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27 February 2019

I love it when the silage truck arrives – and I’ve finally worked out why the sheep like it, too

Having read up on it, I can tell you that silage is actually alcoholic.

By Nicholas Lezard

Back in the Writing Room. Did I tell you I had a Writing Room? Just like JK Rowling. I thought if I called it the Writing Room I’d, you know, do my writing in it. It is in the West Wing of the MacHovel and looks out on a sloping sheep field, a tin shack, several trees and the cottage of my neighbours, whom I am told are nice but I am too shy to say hello to.

The room’s on the ground floor, and is bare of curtains and all furniture except a table and four chairs. It is bright, with windows on the west and south sides, and sometimes the sheep look in at me, puzzled but not censorious, for my screen does not face them and they cannot see that the Writing Room is actually the Mucking About on Social Media and Reading the Daily Mash Room. Occasionally I see a farmer delivering silage to them, unloading it in a row, and all the sheep stand in a line to eat it. For some reason the sight is deeply pleasing.

They get awfully excited when the tractor pulling the silage trailer arrives. Man, do they love their silage, and having read up on this I can tell you that this is because it is actually alcoholic. So when Withnail calls Michael Elphick’s poacher a “silage heap” in the film he was apter than he perhaps knew.

But back to the Writing Room. I haven’t been able to use it for the past couple of months because it had become a strong contender, among stiff competition, for the coldest room in the house. It has a wood-burning stove that actually works, but one day in December I kept it going all day and even after several hours the room was too cold to sit in. I gave up the struggle. Since then, until today, everything I have written has been written in bed. I wonder if you could tell (in the way that Kingsley Amis could identify every passage Paul Scott had written when he hadn’t been smoking). Since getting back from London, I’ve been doing everything in bed for the past month and a half – well, almost everything. I even rediscovered the joy of smoking in bed, which I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever done before.

But the weather has turned: my breath no longer steams, there are snowdrops and aconites abounding, and even the flocks of crows and jackdaws seem, like me, to have a greater energy and purpose. Of course, this being Scotland, the weather will probably turn back again, but for the moment I am enjoying the sensation of not having to keep my coat on all the time. Let us look on the bright side.

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But as the MacHovel gradually becomes fit for purpose (there is ongoing renovation work here, with Chris – the most rural person I have ever met – and his grandson sanding and painting throughout the day) I wonder how much where one lives influences what one writes. I am meant to be writing other things apart from this column but the bed-bound months were not productive. Even with asthma, I am no Proust (the most renowned bed-bound writer ever), it turns out.

A friend reminds me that Alan Bennett once said that Kafka could only have written his works in an apartment: “Put him in a nice detached villa and he’d never have written a word.” I don’t know about that, and I’m also sure the MacHovel does not exactly fit the mental image conjured up by the words “nice detached villa”, but I bet that if he’d spent a winter here he’d have written something that would have made The Trial look like A Bear Called Paddington. But with only a month to go before I leave, I am going to have to engage on something a little smaller-scale than The Trial.

The big distraction, of course, is the internet. I sometimes wonder what would I would have done here without it; and yet, obviously, people once did… I suppose without it I could still have had telephone conversations with my children (brief and only occasional ones, though; the landline here costs money, especially to mobile phones). But how would I have let my friends on a Social Medium know that the last fifth of a bottle of Lagavulin had disappeared, resulting in, last week, a glorious procession of three separate replacements?

I could use the radio to catch up on news, but without the internet, how could I have kept up with the ripples of genteel and civilised debate on Twitter about the latest political developments? And how would I have seen that clip of a maltreated cat biting its owner in the balls?

But I am going to have to pull my finger out. It’s not going to be easy. Six weeks is not a long time in which to write even a slim volume of imaginative prose, and at the moment the only thing I can think of writing about is silage.

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This article appears in the 27 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit broke politics

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