by Martin Westlake
When one is seeking to become a serious author, it is absolutely essential that one first equip oneself with the necessary instruments, the ‘tools of the trade’, one might say. Thus ‘twas that when, thirty-five long sweat-soaked years ago, I took my first faltering steps along the long and winding road of literary endeavour. I was absolutely determined to ensure that everything that could possibly help me to succeed in my lofty goal was in place.
By this I don’t just mean the wordsmith’s basic tools — the pencil, the sharpener, the eraser, a generous supply of feint-ruled paper, a ruler for headings, a sturdy desk with a broad expanse of polished wood and a felt blotter, a stiff-backed chair, a good pen and a good nib, a plentiful quantity of good ink, a desk lamp, and so on — no; I mean much more than that. I mean, for example, a book-lined office with an opaque window to avoid distraction, and a deep-pile carpet, so that even when the author paces feverishly back and forth in search of inspiration, no sound of heel on parquet may disturb his or her mind, leaving the author alone with his or her thoughts.
The out-setting author should even consider with what sort of books one wishes to line the shelves. In my own case, it was obvious that the upper shelves should carry the great literary classics: Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, Hardy, for example, though nothing too ‘modern’ (dread word, dread concept). However, I had always known that the lower shelves were to be reserved for the twenty-four lovingly-preserved volumes of my father’s fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica: twenty-three full volumes, plus the index. Thus did I set the stage for what was to come, deo volente.
Once my literary nest had been created and well-equipped, my first task was to learn at the collective knees, as it were, of the many literary giants who would serve as my role models. So I read all of the entries in the Encyclopaedia Britannica about all of the authors whose great works adorned the upper bookshelves. This was logical; before I could myself write, I had to learn how others had written.
Until, that is, there came a day, after some seventeen months, when I said to myself, ‘Enough, James! You have drunk long enough and deep enough at the well; it is time for you to start on your chosen career.’ Acta non verba! I do confess, though, to having felt a mixture of guilt and regret about not actually starting to read the great works themselves, but there are only so many hours in a day and days in a week, and I was not getting any the younger.
For the next twelve years of loving labour, as I gradually learned the basic rules of my art, I eschewed recourse to anything electronic, apart, that is, from the lightbulb in my desk lamp, much preferring to scratch away with my pencil in rough and then, later, my pen and nib for the fair copy.
Thus did I fill scores of folders, all lovingly filed away in what used to be the guest bedroom, primarily for future reference but also for posterity, since I had learned about the importance to literary scholars of access to an author’s unpublished preparatory work, and I would surely wish to leave my archives to some suitably well-endowed American university in due course.
Alas and alack, foul arthritis in my writing hand ultimately obliged me to relax my resolve and to reluctantly purchase a so-called word processor. I write ‘so-called’ for surely we, we women and men, are the true word processors?
At the shop where I bought the machine, an assistant tried to convince me of the benefits of access to the Internet, but I would have none of that, for I have always been convinced that the Internet is to literature as ‘jazz’ is to good music, like muzac; anathema, that is to say.
Nay, I drew the line at the so-called word processer and a large printer. It saddened me to put the pencils, sharpener, eraser, ruler, nibs, pens, blotting paper and so on in a desk drawer, although I resolved that I would bequeath them also to that future American university, since they had genuinely been my first tools of the trade.
At first, progress on the magnum opus was, as one would expect, painfully slow. There were indeed days when I counted myself fortunate to write one or two words at most, and it did sometimes occur that I wrote nothing at all. More frequently, I wrote a little but crossed it out. However, through sheer dint of effort, drawing on all my creative reserves, I was able to gradually build up to a cruising speed of around two to three full sentences per week, assuming the week were a good one.
Use of the so-called word processor immediately raised a practical problem with regard to rough and fair copy. Namely, how would a future literary researcher know what words and phrases I had considered if I simply deleted them, as the machine allowed? When I had previously written everything out longhand, it had been easy enough to file every version away — nothing was ever thrown away; no, no. But what should I do now that, with one touch of a key, I could make letters, words and phrases disappear?
In the end, I opted for a dual process. On the one hand, I saved every version of every manuscript in the machine. Technically, I believe, it is referred to as the ‘hard disk’. On the other, I printed out every version and filed it away in the guest bedroom as had been my wont until then. The price of the ink cartridges was very high, but it was, I believed, a price worth paying. When it comes to art, there should be no boundaries, no financial limits.
It was about a year after I had bought the so-called word processor — a not insignificant investment! — that I realised I was perhaps a little too modest about my calling. What did my neighbours know about me and my activity? How could they know that this budding literary talent lived in their very midst? How bemused would they be if a blue plaque were suddenly to be erected on the façade of their erstwhile modest neighbour’s house?
At the same time, I felt it beholden upon me to show public commitment to my ambition, to lock myself in, as it were. So, I had a brass plaque made, a simple affair, and had it affixed to the façade of my house at a suitably prominent height, so that it could be seen quite clearly by passers-by and not just by the postman or any other more occasional caller. ‘James Tarquin Featherington,’ the plaque stated; ‘Man of Letters’. Audere est facere. There would be no turning back now; oh, no!
It was precisely because I had, with considerable courage, so publicly committed myself to my literary endeavours and ambitions that I did not appreciate what my local corner shop owner, Sid Belcher, insisted upon calling his ‘little joke’. Man cannot live by writing alone, and so once a week I set out on a monthly shop. I’ve always been a semper fortis sort of chap, in my own modest way, but like many a creative writer, I am a sensitive soul and find it testing and trying to languish in the great consumerist emporia in the nearby shopping centre.
Besides, I can always find all that I really need in the corner shop. So that is where I go, generally of a Friday evening, because I know that the owner has stocked up that day with fresh goods for the weekend rush. The disadvantage of this practice is that the shop is always crowded and there are long waits at the tills, not that I have anything against an odd brush with the crush of humanity.
I had, as usual, unloaded my shopping basket onto the small conveyor belt that led to the till. Sid was himself working my till. Now, I think that shop owners owe their customers a duty of discretion. When one goes to the dentist, one doesn’t expect him or her to tell everybody about the state of the mouth and teeth he has just seen, does one? And when one goes to the chemist’s, one doesn’t expect him or her to tell everybody what medicines or pharmaceutical products one has just bought, does one? I think it should be the same with shop owners. The contents of one’s shopping basket should be between oneself and the person on the till e basta!
Anyway, Sid started waving my shopping past the scanner. I must confess at this stage that I am very partial to a nice, crunchy salad, and Sid always stocks up on his icebergs of a Friday evening, so I had grabbed six of them, knowing they’d stay crisp in the bottom drawer of my fridge.
Well, when he got to the icebergs, Sid started to count them out loud. ‘One, two, three...’ And then he started to hold them up, so that everybody could see them. I heard a snigger behind me, but what on earth is wrong with being partial to a crispy salad or two?
Anyway, when he got to ‘six’, he put the iceberg down and then wagged his finger at me and said, in a great big loud voice, ‘I know what you are, Mr Featherington. You’re a man of lettuce!’ And then he slapped the top of the till. ‘Do you get it? A man of lettuce!’ People started laughing openly. It was so embarrassing. I just didn’t know where to put my face. And nor did I see what was so funny about a silly jeu de mots. Really!
I am not myself a suspicious person but I could not help but notice that the number thirteen was involved when the problem occurred. That is to say, the so-called word processor was just over thirteen years old when it started to play up. There was a big round button in the middle under the screen. This was the on/off switch and, normally, when I pushed it, there was a sound of a spring releasing something and then the screen would slowly flash on, and the ‘tower’ — I think that’s what they call it — would hum with a very satisfying noise, reminding one of the industry to come (if it were a good day).
For about a year the button had become a little wonky. Sometimes, I had to push it very hard and sometimes it just gave, without the sound of the spring. Then, one day, out of the blue, the spring sounded and the tower hummed but the screen stayed blank. I was filled with apprehension. What if everything had been lost?
I dashed out of my office and looked up a computer specialist in the telephone directory. Strangely, I couldn’t find the name of the make of my word processor. I called a fellow who claimed to be able to repair any make and waited anxiously until he came around that evening.
Now, I am of the opinion that when one has recourse to the services of a tradesman and a payment is involved — and I should point out that the fellow’s ‘call-out fee’ was monstrously exaggerated into the bargain — then it redounds to the tradesman to show a modicum of respect to his customer. But the first thing this chap did when I showed into my office was laugh. And I don’t mean a modest giggle; it was a real belly laugh.
‘I don’t see what’s so funny,’ I said. ‘I fear I may have lost everything.’
‘I’m sorry, sir,’ he said. ‘It’s just that I don’t often see something like that.’
‘Like what, pray?’
‘Well, like your computer, sir. How old is it?’
‘Only thirteen years or so. Why?’
‘Only thirteen years? That computer is a collector’s item, sir. It should be in a museum. I’m only surprised that you haven’t had any trouble with it before.’
‘It has worked perfectly faithfully and has been more than sufficient for my needs, thank you very much. But, please, tell me; have I lost everything?’
The man fiddled around with the button a few times. ‘No, sir,’ he said. ‘It’s your screen. The screen has gone, that’s what it is.’
‘And my files? All of my work?’
The man gave me an odd look which was, well, odd. ‘They’re not saved in your screen, sir. As far as I can see, the hard disk is fine, so you don’t need to worry about your files. But surely you’ve backed them up?’
‘Backed them up? I’m not sure I know what you mean.’
He gave me another odd look. ‘Have you saved your files onto another disk? Or sent them somewhere? Or saved them in the cloud?’
‘Surely one disk is enough?’ I said. ‘And what on earth is the cloud?’
‘Well, sir, yes, but only as long as the disk works. As to the cloud, well, it’s a way of saving your work using the Internet.’
‘The INTERNET? I want nothing to do with the Internet. I have survived perfectly well without it all these years, and I hardly think it is necessary now.’
‘I understand, sir. It’s just one way of backing up your work so it doesn’t get lost.’
‘But my work is not lost, if I have understood you correctly?’
‘That’s right, sir. You can rest easy. But — take my word — it’s better to be safe than sorry.’
I had no doubt by now that he was trying to sell me something. They always do want to sell one something.
‘Can you repair my machine?’ I reminded him.
‘No, sir. I cannot. It’s a very old make. Your best bet is to take it back to the shop that sold it to you.’
‘Can’t you just replace the screen?’ I insisted.
‘No, sir. It’s one of the early ones, you see. There’s no independent circuitry. You’ll probably have to replace the whole thing.’
‘I see. Then I shall take it back to the shop tomorrow.’
I paid him his exorbitant fee and bade him farewell. If he’d thought he could sell me a cloud — ridiculous proposition — he’d had another think coming.
Copyright © 2017 by Martin Westlake