Commentary

The Blank Page

What is writer’s block anyway?

I got up early this morning to write something for this blog.

But nothing came.

And as eight o’clock rolled on towards nine o’clock. And nine o’clock nudged ten, I was still staring at a blank screen. My mind felt empty as though my brain had been scooped out overnight and filled with soot. I wasn’t tired or hungover or ill; in fact, I’d been running the night before, and felt fit and fresh. And yet I was totally devoid of even the simplest idea.

I stared at the screen for ages. Then out of the window at the dirty sky wondering if it was going to rain. Then back at the screen. Then back outside again. Was this writer’s block? That mystical thing I hear other people talk about.

Surely not. I looked at the screen again. I’ve always got something to say, some rubbish to write about, even if it’s just nonsense. But today I was stuck, as though my hands were made of jelly fingers, unable to press a single key, incapable of typing a single word.

I briefly thought about writing about my summer holidays like I used to do at school. But as I didn’t have a holiday this year, or the year before, there wasn’t much to say. I could write about life on a rural French farm where I live and work, but I’ve flogged that horse to death enough times already.

Normally when I’m stumped for words, I write a short story starting with something like: ‘I woke up thinking I was Jesus.’ They generally fizzle out after a few pages, but at least I’ve written something.

JG Ballard, one of my favourite English authors, said he wrote a thousand words a day, every day. And I try to match this at least 5 days out of 7. But today nothing. And I hadn’t written for a week.

I almost flew into a mad panic and if it wasn’t for my wife I might have thrown something. A book against a wall. Luckily she arrived just in time and asked me what was wrong. So I told her. ‘I can’t write anything today. My mind is dead. I feel dead.’

She suggested I write about why I can’t write. Reminding me of all the novels written and films made on that very premise. ‘In fact,’ she went on, ‘there’s probably a whole genre in the film industry entitled: Writer’s Block.’

It was a good suggestion. Even though part of me thought it was a bit of a cop-out. Was I too dumb to think of anything interesting? And if so, what was I doing writing in the first place if I couldn’t write down a simple passage of prose, however banal?

A friend of mine who writes ghost stories for a living recently asked me if I’d had any more ideas for another novel.

I laughed. ‘I’ve only just finished my first,’ I informed him.

‘So?’ he shrugged. ‘Are you going to bask in the glory forever?’

I told him I wasn’t basking in any glory, but I understood his point. What he was really saying was, when are you going to write something serious? He knows me well so he can ask me these things.

‘I’m getting round to it. Slowly,’ I told him.

He nodded and we moved on to talk about football, which was a relief.

I actually have written about my life at boarding school and the death of my mother. The problem is, they don’t seem that interesting. The subject matter, however personal, is dull. I can’t make it come to life and I would much prefer to write about what it feels like to wake up as Jesus. Not that I’m in the slightest bit religious; it’s just that when I was young, I thought I was special — didn’t we all?

My friend would argue that all these, ‘Fantastical-what-would-happen-if-stories,’ are all well and good. But how about the ‘What-happened-in-reality-stories?’ Why don’t you cut the gags and get down to the real stuff? The meat. ‘Isn’t that why you write?’

It’s a good question. I probably write because I’ve always written. At school, I wrote an entire film entitled ‘School.’ I enjoyed it and even asked the drama master if we could perform it. He laughed at me and said maybe next year. We never did of course, and I’ve no idea what happened to the manuscript.

It was fun to write because it was just a load of stupid gags and pranks. More a sketch show than a full-blown movie. Of course, it didn’t contain any of the serious stuff: the beatings and the violence, but it was probably why I wrote it, to keep me sane.

But anyway, I’ve reached the 1000-word mark now, so it looks like I’ll have to stop. Just as I was getting started…

Photo by Pedro Araújo on Unsplash

My unserious novel Le Glitch is available here
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Observation

Why I Hate History

And why I think school is a waste of time. Listen or read below.

I remember nothing from school. Except the Rivers Act of 1876: A tiny piece of legislation to try and clean up the waterways of England.

Why I remember this particular fact is not important. What is important is that I shouldn’t have been learning it in the first place. Or indeed any of the subjects I spent 15 years studying during my time at school.

When I was twelve there were a few things I was interested in: music, drama, cycling, nature and drawing. This is what I actually studied: English, History, French, Maths, Physics, Geography, Religious Studies, Latin, Chemistry and Biology. Out of all of those, there was only one I was interested in. Biology.

A damning indictment of the educational system, surely.

True, if I hadn’t been such a spineless schoolboy, I might have said something like, ‘Why am I study these subjects; I don’t even like them?’

It’s a pretty damn good point, don’t you think?

And yet avid supporters of the educational system — teachers, lecturers, governments — would insist I had a rounded education.

No I didn’t! I didn’t in the slightest. A rounded education would have consisted of me playing the piano while cycling around the UK for instance. Putting on plays in parks or woods, looking at the nature, and then drawing the whole damn thing. That would have been a rounded education.

Chortle chortle chortle, I hear from leather-elbowed-patched, pipe-in-mouth teaching brigade. ‘Such a dreamer this one. This Ogley character.’

I am as a matter of fact. That’s what humans are. Dreamers. Inventors. Visionaries. That’s how we got this far in the first place. We didn’t get here by sitting in a classroom copying out endless tracts of British history. Copying it out into an exercise book, then revising it and rewriting it out onto an exam manuscript so some stuffy teacher can cross bits out and then decide to give me a qualification that assesses my progress in life.

Because that isn’t progress. It’s a failure. It’s a failure of the educational system to actually educate. And I know this, because I’ve been through it. I’ve done it. School, GCSEs, A-levels, university degree, masters degree. In fact I didn’t stop studying till I was 26. What an idiot!

This may sound like sour grapes. That I haven’t made a success of all the education given to me.

It’s not. While I was revising for my GCSE exams at the age of 16, I remember thinking, this is a waste of time, isn’t it? All I’m really doing is memorising stuff other people have done or discovered or invented, rewriting it down in vaguely my own words so another human being, who knows all this stuff anyway, can read it through again. How stupid is that? Why don’t I go out into the world and find my own stuff to write about? That would be fun!

I should have said something. But as I said before, I didn’t, because I was spineless. I was a schoolboy. I was young. I was impressionable. I was an idiot.

So I’m saying it now, nearly 30 years later: Education is a waste of time. School. University. Degrees. Masters. Call it what you want. It’s a waste of time!

There, I’ve said it. Bye.

Photo, Museums Victoria (bottom/Feliphe Schiarolli (top)
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UK

A Room With a View

I’m writing this post sitting in the bedroom I had when I was 16. Remembering the days I spent here gazing out of the window before I ever got drunk, smoked cigarettes, made love, had long hair, or grew a moustache. Before I knew anything about life.

I returned to the UK last Friday to help my parents move house and to collect my things – a seventeenth century oak chest, some books, some photos, and a guitar. I’m not returning to the country permanently, just visiting with the option of an extended stay if I fancy it. Although judging by the clogged up roads and angry looks I keep getting from people who look like they live off Pot Noodles, I suspect I might be jumping on a train back to the continent soon.

I’ve been meaning to write a blog since I returned, but have struggled to conjure up the necessary enthusiasm to put pen to paper. Being here though in the old house has generated ideas. Mainly the memories of sitting here as a blank faced sixteen year old looking out over the busy A619 that runs over the Pennines to Manchester. Remembering the cement lorries that clattered hourly along the road from the nearby quarries to build new Barrett houses in Sheffield. The buses carrying pensioners from the Dales into the city for a day out at the bingo hall. The peace and stillness of the nights when the road was empty and everybody was in bed.

Twenty five years is a long time. But I can still remember what I was wearing on that first day here. A pair of cords and a checked shirt. I know this because it’s the same as I’m wearing now. Not the same ones of course, that would be pushing it a bit, even for me. But a 32/32 pair of corduroys and a medium green checked shirt has been my standard issue attire since I discovered Burton menswear in Chesterfield town centre when I was 14.

As for possessions, I like the fact that I only have some books, some photos and a guitar. It sums up the sort of person I am. My favourite novels are the ones where nothing really happens. My favourite photos the ones where the people look dead. My favourite music the type that makes my heart beat faster than running up a steep hill.

There’s the temptation I admit to simply dump the lot into the canal and to walk out of the house with nothing. What would I actually miss? I rarely look at the photos, the books have all been read, my guitar is rarely played these days.

I’m not going to discover new things if I keep hold of the old. A person only ever has what is in their head. Everything else is superfluous. And as I can’t escape what is in my head – bar chopping it off – perhaps I should do myself a favour and not burden it with further baggage like old photos of long dead relatives and books I’ve read three or four times before.

I revised for my A-levels in this room. For months and months, day upon day copying out equations and facts from text books onto index cards and then reciting the information back to myself in the vague hope that I might remember something. It didn’t really work as I ended up at Nottingham Poly studying pesticide science.

I actually wanted to be an actor. But something went horribly wrong in the decision making process while I was at school. I think they had a careers department, but they must have been out when I dropped by. Either that or I got the wrong door and went into the one that said A Life of Drudgery instead of Stardom.

I even found my university dissertation in the pile here. That classic read: ‘The effects of adjuvants on the efficacy of cyproconazole on powdery mildew’ by Philip J Ogley. I even used the initial of my middle name as though I was some kind of technoscience guru living in Laurel Canyon in California developing new cures for madness and arrogance.

I eventually got out of agronomy and formed a band with the very guitar I’m looking at now. I also did a spot of acting as well, including one line in an episode of Peak Practice. I had to say ‘Sorry’ to a doctor. I thought I was going to get further calls from the casting agent, but never did. I was gutted too because I thought I’d executed the ‘Sorry’ line with the perfect amount of weight and tone. Not too fawning, but not too confrontational either.

But that disappointment passed and since then I’ve done a lot and travelled a lot with the road inevitably leading back to the A619 on the edge of Chesterfield. And so here I am, Philip J Ogley (science guru/actor), sorting through my things in this room for the very last time.

 

(** If you want more ‘unofficial’ Blogley, you could always tune into Alexander Velkey’s highly acclaimed Doubtcast where there is an audio Blogley about the UK education system at about 1hr 06mins 23 seconds in. Although I do recommend listening to the entire Podcast to understand the context.)

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