Ever so long, long ago, a young man I knew well (he’s changed a lot in some ways, and not all for the better) went off to sea. He was a research scientist, trying to work out just what was going on with the commercial shark fishery. Now, leaving aside some delightful dramas like being at sea in a thirty five foot swell, and how to puke your lungs out, or the delights of trying to measure a very angry (meal interruption will do that to you, even if you’re not a top predator with a brain the size of a pea) 12 foot shark which is not into tranquil co-operation, let alone delighted at having something as undignified as a calf-ear tag punched into its dorsal. This process was so awful and life-long scarring to the poor creature that we caught quite a number a second and one occasion a third time, immediately after tagging. While it is rare to find such a thing in nature, but many sharks seem to have an even shorter memory of distress than politicians have of campaign promises… but I digress. The young bearded fellow came back from sea to his darling wife and under-year old babe… with amoebic dysentery.
Now, dysentery is a killer. You don’t just feel like the world is falling out of your bottom, and recover. The debilitation and dehydration kills many thousands every single year. It makes the WuFlu death toll look amateurish. Thing is: it mostly happens in the third world and mostly, in particular, to babies, and then young children in impoverished places, particularly among uneducated or poorly educated folk, with rotten hygiene. (Shark fishing was ‘the fishery of last resort’ so that many of the fishermen in this industry and their families probably counted as these people).
The young man I knew was well aware of this (he was impoverished but not uneducated, and neither was his wife) and was not going to take any chances on infecting his son – so as the tiny former slave-cottage they lived in had had a little extra prefab ‘second bathroom’ added on the end of a covered porch, he moved into that with a spare mattress, a sleeping bag, twenty liters of isotonic fluids and his computer, on which he planned to enter his catch data, and work on reports, in between consultancies with the porcelain throne.
It was bleak, cold and thoroughly miserable, and he was feverish and mildly delirious at times. And somehow… that fishery report turned into a fantasy story. This to those of you who understand something of fisheries and modelling of thereof… this is not as big a leap as it could be.
Anyway: the young man recovered somewhat, found he was really enjoying writing the story, and finished it… and then, went back to his old life of boats and fish-factories and little ports and hard men making a living off a hard fishery, his wife and son having dodged that bullet and work needing to be done.
Many people exercise their literary talent in toilets. Most of them write on the walls, and are thus only more widely read than most literary award winners, not a high bar. Most unfairly, despite their work being indistinguishable from the latter, they seldom get considered for awards. Still, although this young man did not write his fantasy on the walls, it is possible that his career did start where it should have stayed. There have been times, since, when he has wondered if it hasn’t – at least metaphorically.
Anyway, fast forward the clock a good few years. The slightly older and not much wiser bearded loon was still playing with fish. Slime, guts, blood, water, and now mud (as he was managing a fish-farm, and only ever learned to lead or manage by example, not by instruction) when – at a time of political upheaval (the end of Apartheid) there was a severe El Nino, and the price of fishmeal (about 60% of the feed) trebled…
The farm was just not going to survive this, and the Universities and research units were in massive (political) uncertainty, and not hiring. There were two children and no jobs… and the loon’s beloved wife found a job in her old field (a part of medical world, which we all need even when times are uncertain) and that slightly older fellow found himself job-hunting in a dry market-place, trying to be mister mum, and look after children, keep house and… well, keep his courage, his dreams and faith in himself alive. We had… almost nothing, barely the rent and making budget squeak and being a reasonable gardener and forager, eating.
At this point that rather naive young man remembered the book he’d written, and having been to the library and found very little new to his taste or interest, managed to delude himself very badly.
His delusions (and most of them, as an older, slightly wiser and much more experienced fellow now lost… he remains a hopeless idealist and an air-dreamer all the same) were manifold and almost entirely wrong. This was principally due to ignorance and, well, assumptions of integrity and common sense which seemed logical – on the basis of that ignorance. He thought that what was on the book shelf at the book-store was representative of the best that publishers could buy. He thought publishers, logically wanted to supply what the audience out there wanted. He thought hard work and quality would be recognized and win through. After all, his favorite authors provided him with great reads and if possible he would buy their books. He thought it was a systematic winnowing process, that always brought the best reads (and the authors that produced them) to success. He thought it was a meritocracy where Ordinary Joe would succeed if his writing was good.
And man, he was that Joe, submitting into slush piles that mostly returned his manuscripts unread, and where submitting was something that would cost as much as half a month’s food budget (exchange rates being what they were), not knowing how or what to do… or what he was doing wrong.
Of course, pretty much all of those delusions are wrong – but if he’d known that he would never have persisted. He got through to final editorial board level three times… had 72 rejections, ranging from form letters, to three page apologies from frustrated editors.
And finally, after seven years, and a good million and some words… he sold a book.
Even that he nearly stuffed up… but that is another story.
I know him well, but I suspect if I could have told him what I know now, then, he would never have believed me, even if I could have saved him much heartache and despair.
Sometimes we need delusions.
The image, by the way, is of a cider gum growing in the breaking down dolerite (lava, you might say) on the top the mountains in North Eastern Tasmania. It’s old, it’s growing on barren ground on a mountain top, in the snow. It’s partially burned out, twisted and battered by the savage winds it has stood against, but it is still standing, still growing. I find it an appropriate symbolism.