Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Ignorance gives us permission to have a go at things that wiser people might avoid. Tackling bank robbers, taming tigers, raising a family - all pretty much on a par in terms of risk and likely outcome. I'd say that writing a trilogy falls into this category. If I'd truly understood what was going to be involved, then I'd probably have been too daunted to make a start.
Six years is a big chunk of your life to give over to a project where the final result is so murky. But there. I suppose the nature and attraction of any voyage of discovery lies in not knowing quite where you'll wind up.
When I was about ten years old our dad told us he was going to build a house. We lived on a council estate then, and the only way that we could ever afford a home of our own was if Dad was to build one. He knew absolutely nothing about building, but he was going to have a go. So he bought a piece of land off a local farmer, asked an architect friend who lived in the village to draw up some plans, got the necessary permission, and made a start.
My dad began by fencing off the land with concrete posts. I remember 'helping' him to put in that very first post, watching him clear away the vicious brambles with a billhook and then attempt to dig down into in the root-tangled earth with a spade. A morning of sweat and blood it took, just to get that one post in. The thing must have weighed half a ton. I began to see that it might be a while before we had a house.
There was no mains drainage originally, so the next job was to dig out a cess pit. A deep scary cavern of a place it was too, brick lined, and with heavy stoneware pipes laid up through the ground to the proposed dwelling. We never needed a cess pit as it turned out, the council bringing drainage to that part of the village before the house was completed. About a month of wasted effort, then.
Dad had no machinery and no help. He dug out all the footings with a pickaxe and shovel, mixed the concrete by hand, and barrowed it across wooden planks to tip into the maze of foundations. Backbreaking stuff. The work was all done in the evenings and at weekends, summer and winter round. I was away at boarding school, and so I saw the house go up by stages, always a bit more done than the last time I was at home. Sometimes I'd go down to 'the ground' and visit Dad with a flask of tea, creep up on him unawares and hear him talking away to himself all alone in that field. It was very strange, listening to him say things that seemed so entirely disconnected to the activity that he was involved in. I catch myself at the same game now, of course.
Bricks were bought as and when could be afforded, doors and windows came from wherever Dad could find them, plumbing, roofing and electrical work picked up somewhere along the way. He was employed as a fitter in Westlands in those days, the huge West Country helicopter factory, and as the house grew you could see that there was definitely a 50s industrial look to it - metal framed windows, glass panelled inner doors that smacked somehow of offices and storerooms. We asked no questions, and the buildings inspectors who regularly came by to see that he was doing the job properly never had anything but praise for his inventiveness within the bounds of building regulations. They took a personal interest in him, the mad bugger, and were always more inclined to encourage than criticise.
I was nine or ten years old when Dad began the house and I was fifteen or so when he finished it. Getting on for six years. And even when we moved in we were still using bags of cement for furniture.
It damn near killed him, I know. And I heard him say many times that if he'd realised in advance how hard it would be he would never have started. But he built us a home - something he would not have achieved if he'd been more timid or circumspect. He lived there for forty years, and saw his grandchildren live there too. More importantly he planted the notion that whatever you wanted to do you always had permission to try. Lack of experience was no barrier, ignorance might even turn out to be an advantage.
Six years gone, then, working on these three books, and I've nothing as substantial as a house to show for it. What I do have, at least, is a capacity for sustained effort, something that can only be proved in the testing. I suspect that in my case it's inherited - if not by genes then by example. Cheers, Dad.