By that they mean, of course, “What do you do that is of any use?” It’s a good question, good enough to topple the mighty.
“EL James, what do you do?”
One of the few Facebook memes I’ve seen of late that actually made me chuckle was a graph that showed that your use to society is inversely proportionate to the amount of time it takes you to explain your job to a child.
Now, writing books is a simple enough thing to explain to a youngster: but how useful is it? As a lapsed catholic fighting the presbyterian blood that also lurks within, that is a question that continues to haunt me.
I know, deep down, that writing is not and never can be the same as digging a road.
A good answer to the “what do you do?” poser must be that we seek to harness the power of dreams. And while dreams might not provide running water for Sudanese children, shelter the victims of Asian tsunamis nor put food on your own table, they’re still very important to us. The best art can change lives, provide direction, shine a bit of light during times of darkness, or simply put a smile on people's faces.
I want to talk about the last movie that really grabbed me and made a fan out of me, one I’ve watched again and again on DVD: the 2008 Batman movie, The Dark Knight. It may in fact be catching up with Jaws on my “most-watched” list. Maybe it was the Batman’s classic combination of toughness and nobility that spoke to me, of honourable suffering in the face of evil – you know, qualities I don’t have.
Or maybe it was the strong subject matter, in this era of international terrorism and close-to-the-surface anarchy. I dunno. I really enjoyed it, though. The sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, was four long years coming, and on opening weekend I finally saw it.
It turned out it was just a movie, after all. It had its moments, but found all the wrong gears, and ran into logical flaws. I was still thrilled by it, though, as was most of the crowd. The movie theatre was full; when the title card finally came up, one lad shouted: “Yaaaas!” And at the end, there was applause. I’ve only seen two other movies that brought out spontaneous clapping as the credits rolled. One was Batman Begins; the other was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
That was a fine weekend of coincidences. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was on BBC1 that weekend; I spotted it playing on a TV over the shoulder of a security guard in his booth at my old workplace.
I’d gone to my home city for a couple of days for one or two little engagements, putting in a couple of shifts with my old colleagues. It was a weird, but fulfilling few days. I saw some old friends and workmates, ate some fine meals and put away a good amount of red wine. I basked in a rare burst of sunshine on Great Western Road, almost at the same time as I saw a junkie hunched over in a doorway, folded into that hopeless post-fix contortion.
I stayed in a flea pit on one of the main thoroughfares, the kind of place that would be perfect for a crime scene photo. The woodchip wallpaper sighing off the walls; the bells and bruising mottled across the damp-blighted walls; the spluttering astonishment of the elderly showerhead; the gigantic spider hiding in the bedclothes. And was that a blood spray on the walls of the bathroom? Short of forensic laboratory equipment you can only tell by scratching at it with a fingernail; dried blood crumbles in a most unique way. I refrained from doing so.
I found time to make it to the movies. Listening to the applause during the Dark Knight Rises took me back to that summer when I watched Indy at the movies with my brother, his fiancee and my cousin, at the old AMC in Clydebank.
I was totally gripped from start to finish. I remember fearing that Indy was going to be killed, laughing at the comic exchanges between Indy and his dad, and being thrilled by the fistfights, gunfire and explosions. And there was a certain collective Caledonian pride among the whole audience at seeing Sean Connery on a big screen again.
It was one of the last great innocent joys of my childhood. I remember coming back to the house in the warm summer night, my parents sleeping, my blood fizzing, knowing it would be a while before I slept. Though a joy at telling stories and the magic of the movies was already in me, Indy rekindled it.
I’ve never forgotten that feeling of being utterly charmed, emboldened, mesmerised, transported, by the magic of the movies. In everything I write, I’m trying to take a little piece of that magic for myself. It’s like chipping out a little Victoria Cross from a huge brass cannon, a little piece at a time. To enthrall people the same way Indy, or Batman, or whoever, enthralled me, is what I’m aiming for. That can be either on a visceral or a cerebral level – or, if I am very lucky, both.
So, yeah. That's what I hope to do.
What would my life be without that feeling? Or yours?