Someone extremely grown up and discerning on Twitter says that I must read a certain article. (People on Twitter are always saying this. I occasionally do it myself.) The piece is brave and haunting, or something. The grown up man is so besotted with it that he has read it twice.
I gallop on over, ready to be moved and haunted.
About three paragraphs in, I want to throw things at the wall.
It’s the kind of writing I loathe. It’s Writing writing. It’s Look at me! Writing!
It’s the kind of writing I tell all my students to avoid. It’s what Elmore Leonard said about if it sounds like writing, cut it out. (I should goodly look up the exact quote, but I can’t be arsed. That’s the kind of lockdown day I am having. Sorry about that.)
It’s so self-absorbed and self-conscious that I feel resentful rage boil up in me. No wonder my career went down the crapper. I would rather chew my own arm off than do that kind of writing, but apparently it’s what national newspapers are paying for. It’s what discerning men on Twitter are haunted by. I’m absolutely buggered.
Also, all the fucking commas were in the wrong place.
I decide that I would quite like to poke this writer with sticks. This is slightly worrying, because I like to think of myself as a decent person. I did a Myers-Briggs test not long ago which said that I was so overflowing with empathy that I belong in a tiny subset of the population. I’m one of the 4%, apparently. I was delighted. This explained a lot. I also felt pretty good about myself because of the whole empathy thing. I’m all feeling and intuitive, according to this questionnaire. So that really bolstered my sense of self. I could go about, intuiting stuff and feeling dandy.
Now, I’m so cross with an unknown writer that I want to spit.
I try to be rational. This could be lockdown; this could be menopause. The wanting to poke people with sticks thing tends to happen anyway, about every six weeks. My oestrogen is draining away, and for some bizarre reason this makes me want to tell everyone to sod right off. (In a feeling and intuitive way, obviously.)
Then I try to be psychological. I’m probably not really cross with the poor writer, who is almost certainly kind to kittens and nice to old ladies. She is merely acting as a proxy for unprocessed rage. Maybe I’m projecting. Maybe I’m really cross with myself. Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t know where to put the commas.
I’m not sure. I’m afraid I think that my lesser self has decided to come out and do the fandango. She’s fairly pissed off about everything, judges people mercilessly and finds some of them wanting, and has a nice line in resentment and self-pity. I take a great deal of care not to let her out of the house too often. I sometimes contemplate putting her in a cupboard or pretending she does not exist. Because I am feeling and intuitive, you see. I don’t make everything about me or moan over trifles or throw pity parties. No, no, no, no, no. No. I do not do those things.
Lesser self, who really ought to have a name, basically can’t stand the fact that writers who don’t know where to put a comma are getting money and praise. Lesser Self – actually, let’s call her Mabel – really wants random literary blokes on Twitter to call her haunting and brave. Mabel is neither brave nor haunting, but she doesn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. She is just really hacked off that charlatans are getting all the jam. SHE WANTS THE JAM.
I feel much better now. Thank you for that. (You miracle readers are the ones who do it. Blogging is a truly weird thing, completely different from all other writing. I know, as I type, that there are kind people out there, listening. Blogging is all about the kindness of strangers, and that kindness takes the sting out of so many singed feelings.)
In other news, Broccoli is trending on Twitter. I have absolutely nothing to say about this. It adds another surreal layer to an already surreal world.
And I have decided that I completely love Keir Starmer. He is polite and clever and grown up. (I see I have a whole little grown up theme going on at the moment. I think it’s because the coronavirus makes me yearn for competence. I want people in charge who can put their egos aside, and tell the truth, and get the job done. I don’t want narcissists or weasels or showboats. Sir Keir is a human rights lawyer, which makes me happy. He’s got that whole dispassionate but brilliant barrister thing going on. I feel slightly peculiar as I type this, because it’s been so long since I admired a politician. But I think he is one of the good ones and I hope I am right about that. We Britons need some good ones.)
And this – hot off the press – I am having a lie-in. This really is headline news. One of the odder things about lockdown is that weekends have completely disappeared. Saturdays always used to be my racing day. I kept it clear so I could watch the ponies. Now there is not that excuse, so it’s turned into one of my big work days. I often don’t finish on a Saturday until after nine at night. But I suddenly decided I needed a rest and so I am luxuriously writing this in my bed, like an Edwardian lady, with the two lurchers slumbering by my side. There’s a wind running beyond the window and the merest glimpse of blue sky and I can see the tops of the trees, waving about as if they are doing interpretive dance. I feel suddenly, violently, lucky.
I may have a lesser self, but at least she’s got a cool name. (I start to think that Mabel and I are going to have a lot of fun together.) I may be locked down, but I have Scotland. I have wind and weather and sky and trees and dogs and mares and green, green grass. I know where to put my fucking commas. That’s a huge blessing, right there. Someone, somewhere, in a dim, distant past, in the seventies, when there was the three-day-week and everything was going to hell, taught me how to use a comma.
I’m looking back now, trying to remember. I think it might have been Mr Gosse, who was a Wing-Commander in the war and who had magnificent, Dennis Healy eyebrows. Or it could have been Miss Holder, who was flinty and rigorous and who stood no nonsense. She was like something from a Molly Keane novel, only not Irish. She wore sensible skirts and had astonishing bone structure. She lived in a cottage with Mrs Flynn, who taught middle form, and oh, oh, oh, I do hope they were in love. I was eleven when I had Miss Holder and I always looked at that cottage as we walked past it to church. It was a postcard cottage, with a thatched roof and roses rambling over the door and around the windows. I remember, every single Sunday, as we walked to Matins, hoping there was love in that cottage.
Anyway, one of those long-lost teachers, who must all be dead now, taught me what the buggery to do with a comma. Imagine that. That’s stupid luck. Thanks to that brilliant teacher, I can do punctuation as if I were breathing. Or flying. Or dancing, perhaps. It’s my element, my friend. It’s my better self. It’s the opposite of Mabel. It’s where I feel strong and true. It’s my thing, and everybody needs a thing.
PS. I wrote this this morning, and then left it and went out to do the horses and walk the dogs. It’s lunchtime now, and I am reading it back with a sense of doubt. I was in a bullish, sweary mood as I was typing, and since then, my world has shifted a little. A dear friend is going through one of those unexpected life events that defy imagination. I have stopped thinking about myself and am thinking about her. My heart is with her. My own little spurts of emotion and thought feel feeble and pointless by comparison. I almost want to delete the whole thing. But it’s where I was at half past ten, so I think I’m going to let it stand.