Thursday, 30 December 2010

Living the Life I Lead

Well, I was happy here at home
I got everything I need.
Happy being on my own
Just living the life I lead.
Well suddenly it dawned on me
That this was not my life.
So I just phoned the airline girl
And said: “Get me on flight number 505.
Get me on flight number 505.”
The Rolling Stones (Flight 505)

YESTERDAY A FRIEND WROTE TO ME (put your hands up, Richard) suggesting (with bleak January not so many hours away) I start my autobiography (to write it, not read it, for it has remained hidden from you and me). If that were not enough, I might also begin a novel. January could be awfully busy.

One has come across the remark: "Each of us has a book within us." I don’t believe that, not for a moment, and the proof is in the pudding (as they say). How many novels by driven (if uninspired) writers are clearly over-egged? One could spend January making a list.

Allow me to confess (sorry, Richard) that I do not have a storybook in me, not at either end. Novels should be, I’m thinking, new somehow. The novels that do haunt my mind are those that I have read, and they retain their novelty years, indeed decades, after I have read them. The Waves belongs to Virginia Woolf, and water carried her away, but not her words; Island is the optimistic child of Aldous Huxley (that novel altered my life in 1967, everything changed as I read the last paragraph); The Magic Mountain came on loan from Thomas Mann, a trip to the snow and the consumptive death there; AndrĂ© Gide’s Fruits of the Earth has nourished me without being diminished; DH Lawrence gave me (and you) Women in Love and he stands in the room watching me when I read it, or think of it, a bloodied handkerchief at his lips.

I have come across would-be novelists, wordsmiths, who seem to write to a formula. (The oddest goal was to write an entire novel of 50,000 words in the calendar month of November just gone. I wondered whether there might be a 20,000 word short story of some brilliance, or a 90,000 word oeuvre that was sidelined in the cause of high speed bad art.) I do understand the need to write, the need dictated by the necessities of life (food and electricity), having written a newspaper column and also having played at being an art critic some years back. In the more distant past, I tended to write the bulk of our grammar school newspaper (Quid Novi) that I edited; bulk being a good word to describe my contribution (ballast would work as an appropriate word too).

Not all writers can be dismissed on the basis of their writing schedules. One hears of noted, successful authors who go to the office (as it were) at a certain time each day. I believe Roald Dahl would head for a shed at the bottom of his garden and put in his hours. Virginia Woolf wanted a room to herself where she could stand at an elevated desktop. I hope those that shut a door behind them and in their secret (the Mormons would say sacred) chamber weave wonders do not force the pen or pencil across an unwilling page, or type for the comfort of the clattering keys; I hope that the Roald Dahls have heard a voice (and only when it wanted to be heard, not when its source was having its bottom pinched).

When we remember we are all mad,
the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.
Mark Twain (1835-1910)

There are writers who come by their gifts in ways that everyday boys and girls might not wish to share. I have read the words, the beautiful words, words tending to degrees of genius, that are the silver linings to lives (some wit noted that every silver lining has a dark cloud) that most of us would attempt to run away from (or to escape by way of spirits and substances and transcendental obfuscations). These are not writers with a word-quota (1,666 a day in November, damnit), but with a struggle for being, and are wrestling with all the angels that life can fling down on them. These are the creators of words, chapters, stories, poems, plays that nearly break my heart (perhaps they really do break my heart, nothing nearly at all) when I see their flesh and blood sacrificed represented on the page (and no God to stay the knife).

No (Richard), I shall not write a novel, starting in January. A biography then? In my case, if I could conjure up the words of my life, they would be delivered in the mouths of so many ghosts. I try to live my live in the present day (Buddha said we should not dwell in the past or think of the future), however, my ghost-writers would be hard to avoid if I was looking at my personal story from “In the beginning...” My Mother, dead over 18 years, might materialise as I sit at my desk (or on the sofa, or when I’m struggling to sleep), reminding me, as I see her eyes wide and lost under her glasses, that there is madness in me; my Father, who passed away in early 1996 could pop up (wearing the naff smoking jacket, cravat and smoking a pipe that made him an embarrassment for me) with the details of my conception and nativity (thank Christ!); my much-loved Nan Eldridge, taken by the cancer almost 35 years ago, may suddenly pour me a tiny glass of sherry, ask if I have a spare tab, and relate the family history that her father told her in 1910. (I know people who see and hear visions; one thinks himself a simple psychic as he deals daily with very real dead people. A psychiatrist would have a longer name, difficult to spell, more difficult to understand, for the would-be psychic. I think all apparitions are real, even if one might put a hand through one’s late brother to reach a glass of spirits at the bar.)

Life is something to do when you can't get to sleep.
Fran Lebowitz (1951-)

In my writing, the blog entries and the smart-arsed remarks on Twitter, I do try to stay close to the now, even if I’m here and there. I worry that the real current life is no better revealed than in our shopping lists (I needed cranberry juice yesterday, and Brie cheese, and this, in algebraic form, actually tells me a great deal about my life on Wednesday, 29 December, 2010). “There’s more to life!” (than my diet lemonade and lettuce). How many writers, real and hack, have said that? But it is true. Pushing through the old ghosts, my life is rolling along in the books I am reading. I usually read three or four books, not at the very same time, but I pick up the story that best suits my mood in the hour and might best stimulate my mind. Yesterday I was in Germany in 1943, the British and Americans were dropping bombs, and ragged Jews were struggling on foot to take showers at Dachau; today I was on board the Pequod in search of that most famous of whales (the little children would say: “Free Willy?” And I would say: “Dick! Moby Dick!”).

My ghosts appear (I suppose I’m looking like an Ebenezer Scrooge now) and remind me that the males of a generation of my family, known to me personally, fought the Germans in World War Two (I ask them if they feel comfortable with Arthur “Bomber” Harris and the annihilation of Dresden, for I do not from the supposed security of 65 years). And my Great-Auntie Maud, in her wonderful Lancashire accent brings back to me the memory of clambering aboard a nineteenth century sailing ship on the front at Morecambe when I was very young, and the ship, built for a movie, was called “Moby Dick”. (If it had been named Pequod the average tourist walking along the promenade would most likely not have made a connection, would not have found the three pence for the ticket to climb up the steep gangplank.)

Last night I read a number of poems that a friend has written over recent years. I immediately realised that many had a subtle musical underpinning. There was beat, there was movement, there were highs and lows, and all done with words. I’d love to write poetry. Virginia Woolf told her nephew, and others, that things did not become real until one wrote them down. She suggested poetry. Looking back on my life, there are many musical songs (poems, if you like) that mark the path on which I have travelled. (Not with breadcrumbs, the birds have not misled me.) The Beatles turned me on.

My family members tend not to be long-lived, and good physical health seems to avoid us like the plague. My parents died young. One of my real passions is genealogy (combining my love of family traits, family connections, culture and history itself) and so often one sees Father and Mother having ten or more children, and six die. Several times they try to hold on to a daughter named (for example) Mary, and each one withers within a year or two. (I’d have been superstitious and would not have used the names of the dead over and over; the next Mary would be Eliza instead or Hermione.)

Looking at my family tree (which is actually better described as a fairly large computer file on over 1,800 relatives going back a thousand years in some lines), I wonder at the lives cut short by disease, accident, poverty and over-work. My great-grandfather James Henry Proctor was sent to work in the mill at age nine because he was a tall child and could fool the mill owners into thinking he was eleven, and he was dead before he was 50. One morning, early, my great-grandmother, Sarah, called down the stairs to her daughter: “Elsie, bring some brandy, your Daddy is dying.” The brandy was not to attempt to resuscitate James Henry, or to alleviate his pain and fear of the dying he was busy with; the brandy was for my great-grandmother. Happened that Elsie became my grandmother and lived to be 104, more than twice her father's age at death.

There is a great deal of artistic ability in both sides of my family, I have several cousins who paint, makes films, act, design and photograph in ways that I’d love to. (Perhaps my spell as an art critic was my attempt to stand with them?) But how many brilliant painters (or writers, or musicians) in my family have died young (usually without having had families of their own)?

Life is precious. To be a bit strange (I am permitted that, because I’m quite mad, as the Cheshire Cat would say: "We are all mad here!") one is something of a bivalve mollusc, an oyster. One might be rather rough on the outside (or at least feel that way), yet be smooth, iridescent, exquisite inside, and some have a pearl, the result of dealing with a tiny parasite, some have pearls forced upon them. Some pearls are beautiful, many are not so judged, but the oysters have all dealt with the irritant within their shells, amidst their soft tissues.

And another ghost whispers something that I’d quite misplaced (not forgotten, obviously, because here it is) for a lifetime: My two sisters had matching clothes for special occasions, like Easter Sunday church services, dresses with uncomfortable crinolines to make them stand out nearly like ballerinas’ tutus. Little straw bonnets. And pearl necklaces that were not complete, but were added to on occasion. Certainly the clothes were soon outgrown, perhaps given away to a relative or a thrift shop, but where did the pearls go? The oysters’ hard work.

Well, I sat right there in my seat.
Well, feeling like a king.
With the whole world right at my feet.
“Of course I'll have a drink!”
Well, suddenly I saw
That we never ever would arrive.
He put the plane down in the sea.
The end of flight number 505.
The end of flight number 505.
The Rolling Stones (Flight 505)

Oscar Wilde said, perhaps a little cruelly, but he did almost everything for a laugh and cruelty is a common cause of laughter: “Youth is wasted on the young.” Looking at that, I can say that it is only now, when I’m getting on in years, that I can see all the good things of my (often difficult, troubled) youth. And when one looks back, one’s youth is always just behind us. My youth was last night. I was wonderfully youthful. I intend enjoying my youth tonight, and will hope that it seems delightful when I struggle awake on the (most likely) bone-chilling morning of the last day of 2010 ... tomorrow. My alarm is set for 6.30am.


sarah corbett morgan said...

WOW, Ross. This just might be my favorite of all your blog entries. Not just because of your reflections on writing itself, but also the depth of history and family I come away with. By the way, I too am very superstitious and could never name my son after my dead brother (who was named after my mother's dead brother). No, not me. Wonderful writing, my friend. Wonderful.

Ruth L.~ said...

Just keep writing, whatever you call the genre matters not. Just keep writing. You have the eye and ear--and memory--for a story!