When is a Blog not a Blog?
I think I enjoy blogging. I often have blog-like thoughts. But a couple of years ago it seemed inconceivable that I would have my own. I had read quite a few other people’s blogs, sometimes enjoyed them, sometimes not, but none had looked like the sort of thing I might write. I had no desire to generate debate over anything. I had nothing I wanted to confess. I didn’t see why the general public might be interested in the minutiae of my life. I didn’t particularly want to share recipes, gardening tips (I didn’t have any, other than – Get a Gardener), and was worried that anything other than DIY ‘How To…’ articles would look like narcissistic rambling.
But now I get these blog-like ideas, at least one a day, and have to write them down. And one of the reasons is finding – well, if not a role model, then at least an inspiration. And that inspiration is the Irish comic writer and stammering raconteur Patrick Campbell (1913-1980). I picked up a second-hand copy of a book of his entitled Life in Thin Slices, mainly because it was illustrated by the superb Ronald Searle who is a hero of mine and I buy his books whenever I see them at a reasonable price . I also remembered Patrick Campbell from seeing the TV show Call My Bluff when I was growing up – the intense Patrick leading his team in outstaring and outwitting and out-lying Frank Muir’s lot over the meaning of words. There was always a slight tension in wondering whether Patrick would be able to get the words out and that the audience didn’t always know whether to laugh or not. But his sheer chutzpah was often part of the joke and he obviously had a great deal of respect as a media personality. I had no idea that he was primarily a writer. Nor did I know that he was by that time Sir Patrick, the third Baron Glenavy.
The book consists of short ‘slice-of-life’ articles he wrote for various newspapers in the 1940s. If it weren’t for Searle’s crazy drawings for each section one wouldn’t necessarily know beforehand that they were funny or indeed what they were supposed to be about. There are no headings as such. And Campbell didn’t even seem to want to call it a book. He begins:
“Author’s Opening Announcement: The first part of this work is divided into chapters, in a similar way to the system used in books.”
That in itself made me laugh with the very first sentence. Of course he was referring to the fact that these disparate writings had begun as articles in newspapers which had now been artificially gathered together to pass themselves off as a proper book. But I can’t help thinking he enjoyed beginning a book by implying it wasn’t a book, despite the fact that you, the reader, are holding his book in your hands at that very moment! But what a great way to describe the essence of blogging – the title of Campbell’s book Life in Thin Slices. That’s exactly what most blogging is. And I could relate to that.
He obviously had little desire to write anything of a more substantial length. He gives an amusing account of how two rival publishers (‘Publisher A’ and ‘Publisher B’) were vying to get him to write a book for them. They happened to collide at his club:
“I introduced Publisher A to Publisher B, and it was at that moment the plan occurred to me by which all three of us could extricate ourselves from a situation which up till then had clearly been without solution. ‘Gentlemen,’ I said, ‘let us lay our cards, face upwards, on the table. We know, all of us, that I am quite incapable of writing a book. Books are too long. But there is a faint – a microscopic – chance that I might just be able to record a sequence of events which would run to 50,000 words.’ At this point I put my hands on their shoulders. ‘It is not,’ I told them, ‘a possibility we can afford to overlook. But – and this is the vital point – I can only do it once, like the great grey parrot of the Congo Basin, which, in captivity, lays one egg, and then falls back spent, barren for evermore. Now, here is my proposition. I will take £50, in single, untaxable, notes, as an advance from both of you, and in exchange provide a promise, in duplicate, signed by myself and witnessed by a justice of the peace, that I will not write a book for the other.’ ‘You mean,’ said Publisher A, after a short pause, ‘that you will not write a book at all?’ ‘And receive,’ said Publisher B, ‘£100 for what we must regard as a minimal effort?’ ‘That, gentlemen, is my proposition.’ And that…, although it’s taken rather a long time to get round to it, is why I have now decided to write a play. It seems to me the only other method of earning a living, in the literary field, by doing absolutely nothing.”  Campbell then goes on to show how easy it could be to write something resembling a play, if you were particularly unscrupulous.
Two of the funniest sections of the book concern him being unable to speak at will. Firstly, his therapy sessions in Harley Street about his stammer – but of course being unable to speak to the therapist to discuss it. Then a dinner party where he and another person with a speech impediment had been ordered not to speak under any circumstances by the rather unfeeling hostess. But then the conversation lagged among the guests, silence fell, and Patrick and his fellow sufferer felt compelled to fill it, with predictable consequences. Patrick made a glorious eccentric achievement out of his disability. The mighty publisher Penguin in 1965 called their anthology of his work The P-P-Penguin Patrick Campbell and had it illustrated by Quentin Blake. Is this the only time a stammer has been included in the title of a book? Surely a triumph of Campbell’s self-deprecating wit and probably unthinkable in our more ‘pc’ age. (Although speech impediments are still used now as part of comedy. Think of the character Kripke in TV’s massively popular ‘The Big Bang Theory’.)
It is possible of course that Campbell’s difficulties in speech made him concentrate on being a brilliant communicator via prose. I think Patrick, who often couldn’t speak in public at all, helped me find my writing voice. That’s not to say I write the same sort of thing as him but his stance as comic commentator on life was one I enjoyed immensely and wished I could emulate. He could make any subject funny. And he had the courage to write on everything, no matter how mundane. The subjects themselves – commuting, buying a house, throwing a dinner party, learning to ride a bike – were hardly earth-shattering. But his joyous humour and intelligence rendered it all interesting and transformed the boring events in life into an amusing game. He made the ordinary extraordinary by virtue of his observation and imagination. He was a Charlie Chaplin of slapstick in prose, a P G Wodehouse in the elegant wit of his language as he described catching chickens or cleaning a stove. It made me ask myself: what will you notice next time you take a train or stand in a queue? And could you write it in such a way as to entertain thousands and make a living out of it? The content and style are very close to stand-up comedy but drawn out into longer anecdotal pieces that are more like short stories with the author as the hero. In fact, it’s as if Patrick Campbell was a blogger before his time. What should we call the short pieces he wrote so beautifully? Articles, essays, short stories, craic, anecdotes, belles lettres? Belles blogs perhaps? I learned recently that my fourth-ever blog post is going to be published in a book (assuming Publisher A doesn’t change his mind) – does that mean it won’t be a blog anymore? Has it become a different genre? When is a blog not a blog?
I’m a writer. I like to write down what I’m thinking and offer it to other people. Cogito, ergo scribo – I think, therefore I write. I think, therefore I blog (cogito, ergo blogo?). I can have the courage to write for the public in the first person, my ‘life in thin slices’, and assume others will find it interesting. It’s the courage every blogger needs. Thank you, Patrick.
 Patrick Campbell, Life in Thin Slices, Falcon Press, London, 1951.
 ibid., p146.