Today’s guest is philosopher and author John Armstrong, whose latest book is In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea. Beginning Saturday 24th October, John will be giving a series of public lectures at the NGV, 'Great Ideas That Have Changed the World'.
I would love to describe how I write, but I am afraid it would strike most people as repulsive and incredible (a very bad combination).
The morally acceptable tip of the iceberg is this: I write longhand notes, using a fountain pen (now broken, substituted by a roller ball, substituted by a fibre tip, substituted by a cheap biro). I write vast quantities of notes then lose them, abandon them, get confused about which note is where and never refer to them again. I write instructions to myself ('get on with it', 'that's enough notes') - then I lose the instructions.
I start all over again on my old laptop - opening a cave system of documents - one leading to another, but with no overview, no sense of how one gets to the outside world.
I often drink coffee while I'm writing - but have a maximum of two cups per day - which limits my creative span. If I use them up quite quickly - by 10.00 am in the morning and I haven't done anything constructive, that's often it for the day as far as writing is concerned. I like working in cafes and find that having other people around is not much of a distraction.
I'm obsessive about chairs and desks - but I'm not at all sure that the obsession is productive. I'm so concerned about the look of a desk that I don't take convenience into account. I have a lovely little desk (made in Holland in the late 19th century) - it's got a curved front and rounded back - from which papers keep on slipping. My chair is German, early 19th century in what's called Biedermeier style - it's not very comfortable.
But the biggest, most important writing tool is my book collection. I don't use libraries; or, rather, second-hand book shops are my libraries. I read always out of affection, rather than form a sense of duty and don't undertake 'research' - I'm always trying to home in on what I like, what I enjoy or fin moving or inspiring and then I try to explain to myself what it is I like, admire or find exciting.
Old books have the very best price-value relation of anything on the market. (I recently got - for about $8 - a two volume old hardback edition of Anthony Trollope's political novel Phineas Redux.)
I care very much for the existence of old books and find their presence very encouraging. I suppose they are token of hope: books can have a long life; writing is at attempt to say something of permanent value.
(Photo: Josie Hayden)