A Christmas Message From DE

I shouldn’t be writing this.

This is in lieu of a proper diary this week. The diary always takes me too long to write. Rather ironically, it often stops me from doing the sort of things I need to do to have something to write about. I do want to spend some time away from the desk over Christmas, and I’m sure no one can begrudge me that. Except that I’ve now ended up writing a diary entry, by way of trying to get out of writing a diary.

I shouldn’t be writing this, because I’m finding it hard enough to do the work that really can’t be avoided, being the 5000-word MA essay with its January 4th deadline. I’m also labouring under a medley of health problems (back pain, mainly, not helped by the need to spend hours at a desk) and fatigue (not helped by the codeine for said back pain making me fall asleep at the desk).

On New Year’s Day I’ll write an entry covering the past two weeks. That should keep you happy, whoever you might be.

In the meantime, here’s a new photo. It was taken by Shanthi Sivanesan on Christmas Eve 2015, in the Dean Street Townhouse, Soho, London. Every year I try to have my photo taken with a different Christmas tree in London. This one represents my gratitude to people who have been kind to me over the years, one way or another. Not least the aforementioned Ms Sivansen, who treated me to dinner and cocktails at this venue.

I look like I’m trying to hide, which seems apt given my current state of reluctance. Procrastination is hiding.

What I’m actually trying to do in the photo is get the tree, myself, and the artwork behind me all into shot, and the angle wasn’t easy. The artwork is The Anatomy of the Beast by Neal Fox. It’s a large Gillray-esque cartoon of various Soho characters alive and dead, many of which I owe something to personally. Whether it’s by remote inspiration (Quentin Crisp and Jeffrey Bernard – both in the right-hand section that you can’t see), or kindness in person (you can make out Sebastian Horsley in the top hat, and Shane MacGowan next to him). The red hatted one is George Melly, another hero, who I briefly met once (and kissed).


[You can see the full artwork at Neal Fox’s website:


I’m grateful to you too, O reader, if you’ve been coming to this website for some time. This public diary is now 18 years old. It’s been excerpted in two anthologies of mixed diaries, which contain myself alongside Pepys and the like. The anthologies are called A London Year and A Traveller’s Year, the latter book emerging earlier this year. Some people have now expressed interest in a whole book of selections from this diary. Nothing is definite about such a book yet, and I still don’t have an agent, but I’m hopeful. Eighteen years of entries – there must be a book’s worth of interesting reading in there somewhere.

So: it’s been a year of ups and downs. The downs are the ongoing health problems: a whole carousel of symptoms. According to the many doctors I’ve seen, these were – and are – seemingly caused by a combination of anxiety, depression, dyspraxia and a complete reluctance to do any physical exercise.

The ups of 2015 have been very important to me though. I finally achieved my life ambition of getting a university degree. First Class Honours, BA English, after four years at Birkbeck, University of London. I won a couple of college prizes too, including one for being ‘the most promising student in English Literature’. It’s something I never thought I’d have the stamina to do. I had a lot of support from Birkbeck’s staff and disability services, and I remain grateful to them. They sorted out the various help I was eligible for, not least with keeping my time management on track. My parents encouraged me at every step. My mother still does. Without such support I’d simply have dropped out. So, my gratitude is there too.

I officially graduated in July, and attended the gown-and-mortar-board ceremony in November. I then won a bursary to do an MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture at the same place. All being well (I’m still looking for funding for books and Tube travel), that will take me through to late 2017.

So that’s where I am now. I still have a lot of problems with my innate slowness, and with frequently feeling unwell or tired. But what has really surged into view over the last month is my battle for motivation against procrastination. I had it under control throughout the BA, but of late it really has knocked me for six.

The voice of my Procrastination Demon is simply this: ‘Why bother?’  The obvious answer, that ‘you’ll be in trouble if you don’t’, hasn’t seemed to sink in, even with 9 days till the deadline – and I’m still fiddling with a first draft of only 3200 words. There, I said it. Though I have made a diagram too. And lots of notes. Too many notes. More notes than essay.

The problem is I’ve missed lots of personal deadlines for myself, and am now into the danger zone of missing The Real Deadline. And here I am, spending precious time on a blog post which isn’t even a proper diary update. I am procrastinating by writing about procrastination.

I can lay some of the blame at social media, or rather, my weakness for spending time on social media. Twitter and Facebook can do many great things, like provide a sense of contact with friends, or rally support for petitions and funding. But they can also give the dangerous impression that no one else is doing any work either, so it’s okay for you to not work too. The world will carry on without you, because it is carrying on – look, you can watch it scrolling on forever! In real time! Why bother doing anything else?

But there’s other distractions too. I’ve just watched all of Season One of Transparent. It’s very good. You keep watching not because of the plot (there isn’t one), but because of the characters, who all seem to be hiding things about themselves, often without realising it. There’s a theme with this piece, isn’t there.

Some Christmas words of wisdom, then. These are aimed at myself as much as the world.

Do not think: ‘Why do any work when I can be binge-watching a whole series of a very good drama?’

Instead, think: ‘Treats, not distractions. I can only go on Twitter or watch the rest of Transparent as a treat, according to the time remaining, after I’ve hit my quota of work for the day. Treats, not distractions.’

Also: I take inspiration from the productivity of older writers. Lately I’ve enjoyed Alan Bennett’s latest diary for 2015 (a large chunk of prose in the London Review of Books, plus his audio reading of selected entries for their website), John Julius Norwich’s 2015 Christmas Cracker (a beautifully made annual fanzine of his favourite prose, poetry and quotations), Ronald Blythe’s 2015 collection of columns, In The Artist’s Garden (only published last week), and Diana Athill’s latest memoir, Alive Alive Oh! 

Mr Bennett is 81, and talks about using a walking stick. Viscount Norwich is 86. Dr Blythe is 93. Ms Athill, who lives in a care home near me, turned 98 this week. They’ve all put out new work this year. I am a mere 44. I have my problems, but there is really no excuse.

But what else is hidden here? All these writers spend little time on the internet. JJ Norwich seems to have a Twitter account (I’ve just spent some time searching away to find this out), but hasn’t tweeted since July. Ms Athill isn’t on Twitter, though she does use a computer (her book of letters, Instead of a Book, marks the switch in her correspondence from paper to email). Blythe and Bennett are entirely computer-free, yet seem to get by fine as professional writers in the twenty-first century. Presumably the editors they work with are happy to accept photocopies of typewritten copy, in the way everyone did pre-internet.

There was once an amusing column by Tom Hodgkinson about his giving up email in order to get more done as a writer. It ended with him saying he’d had to resort to email after all, as the editor wouldn’t accept the column in any other form.

(And now I’ve thought about a Quentin Crisp anecdote, on his dictating columns by phone, to a newspaper in the 1990s. His hand was too paralysed to type.  ‘The newspaper has a women who types faster than I can speak and she gets it all down and they send a cheque’. I have just spent some time looking this anecdote up. More time gone).

And now the machine I am typing this on tells me that I’ve hit nearly 1500 words. It was meant to be a photo and a quick Christmas message. I really, really have to stop and get onto the essay. And text a friend to say I can’t come out for drinks after all. And I’ll probably have to cancel going to a birthday gathering…

(EDITED TO ADD: I have just been told that I am very much expected at the birthday! So I will go to that, then. One night out in the whole week. A treat, not a distraction. And I’m not going out for New Year’s Eve.)

But in a way this post is comforting, because it’s a reminder that as long as I get started on the essay today, and every day between now and the 4th, I should be able to clock up a decent amount of work and get it finished on time. As long as I get started. And don’t go on Twitter. Or the rest of the internet. Or watch a very good TV drama. Or do anything else.

That’s the thing about procrastination. It’s another form of productivity.

Tags: , , ,