Tales from the Inside of Writers’ Heads: Getty me out of here!

             I’m with Ben and Trevor in the Mr Morris wine bar. It’s a sunny June evening and the deep brown table we’re sitting at shines with stripes of yellowish light from the venetian blinded windows. Trevor is a banker, a little old school in the sense that if you look at him too closely he seems to almost disappear. Yet there’s a twinkle to his eye as he says, “Did I ever tell you about this bloke where I work, we call the Bollacle?”

            Ben and I shake our heads.

            “He talks all day about any old crap that happens to enter his head, or whatever’s on his computer screen. He speaks in this deep, resonant voice, like an oracle but what he actually says is bollocks.”

            I sip my wine, slightly uncomfortable at the knowledge that if I was in the Tavern with Nige, I’d be gulping at a pint of beer.

            “The Bollacle drives me nuts,” says Trevor. “He’s not unintelligent but he’s at a much lower grade than he should be.”

            “Banks enjoy grading people,” says Ben. “Like toilet paper: the higher the grade, the less shit you get on your fingers.”

            Ben sees bankers on a par with big publishers: petty tyrants who exist only to screw money off him when all he’s doing is trying to sell great books to nice people.

            “Anyway,” says Trevor, “I think the Bollacle’s problem is that he’s become too dependent on the bank looking after him. He’s intelligent enough to do his job without much stress, and it leaves him plenty of time for talking himself up.”

            Ben stands, waves his hand vaguely at the table. “Same again?” he says.

            Trevor and I say yes please, and Ben goes to the bar.

            “It’s okay,” says Trevor, noting my frown. “I know he hates bankers. Doesn’t mind me most of the time but not when I’m talking about work.”

            “So, what’s your theory about the Bollacle?”

            “Well, you need to know that his line manager works at home.”

            “Isn’t that fairly normal these days?”

            “Increasingly so, but this guy only comes in the office once every few weeks.”

            “Isn’t that good for the Bollacle – no one keeping an eye on him?”

            “Yes, at one level. But deep down, he feels bereft. I reckon a line manager is like a father figure, at some level. I think the Bollacle wants to be guided, to be given a paternal direction in his job. In the absence of that, he’s putting on a brave face, pretending that he knows everything and can do it all alone.”

            It’s an interesting theory. And it might explain a curiously persistent attitude held by an awful lot of writers, possibly as a result of them not having a line manager – the publisher of their dreams – present to guide them. Either that or they have an agent they mistakingly believe is their line manager.

            Writers want to be looked after. They want to be free to just write – or at least pretend to – and have someone else take care of all the messy, official, business stuff. Someone like a publisher or, better still, an agent. A father/mother figure who will tell them they write real good and they don’t have to worry because Daddy/Mummy will go sell their books for them, arrange all the promotion, deal with all the contracts, sweet-talk the publisher’s editor to not interfere with the all-important creative process . . .

            It’s not totally a fantasy. Perhaps many writers actually used to enjoy that kind of life, even if they were probably getting a less than best deal for their work. And the media still likes to plays up the (increasingly rare) event of an author getting a huge publishing deal for writing something that no one saw coming, commercially at least.

            But I think the problem is they allow this need to be looked after to leak into their creative lives, too.

            Ben returns, and I say, “I think a lot of writers fall into the Bollacle Syndrome.”

            “Sounds like a good title for the new Bond film,” says Ben, sitting.

            “They’re too comfortable in their limitations,” I say. “So, instead of trying new things, they talk up those limitations, even write about them indirectly, then bitch about not getting published.”

            “There’s a saying attributed to Paul Getty,” says Trevor, “although it’s probably an urban myth that sounds plausible. Anyway, when he started out he used to carry around a piece of paper in his jacket pocket. Wherever he was – coffee bar with friends, family event, whatever – he’d take out the piece of paper and read it; then invariably he’d leave immediately. It read: ‘Is what you’re doing at the moment helping you to become a millionaire?'”

            I laugh. “But most writers don’t leave where they are under any circumstances.”

            “That’s the point,” says Trevor. “They think staying put and just sounding like you know what you’re talking – writing about – about is enough.”

            “You lot even have a saying for it, don’t you?” says Ben. “‘Write what you know’?”

            “Yes, but – “

            I’m once again not sure if the analogy to hand is the right one. Getty wanted to make a pile of money; okay. But is that the same as wanting to write a pile of words? Money is money. But words can be profound or banal, silly, funny, deep, shallow.

            “But,” I continue, “how does a writer know whether what he’s writing is something that isn’t helping him to become what he wants to be or that it is? I reckon there’s two things a writer has to try to get right: knowing when to go and when to stay. Sometimes, the answer is in his head. Other times, it’s in a spontaneous bike ride along the Thames, or going to see a French art house movie when he hates them. What I can’t get my writers to do is struggle to get that balance. They just want to stay at home in their heads and wait for someone else to tell them.”

            “So,” says Ben, “are you saying that before a writer can write what he knows, he has to know what it is in what he knows that’s worth knowing and what is just him avoiding going out to find out what he doesn’t know that once he knows can be the key to what he wants, even if he won’t know for sure either what he’s going to know or what about what he then knows is worth knowing?”

            “Exactly,” I say.

            “‘Exactly’?” says Trevor. “Even the Bollacle would have trouble making that lot sound convincing.”

            And the conversation moves on. But I think I do know what Ben meant.

            If a writer is going to produce work that does the unexpected and the great, he has to develop the desire to take leaps into the unknown – both of himself and the world around him. He has to Getty himself out of the predictable, take a chance that if his desire is propelling him, then the new strange worlds he arrives in will be just what he needs, even if he couldn’t possibly have known that to begin with.



Tales from the Tavern – Tripadvisor Rating: 4.5 from 3 Reviews

“Where you been for the past couple of weeks, Tel?” says Nige. He’s come straight from working late, for a few last minute beers in the Tavern. His hair is lightly powdered with white plaster and his hands are spattered with paint that’s probably called ‘aubergine’ if he’s been working in Blackheath or ‘purple’ if it’s Catford. He looks a bit like an untidy dandy.

“We decided to go on an adventure,” I say, “without a safety net; do something highly risky and unpredictable; recapture the pioneering spirit of great British explorers like Scott of the Antarctic.”

“You went to the South Pole?”

“No, to Austria. But without a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide and with no access to Tripadvisor.”

“You don’t mean – ?”

“Yup. We’d drive into a town and actually go into a hotel and book it without first finding out what several dozen other previous travellers thought of the place. Scary.”

He takes a half-pint swallow of lager, puts down the glass, nods appreciatively. “I suppose Scott probably wouldn’t have bothered dragging his arse across miles of frozen waste if he’d checked Tripadvisor first and found out about the cramped conditions in that hut.”

“What’s weird,” I say, “is that we found some great hotels but since coming back home we’ve had to resist the urge to still check them out on Tripadvisor, to confirm that they really are any good.”

“That’s because,” he says, “we live in an age of over-expectation and sense of entitlement. You watch young people come in this place for the first time, for instance: they expect everything to fit exactly with every need they have. But I remember a time when you’d walk into a pub and have to fit your expectations exactly around the manager’s or you were out on your ear. I once saw a couple of middle-class tossers thrown out of this place, before it was gentrified, just for asking if it did food. Quite right, too. Pubs are for boozing, not fine bleedin’ dining.”

“Exactly . . . you can probably sense a writerly analogy on the way here, can’t you?”

He snorts. “Let me see if I can do it for you. Your group has problems coming up with stories that bite you in the bum because they’re Tripadvising their plots to death beforehand.”

“Yes, it’s another kind of displacement activity, which writers are experts at; but this one not only prevents you writing at all, it stops you getting into the unsafe places where the real stories lie.”

Nige stares at some past and distant place, just over my left shoulder. “Do you know,” he says, “for me summer holidays, I used to just pack a bag and go hitch-hike at the start of the M1 or the M4 – and go wherever the lifts took me.”

“You think my writers should hitch-hike to a story?”

He frowns, reluctantly re-focusing on the here and now, and on me. “Why not? All this Tripadvisor/Lonely Planet crap has got them believing the story’s already there, kind of fully-formed and ready to grab. Which it is, I suppose, but it’s also tame and predictable.”

We’re silent for a couple of minutes. Nige finishes his beer and orders two more, even though my glass is still two-thirds full.

I think about expectation. The problem with Tripadvisor is you can only ever be either just about satisfied or disappointed. Without Tripadvisor, you can’t be disappointed – because you aren’t expecting anything – and you might be brilliantly surprised. But for that, you have to take a chance.

“When I was a kid,” I say, “there weren’t any reviews of books, at least not where I’d find them. So I used to go in the local library and just take out a book at random. Give it a go. Sometimes I’d hate the story but occasionally I’d be amazed and delighted – more so, because it was my discovery, not just someone else’s tip.”

“And if the writer can’t amaze himself when he’s writing a story, what chance has the punter?”

“I honestly think the book and movie industry doesn’t want readers to be surprised any more. It wants to tell them what to expect and then deliver it. That’s where the economics lie: in producing a predictable product that never surprises but always delivers.”

“What: mediocrity?”

A group of young people enter the Tavern. They look healthy, well-fed; they’re dressed in clothes that . . . well, that accentuate their image. Everything about them looks comfortable. They go to the bar with the confidence of knowing they will be served what they ask for. Nothing jars between them or their surroundings.

“Writers should always jar,” I say, “and not fit in. Their stories should lie about their destination: pick up the reader on the pretence of giving him a lift to Disneyland then take him to Dungeness instead.”

“Seaside pebbled wasteland, nuclear power station, oddly appropriate narrow gauge railway train, black ex-fishermen’s huts full of wacko artists and the occasional BNP loner? They wouldn’t like it, Tel.”

I sigh. “They would if they hadn’t been expecting giant foam Donald Ducks, Coke on tap and sexless family entertainment instead.”