Life is an accident waiting to happen; it happens in the only way it can otherwise it would be different…
(From My Notebook—13th November 2011)
It seems, it feels, as though, in this time long before sunrise, that I am the only person in the universe who might respond to a sentence in Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the way that I am doing right now, with my big ginger cat having moved across the room to be by my side and the clock in the next room making a small chirping sound like sparrows in summer. And the sentence in Gabriel Garcia Marquez?
‘A terrifying clap of thunder surprised me at the door, and the room was filled with the premonitory smell of wet earth…’
There’s darkness outside and I am alone. It could be that I was alerted by an earlier reference in Memories of My Melancholy Whores to be on the look out for the possibility of congenial sentences and images. Congenial sentences—ones that chime with a curious resonance for one reason or another, hitting some somatic marker or the other—often happen in books I read; the habit of waiting for them to occur started way back in the middle of the 1950’s when I began to record them in a notebook I foolishly consigned to a bonfire under an apple-tree in my father’s garden just before the 1960’s started. The habit has therefore lasted for sixty of my years. It is the long habit itself which makes it seem, makes it feel, as though I am the only person in the universe who habitually responds to sentences in books in this way. This may be a fantasy taking its place among my many fantasies. I am full of them. Maybe you are too…
And the earlier sentence?—the one that alerted me to the likelihood of there being others—well, it was a string of sentences. The unnamed story-teller, aged 90, has been listening to music, including Debussy, Bruckner & Wagner, and the light has faded outside…
‘And all at once I found myself enveloped in the darkness of the study. Under the table I felt something slip by that did not seem like a living body but a supernatural presence brushing past my feet, and I jumped up with a shout. It was the cat with its beautiful plumed tail, mysterious langour, and mythic ancestry, and I could not help shuddering at being alone with a living being that was not human…’
I look up to find my big ginger cat staring at me, wondering perhaps when the next bit of fondling is going to happen, purring quietly in anticipation.
This existence of mine, in & out of books for sixty years, living & books, parallel universes that engage constantly with one another—what is it about? What significance is there in the life of the intellect that accumulates thus in order to… let’s say… gain provisional coherence and comprehensivity…
I met somebody last week who could not fathom how I threaded quotations from the works of others through my own words in an apparently seamless presentation. How do I do it? I don’t know… “Where do you find the books you quote from?” he asked. That’s easier to answer if somewhat baffling for me to understand: I hunt them down without knowing what I’m hunting; it’s all been an accidental quest… Life is a mostly pleasant accident waiting to happen…
It was amazing to the person I met to hold in his hands a book with uncut pages I happened to be reading that was published in 1913. It was an effort to grasp his amazement to me, to enter into it and think myself back to a time when I first began to accumulate books; at that time it was accidentally amazing to me that Richard Jefferies, Walt Whitman, ANWhitehead, John Steinbeck, on and on, could step out of the pages (into my receptive mind) of books I picked up at random in Charing Cross Road in London (then a book-haven, now, except for Henry Pordes and Peter Ellis, and one or two other remainders, full of eateries and mobile phone shops)…
Warming to the idea of answering my interlocutor’s question, I explained the accidental way in which my body of Knowledge, such as it is, and my Understanding became embedded in my Being.
There are those who would say that there’s no such thing as accident, that everything is fore-ordained in some way. I prefer to think that everything is accidental; it’s just that, to make any sense of it, there has to be a well-prepared seed-bed. I had made some existential choice to be prepared to accumulate what made sense to me. Go with the flow of the accidental, would be my advice to youth.
Anyway, the person I met last week had reached the age of 40 (I’d guess) without acquiring the habit of reading as a daily event, without acquiring the whim of accident. If I were able to return to the age of 15 now I would advise myself to GO WITH THE WHIM OF ACCIDENT. Invent a Cashing-in-on-accident-I for yourself. Without that no change.
While I have been writing, light has crept into the sky; a misty morning but not cloudy suggesting that the sun will soon burn off the mist.
The question then becomes: How did I acquire a Cashing-in-on-accident-I? And the simple answer is: By noticing that serendipity pays off…. How did I come to that conclusion? By noticing accidents that paid off or gave me new ideas and starting points… then the shape of Accident and Accidental Discovery became a permanent image in the interstices of my Being—became a somatic marker.
Every book we read offers the possible, nay the pretty well certain, likelihood of accident—the accidental discovery of new ideas, new images & metaphors, the fresh expression of things one had dimly felt already for oneself. Understand this! Be on the look out for it!
The discovery of books and authors always, but always, happens by accident: the accident of what you come across by recommendation, by teacher incitement, by what you discover when you open a book at random in a secondhand bookshop, the book that’s just lying around in a friend’s house ready to be opened, and so on.
It’s also a matter of recognising your somatic markers, especially the ones that represent excitement at the idea of the accidental discovery of New Things.
Back in the 1950’s, the Good Old Days, that is to say, I wrote an essay about how I drifted from one thing to another without ever making conscious choices; as I remember it, I was advocating this as a way of being. This was during a time when I was locked in a daily task as a ‘wretched quill driver’ (Conrad: The Rover) in an Income Tax Office but rather fancied myself as a professional writer—an alternative way of making money. I suppose I have drifted all my life between this & that, and continue to drift, but I have contrived to make something out of drifting and the accidental accumulation associated with it.
Do not heed the ardent self-appointed gurus—those who say you must have a mission in life: things happen by accident and they start to make sense when you observe your pattern.
I was born in Kingston-on-Thames in 1937—accident of birth. The name of the road in which I was born is Galsworthy Road, close to where John Galsworthy, one of my favourite writers, lived (Soames’ house was built fictionally on the top of Coombe Hill not far off)—accident. For five years I travelled on the 213 single decker LT bus to school in Kingston past Coombe Springs where JGBennett worked and practised his heretical form of The Fourth Way—accident.
In 1941, my father went off to engage in some periodic bout of reciprocal destruction in India and left me to grow up under my own steam—accident.
I lived next door to a friend whose father sang in The Royal Choral Society; for a year or two in the mid-fifties I got free tickets to concerts in The Royal Albert Hall on Saturday afternoons—accident. It was an accident that I grew to love Honegger’s King David, Herbert Howells’ Canterbury Mass and William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast amongst other things—all accident.
Entranced by the title itself, I picked up ANWhitehead’s Adventures of Ideas in Charing Cross Road in 1957 and I’ve been having great adventures with ideas ever since—accidental metaphysics.
An adolescent girl-friend, Maureen (where are you now?)—she was an accident waiting to happen. She happened to get on the 213 bus to Kingston every morning; eventually I summoned up the courage to talk to her. Talk to a girl! Oh my goodness! Talking to anybody was difficult in those days, let alone a girl. What turned out to be a fraught relationship established a feeling about women that I know was not there in the years before—accidental somatic marker.
‘I began to measure my life not by years but by decades… My seventies were frightening because of a certain possibility that the decade might be the last…’ says Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Memories of My Melancholy Whores …