I am drawn to writing as a dog is drawn to scratch itself, and with no more consequential outcome. I know, and have long known, that my impulse to write is merely a more solitary version of my impulse to talk, writing being the obvious pastime when you are alone and there is no one to talk to (or should that even be to talk at?) But what do we mean by ‘writing’?
Well, so far, in my case, it just means blathering here on my blog, but as far as I am concerned that is not quite as pointless as I might seem to be making it out to be.
Years ago, 48 to be exact, when I was at school, I wrote ‘a poem’ and showed it to one of the school’s English teachers. As it happens, he wasn’t mine. Mine was a Mr Walsh, of whom I recall very little except that he was off sick for a long, long time and we didn’t have any English classes for a long, long time.
The master (as teachers were called at my school) was ‘Timmy’ Hinds, who, because of his enthusiasm for encouraging us to read Roman Catholic tracts by the Religious Tract Society (RTS) was known as R.T.S Hinds. EDIT: No it wasn’t, it was the Catholic Truth Society (CTS), so Hinds was known as C.T.S. Hinds. My thanks to B. Mc for that. Why Mr Hinds was so keen on them I really don’t know. All I recall about him was that he was relatively young and enthusiastic. In fact, his enthusiasm for encouraging us young shavers was such that when I showed him the poem he advised me to ‘carry on’ writing.
The unfortunate thing was that I mistook his encouragement for a definite statement that I was some kind of literary genius, and I have carried on deluding myself on that score for a great many years, until quite recently, in fact. I was, I decided, going to be ‘a writer’. That ‘writers write’ eluded me for many, many years, of course. I wrote a little, but for the purposes of this blog entry, I’ll exercise a little modesty and say I wrote ‘next to nothing’.
There are a couple of – very – short stories here and there (packed away in a box in Cornwall in Guys House, and I shan’t bother elucidating what Guys House is), but there were sufficiently few of them to ensure that every time – every time to this day – when I read of an established writer recording that he or she was passionate about writing and used to get up at 5am every morning to write before going to work; or who used to stay up till 3am every night writing because they were so passionate about writing; or who would almost literally starve because they had no money and spent all day writing, I feel thoroughly embarrassed and very, very small. For the fact is, dear reader, that I don’t. The only thing I feel ‘passionate’ about is finding a comfortable chair and with a mug of tea in my hand being able to talk at someone. Actually, that makes is sound as though I am fat. I’m not.
By the way, and digressing a little, I loathe the, in my view, appalling misuse of the word ‘passionate’. It is used a great deal these days and each time it sounds increasingly ridiculous. In a programme about running a restaurant, say, someone is bound to be ‘passionate’ about breadsticks. If it is one of those superbly dull six-part programmes about getting behind the scenes in a busy mechanics workshop, some cunt is bound to be passionate about motor oil. (‘Meanwhile in the back office, Kylie realised to her horror that the phone was off the hook.’) By the way, if you, dear reader, are one of that sorry bunch who finds such programmes ‘interesting’, you are officially banned from reading this blog. You and I have nothing in common except that we both use our respective arses to shit.
But let me move on. I spent four years at university in Dundee, ‘reading’ (why do they call it that? Why not call it studying?) in my last two years – Scottish universities allow you four yours to study for an MA, which is the Scottish equivalent of a BA – for an honours degree in English and philosophy.
I read very, very few of my English set texts and even fewer philosophy tomes, so I didn’t get an honours degree: I did appallingly badly in English but so tolerably well in philosophy that the philosophy department insisted that I should, at least, get an ordinary degree (I know that because a very nice philosophy tutor of mine, a Neil Cooper, told me). But, to get to the point, I was thoroughly intimidated by how certain my college friends were about what ‘they wanted to be’ or, to put it another way, what profession they wanted to enter. I had no idea whatsoever. All I knew was that I was going to be ‘a writer’ although doing the obvious thing – actually doing some writing – didn’t occur to me.
After college I returned home to live with my parents in Henley-on-Thames and spent several months working for Thames Carpet Cleaners in the Reading Road, a carpet cleaning company run by Bernadout and Bernadout. Somewhere I spotted an ad for English teachers in Italy and applied. I went for an interview. The only other candidate was a fat Russian graduate. (To clarify: he was a fat Russian graduate, not a fat Russian graduate. I am glad we could sort that out.) After that I heard nothing. I finally rang up to find out what the result of my interview had
been and was told why, yes, of course I had got the job. It only occurred me later – after I had gone to Milan and after I realised what a two-bit outfit the ‘language school’ I had been taken on by was – that the Russian graduate had been offered the position, spotted a nine-bob note for what it was (the ‘language school’ was run by a shyster from New Zealand called Russell Robb) and turned it down. I had initially been rejected but, needs always being must, had been taken on.
I shan’t, however, dwell on that here, or my five months in Milan, my return to England, my two-week break in Dundee which became a five-month sojourn working as a barman in The Galleon and was curtailed by a conviction for possession of cannabis and then a month’s employment as a labourer before I returned to Henley after falling in love with a schizophrenic lass called Shelagh Heywood (who was the cause of the cannabis bust) and decided – I like to think consciously, but that, surely, is debatable – that I had better get a proper job. But what. I was still haunted by the fact that my friends all knew, it seemed with absolute certainty, what they want to do with their lives, but I didn’t have a clue.
It was then, dear reader, that I decided to get a job ‘in newspapers’. After all ‘I wanted to be a writer’ and what better way to start?
I answered a couple of ads in the Daily Telegraph and, having consulted Willings Press Guide for the addresses of newspapers throughout the country, wrote to several asking to be taken on as a reporter. I landed two interviews. The first was with some kind of motoring publication in Amersham, the second in Lincoln. The Amersham interview did not go well in as far as I didn’t get the job. But I’m not surprised: when I was asked what qualifications I had to be a reporter I replied that I had a typewriter. And when I was asked, quite reasonably, what I knew about cars, I informed the editor I was hoping to impress sufficiently enough to give me a job that ‘I had a friend who liked cars a lot’. That wasn’t, unsurprisingly, sufficient to persuade the editor to take me on.
The interview in Lincoln went rather better.
At the time the Lincolnshire Standard Group published several newspaper in the county, the Lincolnshire Chronicle in Lincoln, the Lincolnshire Standard in Boston and, I think, the Louth Standard in Louth as well as, I think, several others. All were printed in Lincoln. The chap who interviewed me, a scion of the family which then owned the group, a man with a bushy white beard and a terrible stammer, decided that as I had a degree – in those halcyon days you didn’t need a degree to get into newspapers – I would be taken on as a reporter on the Lincoln Chronicle as it was based in Lincoln and Lincoln was a cathedral town. It was the first time, though I didn’t know it at the time, that I first came into contact with the 24-carat bullshit purveyed by newspapers. It wasn’t the last.
I started this off on ‘writing’, ‘wanting to be a writer’ and associated bollocks. But it is late and I want to got to bed, so ‘to be continued’
. . .
Still to come (if you can be bothered:
Life on the Lincolnshire Chronicle.
Why you should buy Love: A Fiction.