New Year’s Eve, most sane people agree, is unsatisfactory, and I put it to you that this is because, as celebrated in Britain at least, it’s at totally the wrong time of year. It’s far too soon after Christmas, and only marks the beginning of the dreariest part of winter. What’s so great about starting January? Nothing. The sales are plenty to be getting on with.
The ancient Babylonians had the right idea: New Year started on the first new moon after the vernal equinox, which in 2011 I make April 3. Perfect! Spring is springing, buds are budding etc. So can I take it that we’ll all be implementing that change this year?
(And we won’t have any of that Hootenanny nonsense either: there’s no way Nebuchadnezzar would have stood for marking the new year by watching Jools Holland and friends milling about a studio on some Tuesday evening in September.)
The sad story of Annie Taylor, aka Queen of the Mist, featured in a recent episode of Radiolab. She was the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, on October 24, 1901, an incredible feat that should have won her fame and fortune – but unfortunately the public found that a 63-year-old woman, who emerged from her barrel proclaiming “Nobody ought ever to do that again”, didn’t quite fit with their image of a daredevil.
A widow who had fallen on hard times, poor Annie went to Niagara in desperation, in a last-ditch attempt to gain financial security. Instead she had to sit beside her barrel trying to sell her signature to an oblivious public, and finally died in poverty.
Whereas the second – guess what, male – person to go over Niagara Falls, Bobby Leach, made a career from lectures and tours boasting about his stunt. (Until he died by slipping on an orange peel, that is.)
This is an obvious WRONG that must be righted. I suggest that this should be Annie Taylor Day, to celebrate a brave and shockingly unappreciated woman, who was also sensible enough to point out that it was actually a really bad idea that should not be copied.
Perhaps, like me, you often find yourself unable to concentrate on the TV because you are so distracted by the presenter’s clothes. The other day I couldn’t take in a word of a programme about the Domesday book, thanks to the historian’s badly pre-distressed jeans. And I don’t believe a news broadcast has ever been listened to properly: viewers are too busy wondering why female newsreaders like to dress as if they’re on Star Trek.
I suggest we put a stop to all this with The TV Uniform, which must be worn by all presenters of non-fiction programmes. It could be as above, a loose, practical unisex jumpsuit of some description. Failing that, a pair of jumbo cords and a really boxy shirt would probably do the trick. Finally, an end to the chorus of ‘What on earth is that JACKET?’ that rings out across the land every time there’s a weather forecast.
The main thing to think about when starting out as a writer is, do something about your name. My theory about why British women writers of the mid 20th century now tend to be underrated and neglected is that they are all called Penelope or Elizabeth, and no one can remember which is which. Muriel Spark was sly enough to have a stand-out name and so is the one who gets talked about.
To right this wrong, I’ve decided to embark on a campaign of sorting the Penelopes from the Elizabeths, so you don’t have to.
1. Penelope Fitzgerald
Penelope Fitzgerald started writing novels in her late 50s – which is an additional reason why she gets forgotten about, people being generally pretty stupid about distinguishing one academic-looking middle-aged woman from another.
She’s best known for her novel Offshore, which won the Booker in 1979, but later wrote more ambitious historical novels such as The Blue Flower, about the 18th century German poet Novalis. You can read a slightly patronising piece about her by Julian Barnes here, or an admiring one by AS Byatt here.
I’d read and not thought much about Offshore long ago, so thought I’d give her short stories a go, in her collection, The Means of Escape.
Conclusion: Odd, unsettling little stories, with settings that zip all over the place from a reclusive composer on a Scottish island to plein air 19th century artists. The one that stands out is The Axe, a funny and genuinely frightening office-based tale, with a Bartleby the Scrivener atmosphere about it. One passage made me make a small squeak out loud on the Tube, it startled me so much.
Not at all what you’d expect from the author of Moon Tiger – but then that was Penelope Lively.
Inspired by the recent enforced quiet in Britain caused by the volcanic ash, I have come up with a suggestion. One day a year when the whole world switches off its phone and lounges quietly in a deckchair at home. No planes, no cars, no DIY. Lazy people manage this quite well already, but their fun is always spoilt by busy types, banging or sawing or travelling about even when they don’t have to.
Allowable noise: birdsong, children playing (within reason), tea-sipping, page-rustling, bees buzzing (no wasps), cork-popping, chuckling at a remembered joke. No loud snoring, keyboard-tapping or annoying conversation – preferably no speech at all, apart from a whispered ‘thank you’ if someone hands you a piece of cake.
We’ll all be better for it, I promise. I suggest July 12, the birthday of Henry David Thoreau, a master of peaceful living. Let the preparations begin!
According to the Venerable Bede, February, or Solmonath, was the “month of cakes” for the Anglo-Saxons, when they offered cake to their gods.
Some people seem to translate it as Mud Month or something to do with sprouting cabbages but we won’t worry about that.
So, off we go – a month of cakes, starting now. Why not start by baking this Betty Crocker Colorvision cake from the Fifties, above, which seems to be made of spam.
January. Back to work, sleet and snow, Christmas trees are rotting on the kerb. It’s miserable – but this is because, in the UK at least, the festivals are so badly managed. Everything happens in autumn, then you’re left with nothing but a few pancakes to look forward to between now and Easter. Unless you really enjoy giving things up for Lent.
The answer is simple: create more. Or rather, because creating things from scratch is hard work and for mugs, dig up some obscure forgotten ones or steal them from elsewhere.
I suggest we start with tomorrow, which is apparently known in parts of Ireland as Women’s Christmas. Women have parties or go out to celebrate with their sisters, aunts etc, while men stay at home and do all the housework. And children give their female relatives presents. Ideal! Let the celebrations begin.
Suggestion: please can all novels from now on have floor plans. How am I meant to get a clear idea of the story if I don’t even know where the hell the kitchen is in relation to the library? Plus it saves a lot of time on boring descriptions.
I mean, it was good enough for the Golden Age of Detection. I particularly like these maps, above and below, in The Pit Prop Syndicate by Freeman Wills Crofts. Don’t ask me why I’m reading it because I don’t know. But if you like a novel where a good chunk of the action is the two heroes taking it in turns to sit in a barrel to watch pit props being smuggled, then this is for you. At least I know where the Syndicate’s depot is in relation to Ackroyd and Holt’s.
Why should I imagine it? It’s your book, you imagine it. Naturally Len Howard knows the importance of a plan in Birds as Individuals:
And don’t forget to include an accurate diagram of any chessboard, bridge hand or bell-ringing chart mentioned:
As you may have noticed, Fed by Birds campaigns tirelessly to automate the creative process, leaving writers free to spend more time on what they do best. For instance, this online mesostic generator will work out acrostic poems using found text so you don’t have to.
I took the traditional self-centred route to test such a thing, and the results seem quite satisfactory:
Back to the chaise longue! Just in time for that substantial 1pm brandy.
Daily Routines is endlessly fascinating for those who work at home sometimes and can’t shake off a guilty feeling that sitting in your pyjamas at noon eating a Lion Bar is not the way to Get Things Done. Nonsense! Winston Churchill got things done and his routine is the best of the lot: 7.30am substantial breakfast and working in bed, followed at 11am by rising, bathing and a weak whisky and soda in the study; 1pm three-course lunch with friends, champagne, brandy and cigars. Then a little light work or possibly backgammon, and “at 5pm, after another weak whisky and soda, he went to bed for an hour and a half.”
We brush aside the up-before-dawn and 10,000 words-a-day types, and embrace those who mastered a more civilised life, such as Nabokov – Scrabble, butterfly hunts and long naps – or Truman Capote: “I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping.”
I mean, whose work would you rather read, Colette – swimming, sex and regular blood transfusions from an attractive young donor – or film critic Roger Ebert – rise at 7, oatmeal, treadmill, cold shower etc. And Joyce Carol Oates’s comments – “To me, wasting time isn’t in my nature. I find it difficult to understand why people would deliberately waste their time” – make me determined never to read a word she’s written. Most importantly, try never to sit next to the highly self-disciplined J.M. Coetzee: “A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once.”
Some had more idiosyncratic routines. Auden’s method, perhaps not recommended, was to take lots of speed, which he considered a “labor-saving device” in the “mental kitchen”. Maybe Gertrude Stein is the one to emulate: “Miss Stein likes to look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing… Miss Stein spends much of her time quarrelling with friends.”
Pictures from LIFE archive.
See also Writers at Work