Wednesday, June 24, 2015


There is nothing worse than finding myself at the end of the day and knowing that I haven’t tried.  What did Sylvia Plath say?  The worst enemy to creativity is self doubt.

There are days like that.  You start with good intentions – but you must tidy the workplace before you can get going.  First step towards a tidy mind is a tidy desk, somebody smug probably said.  (Empty desk = empty mind?)  Another cup of coffee perhaps.  Mmm, nice. The novel isn’t going well and I’m bored with James – no, I’ve changed his name, it’s Peter now – does that sound OK? Does it go with whatever his surname is? Forgotten it already.  Bad sign.

Why am I bored with James/Peter?  He isn’t alive yet, that’s why. He doesn’t have a personality at all, let alone a personality that’s interesting. He doesn’t do anything unless I push him, he’s just there. I’ve written 40,000 words and he’s still hanging about in the shadows, lurking.

Perhaps it might be an idea to do a bit more to the family history – get that anecdote about the dotty aunt done. Easy (boring?) mechanical sort of job, not too much thinking or imagination involved, just the facts. But first, see if the postie’s been.  Ah, goodie – the Listener!  Make a sandwich – too early but hey, early lunch, bit of a read, maybe do the sudoku, then I can really get down to some work.

Two hours later, sudoku and crossword done: Dammit the lawn needs mowing. Should have done it yesterday, better do it now, it’ll probably rain tomorrow.  There, that’s better.  Thirsty.  Juice.  A little rest, sit down on the sofa on the deck.

Heavens, look at the time! Too late for any work now.  Tomorrow – yes tomorrow, I really will get down to it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


There is a chest of drawers in the garage that is more or less inaccessible all winter because the drawers stick fast. AJ – an enthusiastic do-it-yourselfer as long as the doing involved a big hammer and six inch nails – kept his treasures in there. Some of the contents related to his precious bicycles, which had special tools a brain surgeon might envy, but the rest is eclectic and collected over the years.

 It was a terrifying sight to see AJ load an electric drill, press the trigger, and advance on a helpless piece of timber.  He had no truck with the dictum to measure twice and cut once. His idea of measuring something was to flap a tape over it and decide that he needed to drill the hole six and a half centimetres – and a little bit more – round about there. His saw-cuts were never quite straight. There have been more holes in walls in our house than were ever necessary to hang the pictures and mirrors.

AJ’s one-offs are legendary. The house is full of bookcases and tables, all different – that’s why they are one-offs. Few have legs, most have slab sides. Some have shelves. Some do just as well as seats. They more or less stand up straight and are sturdy, even through earthquakes. All are painted with dark brown timbacryl which is really designed for outdoors – fences and the like. If anything got a little scratched and battered AJ simply hosed them down, opened the vat of paint and splashed another coat over them. The word for AJ’s one-offs was “rustic”. He was always delighted with his handiwork, and we were never short of somewhere to sit, or to rest a cup or a plate.

Back to the chest of drawers, which is due for a clear-out. The top drawer is the only one I have really needed access to, because it contains the hammers, the pliers, all the screwdrivers and a few other assorted metal things. I’ve been keeping that drawer well candle-waxed so I could access what I needed. The other drawers have been ignored. Around November last year (that’s spring for northern hemisphere readers), knowing that I would need to start clearing out ready to move, I began to heave at the handles and slowly, slowly over the next weeks each drawer gave up the struggle and let me pull it open.

OMG. Electric things. Gloves. Cables. Plugs. A grease gun. Bits for the drill. Boxes of – what exactly? Jars that rattle. Oh well, seeing that I have had no use for any of them in the last few years, I won’t miss them. Out they go. Nothing like a good clear out.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Few writers would remain sanguine at the thought of their notes, fleeting memoirs, scraps of working ideas and literary experiments being published. And even fewer writers would reveal such power and passion as was found in four notebooks hidden in a cupboard after the death of Marguerite Duras.

She was French, born in Indochina where she spent her childhood, and became a novelist and playwright, notably for the screenplay of Hiroshima, Mon Amour.  During the second world war, she was involved with the French Resistance, pretended to collaborate with the occupying Germans, became a member of the Communist Party, and later took part in the interrogation of suspected informers. 

Duras filled these notebooks in the years during and just after the war, and they contain sketches and rough drafts of what later became stories and novels, unmistakably informed by what was happening in her time and place. As well, and more visceral, there are intensely personal diary-like entries which she wrote instinctively during times of danger and emotional crisis. These were far from being self-indulgent rants, they arose from an icy rage at what people in wartime France had to endure. 

It is tempting to think that Duras was aware of what she was doing, that for example she was observing and recording while she waited through desperately long, agonised weeks before her emaciated husband was rescued from Dachau. Afterwards, his condition remained so pitiful that she had to stand back a little, writing not of “his” neck but of “the” neck which was so thin that the fingers of one hand could encircle it, and “the” hand from which the nails had fallen off.  The wife could hardly bear to see, but the writer could observe.

There are examples of notes written at the time of an event, then a roughed-out story of the same event turned into fiction. The birth and death of her first baby centres on the cruelty of an evil sister/nun who, Duras says viciously, was one of the three or four people she would have liked to gut, although the story that resulted was more objective while still allowing the reader to come to the same conclusion. 

Some pieces are mere fragments: a holiday in Italy with friends; resigned musings of a woman who is only a wife; a scene on the Rue de la Gaieté; six lines on the difficulties of writing at a round table. These are of writerly interest, small gems that reveal Marguerite Duras’s mind and eye at work.


Wednesday, June 3, 2015


There is good mess and bad mess, creative mess, debatable mess and scary mess. There is mess that is counter productive and mess that saves lives. In a book called A Perfect Mess that I reviewed (with some glee) a while ago, Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman questioned everything about the messes that we live with and sometimes try to control, from kitchen cupboards tottering with tins to corporations, cities, airlines and nuclear power plants.

To some people, the idea that mess might be interesting, helpful or constructive is maddening. They fret if linen in the closet is not stacked properly. They yell at children to tidy their rooms. They circulate memos demanding that office desks be cleared of clutter. They write reports, instructions, rules and schedules. They require order.

Abrahamson and Freedman sided with us slobs who don’t go along with this. They suggested that fussy housekeeping made other people uncomfortable. That too much cleanliness can cause allergies in children and breed heartier bugs with a resistance to antibacterial cleansers. What works for bugs works for children, went the theory. Let children develop their own resistance to the bugs and allergens because the world is a dirty, messy place and they might as well get used to it.

Like self-improvement books, this one had an epiphany on practically every page.  Neatness can be limiting, argued the authors as they described how a hospital was organised in response to suggestions from patients; how an architect designed a building but refused to supply blueprints so the builders had to think their way through the job; how Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin because his laboratory was grubby enough to grow mould in a petri dish.

Companies waste resources trying to impose order because they miss opportunities to stumble upon innovations, while their more slap-dash but creative employees become anxious and unproductive. Forward planning is just crystal-gazing; remember how, in 1943, the chairman of IBM declared that the world market for computers would peak at five.

Abrahamson and Freedman made provocative comments about many things, including speed bumps (they cause accidents), voice-menus (inefficient and they make customers ratty), and fancy filing systems (waste of time and money).  Mess, they said, can lead to creative thinking and the magic of serendipity. Painters, writers and musicians couldn’t function without it. Flexibility is more useful for dealing with unexpected situations, and solutions to problems sometimes come out of the blue if there isn’t a rule book to get in the way.

The authors’ message was that life is hopelessly messy so why waste time trying to clear it up? Relax and everyone would be more productive and happier – except of course for the neat-freaks.