The Ideal Position To Write
I’m not sure whether this is the ideal way to write, but it appeals to me at the moment and, aside from the fact that my fingers cannot seem to hit the right keys as easily as usual, due undoubtedly to the different position, it seems to work. I am stretched out on my couch, a bottle of local beer close to hand, my laptop resting across my thighs and with adequate light falling across my left shoulder. I’ve tried crossing my legs at the ankles for more comfort, but that just makes the laptop unstable, and I will probably spend more time trying to balance than writing, which destroys the whole purpose. I am told that constant sitting is bad for a person, although this warning has come far too late in life to make much of a difference, so I am not sure whether merely sitting in a new position, in my sitting room rather than the office will make any great difference. The light across my left shoulder is, however, the way it should be as I am right handed and tend to turn slightly more towards the left when reading and writing; more so when hand writing, of course, when the pen is held in my right hand and the falling light is preferential to attempting to avoid or circumnavigate shadows. I am not, of course using a pen, but old habits die hard, and this is the position I usually employ when reading in the evenings, if I ever manage to get away from my desk early enough. A book is one of only two things I always have with me, no matter where I am or what I plan on doing, and has caused one or two people to challenge me on my intentions: am I going to be paying attention, or thinking about reading my book all the time? Do I really want to be there, wherever there is, or would I rather be sitting in a cafe somewhere, with a steaming mug of coffee or tea and plenty of leisure time? Occasionally I am tempted, but honesty is the best policy when you need to get along with people. I always have a book with me because you never know when there will be a moment, a ten minute break, when nothing is being done or discussed and the chance arises to lose yourself in a world of someone else’s creation once again.
This is, for me, the wonderful thing about books: an author creates a world, whether it is a fantasy world or based on reality, on what we experience each day in our normal lives makes no difference, and we can immerse ourselves in it completely and utterly. For some people the same effect can be achieved with a good film or with music: the soul is taken in as much as the our consciousness and we become a part, if not an active part at least a spectator, to what happens. We can see inside the characters’ heads, read their thoughts, appreciate each angle as if it were our own, as if we were living the events laid out on paper. Admittedly, not all authors are capable of such intense writing; I have found many who lose it after a while with a twist in the plot which doesn’t fit, or a lack of care in their writing, but for many it is second nature to write in this manner, as if they are experiencing it themselves, and merely narrating what they see, hear and feel. I cannot imagine a world where there are no books, and one of the most impressive horror stories I have ever written, a true classic, is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where he creates a world in which books have been totally banned, where owning a book is an offence, and all examples of the written word must be burned immediately by a fire crew expressly designed and designated for this task. Owning a book carried a far greater penalty, though: not only were the booms publicly burned then and there, but the house of their owner went up in flames, and they were carted off to an asylum for permanent incarceration. No trial, no hope of clemency.
Any man’s insane who thinks he can fool the government and us.
I guess there are some countries where this is a normal course of events, where it is not a work of fiction from the nineteen fifties, but a daily threat to life and limb. Even today, in countries which we might regard as being stable, civilised, writers disappear or, as we saw last year, booksellers.
One of the things I like about my edition of Bradbury’s novel is that he describes how it came to be written, of a time when he was living from whatever he could earn, from short stories and articles which might or might not be accepted for publication, and often had to decide between finishing his work and earning money, or going out to play with his children who, undoubtedly, were of an age that didn’t appreciate how food came to be on their table. He describes searching for an office, being unable to afford one, and then finding the typing room in the library basement at the University of California in Los Angeles. Here he could rent a typewriter for the princely sum of a dime for thirty minutes, and wrote literally against the clock to get words onto paper, to earn the money to feed his family and feed the typewriter clock for his next piece. Back then, nearly seventy years ago, there were no electric typewriters, no computers or word processors. You typed, and if you made a mistake, it had to be corrected. A bad mistake, and you started the sheet all over again. You need a copy for yourself as well as the editor? It would be typed out twice, unless the author could afford carbon paper to make an instant copy. No scanning, no photocopying. And in this description, Bradbury writes:
There I strolled, lost in love, down the corridors, and through the stacks, touching books, pulling volumes out, turning pages, thrusting volumes back, drowning in all the good stuffs that are the essence of libraries.
And there he was, writing a novel about a society where books were banned, where it was an offence to own them, where a person could lose everything by a simple indiscretion, by someone saying the wrong word at the wrong time, or snitching them to the authorities as revenge for some slight.
I have much the same feeling, as Bradbury did in his library, when I enter a second hand bookshop. More so than in a normal booksellers because of the feel, the smell, the history of the books stacked almost without order on the shelves. You know that the books have been loved, however briefly, by someone else and, more important perhaps, that they are not stacked up as a special promotion with hundreds of copies waiting to find new owners. The people who sell them are often book lovers themselves, and have an almost intimate knowledge of the titles on their shelves, of the people who brought them in or the families each book once belonged to. These are the people who would be the heroes in Bradbury’s book: not the firemen who went out on alarms to destroy, but those few people hidden in the woods, cast out from society, who memorised a complete book and became the living version of an author’s work in order to preserve it for better times. I could hardly memorise a short poem when I first started school, never mind an entire book. I also have many good memories of time spent in second hand bookshops, especially one in Flask Walk in Hampstead, London. This was a relatively small shop, but for me a very fruitful experience. I have no idea whether it is still there, I visited it last in the Eighties and bought several titles which I still have today; works by classic authors illustrated by the brilliant Gustav Doré. Sadly, many of the books I owned back then, when my interest in literature and writing first blossomed, are long since gone; I have moved too often, not just from one apartment or house to another, but also across countries and continents. Some things have to be sacrificed, whether we wish to part with them or not. I am sure you understand exactly what mean, not only from the material sense.
Going back to Ray Bradbury and his typewriting exploits, I remember a time when hand writing was the only possible way to communicate. There was a time – it is referenced by Arthur Conan Doyle in one of his Sherlock Holmes stories – when postal deliveries, at least within a major city, occurred on the same day. Admittedly in the case of Sherlock Holmes the delivery was made by an urchin from the street, but in other lands it was expected, and a lack of reply could be seen as an insult or even, in some Asian societies, an inclination to end a relationship. For the better off, those who could afford to keep a mistress, a poem was sent from one to the other after an evening together, and a reply was expected the same evening. Today we are lucky when letters are delivered within two or three days, and that often within the same town. I had an interesting discussion with a woman working at the local post shop (we no longer have offices, all the post offices have been closed and replaced with franchises) over the delivery of a letter. Across the hallway from the counter there are post boxes for the delivery of mail, mainly companies who wish to have their mail early in the day and not at the whim of a postman on his cycle. The letter I had written was to a company with one of these boxes. It needed a stamp, which is acceptable, and then could have gone straight into the box of the recipient were it not for a bizarre regulation which demanded all mail received be sent to a sorting office. This sorting office is in a city fifty miles away. The letter leaves my hand, travels one hundred miles, and ends up being deposited in a box three yards away from where I handed it in.
Once again I am distracted away from my theme by my thoughts. I was going to comment on Bradbury’s use of a typewriter and the older art of writing whereby everything was done by hand. Henry James, as an example, wrote everything by hand and, I am told, standing at a writing pult or lectern, and some of his books are much longer than what we see offered today, and considerably more involved. In fact, come to think of it, Henry James was one of those rare beasts who was born in New York and moved to London, where he became a British citizen in 1915, shortly before he died. For many, the change from hand writing their works to using a mechanical aid, was a very difficult one. The author and society lady Fanny Kemble commented on her first typewriter, and its acceptability, in a letter dated October 1875:
I wonder if I told you that, at Mr. Leigh’s instigation, I had bought myself a printing machine, by means of which I print, instead of write my daily task of copying, and as it is a very ingeniously contrived machine, which is worked merely by striking keys as one plays on a piano, it is a great relief from the fatigue of constant writing. It is an admirable invention, and affords me a great deal of satisfaction in the process of working it. I got it principally in hopes that Sarah, who writes a great deal too much, would use it, but she says it would fidget her to such a degree that the nervous irritation it would cause her would quite militate against any relief from fatigue in employing it.
The format of a typewriter in the eighteen seventies was different to that which we know today, so I can well understand both the relief at being able to strike keys, and the trepidation of using one in the first place. I suspect that what we have available today in the form of computers and printers, the wealth of different fonts and designs, the accessibility to programs, dictionaries and the Internet, would have blown the level of fidgety nervousness in Sarah, and Miss Kemble, out of all proportion to the usefulness of their own machines. But, with my laptop balanced across my thighs and the precariousness of this position, I can feel a certain affinity for their worries as much as for their experiences with the advance of technology. I certainly wouldn’t be able to write this way with a typewriter, quite aside from the weight of such a machine it would slip and fall each time I moved the carriage back to begin a new line, and changing the paper would be a nightmare of extreme proportions.
Fanny Kemble lived through the election of President Abraham Lincoln, and reading some of her letters from the time, as the South was preparing for secession, as the American Civil War loomed on the horizon, it is hard not to draw comparisons with today. She wrote, in November 1860:
We are in all the distraction and uproar of the presidential election. The southern states are loud in vehement threats of secession, if the republican candidate is elected; but their bluster is really lamentably ludicrous, for they are without money, without credit, without power, without character…
Five months later, on April 12, this “lamentably ludicrous bluster” became reality, and Americans pitted themselves against Americans across the entire country. I don’t imagine for one moment that the present state of affairs, the unwillingness of the majority of citizens to accept the election results – through the Electoral College rather than a popular and democratic vote – and the inauguration last Friday of Donald Trump will result in another civil war, no matter how severe the rift between these two main political parties, between the supporters and opponents, may be. It is obvious that Donald Trump is not the popular or people’s choice, as abundantly clear as the streets in Washington were clear of people during his inauguration parade, but that suggests more of a future with civil disobedience and concerted opposition than one of war and carnage. In such times I am grateful to Fate for having me born in London, and for the opportunity to live and work in Europe, although there would also be many advantages in being an American, and most certainly many other, additional, opportunities for exploration, learning and, eventually, settling down to a life of ease. I suppose we all have our own ideas about politicians, major and minor, and the way in which certain things should be handled. I certainly do about Europe, especially the land of my birth and the land I have now chosen to live in, but few of us have the opportunity to really make a difference. We live our lives as best we can, doing what is necessary to survive, to obtain the American or European Dream, whatever it may be.
Did you have, or do you now have, a personal American Dream? An idea or a plan about how things could have been in other circumstances, if things had worked out differently? We all have such different experiences through our lives, according to where we are born, our surroundings as we grow up, educational circumstances and opportunities that I am sure your idea of the American Dream – just as mine of the European Dream – is completely different to that of anyone else around you. There will be, of course, a few fundamental differences, especially bearing in mind the present conditions, your surroundings and the limited opportunities offered to you during the day, but do you still have dreams and plans for the future? Are they realisable? I know that many people in similar circumstances – inside and out – believe that they have no chance, that there are no opportunities to bring themselves above what they are experiencing. Many, it seems to me, give up when faced with a long future without change, without a means to further themselves, and forget all the possibilities which their own talents could bring them. I am, however, not a preacher, not someone who says “this is what you must do” or “this is the right path to follow” because I know it doesn’t work that way, ever. No, I am merely interested, from a personal point of view, to see what can be made out of adversity, what chances there are, and how someone would / could be able to take advantage of any small opportunity offered them. There are so many people who do not realise they have a talent which could be exploited – in the best sense of the word – to their own benefit, or they hide their light under a bushel, to use a common idiom. I am reminded of the tale from Plato of the men trapped within a cave who do not realise that the world is behind them, and what they see on the wall in front of their eyes is merely a shadow play of reality, but they do not turn to find the source. It is an interesting tale, from Plato’s Republic, which I might come back to later; but I have used it so many times in another context elsewhere that, perhaps, it would not fit here. Far better, I think, is the tale of Amenouzume no Mikoto, a celestial goddess in Japanese mythology, who enticed the sun goddess Amaterasu out of a cave where she had been hiding through a dance, and brought light back into the world. I consider it much better to be one of the Amaterasus of this world, than a mere Amaryllis – a female character in Roman literature used to fill the scene, but with no real function in life or the tale being related. Come to think of it, there are so many mythical stories involving caves, as well as ones which have been adapted into religion as a moral tale – you will know the tale of Daniel and the Lion, I daresay – I am reminded of the Greek tale of Amalthaea who, as foster mother to Zeus, was represented as a goat who suckled the small child in a cave, and was finally rewarded by being placed as a group of stars in the night time sky.
From small beginnings come the stars of our world, and they often have to struggle against adversity, against those who will beat them down, against those who do not believe or cannot accept their talents. We can all tell a tale or two about such people, about such experiences. One thing is certain, though, most of these stars are not born with a silver spoon in their mouths, do not have all the advantages of riches, of education, of sponsorship. Some of the greatest artists and writers in the world, to take just one area of success, have had the lowest beginnings in life. And what is success? Is it just money and fame, or is it the completion of something which others considered impossible, and which perhaps no one else knows about, to our own personal satisfaction? We can be successful without anyone else knowing, through happiness, through achieving a personal target, through education, inner peace, whatever. Not everything in this world can, or should, be measured by money in the bank or a star set in the sidewalk outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
Not that I expect either one of us will ever have a star on this famous walkway, but the idea is a fine one, in a certain way. We can be the star in the firmament of another person’s life and that, for many, is enough. Certainly for me.