The ideas develop, of course, but the context seems to be there from the outset. A memory is triggered and supporting memories crowd in to support or modify the first thought. The hard part is constructing a vehicle to transport the story from an attention-getting opening to the chosen dénouement. The process is recognisably the same in the poetry of Robert Burns even if he gets results far beyond my pedestrian efforts.
When the coulter broke open the nest of the field mouse it released not only rodents but also words and sentiments that still reverberate. James Hogg was another who gained inspiration from the seemingly mundane everyday world when he tended his sheep on Ettrick. I can often compose three or four pages while I am walking the dog.
When I am gardening, on the other hand, all I can come up with are scenarios for getting back at the mindless institutions that tell me to just do as they say and don’t argue! I hate gardening but I like walking the dog. I suspect that Burns enjoyed the peaceful plodding precision of ploughing.
Omar Khayyam probably really enjoyed tent-making so when he let his mind wander he composed beautiful poetry. I know that it was his Dad who actually made tents but young Omar would surely have helped before he went off to be the leading mathematician and philosopher of the twelfth century. Just as well that he did not get into carpet weaving when he went to Bukhara – goofing off in that job would have resulted in more than the single mistake they must make so as not to offend God!
Not all occupations lend themselves to stray fancies. I would rather my surgeon was paying attention to what he was shuffling about in my insides: he can compose Quatrains in his own time!
I still have a leather wallet I made when I spent time in hospital as a youth. Even the fine leather I used can only be worked using very sharp tools. I certainly found that it needed all my concentration to confine cutting and piercing to the material avoiding my hand and thigh. The tougher leather you need for shoes would demand constant vigilance.
My opinion was, I felt, supported by the poetic title they gave to their craft. Cordwainers have to pay such close heed to their lasts that the only place for poetry is in the name of their guild. Then I discovered William Marwood.
He had a little cobbler business in nineteenth century Horncastle, a market town in Lincolnshire. Sitting at his last he began to get ideas for improving the lot of humanity. Now it is possible that shoes wore out so slowly in the town that he spent long periods hunched over an empty last but I like to think that he had mastered the art of wielding lethal weapons while his thoughts were on higher things. Perhaps the daily proximity to means of ending life inspired his choice of subject.
There is no record that he ever performed practical demonstrations. No stray tramps went missing, just a pure intellectual exercise: a thought experiment. Whether he had other ideas before or was just a slow and thorough thinker, we will never know but at the age of fifty-four he walked the twenty miles to Lincoln Castle and persuaded the governor to let him hang people. His humane solution to the problem of lingering deaths was to drop the customers from such a height that their necks broke when the rope became taut.
His first essay with a live felon was such a success that he was employed on a retainer of twenty pounds a year with a commission of ten pounds for each execution. At that time twenty pounds a year would get you a decent cook while ten would hire a moderate scullery maid. Presumably he had to pay more attention to hanging than to cobbling for there is no report of him developing another idea.
He had eleven years at the top – or, I should say, the topping – and was named as the hangman in Punch and Judy shows before Jack Ketch stole his thunder. He even had a street chant:
If Pa killed Ma
Who’d kill Pa?
Not bad for a corviser from a sleepy Lincolnshire town!