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Books

Set down one sentence

17 January 2013

8:36 AM

17 January 2013

8:36 AM

Warning: this is a very January 17th sort of thought. It’s meant to be comforting, though you may well find it the exact opposite. Try it on for size, anyway, and see what you think. (You might want to keep hold of the receipt.)

The thought concerns something in The Ghost by Robert Harris. The book is as gripping as any of his works, and as if that wasn’t praise enough it also gave us, via a truly woeful film version, the comedic delights of Ewan McGregor’s London accent. Next to that performance Dick van Dyke becomes Ray Winstone. At one point in the novel the unnamed ghostwriter penning the memoirs of ex-Prime Minister Tony Bl-… sorry, Adam Lang, muses on the act of starting a book:

A book unwritten is a delightful universe of infinite possibilities. Set down one word, however, and immediately it becomes earthbound. Set down one sentence and it’s halfway to being just like every other bloody book that’s ever been written.

[Alt-Text]


This passage had always stuck in my memory. Until the other day I thought I knew why. Clearly it was Harris himself talking about his own profession, and because I chip away at the same coalface (though more clumsily, on a less profitable seam) the words had chimed with me. They’re exactly how I feel about my own books. So much so that I have at least one idea I’m dying to write but determined never to write; it’s so much more fun as an idea than a reality.

But this week it occurred to me that there’s a deeper reason those three sentences are so memorable. They’re not just about Harris, or about me, or even about writing in general: they’re about every effort we ever make at something new. That’s what I mean about it being a January 17th thought. Each December 31st you contemplate the year about to start. Even if you don’t make formal resolutions there’s a general air of renewal, of patterns of behaviour to be changed, objectives (however ill-defined) to be pursued, fresh approaches to be taken. And then January 1st dawns, and you find yourself dealing with the hangover you acquired in the closing hours of the previous year. You look at the Christmas decorations you put up the previous year, the same decorations you’ll be putting up again later this year. And a thought shudders across your gin-soaked cortex … but no, ignore it. It’s a new year.

You can’t ignore it, though. By January 3rd (4th if you’re lucky, and certainly by January 17th) you know that the old you is here to stay. You can tinker at the edges – lose a few pounds here, take a course in Japanese there – but essentially you are you are you, and ain’t nothing gonna change that, certainly not an arbitrary turn of some sheets of paper we call the calendar. By now you are one sentence into the book of your new year, and it’s halfway to being just like every other bloody year you’ve ever lived through.

So where, you’re asking, receipt twitching irritably in your hand, is the comfort in all this? Well, life is an oddly-shaped box: how you see it depends on where you stand. You could get depressed at the immutability of your character. Or you could give yourself up to it, learn to rejoice in it, celebrate the fact that something – be it God, your genes, a combination of the two allied to a deep-rooted appreciation of Green and Black’s Raisin and Hazelnut chocolate – has made you you. Your essential humanness (deliberately didn’t use the word ‘humanity’) keeps coming out, and in this you are bonded to the rest of mankind. There are higher forces at work here, baby. Let them do the worrying while you enjoy the ride.

This, I grant you, and I certainly grant Robert Harris, is probably not what he had in mind when he wrote those 39 words of The Ghost. But the joy of a book is that it can mean different things to different readers. And this is what those 39 words now mean to one particular reader in the short, dark days of a cold early January.

Happy New Year.

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