Tolstoy didn’t have to paint his own ceiling

30 May

If there’s one thing that we can say for certain about Count Leo Tolstoy, it’s that he didn’t have to paint his own ceilings. I don’t suppose he had to decorate his hallway, staircase or landing either. I, on the other hand, have spent the past week doing exactly that. That’s one of the differences between the count and me. As a consequence, I’ve written nothing during a week off work. It’s one of the problems of being a writer who also has to work for a living, in a job that doesn’t pay very well. The great Russian didn’t have to worry about DIY or the day job while he was cranking out Anna Karenina. There’s a further difference (and it’s not just my lack of an heroic beard). Tolstoy also happened to be a literary genius, whereas I merely claim to be one in moments of arch, exulted self-belief/delusion.

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Restoring my house rather than writing the next ‘War and Peace’…

It’s been a poor week for writing, then. But while I’ve been decorating, I’ve been listening to the radio. I’m currently re-reading Max Sebald’s Vertigo. The late German writer is one of my literary heroes, so I was delighted to chance upon a programme about him presented by Iain Sinclair (another writer whom I admire). I enjoyed it so much that I listened to it again on BBC i-player later the same day. And since then, I’ve been digging into the BBC Desert Island Discs archive. This remarkable treasure trove goes all the way back to the 1940s. It’s symptomatic of the moronic times in which we live that there’s a clamour to stop publicly funding the UK’s state broadcaster. It’s the same impulse that has seen libraries closed down while the richest in this deeply unequal society have been receiving tax cuts. Rant over… I’ve been rummaging through the author interviews. So far I’ve listened to Stephen King, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jan Morris, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Umberto Eco and it’s been a fascinating experience. Guests get to choose eight pieces of music and then are asked which one they would keep if they were allowed only one choice. King and Ishiguro both kept something by Bob Dylan, McEwan and Eco selections from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Morris’s choices were almost all by Irving Berlin, Amis’s by Oscar Peterson. Odd, but there you go… McEwan also chose something by Van Morrison, usually a give away that a guest isn’t really interested in music at all. Listening to writers talk about their lives and work is a great way of learning. All of those self-promoting authors out there on social media, tweeting and messaging about themselves and their books, are missing the point. More listening and less shouting would be a much more productive way of moving their work forward, always presuming that’s of interest to them.

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Stubborn damp patches in the hall resist treatment…

I actually find decorating immensely satisfying. You stand back at the end of a job and look at what you’ve achieved. When I bought my current house in the English suburbs five years ago, it was a total basket case. It was the only way that I could afford to buy somewhere. It had been in the same family since it’d been built in 1925. Nothing had been done to it for decades and every single room needed stripping back and starting again. I’ve only just got around to the mammoth task of redecorating the hall, stairs and landing. It’s an elegant old house with a hint of Arts and Crafts style about it. There’s a pleasure to be had in picking out its detailing. I’m sure that there’s a parallel to be made here with the care and craft required to produce great books.

I’ve also been prevented from writing by an excruciatingly painful infection and an invasive test due to a health scare. Fortunately, I appear to have come through it all. It seems that I may live to write another day, after all. Ah well, I must count my blessings (ouch, that pun is dreadful…). Here are my Desert Island Discs (since Kirsty Young won’t be asking me for them):

1. Move On Up by Curtis Mayfield

2. Norwegian Wood by The Beatles

3. Wonderful Life by Black

4. Love Song by The Cure

5. Sound and Vision by David Bowie

6. No One Knows by The Queens of the Stone Age

7. Sinfonia Antarctica by Ralph Vaughan Williams

8. More than a Feeling by Boston

Maybe I’ll explain why in a future post. What would yours be?

All text and image © PSR 2014

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4 Responses to “Tolstoy didn’t have to paint his own ceiling”

  1. Mari Biella May 31, 2014 at 7:23 am #

    It’s a pity you didn’t get any writing done, Paul, but your hallway looks very nice now! I’ll be moving house at the end of the summer, so I might soon be doing some redecorating myself. I’m very sorry to hear that you’ve had some health problems, too – I hope you’re feeling better now. I’m sure you’ll live to write many other days!

    I agree that far too many writers out there spend far too long talking about themselves and their books, rather than listening. On the other hand, I understand that even most traditionally-published authors these days are expected to do the lion’s share of their own marketing, so I think that furiously self-promoting authors will be with us for a long time to come…

    I don’t know a lot about music, sadly, other than what I like – I think my desert island choices would make real music fans wince!

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves May 31, 2014 at 10:07 am #

    Thanks for commenting on my random ramblings, Mari! You should have seen that hall before… And the health scare has been banished now.

    I understand that there has to be some self-promotion for books. In between, though, you’d hope to see writers showing at least some interest in books written by other people, if participating on a site dedicated to reading such as Goodreads, for example…

    I’ve just been listening to Oswald Mosley’s widow on ‘Desert Island Discs’, a quarter of a century ago. Unbelievable…

  3. Paul Sutton Reeves May 31, 2014 at 1:19 pm #

    Just listened to Peter Carey on ‘Desert Island Discs’ and he’s gone up in my estimation. The one book that he chose to take the island was ‘Austerlitz’ by W G Sebald – all very circular.

  4. Paul Sutton Reeves May 31, 2014 at 3:08 pm #

    And William Gibson chose Borges’ ‘Complete Works’… faith restored.

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