Saga, April 2014
As I write this, there are men in my garden. They are constructing a new patio area, having already erected a fence. And I will miss them when they go. Previously in my life I have left workmen to get on with jobs, thinking that it was rude to stay and watch. Previously I have also been keen to put on a show of working myself – bent over the keyboard, pacing the room for writerly inspiration, studying pages of manuscript and then huffily crumpling them into balls and tossing them in the bin. But, curiously, not this time. I get my work done as quickly as possible so that I can just sit and watch the men. Friends come round, but they are no distraction. No, we sit and watch the men together. I hasten to explain there is nothing sexual in this. It’s genuinely about wheelbarrows, spirit levels, and the efficient disposal of spoil.
I never thought I could be so brazen. But when heavy plant turns up outside the house, I even hold the dog up at the window to see what’s happening. Well, why not? It’s my money that’s paying for the heavy plant, after all. Meanwhile I make the men cups of coffee, and I keep them supplied with biscuits. I compliment their work on the fence. And I try not to miss anything. For example, while I’ve been writing this in my office, quite a bit of brick-laying has taken place. Maybe I should go and work at the kitchen table instead? But perhaps not. I can never forget the story told me by an old sportswriting colleague who kept himself ostentatiously busy at his keyboard all day at home while a plumber was there, and at knocking-off time the plumber looked in and said, with amusement, “Space Invaders, is it?”
The trouble with writing for a living is that it doesn’t look like anything. No one would want to stand at a window to watch a person write. I know I mentioned the old page-crumpling gesture earlier, but a) it’s not that interesting; and b) it only applies to writers pre-1980, in any case (before the advent of the silent delete key). Actually, this is sometimes quite a problem for radio dramatists: that the crumple-toss sound effect is the only aural shorthand for a writer wrestling with his creation …
ALEX rips the page from the typewriter carriage, crumples it, and hurls it into a metal bin. A distinctive ringing noise as it hits the base.
ALEX (with feeling): No, no, no! Why am I still working on an old manual typewriter when there are better and more up-to-date technologies available?
Yes, it’s hard to make writing dramatic – and it occurs to me that I must have written about this subject for radio once, because I remember being in a lonely studio, repeatedly crumpling up sheets of paper and chucking them in a bin, while a producer down the line said, after each attempt, “No” and “Try again?” and “Try again?” – because it turned out that even when I was being a highly dramatic version of a writer, I still wasn’t very convincing.
By contrast, the chaps outside are thrillingly building up the foundations for the patio, checking the brickwork, and mixing cement. They make progress all day – progress that can be objectively quantified! “Look at this!” I keep exclaiming, as I hand them another tray of hot drinks. “Ten minutes ago, it looked really different!” Obviously, they don’t know what to reply to such pathetic remarks: to them, you see, their transformative skills are not miraculous. To them, it’s just their job. But to me, it’s amazing, and I just can’t take my eyes off it. What was it Jerome K. Jerome said? Ah yes. I like work. It fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.