Ian McMillan: Looking busy is such an effort for a writer

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This used to be the time of year during what I laughingly refer to as my secondary school “career” when I’d cast a nervous glance at the teacher’s desk; well, a more nervous glance than usual.

It was almost the end of term and we were all getting a bit demob-happy, thinking about those endlessly idyllic weeks we’d spend gambolling in the fields and frolicking in the woods or, in my case, all those glorious weeks I’d spend reading books I hadn’t been told to read for my course and listening to music that would make my mam say, “Can you down it down a bit? I can’t hear the Hoover!”

We’d more or less done all the work we were supposed to do and we knew the difference between the Romans and the Etruscans, and we could, if requested, give a few brisk facts on the life of a Terminal Moraine. It didn’t have a very interesting life, since you ask; it just made its way very slowly down a valley, at about an inch a decade. A bit like me at the edge of the settee with my tottering stack of paperbacks by week five of the hols.

I’d had my report, in its bright red cover, which always said more or less the same thing. It could be boiled down to the single sentence: “McMillan thinks that by being the class clown he will get a career: he is wrong.” Oh well, can’t win ’em all.

I could handle the reports but at my school, at the end of each term, we had these dreadful things called “Effort Marks”; they weren’t designed to show how clever you were, or how good you were at answering questions or writing essays, but how much effort you put in.

The marks were out of four, with four being top effort and one being “well, you might as well have stayed in bed with the covers pulled up”. Three and more was seen as being a good average, but I very rarely got that. I got 2.8, 2.6, once 2.5. My parents were horrified and even though I tried to explain to them that “effort” wasn’t the same as “work” my mother still looked disappointed.

The trouble is (and it’s still the same many years on) even when I’m working hard, I don’t look as though I’m putting any effort in. I agree with the novelist Jack Higgins when he said that writers are working hard even when they’re looking out of the window, because that’s what I used to do a lot of at school: looking out of the window, gazing into space, counting chalky dust-motes in the air.

But just because I wasn’t clicking my fingers to get the teacher’s attention or theatrically furrowing my brow, I was still there. Still putting the effort in. Still staring out of the window, losing count of the dust-motes and having to start again.

Once, because I’d had a couple of consecutive bad Effort Marks, I had to go to the head’s office for a telling-off. He looked at me sadly, like he was going to weep. “A lad like you, McMillan, a lad like you,” he said. I thought he was going to break into a country song. “You’ll have to pull your socks up…”

I thought shall I? Shall I? I bent over and pulled them up. Putting lots of effort in, of course.