If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing. Kingsley Amis.
For close to twenty years, give or take a few this way or that, I have been writing a weekly column or blog (call it what you will) purely for my own pleasure. Some newspapers and online sites have been good enough to publish my material on a regular basis, others less frequently, still others have given me the old heave-ho. Short shrift. However, for the most part I let myself go, high, wide and handsome, once a week in the verdant, unfettered pastures of my own blog. Of more pertinence, a handful of readers has been kind enough to read my offerings off and on while providing critical feedback. The advantage in managing my own blog is that there’s no word limit to constrain me, no junior sub ‘correcting’ my apostrophes and punctuations wrongly, which can drive you up the wall. Worse still, an entire line, at times, goes inexplicably missing making a hash of the sentence or paragraph. I am quite punctilious that way, and if an error does creep in, I am fine with it as long as it is my own. That way I can take full responsibility, be master of my own fate. It’s when I key in “O. Henry” and someone else converts the great American storyteller into an Irishman “O’Henry,” that sets my jangled nerves on edge. Over a period of twenty years, at an average of a column a week, that works out to a number not to be sneezed at. Quantitatively, I can point to a modicum of accomplishment. Qualitatively, the jury will always be out, a constant assessment in progress. I could, of course, put all that on the calculator and come up with a daunting figure. Then again, I am superstitious and have no wish to tempt the fates. I am the sort of chap, who will fret ceaselessly for seven years if I inadvertently break a mirror at home, worrying about the ill omens that are likely to visit me.
A close friend of mine recently asked me what keeps me going and did I ever consider taking a break. You know, get away from it all for a few weeks and come back refreshed and raring to go. I had to hum and haw before answering. I thought I detected a veiled hint that perhaps I should take a break as my pieces were beginning to show signs of fraying at the edges, but then writing is a bit like being a performing musician, even one from the top echelons. It enjoins upon you an unwritten commitment to keep at it unceasingly. A vocalist has to keep singing if he or she wishes to uphold high performance standards. If one stops singing or practising even for a week, it will almost certainly show. As to why I keep writing without giving myself pause, the only answer I could come up with was, ‘Sheer bloody-mindedness.’ It was just something I had to do. It’s rather like responding to your early morning alarm. You don’t want to get up but you do just that, grumbling the while and getting down to that 30-minute constitutional and those recommended exercises. It’s the boarding school boy in me. Oftentimes, you have to push yourself to come up with an idea, when you are gazing at your computer screen with a glazed look. All said and done, writing has become an ingrained habit and as troubadour Van Morrison said, ‘It’s too late to stop now.’
The late Miles Kington (one of my many inspirations), an effortlessly funny writer who was literary editor of the defunct and celebrated humour magazine Punch, then went on to write for The Times and The Independent, had this to say about writing a column a day spanning thirty years! Allow me to repeat that – a column a day. I puff and pant to complete one a week. One every single day is really pushing the envelope. Kington wrote over thirty-thousand newspaper columns in his lifetime. Mind you, he never wrote a full-length novel. ‘From an early age, I knew I wanted to be a humorous writer and a jazz musician… and when I went to Oxford University, I spent most of the time playing the double bass in jazz groups and writing undergraduate humour. Thus, when I left university, I was almost entirely unfitted for life, and consequently went to London to try my luck as a freelance humorous writer, where I nearly starved to death.’ That’s another thing about achieving great success in certain fields. You need to go through much suffering. It’s almost a sine qua non. Ask Kafka, Camus or Dostoevsky. They made a good living writing about other people’s suffering. I am not implying schadenfreude as they probably suffered themselves. Considering I have taken up writing purely as a hobby and relatively late in life, I can safely opt out of the suffering phase. I had enough of that in my professional career in the corporate world, so I’ll pass up the dubious agony and vainly aim for the illusory ecstasy.
The late Bernard Levin (forgive me for drawing upon the wisdom of eminent columnists no longer amongst those present) who wrote a column for many years for the venerable The Times of London, was a writer of coruscating brilliance. Like Miles Kington, Levin never wrote a novel and never wished to. His frequent observations drew more readers that many authors could aspire to, only in their dreams. Fortunately, we have his prodigious compilation of writings in several of his published books for our undiluted enjoyment. If I were to select just one of Levin’s many purple passages, I will go for this one, where he uses the genius of Shakespeare in a unique way to demonstrate how much we owe the Bard of Avon. In our everyday conversation, we casually toss familiar phrases and aphorisms at random, with nary a thought being given to the original source. The quote is long, but I would not dream of paring it down even a jot. Enjoy this Bernard Levin gem: of purest ray serene, I might add. ‘If you cannot understand my argument, and declare “It’s Greek to me,” you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger; if your wish is father to the thought; if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise -why, be that as it may, the more fool you , for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then – to give the devil his due – if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then – by Jove! O Lord! Tut tut! For goodness’ sake! What the dickens! But me no buts! – it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.’
Phew! Elsewhere in this column I had talked about being bloody-minded and given short shrift, having no idea that I might have been quoting Shakespeare. Mr. Levin set the record straight on that one. That goes for ‘Tut-tut’ and ‘By Jove!’ as well. However, I take perverse delight in being able to correct Mr. Levin when he attributes the expression ‘but me no buts’ to Shakespeare. I researched this thoroughly owing to a nagging doubt I harboured. Sure enough, the quote (it is authoritatively drawn from several unimpeachable sources) was coined by one Susanna Centilivre in the play, The Busie Body in 1709. That was centuries before Bernard Levin was even a twinkle in his great-grandparents’ eyes! Incidentally, that’s the way ‘Busie’ is actually spelt, in case you are about to shoot off a tart mail to me. Probably archaic, given the year of the play’s introduction. In the event, Bernard Levin is not around to take up cudgels with me, in case he was right in the first place. That said, if there are a bunch of keen Shakespeare Wallahs out there hiding in the woodwork, who wish to come out in high dudgeon and set the record straight yet again (with papers to prove it), they are most welcome.
There you are, you see. I am stuck with writing columns and may never write a full-length novel in my lifetime. I have no regrets on that score, even if I should never say never. If you must know why, I am delighted to quote one of my favourite authors, P.G. Wodehouse, ‘It was one of the dullest speeches I ever heard. The Agee woman told us for three quarters of an hour how she came to write her beastly book, when a simple apology was all that was required.’