Prize Plum

Something I have never understood about writing, or maybe I mean writers, is how the act of writing, or even the sudden rush of inspiration that precedes the act of writing, can make the world seem more or less all right for a minute or two.

You see, I’ve always been tormented by the following thought: that there is no point at all in doing anything, really. Every now and then it strikes me quite forcibly that whatever we do is utterly pointless since we are going to die. Why put any energy at all into doing anything, when for all the difference it makes one might as well curl up in a resentful ball on the living room carpet and simply wait for time to pass until inevitably the living room carpet and one become one i.e. so much indistinguishable dust?

I suppose this is a philosophical dilemma, and no doubt somebody gloomy and incomprehensible like Schopenhauer or Kant has already disposed of it. Or possibly Sartre…didn’t he and his Existentialists say something to the effect that life is totally meaningless and therefore we must create our own meaning? You see, that’s the problem, for me. I can’t randomly, artificially invent a purpose for my existence or a meaning for life in general. Either there is one or there isn’t. Part of me thinks that the only logical response to finding oneself alive for no obvious reason would be Bertrand Russell’s ‘unyielding despair’.

But unyielding despair is unpleasant and one is forced to distract oneself from it as much as possible. The only thing that distracts me is writing, and there it is.

It may be that each of us is gifted one consolation – one thing with the magical power to make everything right, for a tiny while. But this is so odd because of all the things you might be doing to distract yourself from the gloomy inevitability and pointlessness of human existence, writing is about the most useless. What is writing compared to, say, volunteering to help children in war-torn countries? What is sitting around with pencil and paper and, fitfully, making stuff up compared to cooking Sunday lunch for your extended family or painting one wall of the bathroom in Prize Plum? (Which goes well with Magnolia, as the wrinkly-and-probably-famous chap in the advert says.)


However, it seems to be the case that when the faint outline of a story materialises inside my head, when I write a single sentence, cross out one word and substitute another – for those few seconds all has become right with the world. It and I – whatever It is, and whether It exists at all – are in synch. I have a purpose. I am alive.

Unfortunately, most of my ideas come to me when I can’t write them down, and especially when driving. Wasn’t J K Rowling on a train from London to Manchester when she got the plot for the entire however-many Harry Potter books, but had nothing to write them down on? Lesson 1: never have nothing to write things down on. Either that, or have a phenomenal memory and high tolerance for stress.

So, yesterday, driving, I got an idea for a story about a cupboard – bit like the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe except that there was no rear exit through the fur coats, as it were, i.e. it wasn’t your classic portal to a fanciful other world, it was more like – a place that retained memories and eventually…retained you.

And then I thought – still not being able to write it down – maybe it’s a stationery cupboard. Think of all the things that go on in office stationery cupboards. And if it was a very old building, things might have been going on in that space before it was a stationery cupboard.

And then I thought, so what does this cupboard symbolise? I mean, come on Linda, what is He trying to tell you here? What is the cupboard and why are you contemplate locking yourself in it? I should mention that my Subconscious is a He. He wears a long black coat and hides his face, communicating with me by way of stories, poems, dreams and funny little flashes of places I have never seen and selves I can’t remember being – or maybe haven’t been yet.

And after a while I thought (changing gears, negotiating tight bends and traffic lights the while) what if it wasn’t a stationery cupboard but something considerably more gruesome like one of those formaldehyde-smelling rooms scientists keep diseased organs in, or frogs with fifteen legs, or entire Victorian babies? I remembered such a room from school – it was where the lab assistants sat around looking bored, or removed your nail varnish with neat acetone. All these bottles. Yellow. Strange things floating about in them. Fascinating. What would a room like that be called, now? The Specimen Room?

(Note to self, Google this when have access to the Fire and hands not required to be on steering wheel). But – no, maybe the stationery cupboard has more scope.

But the room with the formaldehyde babies, that would be a joy to conjure up. Now, how to convey the suffocating stink of formaldehyde…

And thus am I distracted from the pointlessness of all existence for a tiny while. Maybe the living room carpet can wait for a day or two, while I write it…




Just occasionally a sentence seems to cling. It seems to have been designed especially for you and to be asking to be savoured.

For example this one, a sentence from Wikipedia. I was reading up about Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mr Tod. Why was I reading up on The Tale of Mr Tod? Ah, that’s another story:

Badgers do sometimes eat bunnies, not from a predeliction for bunnies but simply because they are omnivorous.

 Then, for its mind-numbing, incomprehensible eloquence there was the one I mentioned in a previous post, from the introduction to Sartre’s Nausea:

 Roquentin is a solipsist, trapped in a terrible echo-chamber of the self, haunted by the sonics of his inflamed personality.

And then this one, which took my fancy when, as a secretary at an agricultural university college, I overheard a snarky conversation between two male academics:

He thinks he’s an ecologist just because he can do hanging baskets.

Then there are the sentences little children come out with in all innocence, causing embarrassment to their accompanying adult. My ex told me he once turned and boasted to a total stranger sitting behind them on the bus:

 Guess what – my Mum can make her teeth come out on the end of her tongue.

And from a Gracie Fields song:

Walter, Walter, lead me to the altar, and I’ll show you where I’m tattooed.

 And one that used to set my mother’s teeth on edge when, in the early days of her marriage, she lived in a terraced house next to an awful woman, who would shriek:

Henry! Henry! The sun’s on the meat!

And then this one, revealing a gentle, alien refinement, a ritual sensibility. The day after Princess Diana died, a Japanese student came up to my office desk and, as if at that moment I stood for every British citizen, gave a little bow and gravely said:

I am so sorry for your loss.



I treated myself to a book today – an actual new book, from an actual bookshop. Also egg and chips and a pot of tea in an altogether more cheerful café than the Greasy one Mum and I seem to have to go to of a Sunday. I had a rubbish day yesterday and am set to have another rubbish day tomorrow, back at the eye hospital, so felt I deserved both.

The book – an ideal choice for waiting room perusal, I thought – is a translation of Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre. I dipped into it over the egg and chips and got as far as page x of the Introduction (which in itself is xx pages long) and stumbled over the following sentence:

Roquentin is a solipsist, trapped in a terrible echo-chamber of the self, haunted by the sonics of his inflamed personality.

As I poured myself a second, slightly chilly cup of tea (never waste what’s left in the pot) I wondered if there had ever been a time in my life when I would have understood that sentence, perhaps in my youth when my brain was firing on all cylinders? But I suspect not. It will give me something absorbing to focus on whilst waiting. Presumably there will be waiting, since hospitals seem to involve more waiting than anything else. I am looking forward to it – the Sartre, that is.

Tomorrow my transport is a volunteer gentleman called Roger, whereas yesterday I was driven to and from by a lady taxi-driver whose name I have now forgotten. It’s amazing what you can learn from a taxi driver. I myself rarely leave the inside lane. I would drive for fifty miles at thirty miles per hour sandwiched between two large lorries rather than attempt an overtake. Only in emergencies such as bicycles, sheep or wandering drunks would I briefly enter the central lane and I don’t think I have ever driven in the fast lane. My taxi driver drove more or less the whole 22 miles each way in the fast lane, and our conversation scarcely flagged.

This morning, from memory, I made a list of just a few of the topics we covered in our 44 miles together:

  • Why some prisoners in open prisons ‘escape’ intentionally, so as to get themselves sent back to the secure prisons they prefer (fewer men per toilet being one reason);
  • Whether you would spot the difference between someone who had a prosthetic leg and someone who was just limping a bit;
  • Why we could only see a quarter of a rainbow – something neither of us had seen before – and whether this might mean we were closer to or further from the legendary pot of gold at the end;
  • What it is like to lose a sister, and bring up a child alone;
  • What it is like to have an elderly mother – she having lost her own mother at a young age;
  • Whether and at what point you could swim across the river;
  • The pleasures of a night out at the Bingo when you had had to forego a social life for ten years;
  • Whether they ought to build another bridge;
  • The difficulty of getting signed off onto benefits with depression;
  • Where exactly the rain was, to have caused the rainbow.

And all this at 70 mph.

Seriously, I live a quiet life and often, it seems to me, get no chance a sensible conversation with a human being from one fortnight to the next; yet this week I have had two long chats with a taxi driver, a long chat over coffee with my two friends, a chat over the telephone with the volunteer driver who will be collecting me tomorrow, a chat over the telephone with my Canadian sister and a rather too long chat with a neighbour over a spare-room bed that was delivered in my absence and was now lurking in his living room, getting smoked all over. Like they say about London buses – you wait for ages and then several come along at once.