At the start of each academic year, usually when I have known them for a week or so, I make this confession to my students: ‘To survive this course you will need to have the stationery thing.’ It’s not a confession as such, but to get it they need to have it. Indirectly, I am telling them: I have it too. The point of this is not confession for its own sake, but to make the very serious point, hidden in plain view in the form of a personal anecdote, that if we do not note down that which amazes and inspires each day we will lose it in what Ted Hughes called ‘the crush of information’ of living.
I can always predict how this will go down. Half of the room will look at me uncomprehendingly. They do not say anything, but I know they are beginning to wonder if they made the right choice to choose my course. The other half of the room are nodding and making small squeals of approval. They get it. They touch their scarves and look as though they could curl up with a bowl of hot chocolate.
To make my point more memorable, more personal, and strange, I go into a riff about Great Stationery Shopping Experiences I Have Had (France: a Mammouth hypermarket; Switzerland: a Co-op in an out of season ski resort; the time I spent a whole day dragging my family round Stockholm in search of the famous Bookbinders Design shop. It was the last place we came to.) Just as half the room are zoning out and thinking about coffee, and the other half are starting to make orders on their mobiles, I read them some random (always random) pages from a notebook I have pulled from my shelf that morning.
It will say things like:
Carrots, Butternut, Car MOT (?) check
Dentist -family or just me?
Metaphor article by Cheryl -where is it?
‘Crystals of purpose’
There is a silence.
Even those who are now looking out the window are now paying attention. The thing is, I tell them, some of this may not lead to anything, but nearly all of it nearly always does, because it teaches me to pay attention. Not just to the things I discuss over breakfast with my wife that need doing, but the really important leads like my colleague Cheryl’s marvellous article on memory and metaphor and the fact that Peter’s new book is amazing and I need to spend some time with it.
Over time, this has made quite a library of snatched moments of attention, what DH Lawrence called the ‘effort of concentration’ of looking at and capturing the world around me. Not to mention colourful Clairefontaine (of course) notebooks, with their grid lines and smooth, fountain-pen-friendly 90 gsm paper. My fetish has prompted me to wonder on more than one occasion that I engage in writing poems as a way of feeding my notebook-habit, rather than the other way round. Cloaked in this joke is the serious observation that years of note-making practice has taught me: it is not really about the notebook; it is about the noticing.
Somewhere (you’ll have to trust me on this) I have a one-page entry which reads: ‘The woman in the anorak at the swimming pool.’ I agree, it’s not much of an observation. But, in its way, it has become monumental to me, a touchstone which reminds me why I do this.
Picture the setting. It’s a Monday night in the depths of winter. I am watching my kids at their swimming practice, as I do every Monday, at the local baths. I am sitting alone on some tiered seats, a respectable British distance from the other parents, some of whom are eating, some chatting, and some shouting at their children below. I notice the man in charge of the swimming practice has a whistle and wears a black, skin-tight tracksuit. He is also shouting. My kids’ group is in the lane nearest to the tiered seating. I have a very good view of their progress.
But, being me, my mind wanders. I fidget. (This is in the unimaginable age before mobile phones and Facebook.) I look at my book. I close my book. I pretend to listen to the trainer. I fidget some more, finding with surprise that I have brought my notebook with me. I begin to flick through the entries, pages of lists and weird phrases I have no memory of writing. Then I see her.
At the end of the pool, at pool-level, is a small seating area. It is only ever filled by the good parents who arrive at the training sessions first. The woman who has caught my eye is the mother of a former friend of my daughter. We would have spoken, years ago, in the school playground, perhaps exchanged small-talk as we collected our daughters from parties. I have not seen her for some time. I notice she looks tired and a bit drawn. Like me she is not chatting to other parents or eating. She is watching her daughter intently, between glances at the pages of a magazine. No one speaks to her. At the end of the session, she smiles briefly at her daughter, waves, and puts on a blue anorak. Then she vanishes.
All I have in my notebook is: ‘The woman in the anorak in the swimming pool.’ I do not need any more. Since I wrote it thirteen years ago I have had cancer, lost too many friends to the same, and my eel-like kids have left home. But were an iceberg to float on the surface of that water, it would contain all the information I need: the smell of chlorine, the noise, the vast sense of isolation of a Monday night in December. Originally I thought it may go in a short story. I may never use it for anything. (In a sense I just have.)