Several decades ago, when I first started writing, someone asked me what I found to write about, what it is that interests me enough to pick up a pen and commit my thoughts to paper. For some reason he couldn’t imagine that there as anything much in life, in the life that he led at least, which was either worth writing about, or which could command so many words. He saw how often I sat at my writing desk – I was in boarding school at the time – and how many notebooks I filled with endless, almost illegible scribbling. In those days, we’re looking back to the Seventies here, I was very much an amateur: I wrote a monthly letter home – a requirement of the school – and kept a minor diary, long since vanished. In addition, and what he saw, I made notes about my thoughts, about what I had seen during the day, what I had dreamed in the night and, above all else, my reactions to events and to people around me. I am sure, had anyone been able to read my hand writing, I would have been the least popular person in the school, if not in the whole county; there was nothing I wasn’t prepared to put my opinion to, and often not in a manner many would have appreciated. One of the advantages, I suppose, of having been an outsider.
While still at school I had my first short stories and poetry published, managing to keep this information away from family, the few friends I had, and the school authorities. Now and then I would submit something for the school magazine, and even had the honour of having the longest article they had ever published presented to a disinterested public one year. I set up, ran, and wrote for, my own small newsletter in my final year in the school, and even managed to sell the entire print run of each edition I brought out, which wasn’t too difficult as there were only fifty copies. The words never seemed to dry up, there was always something interesting happening, something worth commenting on. The only Christmas present I can remember receiving – although I am sure there were others – was my first typewriter, a plastic thing which worked quite efficiently for a while, but didn’t last long. There followed a succession of typewriters after this first one, each one better and more lasting than its predecessor until, finally, word processors became affordable and I, along with countless others, began the long, but very fast, road to technological perfection.
Fine, I will agree with you, there is no such thing as perfection, and certainly not when it comes to anything offered on a commercial basis. It seems to me that there is a new gadget, a new version, and especially a new cell phone on offer every other month. I am not, I hasten to add, one who needs to keep up with the fashion; if it works, I keep it. When it is broken beyond quick repair, then it is time to finance a new one. The idea of having something new, regardless of the state or age of the old, just because it is new goes against the grain. We did, however, think that things couldn’t get any better back then: a wonderful green screen with the words we’d typed there to be seen, to be checked, corrected and, finally printed out on long sheets of paper; sometimes perforated, sometimes not. And all of these words could be printed out several times, without needing carbon paper, and saved – on massive floppy disks – for retrieval at a later date. Of course, the improvements came whether we wanted them or not: the floppy disks became smaller and encased, then slightly larger but with more capacity, and then disappeared completely in favour of what we have today; compact disks. I still have a box of the small three and a half disks in my desk, and a device to use them, but with so much space available on a computer today – no word processors any more – and the availability of massive storage space on external drives, what’s is the point?
The one thing which hasn’t changed, which cannot be upgraded in such simple stages, is life: the experiences which create the words. In the Eighties, when I first started writing letters, during my basic training for the British Army, I was asked what I could possibly find to write about: our daily routine was practically the same each day, seven days a week, and that couldn’t possibly interest anyone. True, it did not interest all of my correspondents, but it was unique. They had not experienced what I was living through, and I had not seen what they saw each day. Once I had managed to get that across to those I was writing to, we got along splendidly. A different matter for the soldiers, of course, who were more attuned a night out on the town drinking than anything else, and who had problems deciphering the daily newspaper, let alone the orders for the day. I remained an outsider, with my words and my papers, through the Eighties and into the Nineties, and had no problems with that either. Why change something that isn’t broken?
So what is it that a person, an outsider looking in or otherwise, can write about over several decades without running out of words? Daily life, it would seem, cannot be the source for so many words, so much interest. There must be something else. In fact, there isn’t. If you look around you now, at the people near you, at the room you are in, at all the things moveable and immovable which are near to you, you might think everything is dull and unchanging. You see these people, these objects, this room every single day of the week. Nothing changes. I could do the same here: I can look up from my writing table, across another table with a pile of books awaiting my attention, to the far wall where, no surprise to me, there are bookshelves stacked high with volumes of other people’s works. The shelves have been there since last year, when I finally finished decorating this room and moved in, and the books have been around for many years, in one place or another. They do not change. Everything sits there, day in, day out, without a change. Until you ask me to describe my room, and I ask you to describe where you are. Neither one of us can see where the other is at the moment; neither one of us has this experience even if our surroundings haven’t changed in a month or even six.
Exactly the same with experience, with the background to everything you have in front of you or within reach. Everything is bound with a story, which only you know. I can walk from here and take a volume down from the shelves in front of me, or to the left or right of where I am sitting, and I have not just a book in my hand, but the history of that book. If I take out the massive volume of Cervantes Don Quixote and weigh it in my hands – plural, it is big and heavy – only I can see that it is half-bound in leather. Only I can open it and marvel over the beauty of the engravings which accompany the work. Only I can see, without having to ask, that they are by Gustav Doré. I remember buying this book in a small, second hand bookshop in Flask Walk, Hampstead in London. I can remember squeezing into the shop, running my eyes – and fingers – along lines of bookshelves which led directly from the front door, without a break, into the interior. I remember the shop owner eying me suspiciously – I was seventeen, and in a bookshop! – and I can remember feeling very nervous as a result. Which was unfair really, since I was often in bookshops, but I’d just come from another further down the hill, near Belsize Park and the shopkeeper there had been very rude to me; I hadn’t been able to shake the feeling off despite a stiff walk up the hill.
Which reminds me of the time I visited a small, independent bookstore in Covent Garden. I was happily looking through small press poetry books, making my selection, when I felt – felt, rather than noticed – someone watching me. This is something I’ve always had, that nervous feeling that I do not belong – and it is often backed up by people who decide that I really don’t, and that I should leave. At the back of the thin shop an old, white haired and bespectacled man in a tweed jacket was standing watching me. I ignored him, of course; In was doing nothing wrong and would soon be putting cash down for the books I’d picked out. The feeling remained, over a very long period of time. Now and then I would glance over, and this older man was still watching me, scrutinising my every move. Would I slip a volume under my jacket? Did I have dirty hands, which meant leaving marks on the books so that they couldn’t be sold at full price? I bought my books and left quietly, still nervous and out of sorts, and only later discovered that it was a very life-like, and life-size, wax model of the philosopher Ernst Jung.
This book now in my hands, though, came from the shop in Flask Walk, and was in the shelves behind the owner, well out of reach of anyone who came in off the streets on the off-chance that there was something valuable to be had. It was one of five or six large volumes, and intrigued me from the first moment I saw it. There were, of course, other books there too, and I was searching for a particular title and edition I wanted to add to my shelves. The other bookshop, in Belsize Park, hadn’t had it either, but a different title by the same author – George MacDonald – which I didn’t buy because the rude sales assistant didn’t wish to serve me; did mention I was still very young, a teenager, and in a bookshop? Not finding what I was seeking, I asked about the books behind the counter. I knew from my schooldays that the best things were hidden away from sight – that’s why I was a school librarian, to read the books the teachers had hidden away – so these must be interesting too. I asked and was allowed to look at the book; the shop owner remained very close to me, directly opposite, almost as if he was ready to grab the book back should I try and make a run for it. I wouldn’t have made it out the door, to be honest, since all those other shelves were in the way, and the door was old and heavy.
When I tell this story I can see the bookshop, but not visualise the owner, and almost smell the atmosphere there. I can remember the sharply declining pathway, the large paving stones, the greenery, and that there were other people outside but not in the shop. I can remember the sense of nervousness, both mine and his, as the book changed hands. And the feeling of relief, it cannot have been anything else, for both of us as possession of the book changed hands; as I became the new owner. I can remember how big the ten pound notes were that I handed over, and that there were four of them, and that this was the most I had paid for a book in my life. I’ve bought expensive books since, both old and new, but this was the Seventies, I was a teenager, and it cost a lot of money by anyone’s standards.
I can tell you about the continuing history of this book, if you wish, how it has been my companion, in one form or another, as I’ve travelled around the world. Admittedly, it was often tucked away in a box and kept in storage some of the time – it’s not wise to have a complete library in your baggage when you’re moving across a desert in Saudi Arabia looking for enemy troops – but it is one of the few books I have been able to keep over the years. It’s not the first second hand title nor the most valuable book I have ever bought – that was George MacDonald’s At The Back Of The North Wind from 1872 or so, a first edition which I no longer have – but it has a story, and I am the only one who knows it off by heart, who can recite it from memory, picture the events surrounding its purchase.
And that is just one book. Admittedly, not all of my books have stories worthy of recital, and not all of the works of art of photographs in my other collections; at least, not in that depth. They do all, however, have a story, and they can all be described in detail to someone who cannot see them so that, hopefully, an image appears before their mind’s eye. Much the same with travelling, which I will be doing again later on today: we see and experience, but someone on the other side of the world cannot even begin to imagine what we see and experience. That is what words are there for, and that is what I try to explain to people, even now, after so many years. I write about what I see, what I experience, because there is no one else in the world – past, present, or future – who will have the same experiences as I do, who will see the same things, who will be in the same place. And the words, the experiences can only stop when there is no more life there.
Robert M. Pirsig, in his wonderful Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in his alter ego of a college professor, had to help a young woman to write a descriptive essay. She was completely stuck, wishing to write about America, unable to find the words. He brought her slowly down to a manageable level; first a town, then a street, then the facade of the opera house and then, finally, a single brick in the facade. She wrote more than she needed to; the words simply began to flow out of her and onto the paper. When you close your external eye, I always say, and look with your mind and your imagination, the words flow forth.