HALF A MILLION A YEAR
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As I once mentioned, I never independently planned to start a blog like this, but was eloquently persuaded into it by my daughter Ione, who thought it would help promote my Greek island fiction teaching. It has been going since December, and aside from when I was cruelly stormbound and minus laptop on the Attiki mainland in February, or have had teaching commitments, I have been energetically posting almost every day. Little short of a miracle, or rather 2 miracles have happened as a result. After my wife of 30 years Annie died December 2009, I wrote almost nothing until I commenced the blog 5 years later. If I had written anything it would have been a comic novel, but I had as much wish to write comic extravaganza fiction in those 5 bereaved years as I had to become a cost accountant living in a roof-leaking bedsit in Batley or Oswaldtwistle or Penge. Since starting the blog, I am averaging no less than 10,000 words a week or 500,000 words year, an unprecedented and even worrying quantity of prose, don’t you think? As far as I know only HG Wells and Arnold Bennett and Frank Richards, pseudonym of the man who authored the Billy Bunter novels, to which I was addicted as a child, ever knocked out that quantity of writing.
In the case of Frank Richards, some of his lines went: ‘“Ha ha ha”, cried the four chums of the Remove’ followed three lines down simply by ‘Ha, ha, ha’ and with that happening every second page, he certainly knew how to fill up his immensely popular books. A Radio 4 documentary I listened to many years ago, said that he lived alone on the south coast, with only a housekeeper to fetch his meals to his study on a tray. He was so busy writing about Bunter the obese schoolboy, he often left his food untouched, and the housekeeper claimed the only things he really got enthusiastic about were sticky cakes and similarly regressed schoolboy tuck. He and Billy Bunter as avatars of each other, perhaps? Pray God, I don’t go that way, and end up only eating baklava and ekmek kadaif from the Kythnos zaxaroplasteia. To dovetail this excursus, I shall do so with an anecdote that has nothing to do with anything, but is instructive nonetheless. The Bunter books were dramatised by the BBC in the 1950s, and the greedy overweight schoolboy with ‘the tightest trousers in the Remove’ was played brilliantly by an actor in his late 30s called Gerald Champion. In one episode, Bunter breaks into a fellow student’s study, and alights upon a splendid and enormous cake. This is not in the books, so it must have been a touch of genius either by the director, or just possibly Campion himself. Bunter cuts a minuscule wedge from the cake, but instead of guzzling that, picks up the colossal remainder and, grinning victoriously, stuffs it entire into his mouth. The Zen of Bunter, and the Zen of the Art of Complete Surprise, and I laughed like hell when I watched a rerun of that episode a decade ago.
The second miracle, and this is far more stupefying than the fact I am writing half a million words a year these days, is that as of last December, and for the first time in my life I am without much struggle writing massive quantities of non-fiction. Up until then the only non-fiction I ever managed was book reviews for the Independent on Sunday, and subsequently the Literary Review. Writing reviews never came easily, and anything on the lines of travelogue or political journalism or journalism of any kind, was, I promise you, wholly beyond me. Ditto for memoir and reminiscence of my singular West Cumbrian youth and childhood, unless it was turned into fiction which was the only literary mode I felt comfortably at home with. I could with a massive struggle feebly produce something, but I knew it was nowhere in the same league as my fiction, and I certainly never wished any of it to be reprinted or otherwise immortalised. To be candid, I thought it was ineffably second rate, and I was embarrassed by it, and yet I was also sad about the fact that a first person eloquence as observer, autodidact, sceptic, comic pundit and controversialist, was seemingly beyond me.
All this is a hell of a mystery worth exploring. For 40 years I had tried in vain to write lively and incisive non-fiction, and it was all still-born, sheepish, and grotesquely unsure of itself. Should it ever stagger and stumble into print, It bored me brainless rereading it, never mind the poor buggers out there who might chance across it. Then aged 64, I suddenly embarked on something entirely new, and at someone else’s instigation, and it did not call itself non-fiction, but called itself a ‘blog’. I embarked on this strange thing in a foreign land, not really knowing what it was, or was meant to be, and then, without trying, non-fiction poured from me torrentially. At first I could make nil sense whatever of this weird transformation, and I was just remarkably grateful that at long last and at an advanced age, I was able to say precisely what I wanted, outside of the confines of fiction, and comic extravaganza fiction at that. And of course even though it might all have poured from me in torrents, writing the blog was still hard work, as is any kind of serious writing, and I edited and chopped and rewrote and fussed and faffed, like any decent writer does in any context. I am also incidentally much delighted at this point, to realise that what I claimed was nothing to do with anything before, viz. Billy Bunter and his Zen volte-face with the pilfered cake, where he eats the big bit and not the little bit…that that was not after all just a bit of gratuitous and random digression, but an acute and subconscious metaphor for what has happened to me as a writer and indeed as a man, in the last 6 months.
In a nutshell, I tried off and on over 40 years to write non-fiction, and I could not. Then after a 5 year grief-orchestrated sabbatical, I started writing again, but with absolutely nil intention of trying to write anything specific. I was at this point, no longer aiming at non-fiction, nor very obviously was I aiming at fiction, whether comic or not. I was more or less trying to write entertaining letters home from Greece, home being interpreted generously as everywhere in the world, where folk might choose to read and think about what I write. And lo and behold, once I stopped trying to do something, the thing happened of itself. I was now effortlessly writing non-fiction, and in many cases I would say that the non-fiction was writing itself, not pace anything mystical or occult, but just that the blockage had cleared itself, and assuredly through nothing at all that I personally had done. If anyone did it, if anyone engineered this miracle, it was my remarkable daughter Ione.
The controversial American writer Henry Miller (1892-1980) once put it very aptly. He was a big fan of all things Japanese, including Zen Buddhism and the tragic novelist genius Yukio Mishima. Talking about being stuck or blocked both as a writer and also just as a frustrated human being, he quoted his own variation on a Zen aphorism.
Instead of keeping on knocking your head against a brick wall, stand still and watch it crumble before your eyes