One of the few bonuses that 2008 presented my wife and I was the return of Sky TV. We don't have a satellite disc. We receive our TV channels through cable but when NTL was taken over by Virgin there was a falling out with Sky program providers. Virgin dug their heels in and so we lost all the Sky channels. So, no Lost, Bones, Battlestar Galactica and no Stargate. Ah well. But at the tail end of the year the two kissed and made up and just like that we got all our channels back and a couple of extra ones, SkyARTS1 and SkyARTS2. Very nice. In our old flat we did have Artsworld as it was known then and I loved it even if it didn't have the biggest output.
Anyways, we takes what we gets and we don't complain.
One of the shows is The Book Show, presented by Mariella Frostrup, she of the throaty voice, who I remember from The Little Picture Show back in the nineties. Now The Book Show is a fairly glossy affair and all the guests I've seen have been the big names, the ones whose books you'll find in the supermarkets heavily discounted but still more than I'd care to pay.
That said the programme's still worth a watch. They always do a segment where a famous author shows us round their workspace in fact sometimes these get slipped in as fillers during the day to round up programmes to an hour. I did a blog on that months ago but for some reason it's a subject I never tire of. And the show always ends the same way, with each of that week's guests telling which character from fiction they'd like to be and why. On the whole the choices have not excited me overly much and have all been reasonably predictable – Jane Eyre, James Bond, Mr Darcy – but after one show my wife asked me, "Well, who would you pick?" And I sat and I sat and I sat and do you know I couldn't think of anyone. Well, that's not true. I could think of characters I was like or empathised with but none I'd like to be.
And then it came to me. In a flash. As it were. Slartibartfast!
Slartibartfast, for those out there who have either not heard the radio shows, read the books, seen the TV programmes or sat through the film adaptation is a character in Douglas Adams' 'trilogy in five parts' The Hitch- Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a Magrathean who had just been woken up from a five million year nap when he's introduced in the book.
Slartibartfast is a member of a race who create designer-planets. His favourite part of the job is designing coastlines, the most notable of which were the fjords found on the coast of Norway on planet Earth:
'Did you ever go to a place … I think it was called Norway?'
'No,' said Arthur, 'no, I didn't'
'Pity,' said Slartibartfast, 'that was one of mine. Won an award you know. Lovely crinkly edges. I was most upset to hear of its destruction.'
Why I thought I'd like to be him is that he's very much a backroom boy. He has a job he enjoys and gets on with it. He's a little distracted; at least that's how both Bill Nighy and Richard Vernon play him. (Much I as enjoy Bill Nighy as an actor I actually think Vernon does a better job myself.) Still, after five million plus years I'd expect to be a bit doty.
The thing is, having had time to think about it and taking the whole thing far too seriously when I did, I'm not convinced that Slartibartfast is who I'd like to be. He's more positive that someone like Krapp but I still think he's someone I'd expect to be as opposed to someone I'd like to be So, I went and sat in front of my bookcases and had a think.
You know, I've read a lot of depressing books in my life. I'm really not drawn to anything remotely feel good. Even the comic books I read. Take Ziggy for example. I love Ziggy. Unusually for me he's an optimistic chappie. But where I relate to him is that life confuses him when it's not actively conspiring against him. That I get. And as I get older – and hence more Slartibartfastian – it seems to be getting worse.
The novels I found my hand reaching for were mostly ones I read many years ago, The Outsider and The Plague by Camus, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Nausea by Jean-Paul Satre, Arrival and Departure by Arthur Koestler, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse, The Trial by Franz Kafka, Hunger by Knut Hamsum and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey and if there is one thing that to a greater or lesser extent the characters share its that they look at life from the outside. As a writer I've always felt apart. Every social situation I get involved in I find I sit back and observe hoping to catch a glimpse of that elusive wee bugger, truth.
The only contemporary novel that wound up in my pile was Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson and again the protagonist finds herself in a world that doesn't make sense to her.
So, I wasn't any further forward and then I noticed a clump of novels by Richard Brautigan and there it was: The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, to give the book its full title. Yes, that was it. I'd like to be the librarian, the narrator of the book, the hero if you like.
When Slartibartfast first meets Arthur Dent he tells him his name is not important although he does reveal it when pressed at the end of the chapter. The librarian in The Abortion never does and no one, not even the beautiful Vida, the girl "with a Botticellian face and Playboy furniture legs" who becomes his lover, refers to it. That appeals. I always hate with relationships how you feel duty bound to provide a potted history of your life. Vida – and by extension we readers – learns very little about the librarian before she decides to sleep with him and then move in with him. Very 1966.
Essentially the librarian has been a drifter:
'I kicked around a lot: canneries, sawmills, factories. A woman supported me for a couple of years, then she got tired of it and kicked my ass out,' I said. 'It was all pretty complicated before I started working here.'
How he ended up as the librarian was simply that he was in the right place at the right time:
'The fellow who was here before me couldn't stand children. He thought they were going to steal his shoes. I came in here with a book I'd written and while he was writing it down in the Library Contents Ledger, a couple of children came in so he flipped, so I told him that I had better take over the library and he had better do something that didn't involve children. He told me he thought he was cracking up too, and that's how I got this job.'
That did happen to me once – it was a drycleaners and not a library more is the pity – but it pleased me nonetheless. I'd popped in to see a friend, his shop girl hadn't turned up for work and as he was stuck on the front desk and couldn't do any work out back I offered to cover the till. The next thing it became a part-time job, then regular and finally – and we're talking about only a few months – my friend left and I became the manager. A bit like the librarian in The Abortion, all my previous work had been in very different jobs, offices in my case, so this was quite refreshing although eventually I packed it in and went back to another office job purely for the money.
Not all of Brautigan's characters are as laid back as the librarian but that's probably the quality I would long for myself. I'm really not a laid back character. Up tight, that's me. Which makes me wonder why Slartibartfast jumped to my mind because he's not really laid back. He'd found a job that he likes and so when it came to the replacement Earth and he got landed with Africa as opposed to Scandinavia he was a bit miffed about the lack of, for want of another word, "crinkly" bits. So I guess I want to be a laid back backroom boy. Yes, that sounds about right.
Anyway, I've prattled on enough. I'd be interested to hear which character in literature you would like to be and why. This is not a meme by the way. You are under no obligation to pass this on to anyone. It's just a bit of fun for a change.