Ian McMillan: Legends of the fall

Ian McMillan

Ian McMillan

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Picture the scene: The early evening. The darkened spare room. The middle-aged writer walking across the room to get to a shirt he has laid on the bed. The wide expanse of carpet dotted with the boxes of his own books that the writer has sent off for to sell at his readings because he is vain and he likes to sit at a table surrounded by his grinning image on identical rows of covers. The two important questions that spring immediately to mind. Q: Why did the middle-aged writer not switch the light on? A: He thought the glow from the street light would be enough to see by and he is a thrifty soul. Q: Why did the middle-aged writer not keep his eye on the boxes of books on the floor? A: He could only think of the shirt. He is a man so he cannot multi-task.

Picture the scene: the writer crashes into one of the boxes of books. He stumbles and falls, spectacularly, as though he is in a cartoon. He hits the floor with a bang and the pain is fiery, though short-lived. The writer’s wife shouts up the stairs: “Are you all right?” and the writer does not reply immediately because he does not know whether to laugh or cry. He decides to laugh, because that’s always the best medicine.

And yes, I was that writer. I fell over a box of my own books the other day and bumped myself on the carpet. It hurt for a bit but there was no harm done, except to my pride, because I thought I had enough life-experience to be able to walk across a room and stay upright at the same time.

The fall, as it happened, seemed to take place in slow motion as these things do. As I hit the box of books with my foot I knew that I was about to fall; as the fall happened I pictured myself cartwheeling through the air and connecting with the floor in a bone-jarring way. As I fell I speculated that this might be my last act on earth. I might bang my head on another one of the boxes of my own books and deal myself what crime novelists call “a fatal blow to the temple”. What a way to go! Farcically finished off by something I’d written myself! Written off, in fact. Reached the last chapter. Polished out of the scene in a final redraft. Arrived at a full stop.

As I continued to fall in slow motion I imagined the headlines that a shocked nation would read: WRITER IN BOXES OF OWN BOOKS TRAGEDY – ‘I SHOUTED UPSTAIRS’ SAYS GRIEVING WIDOW. I imagined being carried out of the house on the very boxes of books that caused my demise. I imagined the books that had brought about my premature departure being put on permanent display in Darfield museum.

At least I would be a footnote in history, a pub quiz question or an “and finally…” on the television news. Which writer was killed by his own books? It’s a kind of fame, I guess.

Next time I’ll switch the light on, I promise you.

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