Notebooks

A column of place-names, a rough transcription of cuneiform letters taken from a tomb in the British Library, then a collection of oddly-named English meadow flowers (Wet-the-Bed, Yellow Rattle, Adder’s Tongue Fern) and after that a list of library books with call marks from the British or London libraries….

A writer’s notebook is a junkyard; a junkyard of the mind. The next pages feature caravan names (Sprite, Lunar, the Senator range, each one named after a different American state) then some players of uncredited guitar solos: Eric Clapton on “When my Guitar Gently Weeps”, Brian May on a Black Sabbath track, a few others then songs I’ve overheard on recent travels: Monkey Boy by R Mutt (from a restaurant in TriBeCa), ‘Bison BC’ (a Mastodon-like band tipped by a salesman in a music shop in Denmark Street), a nu-country track heard through the PA at Sea-Tac airport, Seattle. All of I’ve got on that is a fragment of lyric – ‘This is a hard country’ – and a note that the band had some connection to the Pacific North-west. The different inks speak of widely-spaced times and places, the diverse scrawls of varying levels of calligraphic awkwardness, lack of firm writing-surfaces, different modes of transportation. A notebook preserves several different dimensions of information.

Trains are the best for writing in and the last entry in this particular small black book was written on a train. The first line records the word ‘Letter’. On the line below I have added ‘Haste’. They’re the names of German railway stations between Hannover and Osnabrück. What, I wondered, if the name of every station on the line turned out to be cognate with English words? What if the stations formed a sentence? A paragraph?

Unfortunately the next station was ‘Gümmer’.

A notebook is a repository of failed attempts and experiments, of thwarted intentions that may or may not turn into unexpected successes. No writer should believe in serendipity. But all of us do.

Thomas Hardy kept ‘Literary Notebooks’, a ‘Poetical Matter’ notebook and a ‘Studies, Specimens, etc’ notebook. But the richest to my mind is one with the bare title ‘Facts’. Here Hardy and his first wife, Emma, noted down incidents and anecdotes culled from sixty year old local newspapers, magazines and memoirs. One entry (barely three lines long) is headed ‘Sale of Wife’. Out of that fragment came “The Mayor of Casterbridge”.

Of course, almost everything else in the ‘Facts’ notebook resulted in nothing at all. A notebook is an act of triage on the world outside – and its contents are whittled down further in a writer’s work. A little ‘fact’ goes a long way in fiction, as another famous filler of notebooks, Bruce Chatwin, demonstrated with almost too much insouciance. Chatwin may have stretched facts but he kept faith with his notebooks. So attached was he to his iconic black moleskins that when the original company went bust in 1986, he famously bought up all available stock.

My German train slid past the backs of factories, blocks of flats, yards, houses. Heading out into the countryside, I saw tumbledown dwellings patched together from recycled planks, each in its own little plot of land. Picturesque hovels for Alemannic peasants?
No. They were actually very well- appointed gardening sheds. Another note. Hedges and fences swung past. The train nosed its way between two imposing hills into the mouth of a valley. Half-way up the southern slope a large statue stood within a structure that resembled an ancient Greek bandstand, its pillars and balustrades crowned with an ornate roof. The statue would be some comically-obscure German potentate, I speculated. The Elector-Palatinate of Gümmer perhaps. I noted down the nearest station and made a bad ink-sketch of the bandstand. Then I arrived at Osnabrück.

Franz Kafka wrote in quarto-sized notebooks before trading down to octavo near the end of his life. Jean-Jacques Rousseau made notes on playing cards during walks that were later written up as his ‘Reveries of a Solitary Walker’. I make notes on library slips, envelopes, junk mail, whatever’s lying about. All these scraps end up shoved into notebooks. I’m not particular about brands (the moleskin is high-end for me) only size, specifically whether they require a pocket or a bag, and how much I can get on one page. The research (and some of the text) for “Lemprière’s Dictionary” was written in spiral-bound shorthand notepads which I indexed variously by writing in different inks, then by fixing coloured paperclips to the pages and finally by compiling rough indexes and sticking them in the back. A page from one of those books is shown above. I filled five or so of these pads with notes on classical mythology, late eighteenth century newspaper reports, clothes descriptions, weather reports, ship catalogues, details of the siege of La Rochelle and early automata. After I finished using one side of the pages I simply turned the book over and headed back to the beginning. But this haphazard system resulted eventually in fifteen to thirty minute search-times as I leafed through the pages. For my next book, I supplemented these notepads with a larger format book.

The new-style notebooks were between A4 and A3 size (nearly A2 for a double-page spread). The obvious drawback was portability but I lugged these volumes back and forth to libraries nevertheless. At first I simply jotted stuff down as before but gradually I noticed that my note-taking had changed. With this new expanse of space, certain pages would take on their own momentum. Other pages became palimpsests as original intentions were slowly buried under later, incoming notions. A map of “Himmelbett” German radar stations began life as background for a scene in which a German WWII night-fighter pilot flies his newly-delivered Messerschmitt Bf-109 E-series (an “Emil” in the slang of the time) down the coast of Holland, accidentally setting off alerts among the different Himmelbett radar stations which monitored the coast against English bombers. These stations divided the airspace into sectors of operation (or ‘boxes’) which were code-named for different animals and fish. I had in mind a German fighter pilot flying through an airborne zoo.
I collected these ‘box’ code-names from the memoirs of German night-fighter pilots who would routinely refer to flying and making contact in ‘Lobster’ or ‘Oyster’ or ‘Polar Bear’. Then I collated these references on a map to discover which ‘box’ the particular creature referred to. When that page got too crowded I copied them onto another one (attached: Himmelbett Codes 2).

I never wrote the scene. But long after I’d abandoned the idea, I was still collecting Himmelbett box code-names and fitting them into my plan, the project having taken on a life of its own. Similar projects (in the same book) include a table (eventually, several tables) of the sound shifts which mark stages in the development of Middle High German, plans for a radio transmitter using only technology available in the fourth century AD and a catalogue (still being compiled) of books which once existed but now have vanished.

No sensible writer intends projects like these. At the same time, no writer using a notebook can guard fully against them. They just happen. A notebook accumulates its value slowly, line by line and page by page. Hardy’s ‘Wife for sale’. Who knows what will prove a dead-end and what the inspiration or material for a book? The fact that you never know what will prove useful or useless gives a notebook a strange and numinous importance. A detail jotted down in two minutes might occupy you for the next three years. The protagonist of your next book might turn out to be the Elector-Palatinate of Gümmer.

A full notebook potentially contains the rest of your writing life.

And after that writing life is over, that notebook might be all that’s left. As more and more writers switch to computers, notebooks will increasingly become the only surviving paper-based manuscripts. Curators will covet them. Researchers will scour them for compositional clues. But a notebook is not a fetish-object.

A note-book is transitional, a rite of passage; a stage in one’s work to be laboured over, passed through and discarded. I used the caravan-list in a short story about two lovers not quite falling apart during an impromptu visit to Little Rollright (the easternmost stone circle in Britain, also from the notebook). The uncredited guitar soloists went into that story too. Of the remainder, I don’t know. Not the railway station names anyway. And I never found the identity of the statue, the Elector-Palatinate or whoever he was. I got off at Osnabrück. I left the notebook on the train.