No work being done

This article first appeared on Bookbrunch.

“Do you write on the train?” I get that a lot. And it’s fair enough, I suppose: for thirteen years now I’ve been a commuter, Oxford/London most working days, and during that time I’ve published eight novels, so when else might I have written them? It’s not like the opportunity’s not there. Even when I started, laptops – if cumbersome – were much in evidence; these days, the proliferation of tablets, smartphones, iPads and what-all else means you can not only write your novel on the train, you can research it, publish it and shoot the movie. So it speaks, I think, to enormous strength of character that I’ve come through all these years without writing anything more complicated than a shopping list while in transit.

Which isn’t to say nothing gets done on the move. It just looks that way. Not long back, I saw a sign on a London street: it was way up Farringdon Road, at the end of a stretch of plastic fencing that had reduced traffic to single file, channeling it through a set of temporary lights, and all without any actual industry on show. “We are currently examining the condition of the water pipes in this area,” it read, or something like that. “At times, it will look like no work is being done.” A useful alibi to establish upfront, and one all writers should consider adopting. Because “at times” it will not only look like no work is being done, it will positively resemble sloth, and to the layman, the finely tuned observational skills of the professional novelist might well resemble slack-jawed torpor. But do not adjust your settings. Work is being done. It’s just being done very very slowly.

A case in point: twice a day the train I’m on passes a small farm, or what looks like a small farm, in whose courtyard stands a double-decker bus. I’m not going to calculate how many times I’ve had the opportunity to observe this, and ruminate on the reasons for its being there, because that would make me feel old and tired; I’m simply going to mention that this bus features in my next novel, which will be published in 2016. From first viewing, through creative contemplation, to actual content in a little less than a decade and a half: I’m not going to be winning awards for momentum, but if I was any kind of a speed freak, I wouldn’t be on a train in the first place.

Besides, books choose their own pace. They make other decisions too. It’s only lately that I’ve noticed something odd about my novels: that for all my back-and-forth travels, they’re apparently taking root. Once set largely in Oxford, with occasional trips to the capital and elsewhere, they’ve become London-bound – in the static sense – and can no longer be bothered to drag themselves home when they’re done. Maybe this is because the big city offers more noirish opportunities. Certainly it felt a more appropriate setting for
Nobody Walks, whose protagonist returns there after years abroad to re-encounter old enemies and make some new ones. Bitter, broken, disillusioned types return to Oxford all the time, of course, but they’re usually attending their college reunions. If you’re going to paint havoc on the backstreets, London’s the more obvious bet.

Except, as it turns out, it isn’t. Oxford has a seamy side at least the match of anything London has to offer, and the tourist-friendly version familiar to TV watchers all over the world, with its sunlit quads and shady cloisters, its roll-call of eccentric detectives, turns out to be the home, too, to sexual torture, trafficking and rape; to the grooming and sexual exploitation of young people – all while the very systems designed to protect the vulnerable turned a blind eye. The Serious Case Review carried out in the wake of Operation Bullfinch made it clear that the shadows cast by dreaming spires are as dark as any other kind. It’ll take a braver, better novelist than I am today to tackle that issue, but it makes me wonder whether all this shuttling between one city and the other isn’t just another form of escapism. The bleak endings I occasionally contrive – the bleak beginnings, come to that – might seem uncomfortable, but any kind of fiction remains a cosy world compared to reality’s devices.

Meanwhile, I’m on a train again, and despite what I claimed in the first paragraph, I am in fact writing – just this last part. Apparently there’s a deadline. And anyway, it’s starting to feel like a natural fit: writing, after all – any type of writing: books, blogs, graffiti – at heart wants to take you from one place to another, ideally without you noticing: opening words to closing para; penthouse to pavement; clifftop to sea. At its best, it’ll seem effortless. At times, it will look like no work is being done.

April 2015