Life without the bells;Talkback

5th June 1998 at 01:00
You're leaving then?" said Doug. Doug was the head of science, the biggest man on the staff, but not as big as the dinner he put down on the table. "It's all right for you, you've got mucky books to fall back on."

"I don't write mucky books." Doug always brought out the aesthete in me.

"Well. I shan't buy one then." He let a sachet of ketchup dribble on to his chip mountain. After that, he had a treacle sponge mountain waiting. It put me in mind of the first, best advice I got when I started teaching, 100 years ago in Liverpool: "Get on the right side of the dinner ladies."

First, best wisdom came on the same day: "Never change what you do." This was from a 1940s-vintage maths teacher. "I never have," he said, "and I've been in fashion three times in the past 20 years." At the time I didn't understand, but I do now. Another thought that sticks in the mind is from, I think, Bertrand Russell: "Education has replaced religion as the source of all cant." So I left.

For a year now I've been withdrawing from the schizophrenia of loving teaching, hating education. The days are different: a writing day is vast and empty, there are no dimensions, no punctuating bells. It's hard to believe now what the bell could provoke: yearning and resentment for a start, and sometimes both at once. Yearning, yes I did a fair bit of that. Yearning for the ends of things, driven by boredom, rage, hangover, frustration, hunger, thirst or simple aching bladder. Resenting the ends of things too: dinner time, break, free period, even resenting the end of a good lesson. And fear. It has to be admitted that the bell could bring fear. Well, no more of that, now there are long, empty days waiting for me to fill them with myself.

Easy, though, to fill the days with other people or let breakfast drift with the radio into mid-morning, early lunch, read, wake up, think about dinner, then pub, telly, bed. QED. (Which, my own maths teacher insisted, stood for Quite Easily Done.) Hardly the way to write another book.

"It's my job," I tell my wife, the smell of burning boats in both our nostrils.

Writing isn't so difficult. Simply set a target and meet it. This is my theory, my mantra. Five hundred words, do that every day and anyone can write a book a year. There are days when that's done in a couple of hours and the lovely feeling of bonus as I double, even triple the quota. At least this means that I have plenty to throw away or revise. There are other sorts of days, but the rule is that I can't move from the desk until I hit 500. Yearning and resentment.

Second and third drafts or, in the case of my second novel, fifth and sixth drafts, are more relaxed affairs. After all, the book does exist. I know that it can be done, has been done. None of the terror of a blank pad of paper. Time to assess and make judgments, but not, as I discovered, time to expect help or applause.

At the third draft of What About Me? my editor rang to say that it could be made better. "How?" I asked her. "What do you think I should do?" "You're the writer," she told me and rang off. A good lesson.

The tidal wave of names and faces has dribbled out. The alarm clock stays set for the time that I used to get up for school and now I get up for me. I go to my room and spin out the words and no one's there.

* Alan Smith left teaching a year ago after 26 years. His first novel was 'Big Soft Lads'. His second novel, 'What About Me?', is published this month

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