William Golding, the renowned British novelist, poet, Booker Prize winner and Nobel laureate, once wrote:
“Novelists do not write as birds sing, by the push of nature. It is part of the job that there should be much routine and some daily stuff on the level of carpentry.”
I’m learning this the hard way, having come through a period when routine all but vanished in my life. Instead of sitting at a desk as soon as I woke, I found myself fielding calls, traipsing to shops, and generally dealing with crises.
The reason? My partner bought a house in France a few months ago and I set about managing its renovation remotely, little appreciating what a mammoth task this would be in the land of foie gras and insane bureaucracy. (The wonderful picture below is taken from another blog, that of an American who has lived in France for many years, Anne Stark Ditmeyer.)
Let us take as an example the hiring of skips. Only in France could the humble skip, that unadorned metal crate into which junk is placed, tell a story. In practical countries like the UK, you don’t need permission to have a skip unless you wish to place it on a public road, or in a spot which obstructs someone else’s path.
Which makes sense, right? Not in France.
This straight-forward Anglo-Saxon approach would be too simple for a people who revel in creating complexity where none should exist. To have a skip parked on your private driveway – where it inconveniences no one but you – you need the local mayor’s permission. Not only that, but you have to notify him or her in writing via a letter which you must sign. In that same missive, you are expected to give precise details of why you need a skip, which company will provide it, as well as the dates and hours it will remain on your driveway. Such detail obviously satisfies the Gallic obsession with minutiae. Moreover, before permission for a skip can be granted, the local policeman must question you – ostensibly so that he can verbally clarify what you have already told him in your long letter of explanation. I can only assume that the policeman is undertaking due diligence at the same time, assessing whether or not you are a person who could be trusted with a skip. After the policeman talks to you, he issues an arrêté, a decree which announces to the world exactly when you will be blocking your own garage! This worthy paper is autographed by no less a personage than the local mayor.
Thus, what should be a simple commercial transaction between two parties, namely you and the skip operator, turns into a convoluted chain involving five and more people: skip operator, local policeman, every worker in the mayor’s office, the mayor himself and you, the poor person looking for a skip. Yet, such administrative zeal brings no benefit to anyone. Decrees flutter in the French wind, desperately trying to attract the attention of the passers-by who willfully ignore them.
Now imagine the same complications extending to every aspect of a house renovation and you will understand why my routine was decimated, despite having an excellent project manager on-site. The unexpected invariably happened, which led to new problems, which resulted in yet more decisions…and so the loop went. During the days, I was interrupted whenever I tried to work, and during the nights, I couldn’t dream – except about tiles and wood and the bloody-minded French. The result was that I no longer rose with fully-formed sentences of fiction, but began waking up having conversations in my head with the many people I wanted to shout at.
Not that I wrote nothing. In the brief moments I could snatch, I completed a short story that had been on the back burner, wrote the first draft of a second, and finished two entirely new pieces of flash fiction. One of these was actually long-listed in The National Flash Fiction Day 2013 Micro Fiction competition, the first flash fiction competition I ever entered. But I couldn’t write anything very long.
Thankfully, my period of turbulence is about to end. I will soon have a regulated life back, a life in which I know when I will rise, when I will eat, when I will trade and when I will write. At that point I shall finally breathe. I can then collate the many tales I’ve picked up, a whole new genre I had never planned. The stories are sure to feature decreed skips and broken bathtubs and men called Jean-Marie. I can hardly wait.