On writing · Universal Knowledge

Porlock

I wrote last month about coincidences, and how some people claim that things are “amazing coincidences” when really they’re not. If you keep your eyes and ears open, and read (anything – magazines, newspapers, websites, books), and watch TV programmes, movies and plays, and listen to the radio, you will come across the same things in many different places. If you pick 10 books, seemingly unrelated, seemingly at random, you will find some of the same stories, references and themes occur. I remember finding references to fruit-flies in three books running some years ago (a sports book, a novel, and a biography of Rosalind Franklin – I hadn’t gone to the “Fruit Fly” section of my local bookshop). And I kept coming across references to “The Children’s Crusade” after I read about it in “Slaughterhouse 5”.

Ten years ago this week I set myself the target of sitting down to write (or type) something most days. I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but (as I wrote in an earlier post) I now write (or type) at least a thousand words per day at least 5 days per week. I reviewed the first 15 days of typing earlier this week and was pleased to see how many of those initial ideas (and how many of the different drafts I attempted) ended up in “1000 Memories”. It’s also the most detailed diary I have ever kept. In among all the attempted drafts are some of the details of our day-to-day lives, including the news that my wife was pregnant with our second child. I remember that time in our lives very clearly, but if I want to I can now find out exactly what day the line turned blue.

And in among those first 15 days of words (tens of thousands of the blessed things) I wrote a few times about Porlock. It came up repeatedly. I know people who would probably feel insulted if I tried to explain the significance of the word, but most people I know have probably never heard of the place, and why it’s significant for students of English literature. For anyone who ever sits down to write anything (or tries to get something creative finished) the story of “The Man for Porlock” is an important one.

Legend has it that Coleridge (that’s the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as I would have to inform most people under 12) awoke from a sleep during which an epic poem about Kubla Khan came to him, fully formed. Before he could write it down there was a knock at the door, “The Man from Porlock”, on some errand. This interruption took so long that by the time it ended the fully-formed poem had disappeared from Coleridge’s mind, and all we have is a fragment of the epic that he had dreamed.

Earlier this week I listened to a 2005 edition of “Desert Island Discs”, featuring Jonathan Miller. The subject of Porlock came up (without much explanation – as if the average listener to the show would know what they were talking about) and there was a reference to Stevie Smith (the 20th Century poet Stevie Smith) on the subject. (Stevie Smith had also made some unkind observations about Dr Miller as a child, which were discussed in the show.) Her reference to Porlock didn’t ring any bells for me, but I find, from my first digital scribbles, ten years ago, that I had copied 4 lines of one her poems, “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock”:

I am hungry to be interrupted
Forever and ever amen
O Person from Porlock come quickly
And bring my thoughts to an end.

Those lines came from an article by Robert Fulford, quoting an earlier article by Robert Pinsky: “”Few people,” Pinsky said, “can write without procrastination, time-wasting, whining, and avoiding.” But writers hate admitting that, and may create spectacular fibs to cover it. “The most famous example is Coleridge…””

And, to keep the Porlock “coincidences” coming (if that’s what they are), that same week in February 2006 I was working near London Bridge. While waiting for a train I looked at the map of the local area, and found that there’s a Porlock Street just around the corner, near Druid Street and Crucifix Street. Literary, pagan and Christian references all in one small part of London. And I’ve managed to type these words with just one interruption, a man delivering a parcel from Amazon, but that only took 15 seconds.

 

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