Jeremy Clarke is suffering from writer's block, so he joins the anti-road protest at Fair Mileby Jeremy Clarke / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in March 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
It has been said of writers that there are those who can write, those who can think, and the blessed few who can both write and think. I am beginning to think that I can do neither. A very sad state of affairs indeed for someone who has set out in mid-life to master a word processor and earn a living from it. I have been a professional freelance writer for exactly a year now. I have modified my appearance slightly by affecting rimless spectacles and by shaving less often. I have also bought some shiny blue filing cabinets and had some business cards printed which state (with a modesty that isn?t entirely false): “Jeremy Clarke?so-called writer.” But the actual process of writing is turning out to be a far trickier business than I imagined. Of course, there are prose writers and journalists who seem to manage miracles of communication with little apparent effort. And there are poets who, with a felicitous phrase or two, can strum a chord that movingly resonates with our innermost feelings. But speaking for myself, I might as well forget it. My main problem is that with every sentence I write, there is always a fundamental aphasic dissonance between the vague schizoid abstractions that are occurring in my brain and the words I choose to commit to my computer. Pathological dishonesty may have something to do with it; but most of the problem, I am afraid, is down to sheer thick-headedness. I sit at my desk to write an article. I bash the switch on my multi-media computer and that bloody cooling fan starts up. After reflecting for a moment, I begin a sentence intended to encapsulate and convey one of my thoughts to an imaginary reader. By the time I get to the end of it I find I have conveyed something utterly different. I let my inadvertent sentence stand however, and I try to punctuate it. At the moment I am having a crisis of confidence about my commas. (All my life I have been absolutely convinced you put them in when you want to say to the reader, “All right, you can breathe now.” According to a stentorian punctuation guide I read recently, I have been misinformed.) Sometimes I find myself confronted with a hiatus in the middle of a sentence where a comma, a semicolon, a colon, a dash or even a full stop seem to be equally plausible options. If trial and error does not produce a clear winner, I bung in a semicolon if I think I can get away with it. I used to consult Fowler about such matters; but these days I can?t face his withering austerity unless I have been drinking. Then it is wearily on to the next sentence. The most difficult task of all, I find, is trying to link one mis-cued, mispunctuated sentence with another. It is a terrible business which leaves one feeling impotent and demoralised. I remember when I was training to be a mental nurse, there was a poor chap on one of the long-stay wards who spent the whole time wandering about in an agitated, anguished state crying out, “I can?t do it! I can?t do it!” Nobody knew what he was talking about. Perhaps he was a writer. Whoever he was, I have sometimes taken up his haunting refrain as I sit dejectedly before my screen. One morning a fortnight ago the sun came out and I abandoned my screen and took myself off to Somerset to attend a hare coursing meeting instead. Freelance writing does have its advantages I suppose. My route took me past the site of the anti-road protest at Fair Mile in Devon, so I stopped to take a look. The muddy hill had just been stormed by the fluorescent yellow regiments of the High Sheriff?s private army. There were still a couple of protesters resolutely shouting from the boughs of the 800-year-old oak tree, and several others were rumoured to be holding out in tunnels beneath our feet; but their camps had been broken up and their fires stamped out and it looked like it was all over bar the shouting and some mildly hypnotic bongo playing. I walked up to the hastily erected wooden picket fence behind which the Sheriff?s men were deployed in strength. They scowled at me through the fence. One of them gobbed casually and repeatedly at my shoes. They were noisy, watery gobs similar to the ones Clint Eastwood does just before he flings back his poncho and shoots down the village idiot. It was strange to see these crowds of staring toughs lined up on the side of progress, law and order. A policeman friend who earned an immense amount of overtime pay at Fair Mile later told me that the Sheriff?s men had been recruited in Plymouth and Reading and were being paid just over ?2 an hour. He said they were a rough crowd, many of whom were openly hostile to the police. Now and again he and his colleagues reciprocated by quietly arresting those who were on their wanted lists. In marked contrast to this, relations between the police and the resident protesters were exceptionally cordial. When one of the protesters overheard my friend?s sergeant complaining of a headache, she summoned their best didgeridooist to come and play a magic healing melody for him. My friend said that in spite of their initial scepticism he and his colleagues were strangely moved by the performance, and three days later the sergeant?s headache had all but disappeared.