The Art Life

Recent events have made it even more clear than it was before. I’m not like they are. They are the corporate machine, and I’m not. Most of them have got where they’re going, and where I’m going is a different planet altogether. Does this sound healthy?

The “In The Pink” podcast recently featured a minor hero of mine, Chemmy Alcott. Posher than a princess, but technically only middle class, Chemmy is one of the hardest and most motivated grafters there is. Inspired by her brother, she became Britain’s fastest woman ski racer by a mile. She became better known, and probably even faster, than the Bell brothers. She said something along these lines: that she had buried her competitive sporty persona when she became a mother, and had only recently revived it. Chemmy the ski racer took a break, and Chemmy’s outlook and bubbly personality took a hit. Could it be that such repression is bad for us, even when it is for the entirely human urge to procreate?

It made me think about my professional career. A career, let’s be clear, of deep troughs as well as high peaks. It started well enough, and that lasted almost six months. But I had picked one of the most demanding office jobs there is. Nowhere near as demanding as any of the so-called vocational roles, but tough for an office. I travelled up and down the country, 5am starts every Monday and 7pm finishes every Friday. Too tired to see my friends at the weekend, I spent most of Saturday and Sunday on or near the bed. Having a small flat made the winters very long indeed. Six months of that and I was tearing out my hair. One of those evenings was the Admiral Duncan, then the worst of recent terror attacks in London. It was the early days of rolling news.

Now, I’m much older and wiser, and I can see that my problems started when university and school ended. No more dreaming time, no time to write. No energy to do much other than work at a job which wasn’t half as interesting as I had been promised. Losing patience with programming computers, I turned in my second year of university to finally finishing a novel. From Beyond Belief, later known simply as The Playground, was so heavily indebted to the X-Files that its pockets bulged. My guy was more Mandy Patinkin than Fox Mulder, but his wife was Gillian Anderson.

The Playground was a runaway success in my mind. HarperCollins were falling all over themselves to figure out how to tell me that after eight months of pondering, the answer was a firm no. Their pondering took almost as long as it took me to write a novel, and Kicking Tin was well on the way. I should have realised that this was not the fast track to riches promised by Jeffrey Archer and Michael Ridpath and anyway, Archer was now in prison.

So all that went back in the cupboard for four years until I had the idea of shoving out From Beyond Belief as an ebook in the days when absolutely nobody knew what one was. It was great fun and of course, nobody read it. Later still, when print-on-demand became affordable, it became a paperback. Again I waited in vain for the money to roll in.

Meanwhile I had left my first job, and sought another after a suitable time off. I turned to short-term contracts to maximise my hourly rate while minimising the effort required to earn it. Again, the money flooded in. For a writer working two hundred miles from home with only his dog for company in the student-quality bedsit, I was rich. But I was not happy.

Every two to three years, the pretence of office life demanded too heavy a price on my delicate intellectual constitution. This cycle of torment has grown easier to bear, but it still surprises people around me. The only surprise is that they don’t find it both obvious and predictable, as I do.

The corporate world, the drudgery of the office, is just not compatible with the dreaming mind. Even worse, having done it for so long, I have accrued long-term expenses that cannot be divested. The mortgage, the child. All of these require endless wads of dosh. More wads than even the most famous novelists earn, to be sure. As Jeffrey Archer once said, or something like it: the top thousand bankers are all millionaires; but only the top fifty writers are. And whilst all the unknown bankers take home truck loads of cash, the other writers earn bugger all.

And so, following the advice of David Lynch, I throw myself wholeheartedly into the writing whenever I have the energy. While at work I pretend to be the most average and middle of the road model citizen. Try too hard and you risk promotion, which always comes with more pressure and commitment than it does money. Try too little and you’re out. Blending in, for a writer, requires reserves of energy that most of us do not possess.

And so I arrive at another similar fork in the road: do I try a new job for a bit, until in two years it grows dull, or do I throw myself on the mercy of my small band of readers? There is only one sensible course of action. It is the one pursued by Larkin. It might pay off but if it does, will I be too old and jaded to appreciate it?

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