Back in 1988, I got an MSc in Politics and Sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London. One of my most vivid memories of that time was being stuck in traffic outside the Houses of Parliament (I used to drive my Fiat to the classes in Bloomsbury from my job at David Hicks in Vauxhall) and noticing my first grey hairs in the rear-view mirror.
I wish I could say I remember, from my studies, all of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarian arguments, but in fact I think he only stuck in my mind at all because his skeleton, topped with a wax head and dressed in his own clothes, sits in a case in one of UCL’s buildings.
I’d still get stuck on facets of Leninism, too, in any dinner party argument. My diploma is, as they say, hardly worth the paper it’s printed on. When I noticed it the other day searching for my birth certificate, I went straight past, but lingered a couple of seconds on, in the same file, my first Concorde flight certificate. Now that’s worth keeping!
The reason I have that MSc is because Joel talked me into finishing the second year, when I had lost interest after the first. I was quite interested in politics then, what with Thatcher smashing Socialism and the Berlin Wall showing cracks. It was all more interesting then. He helped too, I remember, by bringing me cups of tea when I was writing the essays, then locking the door behind him so I couldn’t get out. Somehow I fooled them all (except Joel). No one threw what I’d written in the trash. They even gave me at least passable marks. It’s a valuable skill, being about to put a few good sentences together. But eventually those sentences have got to make sense.
A writer and editor who I admired very much, Robin Bicknell, was terrific at identifying the interesting, salient facts and features in any story, but some how she didn’t write it down smoothly. Her written stuff always made me smile, or laugh, once I’d worked out what she meant. She just needed a good editor. Sadly (catastrophically, nightmareishly, tragically), she died of meningitis, leaving two small children and a startled ex-husband. She showed me that a good story is always a good story, even if you can’t spit it out properly. You really do need to be able to see the story, and write it too.
So, being able to “write” but unable to tell a good story, it looks like I’ve been rumbled. The Influential Person, whose opinion about The Novel I’ve waited for with interest, has pronounced. She says the plot is confusing and the transitions too jumpy. I have to admit she’s right – I confused myself with the plot. While writing, I always felt a fake because I didn’t have walls full of string, Post-it notes and thumbtacks, like the writer Sebastian Faulks supposedly has. I guess I was hoping it would be as easy to write a novel as it was to pontificate, for my MSc, about the pioneering social scientist Max Weber, of whom I could now tell you, even having written several essays, zilch. So, it turns out I was wrong.
Joel read the Influential E-mail in silence, but I could feel his trepidation. He’s afraid I’ll be miserable (thereby causing him to be, too). Now he keeps phoning from the restaurant to tell me consoling, positive, loving things, which is all the more valuable because I know it’s a busy lunch and he can’t really spare those minutes. He also told me he’s discovered we aren’t liable for the French “habitation” tax until NEXT January, so we have more dosh to spare than we expected this month. That’s a consolation.
I thought first about spending the extra dosh on something from one of my favorite junk shops, but, after a period of self-indulgent wailing on the bed (observed with a certain lack of compassion, I have to admit, by Ted), I’ve decided to spend some of the money on string, Post-it Notes and thumbtacks. When I’ve made a few improvements, I’ll send The Novel to the next agent.