It’s a slightly weird week, the week between Christmas and New Year. The world is numb. It’s a week of hibernation. The natural world is – or should be, but for all this dreadful flooding – in deep repose. Every day is a slow news day. Is that a true reflection of reality, or merely a reflection that the BBC and the various media organs are themselves hibernating? You turn on the telly at 6 to watch the news and instead you get a Morecambe and Wise rerun or another rendition of The Great Escape. Bartlett and Mac are getting on the bus and the Gestapo guy says to Mac “Goot Luck!” and you send Mac a telepathic message. “This time, Mac, don’t say it!” But he does. “Oh, thanks very much.” And that, more or less, is that. Have some more Christmas pudding with brandy sauce.
Much as a week of lotus eating has its attractions, for me it’s not an option. I’ve got seven days to write a book. Not quite as bad as that. 75,000 words now on the stocks. But, face it, some of them have got to go. Then I’ve got to glue the remains together. Traumatic piece of surgery. It’s too, too bloody. At least I’ve got the beginning, and the end. Just fix the middle.
Talking of beginnings and ends, this week I came across an ancient postcard a friend of mine sent me from Switzerland when I was a student. It was just a piece of undergraduate nonsense:
Call me Ishmael. There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. It was the best of times. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Marley was dead, to begin with. As I walked through the wilderness of this world…
It sounded like an encrypted message of the sort that a great escapee might have sent back to Stalag Luft III on his arrival at Scott’s Bar, Piccadilly. An index of first lines. It seemed to me to capture all the agony of writing a novel, of first putting pen to paper and committing yourself to a huge undertaking with no guarantee that it would lead you in any direction worth travelling. I resolved that when I next holidayed, I would send my friend an equally enigmatic message, but of a single, last line. If a first line presages agony, surely a last line is signal of some sort of victory, no matter how Pyrrhic. I chose the last line of The Great Gatsby.
So, this rum week of suspended animation is also a week of beginnings and endings, during which we review the past year, and contemplate the one to come. Regrets? Well, I have a few.
But then again, too few to mention. Resolutions?
Why is it that the universal experience of New Year’s Resolutions is that they are made with sincerity and almost immediately broken with guilt? Lose weight, drink less, write more, (and better), don’t be so recluse, help the poor and needy…
It’s all good. But the trouble is that such resolutions tend to be expressed in terms of giving up a vice. The reason why our resolutions fall to bits is that we identify the vice we would eschew, but we fail to appreciate that the vacuum the vice leaves needs to be filled by a virtue. If we can identify the virtue, and embrace it, then the vice will merely cease to matter to us.
Therefore there is only one resolution. When a great opportunity comes out of the blue, and its fulfilment is noble and worthy, recognise it, and seize it.
That’s why I never sent my friend in Switzerland the last line of Gatsby.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
It’s a beautiful line, but I’m done with it. Nostalgia is the self-indulgent sentiment of a lotus eater. As Lee Marvin said to Angie Dickinson in The Killers, “Lady, I just don’t have the time.”