The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine
Life and times
The writer escapes his deadlines to concentrate on stegosauruses and Dr Seuss
THE COMING AFFRAY of three small grandchildren has meant I have been turfed off our dining-room table where, for several months now, I have been located with 20 box files, slogging away at my book. Since my editor requires delivery of monthly instalments, any disruption to routine gives me the jitters.
Most writers I know are creatures of habit. I like my workspace to be ritually arranged – pencils aligned just so, and various objects surrounding me, to maximise my luck at the word-face. Schiller used to keep a drawer full of rotten apples to sniff, Voltaire used his naked mistress’s back as a desk (the proto laptop) and Hemingway pocketed pebbles and rabbits’ feet to ensure good fortune.
Superstitions are common to those in several precarious professions (actors, matadors, gamblers): my naval grandfather wore a child’s caul (a lucky membrane found around the head at birth) around his neck as a charm against drowning. My own authorial mascots include a polar-bear claw, an ancient Ch’i knife coin, a fragment from William Faulkner’s brick wall, and a Maori fish hook. I wasn’t too happy when I had to clear them away. If something seems to work for you, why take chances?
My most potent talisman is the late Ted Hughes’ impressive writing lectern – made for him by his son Nicholas – which I bought last year at auction. I used to fish with him, and I imagine he would have been amused to see me stand here at it, looking out over my Perthshire loch, biting a ballpoint and straining for the mot juste.
‘EASY ASSEMBLY IN under an hour,’ says the instruction booklet for the toy kitchen I found for our grandson Finlay’s third birthday. I should have known better. At least we did not actually have to plumb it in.
The birthday boy is up betimes, but I am an owl rather than a lark. I find 6.15am a touch early for a reading session with Dr Seuss – and, besides, those helter-skelter rhythms (‘I could not, would not on a boat/i will not, will not, with a goat’) can snooker your own vocabulary for several hours.
Our grandson dwells imaginatively in the Mesozoic Era, expressing himself through the personae of various dinosaurs, about which he is alarmingly expert. His new kitchen is soon the scene of terrible lizard soup. After breakfast, I am just completing an intricate display of wooden train track when I hear his familiar announcement, ‘Uhoh, the dinos are coming,’ and within minutes Finn’s model stegosaurus stenops has laid my handiwork to waste.
I am not much use in the real kitchen, but I do know how to make a children’s tea. Four generations are attending this miniature clan gathering, so my daughter Laura and I are busy constructing trademark sandwiches – Marmite and crisps, honey and banana – which make, as James Joyce put it, a ‘mnice mness’.
OUR COCKER SPANIEL, Pompey, has just turned two and is off to boot camp. He has an Achilles heel for chasing mountain hares and is now being returned to his breeder for some radical retraining. I had originally christened him after the lapdog hero of a now-forgotten 1751 bestseller, The History of Pompey the Little by Francis Coventry, one of the first novels ever narrated by an animal; but Laura argues that, given his low cunning, his nominal pedigree should be traced to Pompey Bum – a barman/pimp in Measure for Measure. ‘Groping for trouts in a peculiar river’ is his memorable description of certain extramarital activities – probably safer to stick with The Cat in the Hat.
The Lightning Thread: Fishological Moments and the Pursuit of Paradise, by David Profumo, will be published next year by Scribner
I am completing the wooden train track when I hear, ‘Uh-oh, the dinos are coming’