Write What You Know. George Orwell and all that.

Writers are often asked how much of their own life is contained in their writing. Running by the side of this is that old adage, write what you know.

I haven’t given these matters much thought, but this blog will be my response. That it will be half-baked there is no doubt. In my defence I would say that even people who have thought about these things long and hard have come down on opposite sides of the same fence.

This is the beauty of freedom of speech and as Spike Milligan once said, ‘if speech is free, it might as well be silly’.

That I am thinking about this at all is because of the Stephen Fretwell concert I went to on Thursday night.

Stephen Fretwell is a singer songwriter, guitar player. In the world we live in of silly talent shows Fretwell is the truly talented. I could go on but I won’t because you are going to buy his CDs after reading this blog. That is the power of advertising as Saatchi and Saatchi would said while popping a coke they don’t really want, driving the car that looks like more money than sense.

Anyway, when introducing his song ‘Funny Hat’ Fretwell said, ‘This is a song about being in a hotel room late at night with a drunk transvestite when your girlfriend is on the way up’.

That I love that song more than I already did is because I now know where it came from.
George Orwell in his essay ‘Why I Write’ wrote that there are four reasons for writing. 1) Sheer egoism. 2) Aesthetic enthusiasm. 3) Historical impulse. 4) Political purpose.

He starts the essay by saying that he always knew he was going to be a writer, and that from an early age he was writing himself into situations. For example, ‘He pushed open the door, his mother was standing by the ornate fireplace’ and so on…

That he became a political writer was because of the age he lived in. His essay, ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ starts, ‘As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me’.

That 1984 is not an autobiographical book is clear although there was a belief at the time of its writing that Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt were planning to divide the world, post WWII.

I was at the right age at the right time for 1984 because in the year 1984 I was thirteen and I loved books. As you can imagine that year there was a big hoo-ha about Orwell’s book and I knew that I wanted to read it.

1984 was also a time when a) the Cold War was in full swing and b) a film was made of the book.

The Eurythmics were to do the soundtrack. All the way through the film I was waiting for the song. It never came. At least, not until right after the titles were rolling. I loved the Eurythmics and all I could remember afterwards about the film was that their song wasn’t in it.

At that time also my mum and dad ran a pub. The pub itself had undergone something of a transformation that year. We’d had the builders in for weeks, and with old bricks they’d built all these arches within the pub so the pub itself was divided almost into a series of caves.

Sticking out of the arches was all this found detritus, lawnmower handles, spades, iron bars and so on. You had to see it to believe it.

One of the caves became a cocktail bar, ‘Gatsbys’ and late at night we served cocktails, of course. The base mix for these cocktails was a powder that came in packets like Vesta curries. I was allowed to make them up, in these large jugs bought specially for the purpose.

I always used to get a thrill opening the fridges and seeing these jugs. The powders mixed with water were colourful and they had glorious names like ‘Pina Colada’, ‘Margarita’ and so on.

Around this time too I wore a trilby hat and a cardigan. I was the height of fashion even then.

This is Will’s favourite picture of me, age 13, leaning against a castle somewhere in France in my hat and cardie. I looked like a mix of Little Lord Fauntleroy and Huckleberry Finn.

But to get to my point, running above the arches within the pub were a series of shelves and on these shelves were old books, got from the junk yard I guess, because they were ancient, dusty, damp and they stank.

Books back then didn’t have pictures on and they were all hardback and different colours.

Because I loved books though I would pull over one of the bar stools, climb up onto it, and look at the books.

That’s where I found 1984.

A couple of years after this when I was sixteen mum and dad both left home.

Dad decided that it was the time in his life to become a drifter and after a poor start; he had gone to the airport and asked for the next flight out of the country, ‘Lanzarote, yes!’ he said, thinking he was going to Spain only to find himself landing on a small volcanic island, he ended up quite happily working on a beach in France, on fairgrounds, in cafes and grape picking etc.

This was also the time I read Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ and I quite enjoyed it because all those situations reminded me of my dad.

‘That’s him’ I thought as Orwell landed himself in a penniless scrape with assorted bums, psychopaths and alcoholics.

That I always write about people now who don’t have proper jobs, who drift around, don’t drive, or have mobile phones, but are seduced by the easy glamour of a tacky cocktail bar while wearing distinctive clothing might have something to do with all of this.

Or it might be entirely unrelated.

As I said, I haven’t given it much thought.

Currently reading – Dreams of Leaving by Rupert Thomson

Currently listening to – Man on the Roof and Magpie by Stephen Fretwell

Stephen Fretwell singing William Shatner’s Dog


1 Response to “Write What You Know. George Orwell and all that.”

  1. June 11, 2009 at 10:53 am

    We were made to watch the film in R.E (I have no idea why), so anyone who wasn’t interested just made a lot of noise and disturbed those of us who were.

    Half-way through the film a girl called Sharron Davis was sick with nerves as she was in love with Annie Lennox and couldn’t hide her anticipation and excitement.

    Poor Sharron was heart-broken as she was then dragged from the room to be taken to ‘the office’ (where poorly pupils had to sit).

    Her cries still haunt me today.

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Drew Gummerson

Drew Gummerson is a writer. In 2002 his first novel, The Lodger, was published and was a finalist in the Lambda Awards. His latest novel, Me and Mickie James was published by Jonathan Cape in July 2008. He works for the police. Visit his website here.

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