HOW I CAME TO WRITE THE NICOTINE CAT
‘Then seek no more out of thyself to find
The thing that thou hast sought so long before,
For thou shalt find it sitting in the mind.’
From Thomas Wyatt’s Second Satire
Writing is solitaire played by a lone diner. Throw down your cards. Call it a poem when it sings. Prose when it speaks for itself. But both these hands come with an exclamation mark. It’s the give away. The loner has doubts about himself, and orders a lump of sugar with his cognac. It’s called a canard as you duck it. Impressing French waiters is the last refuge of the insecure.
Scribble a phrase like ‘the cat is on the mat’. It gives every appearance of solid sense. But you only have to look into the cat’s eyes to realise the mat is just a surface illusion. The world behind it darts around. The cat is getting ready to leap. And before you can say ‘boo’, it’s out of the bag. All the letters up in the air. ‘Since words are beyond us, let us pretend to be their organisers’, says Jean Cocteau.
Oxford English Dictionary has a hundred thousand words, Samuel Johnson’s
forty one thousand. Shakespeare had fourteen thousand on the go,
I didn’t say much
as a child, but I learned to talk with my hands. I was fingered to become the
animator of a magic lantern show, a musician or a dentist. But when my father
died an interest in numbers took over. As an incipient scientist in the
nineteen seventies I only communicated with them. I handed the numbers over to
my boss, Malcombe, and he put them into words. My hero was a biologist in
My ideas were small ones. All the better to be taken up, I thought. Malcombe showed me the way. Fog’s Readability Index. It was used in advertising to promote information for popular consumption. Fog’s Index measured the number of syllables in words, the word-count between full stops, and their common currency. The index estimated at what reading age a form of words could be understood. Malcombe told me the target for those who held the purse strings was thirteen years of age, and seven for the general public.
Fog was like playing jigsaw puzzles. Sentences were the pieces and words had to fit into them. This one-dimensional flattening of language conflicted with my rage for expression. I did not subscribe to the young Brecht’s notion, ‘Unlike underwear we do not change our vocabulary. It belongs to nobody and everybody and so it never gets washed. Words in the end are the dead bodies of things’ (Journals, 1920). I inclined my ear to an expanding universe in which every word, new and old, is given its chance. As they come to you, weigh and consider their value, and recycle them as the fancy takes.
I revolted against the incredibly shrinking Fog, and though I never used the word ‘numinous’ when applying for money, or promoting the ideas in leaflets and press releases, I allowed metaphors, and once a covert quotation from Montaigne (‘There is merit in exchanging a bad situation for an uncertain one’). The civil servants took it to be the latest jargon cascading down. Moreover, I made the odd joke for the general public, who didn’t seem to mind. Malcombe calculated the reading age of my communications was at least forty-six (my age at the time), and even though the bids were no less successful, or not, than before, he was relieved when in the late nineteen nineties a command came from above - all official reports or leaflets related to public health were to be standardised using a grid.
When the Fog of
officialdom descended, and the politics of work became Virchow impossible, I
took myself off with a sigh of regret, tempered by the feeling that it was
about time. I escaped to a port town on the border between
And so emerged The Nicotine Cat and Other People. The cat is out of the bag. I’ve had feedback from two characters that are in it. Welsh, my drinking companion, said, ‘You’ve put the fun back into the fundamental’. Joab Comfort, who hadn’t yet finished it, said, ‘It’s a leisurely read’. Augustus himself should be allowed the last word.
‘I’m sitting on the bench in my jardin sauvage, a reconverted parking space, reading the stardust column of the morning newspaper, when I hear the sound of kissing. It is coming from the building across the road, the third floor. I thought it might be a turtledove. But no. A plump woman is leaning over the balcony in a flouncy peignoir, moumou-ing me shamelessly. Three little kisses followed by a prolonged loud one. I can see she’s of a certain age. As I am, I suppose, but I’m taken aback when she starts the kissing cycle again, until I notice that the beige feral cat that everybody thinks is cute has settled under my seat. He is unmoved.’