The essay site is two years old today.
I began it as a personal exercise, never meant for public consumption.
It was my intellectual discipline. Months before it began I’d gotten into a discussion with some right-wing friends and found my attempts at explaining an alternative Scotland shouted down, and with much derision I might add. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. On the journey home surrounded by heavy silence my wife patted my thigh and said, “Never mind, you’ll get the facts together next time.” I’m not one to expect spouses to hold carbon copy views as a matter of loyalty, so I let her remark lie, but it stung.
Years of writing and editing scripts has given me the ability to see detail more clearly than if I was running it around in my head. So, with advice from a friend, and a year to go until Scotland’s plebiscite told us if we are to be forever wimps or a real nation again, I started a blog, but one only for my own use and assessment.
I wanted to know the strength of my knowledge, how coherent my argument is, and what evidence exists to back it up. Though important for political discourse, I dislike stating dry statistics, preferring empirical evidence, logic, common sense, or good anecdote. (Opponents are angered by logic.) I enjoy knocking down unionist propositions to reveal the fallacies in them. But why should I write an essay blog? A novelist friend boosted confidence. “Participate in the debate. You write excellent polemic”, a compliment coming from a man who’d written eight acclaimed novels starting in his mid-life.
I keep a daily journal as an aide memoir but didn’t want a blog that was merely a glorified diary. Writing about your self is boring for others to read. If I started a blogsite it had to be proper essays, facts researched, ideas offered up for discussion. The acquaintance who organised the site told me to ‘write a few blogs as a test run.’ I wrote six essays in three hours, some lightweight, some hard politics. Uncertain of how blogs worked I hit the ‘publish’ button thinking what I’d done was save what I’d written.
Next day I awoke to find a comment on a website complimenting the essays. “But you’ll need to pay attention to your spelling, laddie.” Thinking what I’d written was still private, locked in WordPress, I hadn’t bothered to correct grammar or typos. Like other writers I have blind spots with certain words. I have to check them. And if I’m not careful conjunctions can go awry without leave. I’m at an age reading glasses are mandatory, yet I can still miss a typo. (My apologies to rigorists and pedants.)
Anyhow, realising I had painted myself into a literary corner was truly numbing. The fluffs were public, flying around the ether, probably for as long as the planet exists. Oh my god.
The journey since has been very interesting. You learn to avoid sentence construction that’s boring or repetitive. You learn new ways of saying old things. You can show emotion and happiness even in a brief remark. And you can take people by surprise with a well-honed phrase, or a twist in an old cliché. But I soon learned readers are voracious for new material. Stop feeding them and they drift off or get very angry.
Like novelists and painters who have others in their vocation that they admire, my bright lights are Gore Vidal and Clive James. Sadly Vidal has left these earthy plains, and James isn’t too well either. In fact, he’s turned into a grumpy reactionary, castigating internet users in his latest but slight Guardian columns. He thinks we are all trolls.
The essays are read mainly by people living in Britain, Ireland, and the USA, an average of 3-4 thousand a week, but amazingly a great many around the world, including Australia and New Zealand. Who is it I wonder, who keeps tuning in from Botswana?
Writing essays by internet is really like passing a glass of wine from one transportation pod to another. The recipient might not like Sicilian red, or a dry white, but I crush the grapes myself, and the wine is mature. That said, I’d rather use the time to read a good book, or watch an episode of Andrea Camilleri’s supreme detective, Salvo Montalbano.
When we lost the Referendum vote, and by a frustratingly small margin, I considered calling it a day. Hope and liberty seemed crated and stored another century. But something said no, keep the flag raised high. This bloody land is ours, not theirs. On the other hand, to be honest, I have no idea if writing essays does any good for those who take the time to read them. Some say it articulates what they are thinking. I should be content with that reassurance.
Being a perfectionist I refine. Once an essay is published I fine tune it over the next hours and add or subtract. A 2,000 word essay can take me as little as an hour to lash the keyboard, but a day to make good. Brahms was asked how he spent his day. “I get up at 7am, have some black coffee and a cigar, and compose till noon. After lunch I come back to my desk and remove everything I’ve composed in the morning because it’s terrible.”
I feel it fair to question whether the essay form does any good. Just before New Year I took some books I no longer think useful from my library to a second-hand book shop. Among the covers was the collected newspaper columns of the late London critic Bernard Levin. In my school days he was considered the leading theatre critic. You would not want a bad review from Levin. People in theatres, trolls of their day, spat on him. He moved on to politics and regular television spots. (Odd how soon fierce critics of the establishment gravitate to become the establishment and take fat fee’s for regular television appearances.) Levin was the first to employ rudeness to elicit unguarded truth from politicians. His equivalent today would be Charlie Brooker but without the liberal use of profanity, or hair held high and stiff with Brylcream. Levin ended his days in cruel torment with Alzheimer’s. On his deathbed a moment of clarity cleared the smog in his head. He is reputed to have said that none of his writing did any good whatsoever. He felt he had wasted his abilities and life.
I doubt anything I write alters a reader’s attitude. As Karl Marx said, “The philosophers have merely interpreted the world; the point however is to change it.”
All in all, I hope political polemic, a lot of satire, a certain fearlessness in subject choice – a hack said ‘punchy’ – plus film and car critique is a potent mixture, and entertaining. I still can’t get over that there’s so much to write about on those subjects, but idiot politicians and venal businessmen keep creating new material to lampoon.
And so life goes on, just not the way I’d hoped for Scotland.