Like old, patient Boxer, Orwell’s carthorse in ‘Animal Farm’, the well-trodden path around life’s somewhat wearisome treadmill rather caught me by surprise recently, precipitating a Setback. Boxer forgot to look behind him. The pig, Napoleon, sells Boxer, his usefulness outlived, to the knackers in order to buy whisky – in this instance – the metaphor has grim but exact irony.
Writers, I suppose, fall into two categories, those for whom anarchic rebellion bubbles subterraneanly, occasionally exploding into polemic and invective against – or even for – some ’cause’ or another; hairy Esaus, jousting men of letters like Osborne and Wesker whose grist to their mills might today have included the moral turpitude of the US involvement in Iraq. And then there are the others, the Jacobs, the smooth men, the Ortons, the Stoppards, who wrote because they liked to fence with words, languidly flop-haired and elegantly dispassionate, the foil, not the sabre, contributing nothing but their example to a battle-weary debate.
For both, there are pitfalls, stones in the road, guilt-ready, beady-eyed and malevolent, to trap, ensnare and disable. John Keats once wrote in his ‘Diaries’ that ‘…the only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing – to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts, not a select party.’ On that particular day, I imagined it to be raining, an endless, persistent drizzle, with no break in the clouds. Perhaps the iron vulture of melancholy perched briefly on his shoulder, too.
I have a friend who for many years has called me MathMan, which makes me smile, or rather, snigger inwardly, for such I am not. I know MathMen, those whose eye and armament never waver from the pitiless focus of logic, pursuing it to its bitter and satisfying end, the proof of pure reason. Then, arriving sweatily on its summit they stand, sword in hand, defying all comers. As for me, I sometimes play childish games with numbers and symbols, which is nothing more than the flounce on the party dress of mathematics, a copycat despised.
Like Stoppard, who once described himself as ‘a timid libertarian’, when I write anything, I seem to have to reconfigure pre-existing narratives, much as he has done with such conspicuous success. He wrote the screenplay for the beautifully worked 2012 film version of ‘Anna Karenina’ let down by saggy performances. Watching the giraffes of probability flying heartlessly overhead, I should rework Macbeth in the genre of a power struggle in the Middle East, where the House of Saud, as Macbeth, does battle with the Shi’as, the ayatollahs, the thanes of Glamis. Perhaps a couple of dynastic witches, in the form of the Bushes, plus a black one, Obama, to stir the pot, Birnam Wood meeting Dunsinane in the blood-soaked oilfields of Mosul. Ah, perhaps, but being bloody, bold and resolute sits uneasily on shoulders which slope as uncomfortably as mine and native idleness and preoccupation with the next pretty butterfly of logic flitting innocently into my path may postpone, perhaps forever.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
ISIL may be less permanent than we have been led to believe, its black feathers may yet tumble from the sky.
Now, all together, a collective sigh of relief.