It was said of Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the United States, that he never said much, but that when he did, he never said much. By way of contrast, this week David Philpott found out that some people can say an awful lot in a few words - whether it be D H Lawrence, Martin Luther or an old school friend in a text message.

NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND - an homage (not) to Bill Bryson

Friday was a slightly disturbing day for me, both in its anticipation and fulfilment.  I had not seen Danny for over forty years.  Like an unrequited love, our friendship had been cut short at the age of ten when my family re-located from the grimy streets of Lambeth to the verdant suburbs.  All through what was left of childhood -  then  through the angst of teens and  into the hopeful and hopeless years of adulthood - I carried Danny in my bosom as the bestest friend I ever had in all of England, Great Britain, Europe, the World, the Universe and would have written it so in the front of my school exercise book. No one ever usurped his pre-eminence in my child-like affections.

Having tracked him down in Australia, we were due to meet a year ago on a visit to London but circumstances conspired against us.  Now, on a business trip from his Shanghai office, he was able to stop off in Ashford, en-route to Canterbury, his alma mater.

As we talked and drank beer, we both realised that we had nothing in common – that our lives had taken completely different paths – that we were different men to the little people we once were – but the experience was pleasant, dare I say strangely agreeable.


Finding myself on the Isle of Sheppey on Saturday, I had lots of time to re-live in my mind the conversations with Danny from the previous day - my train of thought only occasionally being steered elsewhere as Karan made a comment or observation. 

As we raced over the high arching bridge that leads to the Isles of Sheppey as they were once known - and perhaps should still be (listen up ye Tourist Board) - I was reminded of Yns Mon, or Anglesey to those who know not the Celtic tongue.  All islands, particularly British ones, have a unique atmosphere about them that is difficult to explain.  It is not about landscape, it is about isolation – separation if you will.  People who are born on islands or choose to make them their homes are different.

Driving towards Sheerness, once a great passenger ferry port to Vlissingen, now a vast terminal where imported cars rest up, awaiting onward transit, I remembered Danny’s story as he had just told it to me. The only boy from his impoverished Secondary school to make it to university (it should have been Cambridge but the school messed up with his exam dates) where in Canterbury he studied English and American literature. Armed with a degree, he nevertheless found no career, so he worked first on a building site then a couple of years later opened a greengrocers; this that his afternoons would be free so he could write.  And write he did.  Three plays no less but a few years later he found himself using his creative talents in the employ of Saatchi and Saatchi and it is in advertising that he has remained.  He is now  Executive Creative Director of a global advertising company, dividing his time between his family in Sydney and his 26th floor office in Shanghai.

“Do you have any impulse to get back to your first love – the writing?” I asked.

“I worked with someone on a couple of screenplays a number of years ago” he said with a dismissive air.  “But I deal in concepts now.  I doubt I will ever write again because I don’t think I have anything to say.”

It was this last comment that almost haunted me as we wiled away our Saturday afternoon in Sheerness, firstly grazing on a Ploughman’s Lunch in The Royal Hotel and then meandering in and out of shops to avoid the on setting rain.

I don’t have anything to say,” I kept hearing Danny saying in my head. It made me question why I write. Do I have anything to say, I wondered?  Now and again someone will tell me that they read this blog or something else I have written. Sometimes they are just being polite, most often I think, they are being honest, like Anna Marie Buss whom I met at the Turner Contemporary art gallery last week. “Ah, well you must be my other reader” I said to her with feigned self-deprecation.


On Sunday we went fishing – James, Ben and I.  It was Ben’s idea. We headed for Eureka Lakes, just on the edge of town – a lovely spot unknown to most of Ashford’s citizenry.   Fishing is not my thing but I always go if I am invited.  It gives us time together – not to talk – but rather just to be; two grown men and their step-dad.

Unwilling to spend an entire day watching the end of a fishing rod to see if it twitched, I grabbed an unread book as we set out.  I had a craving for literature this day, as opposed to biography or humour.  I have to be careful with literature.  An entire holiday was ruined once because I was reading Susan Hill’s King the Castle and it so disturbed me that it affected my behaviour – especially my behaviour towards my family.  On Sunday I hoped D.H Lawrence would not have such an emotional impact on me. I wondered if I ought to have taken a Bill Bryson instead.

And impact it had, but not in a negative way.  I found myself asking whether Lawrence really had anything to say as well. I was soon satisfied that he did.  This was the book after all, that although finished in 1928, did not make it past the censors until 1960.

But do I have anything to say, I wondered, as every now and then I looked up from my book to see if the line was being twitched by some scavenging Carp? And that is when I realised that perhaps I do not write because I have anything to say, but simply because I feel compelled to do so.  I would still write even if I knew for certain that nobody would ever read it. To that extent, I am a selfish writer because I write mainly for myself.  Nevertheless, like the reforming theologian Martin Luther who once said “If I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would still plant an acorn today,” I suppose I hope that something will remain for posterity, however unlikely that eventuality.

It was at this point, just as the sun was burning off the cold morning chill, that my phone bleeped to announce the arrival of a text.  It was from Danny.

“Great to have caught up with you” it said. “Funny thing is I don’t really know you [as you are now] but your character I could recognise and feel across all these decades”.

I was touched to feel that some of the essence of me – the little person that I was in 1968– has not been worn away by the disappointments and vicissitudes of life.

O, and by the way Danny. I think you are wrong. I think you have got plenty to say.  You just did.