Today I found myself thinking about something that I've often thought about in the past, but that recent circumstances have given me particular cause to ponder. And that is, how bizarrely specific our appetites and desires and inclinations can be.
When I say "recent circumstances", I mean my own experience, as this
has happened to me quite a lot in recent weeks.
The first strange hankering I want to mention concerns the American show The
Office. (After Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager,
which I tend to lump together as one show, this is my favourite television
programme. I'm not sure I can even yield the supremacy to Star Trek. I
like them in different ways.)
There is one excellent episode of The Office called 'Business Trip'. (The
scriptwriters of The Office had a difficult time spinning storylines out
of such a restrictive set-up, which was simply the life of a paper merchants
and its employees. They often stretched the premise too far into wackiness. But
'Business Trip' is pleasingly simple, and it's hard to believe that it took
them five seasons to use the storyline of a business trip.)
The story-line of 'Business Trip' involves Michael Scott (the office manager
and central character of the show, played by Steve Carrell) and two other
characters (Andy, a preppy salesman who is engaged to one of the office
accountants) and Oscar (a gay,
Mexican accountant) all going on a business trip to Winnipeg in November.
Michael is boyishly excited about the trip, but it doesn't turn out to be very
(David Wallace, their CEO, mentions at one point that: "It's pretty
tough to find somebody who wants to go up to Winnipeg mid-November." The
lack of glamour in the business trip and its location is a big theme of the
episode. This is part of what I find appealing; as I mentioned a few times
previously, I like all things provincial. I don't know if Winnipeg is
'provincial', but you know what I mean.)
The scene that excited me particularly was one involving Andy and Oscar. They
visit a local bar, one that is portrayed as being not particularly exciting.
They get drunk and Oscar starts asking Andy what he can possibly see in his
fiancee. Andy mentions that they haven't yet had sex (and in a modern comedy,
of course, two engaged people remaining chaste is seen as bizarre-- though
Oscar does ask, "Are you guys waiting to be married?" and Andy says:
"Honestly, I don't know what we're waiting for!", so at least the concept
of premarital chastity is acknowledged). Oscar drunkenly persuades Andy to
phone his fiancée and ask her to explain herself, which he does.
It's a reasonably funny scene, and quite a sweet episode. (As Andy says at the
end: "I had to go all the way to Canada to get to know a guy who sits
twenty feet away from me".) But the point of my story is that, weeks after
watching this episode, I suddenly found it coming into my mind over and over
again. It was the pub/club/bar atmosphere that excited me. It had been a long time, a record time, since I'd been in any drinking spot.
Then, one evening, on a bus that was passing through the suburb of Phibsborough
in Dublin, I looked at a particular pub and thought: "I'd really like to
visit a pub, just to be in one." The desire grew and grew, and I
hopped off the bus a few stops later, and went looking for a suitable tavern.
But the point is, I couldn't find one. I'd gone too far into the suburbs. There
was only one rather sleepy suburban pub, full of regulars-- the kind of pub I would
usually prefer. But that scene from The Office had got into my head and
I wanted a pub that wasn't sleepy, and that wasn't full of regulars-- something
with a bit of animation, just like the pub in the scene, and where there would be a flow of different and new people (not that I intended to talk to any of them).
Eventually, I satisfied my craving by visiting a local hotel lounge. It was on a Saturday morning, but there were lots of people there from the nearby hotel, so
it wasn't just regulars.
What I really wanted was to visit a bar in Winnipeg in November, on a business
More recently, I became completely fascinated with the idea of days.
Yes, days. It's something I've written about on this blog several times, though I've always
struggled to express what I mean exactly. I'm fascinated by the fact that human life is divided
into days. I'm fascinated by their texture, their pulse, how they are remembered. I'm always fascinated to hear people talk about particular stretches
of their lives ("I spent three days in bed with the curtains closed...I
tramped the streets for a week...we spent a month discussing the idea...")
The past imperfect thrills me.
So I suddenly wanted to read a good diary. But every diary I contemplated reading seemed to
lack what I was looking for. What about the famous diary of Samuel Pepys, the naval
secretary who witnessed the Great Fire of London and whose diary is a
goldmine of seventeenth century social history, as well as a much-lauded work
of art? I'd tried reading it before, and there was a little bit too much
bureaucracy and statecraft for my liking. Besides, it was so old-- I
wanted something more recent, so that I could relate to it better. The diary of his contemporary John
Evelyn was out for the same reason.
Some of the diaries I came across were first-hand accounts of important moments in history; diaries by senior politicians, for instance. But I didn't want anything so specialised, or so dramatic. I didn't want war, or high politics, or expeditions in far off lands. The craving I felt was for the whole rich tapestry of life; dull days, busy days, sick days, red letter days, dark days, holidays, and every other sort of day. I wanted a diary that had as much of the mundane as the picturesque; more of the mundane, for preference.
So how about The Diary of a Country Parson, by James Woodforde, who died in
1803, and who lived a rather uneventful and routine existence? It's had fans
since it was published in 1924. However, I found Woodforde's rather plodding
account of dinners and expenditures and other daily incidents to be a bit too
plain and lacking in reflection or introspection.
Next I tried the diaries and letters of John Henry Newman. The university where I
work, University College Dublin, is the descendant of the Catholic University that John Henry Newman
founded (though he only really got it started, before trouble from the Irish
bishops forced him to leave). This fact, and the mere fact that it was the
first dedicated Catholic university in Ireland, means that we have a huge
amount of Newman material in the library, including a complete run of his
collected diaries and letters-- over thirty volumes. (Newman kept everything.) I
started on the first volume, knowing in my heart that there was no chance I
would read them all, but rather taken with the idea of doing so. (I always love the idea of going off the beaten track.)
I managed to keep it up for almost a whole volume. Newman was certainly more
stimulating company than the Rev. Woodforde, and lived life at a higher pitch,
both intellectually and spiritually. But...it was a bit too high of a
pitch. Newman lived a life of heroic dedication, and it's rather exhausting
even to read about.
Besides, he wasn't much of a diarist. He jotted down the events of the day, but
he didn't expand upon them. The meat of the volume was much more in the letters
than the diary, and these were indeed much more of a chronicle of his
reactions, anxieties, hopes, impressions, and all the other things we expect
from a diary, than was his diary proper. But even here, the obliqueness of the
thing became frustrating. I was always pleased to come across a letter to his
mother or one of his sisters, where he tended to pour out his heart, but one might
just as easily find oneself wading through a long and dry correspondence with some
I gave up on diaries for a few days, reading a book about Shakespeare instead,
but the hunger overtook me again. And I seemed to have found exactly what I was
looking for when I discovered Evelyn Waugh had kept a diary for most of his
life. (He destroyed some parts of it, but most of his life is represented.) And
even better-- it was much more than just a record of events. He put down his
thoughts and ideas and reactions and emotions, too. This seemed like the
jackpot. And he was a Catholic, to boot!
But even here, I felt frustrated. It was pretty good as long as he was at
public school (for my American readers, this means a private boarding
school; they feature heavily in much English writing and many English memoirs
of the time, but Waugh was-- as the introduction pointed out-- pretty much the
only writer to keep a diary of the experience as it happened.) But then he goes
to Oxford-- he destroyed his Oxford diaries, probably because of homosexual
experiences recorded in them-- and graduates to a boozy and party-filled young
adult life that, despite the presence of many eminent friends, is surprisingly
tedious to read about. In fact, the most interesting passages are the ones
where he is working as a teacher in a rather obscure school. Too much freedom,
I have always noticed, makes everything dull.
I was looking forward to his conversion to Catholicism, which came after his
career as a novelist took off, and after the failure of his first marriage (all
of these events are missing from the diaries themselves, since he also
destroyed this sequence). Unfortunately, when the curtain rises on his
successful years, his diary persona becomes blasé and cynical and impersonal (as the volume's editor admits), and
the entries are shorter and less heartfelt. I jumped a decade and more, to the end of World War Two; then,
when I found him bitterly listing his low opinions of his own children, I gave
up on Waugh.
And on diaries, too, at least for the moment. My trawl through them had partly
satisfied my hunger, and partly convinced me that I wasn't going to find what I
was looking for. Perhaps I had been too influenced by fictional diaries, like The
Diary of Adrian Mole (a favourite in my early twenties) and The Diary of a
Nobody (a perennial favourite, and my candidate for the funniest novel in the English language). Or perhaps I had learned that the diary of
a real somebody is less interesting than the diary of a fictional nobody.
My final strange appetite is the most recent, and the mildest. As I was reading
that book about Shakespeare that I mentioned, I found myself (not for the first
time) becoming infatuated with the title The Winter's Tale. I think it's
one of the most evocative titles ever; and perhaps thinking about
it at the height of summer (though it's not very summery in Ireland right now)
adds to its charm.
I recently offered readers an "e-book" (i.e., Word file)
collection of my poetry entitled While The Wind Howls on a Winter's Night.
The title comes from this verse:
In an old, old story spoken
By a low fire’s dying light—
Of promises made and broken
Or old wrongs put to right;
That hushes the room, while the wind howls on a winter’s night.
I have to admit I'm pretty proud of that
line. I quote it now to try to explain what magic I find in the title The
Winter's Tale. (Not that it's needed, I'm sure. I mentioned in a recent
post a Youtube video of old Irish ads that I was watching over and over. One is for
a sherry called A Winter's Tale, and it seemed to be evoking the same
kind of idyll.)
I'd already read through A Winter's Tale not long ago, motivated by the same
fascination; I liked it well enough, being a product of Shakespeare's
later mellow and dreamy phase. But I like The Tempest better, for the same
reason. All the same, I found myself seeking out another edition of The
Winter's Tale, purely for the sake of the title. I would, I told
myself, read the introduction at least. By the time I had finished the
introduction (thoroughly enjoying it), I was already interested in something
Yeats once wrote:
Hands, do what you're bid;
Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.
Should that be my attitude too (though Yeats
himself is obviously ambivalent in this poem)? Or should I let these fancies flow
freely? One way or the other, I think the mind's tendency to suddenly be attracted
to a bizarrely specific idea is quite fascinating.
And more that fascinating; I think that it is very often the seed for works of art and other enterprises. I'm very interested in the creative process, and it's amazing how often a song or a film or a book grows out of one image, one character, or one atmosphere. I also think that a person's philosophy of life very often has such a genesis; something speaks to that person's depths, in such a way that it influences their entire lives, and it can very often be something as madly specific as the things I list here.