On Invisibility

The Arts


Writers tend to be prickly outsiders, because if they’re any good they work so many long hours alone that they often lose their social skills. But paradoxically we need to connect with our readers, and lose this connection at one peril.

My old boss, a great mentor, told me, ‘If five million people are interested in something, you need to know about it too.’ But very often we writers are out of touch. Being at the epicentre of a great metropolis helps, but every now and again my outsider status hits me.

The other night I went to a party mostly populated with people I’d never met. Several seemed sketchy about what they actually did for a living. Afterwards I realised they were mostly minor TV celebrities, and were waiting for me to pick up on it. I don’t watch TV because my working habits exclude the possibility of watching at night, so I don’t know who is on which show, and I can’t really say I’m interested. They don’t belong to my tribe, nor I to theirs. I’m used to hanging out with broke fiction writers who are sharp-witted and transgressively rude. Most writers I know are phenomenally bad at networking, and this makes us nightmarish party guests.

The creative arts require more solitude than sociability, and that’s something which is increasingly hard to find in today’s world. (The party, by the way, was a pleasant evening passed with nice people, but it didn’t feel remotely normal. I suspect that we were struggling to find any common ground.)

Once the arts had very little sense of celebrity or even specialness. There was a time when you’d go to London parties with very famous film stars and outgeek each other on film titles, and it was like being with old pals talking the kind of nonsense you can with friends. Whenever I was working on a film I’d think nothing of phoning the star and suggesting a beer. This no longer happens, thanks to the barriers created by social media and celebrity culture. Many of those in film now come with minders; the studios protect their investments.

Writers and artists are generally not pushed into the limelight, and shouldn’t be – the moment there’s any kind of a barrier between us and anyone else we lose credibility. Social media has pushed us to reveal more, and now it’s very much a part of the job. But very often the best kind of writer and artist is one who’s been shielded from the world, not made to become a homogenised part of it.

The most valuable thing a creative city-dweller can find and hold onto is times of solitude and invisibility.

Last night a guy on the tube asked me the way to the Strand, and as I was going there myself I walked him there. He was from Chicago and visiting London for the first time, and didn’t know he’d stumbled on one of the city’s better guides. I asked him all sorts of questions about how he first saw and felt about the city (I have trouble seeing London from an outside perspective, and it bugs me), and the information proved very helpful.

Writers can learn as much from talking to people as they can from books. We should probably never reveal what it is we do. Now we just need a good cover story.

My photo above shows an empty street in Bloomsbury last night

4 comments on “On Invisibility”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    Along the lines discussed above: there was a popular variety and television comedian who’s act was that of a drunk. In real life he was a teetotal. This was because he could better observe how drunks behaved in a pub. If he himself drank, he felt he would soon lose the powers of observation.

    I can’t remember who he was I’m afraid, but I wonder if it was Freddie Frinton, still famous for the “Dinner for One” sketch.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    I used to say that you could either be part of an event or photograph it, but not both. It probably holds true for observation: you can either observe and note what’s going on with whom or take part in it but not both.

  3. SteveB says:

    That’s a really interesting point.
    I think to be a really great writer, maybe you need a splinter of ice in your heart, like Graham Greene. In my impression anyway.

  4. admin says:

    Freddie Frinton’s best prop was a hinged dangling cigarette – probably on YouTube…

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