The writer Trigorin, in Chekhov’s The Seagull, always carried a notebook with him in which he jotted down ideas or snatches of conversation that interested him and that might have proved useful to him in the future. I have tried to develop the Trigorin habit myself, but unfortunately I have often forgotten to take my notebook with me precisely when it would have been most useful.
The other problem with such notebooks as I do succeed in filling is that, within hours, I cannot decipher the meaning or context of what I have written. And even when I can decipher my notes, I am unsure what use I shall ever be able to put them to. Recently in a cemetery, for example, I took down the words attached to some flowers left by a friend at the recently dug grave of a young man killed in a car accident. ‘Hope you are all right,’ it said, which I suppose indicates some residual belief in the afterlife in our post-religious society; but what use was it for me to write this down?
Or how about this overheard in a café? ‘I bought a bicycle for my next-door neighbour who’s 99, but she won’t use it.’
Or yet again, looking up the dates of a surgeon recently in Plarr’s Lives of the Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons, I came across the following sentence in the life of Richard Vaughan Payne, which for some reason I committed to my notebook. ‘His right arm was amputated in 1952, but he continued to practise as a consultant.’
I have heard of one-armed pianists, of course, but never of one-armed surgeons. Would I be prepared to submit myself to the care of such a one, however ‘naturally gifted’ he was as an operator? It was tantalising also not to know why his arm was amputated, but they were more reticent about giving out such details in those days. Anyway, of what possible use was my note?
I have long harboured the design of compiling the titles of books that suggest contents of a preternaturally boring kind, but I now know that my failure to have my notebook always with me means that I shall never fulfil that great design. Why the existence of such books should delight me I cannot in any case fully explain, but recently my heart leapt with joy when, in a bookshop, I saw a large and learned, or at any rate pedantic, tome, published in the 1880s, entitled The Medical Aspects of Bournemouth. Inside, the bookseller had written that word that always justifies a high price, ‘Scarce’. So, I should imagine, was the demand.
People write boring books because their thoughts are boring. They are worse now than ever. I was early for an appointment on the day I found the above book, and went to a bar. The young people next to me were talking in a mixture of psychobabble and management jargon. The young man said to the woman, ‘I understand where you’re coming from, but I have to say that I disagree with it,’ to which she replied, ‘So I said to him I don’t want you on my back because you’ve got no skills.’
Well, I thought, perhaps she isn’t quite as boring as she seems on first acquaintance. What skills, after all, did she think were required for someone rightfully to be on her back? What exactly was her profession?