One spring day I felt an inexplicable urge to try to list everything that was all and only red. This was quite hard to do, but didn’t stop me moving on to everything that is all and only yellow, followed by blue, and green. Yellow: the sun, new chicks, buttercups, for a start. But the sun can appear pink, orange or red. A new chick might be albino… For each certainty a counter-example would appear. It was exhausting.
I rang my friend to tell him what I had achieved, and share my lovely lists. “How many days is it until your first finals exam?” he asked. “Shouldn’t you be writing essay plans for Aesthetics?”
I’ve mentioned before that I got quite seriously into wine-making in my first few years without TV. Perhaps more relevant as a cause was the fact that I was working on a PhD at the time. Freecycle furnished me with demi-johns, bungs, filter kits and even wine-warming devices for fermentation in cold climates. In autumn a quiet symphony of bubbles could be heard popping through airlocks. By the time I moved to London from Bristol, to continue my studies at LSE, I had 200 bottles to transport.
I loved the learning process of making those wines, probably even more than I enjoyed the finished product (with the exception of some very good elderberry port). Now though, I am suspicious when my thoughts turn to some new, previously unexplored activity. I need to be learning all the time, but there is a limitless amount to learn about the things I already do – creative writing and photography both being prime areas for improvement. Still, I can’t bring myself to throw out the copy of Teach Yourself Sanscrit that is taking up precious shelf space.
Neither of my explanations for these whims pleases me much. I am either driven by an insatiable desire for novelty, or a sucker for displacement activities. Or both.
There is a positive slant to this. The amount of displacement activities I am engaging in or considering is a good indicator of my true commitment to my main endeavour in life at the time, by which I mean commitment on a level I cannot easily access consciously. So far, I can write for long periods without needing to look up courses on pattern design or thinking I’d be much happier if I knew how to make a range of Victorian hangover cures (brandy, sugar and frothed egg white will do).
Those 200 bottles of home-made wine should have told me that perhaps my PhD research was not 100% fulfilling, however much it gripped me when I was fully engaged. Especially when you combine them with the collection of hand-made feather fascinators I was selling via a local vintage shop, followed by a small business in London producing fresh beef stock. It’s hard to think of a selection of more time-consuming activities.
I am sad that my wine making for the last few years has been limited to fast elderberry champagne and one cider-making-cum-wasp-killing session. But words are pouring instead, and I know from the empty wine rack that I want this more that I want an understanding of alcohol tolerances in yeasts at a range of temperatures.
Needless to say that while the wine is almost finished, the same will never be true of the PhD. When I have a completed draft of my second novel, though, I might celebrate with that last, dusty bottle of home-made port.