fiction (which yesterday I urged you to buy). The previous two efforts for which I have no title - well, I can’t judge them, although with the first I was simply happy to complete it and I was quite happy with the second, although, being a little short, it would be classed as a novella.
Not much to crow about, eh?
But still I have this itch to write. And still I have nothing ‘to say’. What is there ‘to say’? That the world can, at turns, be a shitty place and a glorious place? That people can, at turns, be evil and altruistic? What? All of us at 61 know that. Perhaps you don’t at 16 or 26 or 36 - although, unfortunately, far too many do, but by the time your limbs creak in the morning, when getting a hard-on is something of a fond memory, when rudely you end sooner rather than later a conversation you know full well is going to be very dull and chock-a-block with platitude there are rather fewer insights. Or so it would seem. The liberal in me - he does still clamour a little, dear reader, despite my best efforts to get him to shut the fuck up - warns that I might still be surprised, that a chance encounter might bring a fresh insight. The problem is that the insight will not in the slightest be original and that by articulating it as though it were fresh I shall do nothing but make a complete tit of myself. Groucho Marx once remarked that he would never want to belong to a club which would have him as a member. Similarly, I would never crave the respect and admiration of anyone who felt respect and admiration for me.
. . .
My working solution is this: try to write engagingly and try, by writing engagingly, try to entertain and put the reader off the scent: that this joe knows fuck all. And that what he does know is about as original as that revealing that pain hurts. So what am I talking about? Well, nothing. But if I have managed to get you to read as far as this, it can’t be all bad. And by the way, in case you missed it the first time, here’s the link. Buy it and make me happy. Your pleasure is my pleasure.
. . .
For the more prosaic among you who can’t be doing with all this angst, I shall record that it is six minutes past midnight on September 15, I am sitting on the balcony of the apartment Mark and I are staying at drinking - in moderation remarkable - yet more pastis, smoking yet another cigar, which I sholdn’t but what the hell. I spend the evening in Le Petit Auberge in Essert-Romand watching Manchester United hold Benfica to a 1-1 draw in a Champions League fixture in the first round, group, round of the championships.
United were playing away from home so a score draw is no bad thing. The bar was almost empty except for a slightly drunk local who had come for a drink and his supper, and a family of Americans - elderly couple, their daughter and son-in-law. The man was 68 and from Texas and had spent his life working ‘in retail’ for, I think he said, J H Pinney. Four months ago, he and his wife had taken a 15-day cruise from the Texas coast to Lisbon and then stayed at a place his son-in-law owns in the Provence. They were spending a week or two down the road here in Essert-Romand at, I gather, another place his son-in-law owns before, in the next few weeks, embarking on their cruise back home. His son-in-law is based in London and works as a consultant in the ‘supply industry’.
Having just finished reading a spy novel and finished watching two spy films, I like to think that he is, in fact, employed by the CIA station in London. But, actually, I’m pretty bloody certain he is a consultant in the ‘supply industry’. I mean someone has to be, although he must be pretty well paid if he and his wife can afford a property in the Provence where, according to his father-in-law, they spend ‘most weekends’. I chatted briefly in my dog French and he in his dog English to the local who bought me a drink and was engaged in taking part in Maitre de Jeu, a lottery in which a draw takes places every five minutes apparently. He did win - which is probably why he bought be a drink - but he spent a great deal more on the tickets he bought than the measly 62 euros he won overall. And there was me, who has nothing ‘to say’, glad that Manchester United scored a crucial away goal and will undoubtedly win in the return match when Benfica visit Old Trafford.
. . .
I am rambling on now because I still have a little pastis left in my glass and started another cigar a while ago which I am loth to waste. I chatted to my daughter Elsie on Skype, a video call, and yet again was struck by had pretty she is. Unfortunately, she takes after me rather than her mother physiologically and puts weight on easily. But as she is only 15 she is by no means fat and I should imagine that she has a good few years ahead of her before she marries, has children and then gets rather broad in the beam.
Wes was there, too, but at 12 he still hasn’t really started puberty and is still, again rather like me - who has not only started but also completed puberty - was more inclined to play the fool. Mark went to bed when I went across to the bar to watch a film on the internet. I would give you the link to the very useful site on which one can watch full-length, recent, films completely free-of-charge, but as I am certain it is completely illegal I shan’. Oh, and one last thing before I end and post this on my blog: one of the very best things I have done in these past few years was to teach myself to touch-type. It is great to think, compose and type almost simultaneously. Good night, and God bless.