The pram in the hallway

This is something you should never do. But hey, we’re all adults here. And we can shoulder responsibilities and still be experimental and creative at the same time, can’t we. More after the washing machine destruction. It gets particularly destructive at 55″ in. (Thanks ColtMonday.)

Getting back to the pram. Cyril Connolly said this:

“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway.”

A bloke would say it I suppose. A woman would just get on with it. Frank Cottrell Boyce had a good piece on this in The Guardian newspaper this week. It impressed and encouraged me.

Here’s an extract:

What is “me”, if not the sum of all my relationships and obligations? A customer, that’s what. The more you give, the more you are. Think of Chekhov, with his patients and his crowds of dependent relatives, whose living room became such a public space that he had to put up no smoking signs. His advice to young writers was “travel third class”.

For centuries, writers have sung the virtues of staying connected to the routine and the mundane. Real creativity should feel like a game, not a career. Having to hang out the washing or get up and make breakfast helps you remember that your “work” is actually fun. And for it to stay fun, you have to be unafraid of failure. It’s very powerful to be surrounded by people who love you for something other than your work, who are unaware of the daily, painful fluctations of your reputation. I discovered recently that my youngest child thought I spent my days typing out more and more copies of my book Millions, so that everyone could have one.

There’s a belief that to do great work you need tranquility and control, that the pram is cluttering up the hallway; life needs to be neat and tidy. This isn’t the case. Tranquility and control provide the best conditions for completing the work you imagined. But surely the real trick is to produce the work that you never imagined. The great creative moments in our history are almost all stories of distraction and daydreaming – Archimedes in the bath, Einstein dreaming of riding a sunbeam – of alert minds open to the grace of chaos.

Writers have produced great work in the face of things far more stressful than the school run: being shot at, in the case of Wilfred Owen; being banged up in jail, in the case of Cervantes or John Bunyan. Yet that pram is lodged in our imaginations, like a secret parasite sucking on our juices.

In fact, if you go back to Connolly’s terrific book, you’ll see that the pram is only one of the many Enemies of Promise. Others include a public school education (so emotionally overwhelming you can’t move on) and success, surely the greatest enemy of all. But no one warns you about these. It’s just the pram.

Why does it retain its power to chill? I don’t think it’s about fear of distraction or domesticity. I think it’s a fear of babies. Being a parent – or really loving someone other than yourself, whether that’s your children, parents or your lover – forces you to confront a horrible truth: the fact that we get older. The amazing boy who was born when I was still a student is a man now. There is no way that I can still think of myself as “quite young, really” or “a child at heart”. Parenthood confronts us with our own mortality, every day.

As a society, we are in flight from our own mortality.

The mess we’ve made of this planet comes partly from the fact that we all feel we’re going to live for ever. Has art done much to make us think differently? When I think of art that tries to address these things – well, there’s not much of it, and it’s not much cop.

But we should turn Connolly’s equation upside-down and say that maybe what’s in the pram – breathing, vulnerable life, hope, a present responsibility – is actually more important than good art. It might make us produce less art, but maybe it would be art with the future at its heart.

I internally edited the extract above. For the full piece click here.

Meanwhile, it’s been a good day.

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11 Comments

Filed under art, life, My Writing

11 responses to “The pram in the hallway

  1. We strive for the neat & tidy then,if we get it, grumble about it’s emptyness……….!

  2. But isn’t Connolly just reiterating Virginia Woolf’s argument in A Room of One’s Own, that creativity is only possible if you have a degree of autonomy? So if you make a conscious decision to have children, and have the wherewithal to support them, they won’t be an impediment to your writing. The pram is only a problem if you don’t want it to be there, because you never wanted its contents in the first place.

    • blackwatertown

      But
      1. Unplanned things happen.
      2. One doesn’t always know what one wants.
      3. One might change one’s mind.
      But luckily I like it. So that’s fine.
      Although I remember finding it tiresome when I returned from late shifts to find that buggies, shoes, boots, etc seemed to all have been discarded inside the front door. So, trying to be quiet, in the dark, I used to squeeze through what narrow gap I could force in the doorway and bump, trip and whisper curses along the narrow hallway till I reached the light switch.
      And that was before I’d had a drink.

  3. Just as I got to the end of this I remembered that, spookily enough, there actually is a pram in my hallway. It was intended as a gift to my niece but she thought it looked cheap and tacky, so now I’m stuck with it. Along with an old rolled up carpet, a broken hoover and several cardboard boxes of assorted crap.

    You can probably guess from the above what side of this argument I come down on.

    • Forgot to mention, I’m looking forward to reading this short story.

      • blackwatertown

        How rude of your niece. Surely she should have accepted it graciously and then arranged for it to be “stolen”.
        I suppose you could use it to carry away the carpet, the hoover and the boxes of crap.

  4. So much good news it is almost heart-stopping. I am happy for you. I like the perspective of your child who sees your typewriter as you continuing to orchestrate your success – that the art work never leaves you and is handed to others to either produce or read. His world is refreshingly small.

    You equate the pram with parenting and its strong message of your own mortality as you tend to your responsibilities and you’d be right about what it represents. After all, why a pram – why not a bycicle?

    But it could also mean someone who looked at his work as his children – as another form of his creativity that he is neglecting. He is distressed he doesn’t have a pram full of manuscripts yet (we don’t know it it is his pram).

    It becomes a distraction because he makes it one not because it is. This goes along with fear of success. It’s easy to fill a pram with procreation; not so easy to fill it with artful creation. In the end, they have the same source – a soul in search of the essence of being in the things it can create. Both creative outlets may be controlled but that would rob us of the life force. Keeping the flame of the life force burning is the hedge against the darkness of mortality. You may see your own mortality in children and in your creative output. These are the roads you took to your immortality – the footprints that you were here and accepted the effort it takes; the responsibility to yourself and your talents; and the joy in creating it all.

    I so agree with this line:
    public school education (so emotionally overwhelming you can’t move on). I understand that public there is private here. My own “public” school education for a couple of years was almost too “precious.” It is a special time – your brain is ripe for becoming impregnated with ideas and it is sharp and producing excellent reactions to the thoughts of others unencumbered by adult responsibilities that dull its edges. University is a continuation of this.

    I love talking with young students because the knowledge is so freshly planted and therefore recall greater so that connections between things they have learned are easier to see. Conversations with professors and fellow students just polish the gem. You are at your absolute peak when you leave that incubator. It is not all down hill – it is just a move with all of your intellectual baggage to another part of the forest where time and the outside world add other dimensions. I do feel that older types need to go back to University to be refreshed from time to time in ways only that place (as mentioned above) can refresh you .

    There was a “New Yorker” cartoon showing two young men leaving through Princeton’s main gates and getting into a cab. One speaks to their curent state of departing the place and says: “Well, George, it’s all down hill from here.”

    • blackwatertown

      I’ve just lifted a couple of your sentences out of context. They’d make cracking chat-up lines. To slightly paraphrase…
      He: “My soul is in search of the essence of being in the things it can create. We could both control our creative outlets but that would rob us of the life force. Keeping the flame of the life force burning is the hedge against the darkness of mortality.”
      She: “I thought you’d never ask. The bedroom is this way.”

      • Excellent old thing. My outward manifestation of inward self love of my own phrases deserves to be treated in this way. I am caught. I LOVE it! you are good. I am afraid I am waxing obscure again!

  5. @ blackwatertown: Fair enough on the carpet and the hoover. But I might still need some of that assorted crap!

  6. Love it … your child thought you were typing copies of your book Millions so everyone could have one.

    All the best – Maxi

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