I've just bought Christopher Hitchens's new collection of journalism, Love, Poverty and War. Presumably, it's been acquired for use on every print media training course in Britain, because it's about the highest example of the art. There is no photograph of the author this time, but an earlier Hitchens volume showed him writing at a pub table littered with fag ends and empty glasses. It was a refreshing variation on the usual author photograph, in which the subject is shown looking wry in front of a bookshelf, upon which stands an improbable concentration of highbrow titles.
I myself quite often write in pubs - usually over a couple of pints in the early evening - and would do so even if Christopher Hitchens didn't. You can borrow faces and tones of voice, and it's amazing what narrative solutions spring to mind after two glasses of London Pride. The pub writer also has a sense of heroism, of being in a field of one, whereas the writing spaces of libraries are production lines. It's easy to write in pubs, simply because you're not meant to.
But it can be a dangerous business. A friend of mine who is a journalist was making notes in an East End pub when the landlord walked up to him and said: "Look, I know what you're doing is innocent, but these blokes [he gestured around the bar where, my friend suddenly realised, half a dozen men were giving him murderous looks] don't. As far as they're concerned, you could be anyone . . . You could be Old Bill." "All right," said my friend, "I'll stop writing." "No," said the landlord, "you'll get out of here now." I don't imagine that any undercover detective worth the name would sit in a pub overtly making notes on the clientele. Anyone giving furtive looks around the saloon bar before writing "Big Dave's in again . . . acting very suspicious", then underlining the word "very" with bold pen strokes . . . well, they'd be asking for all they got.
Yet making notes in public is dangerous simply because the very act of writing freaks people out. The accepted mode of communication is vocal, preferably extremely loudly and by means of a mobile telephone. The other danger is that it arouses interest. If someone comes up to me in a pub and asks: "What are you writing, then? A bloody novel?" and I answer "yes", it will only come across as impertinence, even though it happens to be true. People feel that the pub note-taker owes them an explanation, and "I hope you don't mind my asking . . ." soon becomes "You won't mind my asking . . .".
A more than tipsy man once came up to me while I was writing and said: "Can I ask you a question?" "OK," I said. "What the
fuck . . ." he began. "What the fucking hell d'you think you're . . ."
I left before he could finish. If someone asks: "What sort of writer are you?" it's always better to say "journalist". It slightly intimidates people, because they know a journalist can always have the last word. (Which is why, if I'm getting bad service at a restaurant, I might sadistically lay a pen and paper on the table, adopting the persona of a restaurant critic.)
The pub writer is certainly a magnet for the other pub weirdos. Sometimes another person will sit next to me and also start making notes. I will not have this. In any given pub, there's room for only one genius, so then I have to leave. Just this week, a man occupied the seat next to mine while I was in the Gents. On my return, he asked: "Will you look after my stuff for a minute?" These are words you never want to hear in a pub, because they can easily mark the beginning of a novel-sized chain of events. I looked under the table at his "stuff" and it was mad stuff: a couple of taped-up carrier bags, a box held together with string. "No," I said. "I'm just going." He looked shocked. Having seen me writing, he'd taken me for a soft touch.