“England back to their usual,” says Nige. “Huff and puff, give the ball away; huff and puff, give the ball away; late heroic surge to no useful end.”
We’re in the Jolly Farmers and half an hour ago England lost their second World Cup Finals game in a row and barring miracles are now out. The atmosphere isn’t too bad; partly, I suspect because most of the rabid fans are across the road in the Ravensbourne where they have a big screen and partly because, well, we’ve been here many times before with England.
“We always seem to play as if we’re about to fall over,” I say. “Like we have no vision or forward-thinking. We just hope that the ball will land nicely and the other team will somehow slip up.”
“You know,” he says, “I’m so depressed I’ll even let you go straight to the writing analogy.”
And there is one; I can sense it. I buy some time by getting us two more pints.
What’s the equivalent for a writer of an England football team that cannot control a game, that only succeeds when their backs are against the wall?
“I think it’s about the balance between control and creativity,” I say.
Nige doesn’t respond, unless you count a half-pint swallow, so I continue.
“If you start a story with too much control, everything tightens and becomes predictable. But if you just launch with creativity, you risk running down any one of a hundred blind plot alleys, which means you produce something beautiful to read but with no end result. So, the best teams and the best writers make sure they’re sitting with the balance between the two before they take off.”
“Okay . . . so how you get that balance?”
My mind billows out, taking in personal history, social structures, families, the landscape . . .
“It’s not about balance in a story, or a football match,” I say, “it’s about getting balance in your desire.”
His eyes shine with interest. “Can I take the next bit,” he says. “It’s like wooing a beautiful woman.”
“Well, I’m not sure that’s exactly–”
“Look, Tel, you use your analogies and I’ll use mine.”
“All right, but when was the last time you wooed a beautiful woman?”
He frowns, takes another thought-gathering swallow of beer. “I’m not sure I ever have but I’ve studied the subject assiduously since the somewhat startling appearance of my first pubic hair. And my ex-wife was beautiful.”
His eyes mist over with, well, I’m not sure: either loving memories or the size of his divorce lawyer’s fee.
“You know what, Tel, I think it was on our very first date, when I said she looked uncomfortable being so gorgeous.”
“You said that? Spontaneously?”
He frowns. “You have to remember that I was utterly besotted at the time, but not just about her looks and her body; she had something I really wanted to be with.”
I laugh. “I think you’ve nailed my writing analogy.”
“Really? I don’t detect any links between England’s woeful performance just now and my missus’s hidden depths.”
“You said she had something you wanted to be with. Her looks were just what got you interested in her.”
“I’m not saying looks ain’t important, however.”
“But a story has to have something the reader really wants to be with, too. A lot of stories are rather like the way England play football: they look good and they talk a good game but once they start playing, you’d rather be Brazilian, French, German, Colombian.”
“Or even,” he says, widening his eyes, “Scottish.”
He holds up his glass to catch the barmaid’s eye. Too much control or too much creativity . . . now I’m I thinking it’s not really about finding a balance between the two. Both are part of the ‘looks’ of a story; they get you interested. But what makes you want to be with the story is something else altogether.
Nige puts another pint next to the one and a half I already have, my drinking fitness being somewhat short of his.
“A writer shouldn’t just assume,” I say, “that his writing is something readers will want to be with. He’s got to love what he’s writing about; not just love the process of writing.”
“Are you saying English footy players don’t love football?”
I shrug. “I’m sure they do, at one level. But I guess it gets obscured by money, fame and fear . . . Have you ever thought that your wife may have done that thing she did on your first date deliberately?”
“What do you mean, Tel? I’m not sure I want to hear this.”
“She wanted to be with you, too. So she reached inside for what she really loved about being with a man, being with you, and, well, radiated it so you couldn’t help but notice it and want to be with it.”
He picks up his pint but half way to his mouth, he puts it down again. He seems to be studying the surface, as if the swirling shapes of foam are something he’s never noticed before, changing all the time, finally dying away forever.
“Bastard,” he says.