south side. No, not Ibrox. Not yet, anyway.
Cathkin Park was once the home of Third Lanark FC, formerly a big club who regularly competed for top honours north of the border. The ground has been derelict since 1967, when the club went into liquidation. But unlike the shopping precincts and superstores which now stand where former football shibboleths such as Kilbowie Park and Broomfield once admitted thousands of people, the shell of the ground and the pitch itself is still there, and anyone can wander in for a visit during a wet Saturday afternoon.
There’s an inscription in a stone tablet, set into some of the terracing which still remains at the football pitch (still in use as a municipal space, and also played on by an amateur league side which has taken Third Lanark’s name).
It paraphrases Hippocrates: “Life is short; art long; opportunity fleeting; experience treacherous; judgement difficult.” It’s a typically perverse motto for Glasgow – where not even the icons on its coat of arms managed to do anything.
Hippocrates’ maxim can be applied to the plight of any writer, wannabe or otherwise. It might depress us to know how many of our favourite authors aren’t living the high life of luxury. The late Archie Hind, who wrote one of the great Glasgow novels in A Dear Green Place, was not a millionaire thanks to his efforts, or anything like it. How must he have felt, having climbed that mountain, and witnessed his work reach print, win awards and be highly praised, to simply get his working trousers on and go back to the coal face the next day?
Another of the city’s famous literary figures, James Kelman, has been similarly garlanded for his work, and yet he’s making a living teaching in an American university. Alasdair Gray could well be in the premier division of
earnings for authors, for all I know, but then again his is such a gey rare talent in so many areas, he’s pretty much in his own league.
And so what? They might very well tell you. You’re owed nothing. Get on with it.
That’s not too far away from what Hippocrates was trying to tell us: Kick on. If you’re lucky, someone will read what you’ve written after you’re dead, when money and time are immaterial as far as you’re concerned. And hopefully it won’t be a laptop-thieving serial killer.
On the flip side, you can probably think of dozens – maybe even hundreds – of ill-deserving authors who have upholstered their soft furnishings with money. You’ve probably not even read their books, but the envy is real enough. The trophy wives who don’t need the cash, the strutting peacocks who’ve had nothing to say for 30 years or more; the old school ties and funny handshakes brigade, the sacred cows and the slatterns.
Ambition doesn’t mean you want to join the herd – though god knows, if a deal was dangled, I’d don the horns and get mooing in a heartbeat. Maybe the secret of ambition is becoming a success on your own terms, being truthful to whatever you want to create. It just takes one turn of the cards to go in your favour, and you could be set for life. On another day, the hand will be a bad one – maybe bad enough for you to turn it in altogether, or, even worse, to stick with it for life.
The one constant has to be the work ethic. Keep turning it out, offer it to the right people, and hope your luck finally comes in. Hope that some Daddy Warbucks out there see your stuff and think: yes! That’s the one for us! Draw up a contract, call the lawyers… Tell them to quit the day job!
Fourteen years ago, while I was writing my first unsold novel, I had an epiphany of sorts. Nothing earth-shattering. It was an unusually warm early April night, and I was in a taxi home from the pub. As the cab clambered up a hillside, I had a panoramic view of the city, the sea of twinkling orange streetlights, and the first signs of a summer yet to be on the fringes of the indigo sky. Looking at that vista, I imagined for a moment I was somewhere else; the mountains of Spain, a Greek coastal road, the summit of a Peruvian peak. I will write this book and make it, I thought. I will support myself through writing. This is the year I’ll do it. This summer, I’ll get my head down and finish the damned thing.
Well, that summer came and went, folks. In fact, four summers passed before I finished a first draft – on a similarly balmy April night in 2003. And then all the rest of the summers. And despite having written hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of words since then, I’m no further forward.
What to do? Keep on, keep on. Keep firing the arrows. It is the only solid advice Hippocrates, or anyone else, can give you.