At the first clank of a chain…

When I was first attempting to supplement my income by writing Kindle e-books I would write about things that interested me, but hardly anybody seemed to want to buy the books. The logical thing, then, seemed to be to reverse tactics and write about things that didn’t interest me. I’ve always been a bit of an alien, so if I were to write e-books about things that felt utterly alien to me, normal people might really like them. And more importantly buy them.

So one evening I trawled the internet for records of subject matter most frequently googled by normal people, and the most popular subject matter for blogs. It seemed Music was number one with Fashion in second place. Unfortunately Music and Fashion were subjects as to which, as an Ancient Person, I was unlikely to be able to write with any credibility.

Ancient Person – where did that come from?

I knew it came from a poem and had in mind this phrase: Ancient person of my soul. I was inclined to think it was from a poem by Lewis Carroll called You are Old, Father William. This was possible as my uncle, who was at that time an officer in the Royal Air Force, would occasionally recite this poem when home on leave visiting my grandparents. But I was mistaken.

I googled Ancient person of my… since I was dubious about soul – and discovered it was in fact a line from A Song of a Young Lady to her Ancient Lover by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647 – 1680). John Wilmot was a member of the Hellfire Club, notorious at the time for his drinking, womanising and riotous behaviour; now chiefly remembered for a pet monkey and some poems. Sure enough:

Ancient Person, for whom I / All the flattering youth defy, / Long be it e’er thou grow old, / Aching, shaking, crazy cold; / But still continue as thou art, / Ancient Person of my heart.

I particularly like the line Aching, shaking, crazy, cold. I suppose I must have read Ancient Lover at school, though I’m pretty sure that at that stage in my life I wouldn’t have understood the last verse – or indeed most of the poem. Probably just as well, as I would have got into trouble for giggling if I had. This link should take you to it:

Having sorted that out I began to compile a list of potential money-spinning e-book titles:

  • Pimples No More – a Guide to Teenage Skincare – or possibly Acnephobia????
  • Outsmart Your Supermarket – how to stop them selling you stuff without you realising they’re doing it!!
  • De-cluttering Your Home – boot fairs versus charity shops; befriend your waste disposal operative!?!
  • How to Get Someone Else to do Your Gardening!!!

…and so ad infinitum.

(Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite them, / and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum).

And then I came across the word Frenemy. This was a new one on me but I knew what it had to mean; sour memories of a number of  Frenemies were already coagulating in my mind. I looked it up all the same and yes – Frenemy was one of those annoying portmanteau words, the musical equivalent of which would be The Birdie Song. Hear them but once and such  earworms will never leave you. Other examples would be Brangelina, Texarkana, Spork (spoon/fork) and Liger (a cross between a male lion and a female tiger). There are also, of course, Tigons. Who knew that lions and tigers/tigers and lions could even reproduce – together?

Portmanteau? It’s a word we adopted from the French which at the time meant ‘a bag for carrying coats in’ and English-speakers still (though rarely) use portmanteau to denote a large, old-fashioned kind of bag, often made of leather or carpet material. In France, in the meantime, portmanteau has come to mean coat rack.

Foreign words ‘borrowed’ into English, usually because English doesn’t already have an equivalent word, may over time acquire either a different shade of meaning or a different meaning altogether in the donor language. Translators refer to these little pests as False Friends, in that if you are not careful they will lead you astray.

Returning to Frenemies. The concept of Frenemyship held no interest at all for me except as a linguistic curiosity, so it seemed exactly the subject to write about if I wanted to sell e-books/pay the gas bill. I started brainstorming for slick, bestselling titles:

  •  Keep Your Friends Close But Your Frenemies Closer
  • Are You a Frenemy?
  • Frenemy No More – How To Get Revenge on that False Friend
  • Forgive Your Frenemy?

Etc., etc.

It was a hateful exercise but that gas bill was due, and then the Council Tax. Slowly, however, I did begin to warm to the idea, not so much of Frenemies as of the double-edged nature of friendship. What constituted a friend? What constituted an enemy? How easy was it to tell them apart? So there was a degree of interest to be wrung from the subject after all. But then if I became interested, wouldn’t that be the kiss of death as far as book sales went? Perhaps I had better abandon Frenemies in favour of Acne, Gardening, De-cluttering or Supermarkets. But what happened if I found myself becoming fascinated by them? In the end I just abandoned the idea of making money from e-books.

However, this abortive experiment did produce a splendid example of synchronicity. That same evening, in the ad-break between two TV programmes I particularly wanted to watch, I accidentally knocked a book off the coffee table. It was Seneca: The Letters. I had bought it a quite a while back but hadn’t got round to reading it. It looked difficult, and the front cover was putting me off. Black and shiny, in the tradition of Penguin Classics, it featured a depressing photo of a bust of Seneca – an ugly stone face, a bad stone hairdo and sightless stone eyes. It looked like a death mask.

With less than a minute before my next programme started, I opened the book at random at Letter IX which, synchronicitously, dealt with the subject of false friendship:

… the wise man, self-sufficient as he is, still desires to have a friend if only for the purpose of practising friendship and ensuring that those talents are not idle. Not, as Epicurus put it… ‘for the purpose of having someone to come and sit beside his bed when his is ill or come to his rescue when he is hard up or thrown into chains’, but so that on the contrary he may have someone by whose sickbed he himself may sit or whom he may himself release when that person is held prisoner by hostile hands. Anyone thinking of his own interests and seeking out friendship with this in view is making a great mistake. Things will end as they began… at the first clank of a chain that friend will disappear.

Interest yourself in a particular subject and books will begin to fall open at the right page, or you may overhear a relevant conversation on the bus, or against all the odds there will be something about it on the 10 o’clock News. Seek and ye shall find. Keep your antennae a-waggle and sooner rather than later you will bump into the very thing you were searching for. Or perhaps something you weren’t searching for but will discover you actually needed.

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