So I was sitting in chapel, my mind working furiously to counteract the tedium being forced upon us by the preacher who seemed determined to outstay his rather limited welcome, and as I scanned the rows of parishioners in the pews, assigning to them a completely unfair set of character flaws based only on what they looked like, anecdotal evidence and my own experience of Anglican congregations, what I thought was ‘I wonder what their reaction would be if Jesus made a reappearance now?’ And the answer which came immediately to mind was, ‘they probably wouldn’t even notice.’
On this conceit was the whole idea for the novel built. There were other things heaped on top of it, naturally; the stories I had come into contact with by spending too much time with trainee priests were enough to flesh out many a scenario and character, and the faces in the congregation were an additional inspiration. I had been particularly tickled by one ordinand’s anecdote involving an omelette and it gave me the structure for an opening chapter which I had virtually sketched it out word for word in my head, along with the basic content of the three chapters which would follow, by the time the old duffer standing at the front of the chapel finished talking.
It says something about the length of the sermon that I had such a strong conviction by the end of it that I had four chapters of a novel ready to go. This was something which I knew was going to work – forget the faltering, patchy first novel, here was an idea with structure, direction and four chapters that simply needed to be written down – this was it!
What I was lacking was time to write it all down. I don’t recall what my evenings were filled with at the time, but there were various music rehearsals and meetings to go to and I do recall that a furtive glance at my diary during the final hymn was not promising. And I knew that I really had to write my ideas down because they were really going to work – and so fully fleshed out were the ideas by then that if I didn’t get them down it fully fleshed out prose in the next 24 hours or so I felt that something important would be forgotten and lost forever.
I didn’t rush home and start writing as soon as the service finished, however, the reason being that the college chaplain, something of a legend in Cambridge circles for his ability to combine high-end literary and theological ramblings with thrashing out blues on the pub circuit, had organised one of his regular ‘blues, booze and chocolate’ evenings in college. Yes, I had a novel to write, but first things first: I had to guzzle wine and listen to some of the best harmonica playing I’ve ever heard1. In fact I vaguely remember playing the harmonica with the band myself at one point.
What I remember with much more clarity is having a sudden drunken epiphany: if I didn’t have sufficient evening time to bash out my four chapters, why not take a day off work?
To this day I’m not really sure why this idea resulted in such a violent interal struggle with my conscience – I was an office temp, I had no long term commitment to the civil service office in which I’d been billeted and no importance in its day-to-day running: I could take a day off work and would not get paid for it, so I could use the time for my own work with complete impunity. I suppose the main objection my conscience was raising was that I didn’t feel those who ran the office would see writing a novel as a valid reason for excusing myself of a day’s work, so if I were to take a day off I would almost certainly have to tell a lie.
So conflicted was I that I drunkenly phoned one of the trainee priests around whom my social life revolved to ask for advice. Showing how well his training was going, he suggested in measured, priestly tones that I should ‘go to bed and see how I felt in the morning’.
How I felt in the morning was that the ideas in my head were still quite a pressing issue, and probably more pressing than whatever data entry the civil service required of me. However, because I remained convinced that they wouldn’t see it that way, I put on my best croaky voice and called in with the news that I was not feeling very well at all. The lovely lady in the office who took the call made little cooing noises of sympathy and instructed to get straight back into bed and sleep it off. I compounded my first falsehood by promising her that I would do just that. So convincing was my performance, in fact, that when I turned up back at work the next day, several people looked at me with great concern and told me I was still looking a bit peaky and oughtn’t I to have stayed at home for another day?
The only way I felt I could morally justify the web of lies I had constructed was if I got out of bed at the usual time and spent at the very least the seven and a half hours I would have been in the office working on my novel. I stuck to my guns and in the end I did the best day’s writing I have ever done – some eleven hours and (I kid you not) 11,000 words later, my four chapters were down and I was still writing.
In other words, skiving worked out very well for me in the end.
Next episode: 1 Chronicles – how to get your novel nearly published but not quite.
1This is not, in fact, an exaggeration; the harmonica player that evening was Steve Lockwood, whose work has to be heard to be believed.