For a few years in the eighties, Aberdeen FC broke the two Glasgow teams’ dominance. How? By hiring Alex Ferguson, the best manager in the game and a worthy successor to that other Caledonian weaver of soccer magic, Bill Shankly, who a decade earlier had taken Liverpool to the kind of world-beating status now enjoyed by Barcelona. A man also eminently quotable:
A lot of people seem tae think football a matter of life and death. But I can tell you, it’s a lot more important than that.
We lost by one goal tae nothing – and were lucky tae get nothing!
But it’s another Shankly gem that interests me here. He was speaking about Keegan but, as was his wont, blending particular and universal truths. The boy Kevin, he said, was no more talented than the other lads playing togger on the street.
But he was the one still kicking that ball around when his mates had all gone home for their tea.
In 2008 Geoff Colvin wrote the book, Talent is Overrated. Colvin starts by taking on the Mozart myth of innate genius, already debunked in a 2004 Simpson’s episode. He points out that (a) the ‘child prodigy’ had a disciplinarian father, himself a more than competent composer and tutor; (b) Wolfgang’s first symphony, written at eight, has little significance beyond that fact; (c) the cherished myth of sublime music pouring unedited from a mind divinely moved ignores the sheer hard labour that went into its creation. That Mozart, unlike the more erratically brilliant Beethoven, never puts a foot wrong indicates relentless dedication, not heavenly guidance.
(Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus was a tour de force, but gorgeously wide of the mark. Never more so than in having Wolfie on his death bed, dictating his (own?) Requiem to an astonished Salieri – who more than any other appreciates his arch-rival’s genius, and has declared war on God for allowing it to enter the world through so cracked a vessel.)
Colvin moves on, as I recall, to Ivan Lendl – his slave-driving mother cut from the same block as Leopold Mozart – but it had by then become clear to me he’d made his point, and would be devoting the rest of the book to restating it through successive examples. One of a few things that excite me about writing in the digital age is the steady erosion of publisher as gatekeeper, and of the market tyranny that demands a whole book where a ten or twenty thousand word essay would do nicely. As we shift from printed to electronic forms, and to self publishing as a respectable endeavour, not only can we expect new genres but the revival of old ones sidelined by the economics of printing and distributing books. I mean the novella and the essay.
That segues neatly into the substance of this post, which is neither soccer nor symphonies but the written word. A friend recently told me one of my favourite writers, Mark Twain, had once ended a letter with this:
I’m sorry it’s so long – I didn’t have time to write a short one.
The beautiful simplicity of Twain’s writing makes it look easy. But as one who’s devoted much time to this subject, and over decades, I say nothing could be further from the truth. In writing, as with other creative forms, simplicity is hard won. And Twain’s remark about not having time to pen a short letter resonates. I once foolishly allowed my services as writer to be hired by a charity. Its CEO and founder, her estimation of her worth reflected in a salary she could have earned nowhere else, queried my bill for a piece of writing. “It seems a lot for a few hundred words.”
In what would prove one of our last conversations, I said I could have given her two thousand words for a lot less, and chalked up a better hourly rate, but there’s no arguing with philistines.
My own hard luck stories apart, the point I want to end on is that good writers, and I’m vain enough to count myself one, get to be good by working at it. There’s no mystery. Like any other activity – bricklaying or bank robbery, pastry making or particle physics – we get better the more we do it.
No, that’s not quite right. If practise really made perfect, the standard of driving on our roads would be a thousand times better. OK, practise with reflection makes perfect. There, fixed it.
I think it was Dr Johnson who said that any man may write, so long as he set himself doggedly to it. I just checked. Johnson was born in Lichfield and died in London but we can’t rule out his having had Scottish blood, can we?