When I was in primary school, we studied the fascinating story of Simeon Stylites. It was one in of those weird comprehension books we did at my small rural primary, that possibly every other school had left behind in the sixties (The fact it was called New Worlds to Conquer convinces me more of this). So Simeon went off to the desert and lived up a pillar for years or something, and was very holy and stuff. I drew a picture of him to go with my comprehension, his ribs sticking out in a piteous fashion, using many of the brown-hued set of my 64- crayon Deluxe Crayola case.
I have just looked up old Simeon for the first time in twenty years, and whatdya know, he was a Catholic saint. Catholic propaganda in our English lessons! Why am I not surprised. And apparently he lived up a pillar for 37 years, on a platform just one metre square, and he never allowed any women to come near him, not even his mother. And quite right too; we all know women are evil. Probably they would have distracted him with some cake and the latest issue of Heat magazine. This all just goes to show that one millennium’s saint is the next’s care-in-the-community.
My point here is not the subtle indoctrination of Catholic schools (perhaps it should be), it is more about the life of a writer. We may not live actually up pillars, but we could be said to be aloft from the world in many ways. For example. I’ve heard some established writers say they haven’t had a ‘real’ job in about thirty years – how could you then descend from this pillar and go to work, if, as keeps me awake at night, the whole publishing industry collapses?
When I quit my office job a few weeks ago people asked me would I not be lonely or bored sitting at home. I said I didn’t think so, and the truth is I love love LOVE it. I love being at home on my own. Is that sad? I like the peace and quiet, I LOVE not having to trek up to London every day on the train, and I’m immersing myself in words all day. Plus, the only filth in the kitchen has been made by yours truly, and the tea is of the finest leaf (I do live in Tunbridge Wells, after all). What’s not to like? Perhaps we aren’t so different from Simeon, happy to shut ourselves away from the world with just our thoughts, the harsh desert light of imagination.
I think most writers must have hermit-like tendencies. You have to, really, or else you’d spend your entire time swanning about at book events. A certain degree of anti-socialism is required to sit in a room and pound out thousands and millions of made-up words. The very gregarious must struggle with this. Luckily with the internet, we can all connect with people without actually having to get out of our pyjamas and leave the house. A bit like in the EM Forster story, The Machine Stops, where everyone lives in little rooms connected by the internet like ‘machine’. (if you want to read it, it’s here http://www.plexus.org/forster/index.html ) This is fine with me. As long as I have tea, paper/laptop, broadband, and mittens, I’m happy. Cold hands are definitely an occupational hazard of the writer. And as for fasting, let’s just say we don’t all cope with the solitude in quite as ascetic fashion as old Simeon. Unless his pillar was built of several thousand boxes of Jaffa Cakes?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simeon_Stylites for more hair-raising information about old Simeon.