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14 April 2021

Robert Webb’s Diary: Writer’s block, book club phobia and dreaming of an “I miss lockdown” T-shirt

Everyone said we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves during lockdown, so I’m being philosophical about the non-appearance of an idea for my next novel.

By Robert Webb

In an idle moment – and I’ve recently had several – I started daydreaming about getting a T-shirt made that said “I miss lockdown”. Never in my wildest nightmares would I actually wear such a thing – I just got a perverse kick out of imagining the enormous offence it could cause. Where would I model it first? The summer fete at my children’s school? My sister-in-law’s wedding? The possibilities were thrilling.

I remember my GCSE biology teacher turning up at a school fair with “I’d rather be working” printed across his sweater in a playful font. I think I admired this at the time, while also registering mild unease that he’d just told everyone to get lost. Were teachers allowed to do that? Surely, as a snooty 15-year-old, that was my job. Something was wrong with the natural order of things.

I’m aware of the colossal luck and privilege that goes into a tolerable lockdown and I won’t miss it really. But I can’t be the only one anticipating “the chance to do normal things again” with a degree of ambivalence. Gradually this summer, I will be reacquainted with evidence that I am a lazy, unpopular bastard. Not doing anything or being invited anywhere will once again be a source of social anxiety rather than proof of civic responsibility. It will be a curious spectacle, seeing all the other hermits and curmudgeons dragged squinting from their lairs into the sunlight of love, friendship and having to travel all the way to south London for a barbecue. No doubt we will be glad once we get there. Grrr…

My inner critic

I do get out sometimes: I was one of the guests on an episode of BBC Two’s Between the Covers. Prior to recording, there were a couple of conversations with producers in which it became clear I was not to treat the show like Late Review or any other kind of boffin-heavy salon from the Nineties. The vibe was “chatty book club”. This alarmed me, because it has always been my view that I shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a book club: I worry that such an environment will bring out my inner pseud, my inner moron, my inner… critic. Is it just me or do all male English graduates get jumpy about this? Normal people don’t associate reading with showing off, do they?

The experience of reading books with the intention of discussing them was really quite bracing, probably because it reminded me of being a student: young, spiky and unsure of which “self” to present on the day. In my novel, Come Again, a middle-aged widow, Kate, finds herself transported back to 1992 and to freshers’ week, where she first met her future dead husband, Luke. But Luke isn’t the self-assured man she lost; he’s the annoying 19-year-old she first encountered. And he’s still saying things like, “I think Ben Okri should go back to short stories to refresh his style”, when Kate knows perfectly well that her husband has never read a word of Ben Okri. (Actually, Luke knows he published a book called The Famished Road so, to be fair, he has read three words by Ben Okri.) I was never quite that bad, but I certainly gave Luke plenty of my own youthful insecurity. It never quite leaves you.

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Anyway, I think I got through the recording without becoming insufferable, so that’s a triumph in itself.

The wander years

I spent the last year nodding along wisely to all the people saying we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves during lockdown and that we’re not all necessarily going to learn Hindi or figure out what’s going on in the film Memento. Accordingly, I have been philosophical about the non-appearance of an idea for my next novel. “Let it wander in from the edges of sight,” I whisper to myself calmly while staring at the computer screen until my hair bleeds.

In fact, while I was busy doubting the existence of people who use lockdown to write a novel, it turned out I was living with one. My wife is quite close to the end of a first draft of a thriller. Presumably there is a German word for the mixture of pride and envy evoked when a loved one succeeds in a way that leaves you totally demoralised? Gutmeinfuckybuchfrauliebling?

I note Abigail uses cork boards and index cards to plan her story. So obviously, in a near-heroic act of self-harm, I have stuck a large grid of 18 30x30cm cork boards to a wall of the room I laughingly call my study. There they have rested for the last month, utterly bare. The wall is opposite the computer on which I do Zoom calls, so my status as someone who is definitely not writing a novel is literally the background to whatever I tell the outside world. That includes an online writing course where I was interviewed for the benefit of other writers about just how I got to be such a wonderful novelist.

Whenever the bathos becomes too oppressive, I just remember that the cork boards also work as an excellent sound dampener for the purposes of home voice-over recording. Well, it could be true…

Jog on

I had a heart operation a year and a half ago and since then I’ve been doing (remote, now cork board-themed) strength training with a “cardio coach” or “expensive PE teacher”. I also get all dressed up in polyester and go for a run three times a week. In a recent assessment with my coach I was asked to name my health goals, and I said not entirely facetiously that I’d like to “stay out of hospital for 40 years”. Given my family medical history, as well as what I personally was getting up to until 2019, this is a bit of a tall order. But hey, a goal is a goal. If I make it to 88, by then the cork boards will surely reveal a second novel in an advanced state of preparation. It’s good to have an ambition or two. 

“Come Again” (Canongate) is out in paperback from 29 April

[see also: Deborah Levy’s Diary: Floating saunas in Oslo, outsourcing emotions, and a very good month for the patriarchy]

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This article appears in the 14 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people