The Porlock Institute – by Will Tate

Will Tate

Sunday 5th February

   “Every addict thinks that he can stop- just like that. But it isn’t that simple. It gets in deep. He tells everyone, especially himself, that he’s okay. He can handle it. But one day he wakes up, looks in the mirror and realises it’s got to stop. And that realisation is the hardest step of all on the tortuous road back towards a normal life.”  

   I write these words just twenty minutes after settling into my room at the Porlock Institute in Bloomsbury. I think they have impact and will engage the reader. A staccato build-up of short, punchy phrases, with a longer sentence to pull the paragraph together and lead the reader on…

   Immediately I realise the scale of my problems, but facing up to my addiction has strenghened my resolve to conquer it. Therapy comes at a price, it seems, and three weeks behind the Georgian facade of the Porlock is not going to be cheap. I owe it to myself to get my money’s worth.

Monday 6th February  

   Immediately after breakfast there is a knock at my door. As I follow the young, white-tunicked orderly along the endless corridors I try to think of a simile to convey the athletic swing of her slender hips in their shapeless slacks. Like a greyhound under a kennel coat, on its way to the traps? But slender hips swinging in shapeless slacks? That’s no good at all.

   Five minutes later I am lying on a leather couch in the consulting room. Professor Helmut Kugelschreiber silently studies a folder on his leather-topped desk until his assistant returns carrying a piece of paper that I recognise as the notes that I had written in my room last night.

   “Ah-ha, Herr Wright, what have we here?” he says from beneath his walrus moustache.

   “Notes,” I mutter. “They’re nothing. I’m sorry, but is it wise to leave your patients alone in their rooms with a notepad and pens?”

   “An understandable concern,” he replies, leaning back in his padded armchair and placing the tips of his fingers together. “My predecessor was less- how you say? Enlightened? Writing materials vere verboten. But he under-estimated the cunning of the addict- he left case notes of patients scribbling notes for novels with burnt matches on cigarette packets. One lady even wrote a series of haiku in lipstick on a roll of toilet paper. Und so…” He raises his palms skywards as if to admit that some things are beyond even his control. “But, let me examine your sample.” He reads my notes. “Sehr gut! Sehr gut! Already you are addressing your problems. You give me hopes! A lady patient, admitted only yesterday, produced a complete sonnet. Perfect in form, but clearly a difficult case. Graphomania is a terrible affliction, Herr Wright, and one that knows no mercy. But, do not worry, mein freund, you are here now and we can help you.”

   “And you can cure me?” I ask anxiously.

   “‘Cure’ you? Do you think that you are a herring?” He laughs wildly, causing his shock of white hair to flop over his face. “I prefer not to deal in absolutes. But certainly we can control your condition und allow you to live a normal life.”

   Kugelschreiber has already seen some samples of my writing. He tosses my teenage diaries back to me- they are of no interest, he says. Many adolescents dabble with writing but, in most cases, it is harmless experimentation, with no long-term complications. But he is concerned by the worrying increase in usage shown by my diaries from my mid-twenties. Slimline pocket week-per-view gave way to A4 page-a-day and computer analysis of randomly chosen passages shows a disturbingly high ratio of thoughts and reflections compared to actual reportage of events. This is the sure sign of a potential graphomaniac, he says gravely.

   Lying on the bed in my room I look back on my wasted life. Sure enough, I had soon tried other forms of writing- poems and short stories, mostly, but also fragments of various novels from a disturbingly wide range of genres. I was trying anything and everything and was soon completely hooked.

   There are two hours before my first lunch at the Institute: enough time to work on the rewrite of a chapter, maybe, but, instead, I turn on the television and watch a succession of mindless chat shows and garden makeovers. Not once am I tempted to switch off and pick up my pen.

   At lunch I introduce myself to Sid, a heavily built man in his late fifties. He had been a night watchman at a factory in Wakefield, and he soon confides how, with too much time on his hands, he had started writing his novel while he was at work. “Hours every night- terrible, lad. Then in af’noons I’d be off to’t library for research- told wife I were in pub or the bookies, like. That’s the worst of it- the lying to those who care about you. Course, in end, she buggered off. But did that stop me? Did it, hell as like? I turned it all into another novel. My doctor sent me here- he’d noticed the ink stains on my fingers, knew what he were lookin’ for. But he says I’m bloody incurable.”

   The other occupant at our table has his head buried in a thick textbook. Between mouthfuls of casserole he scribbles furiously in a black notebook. “Poor bastard,” whispers Sid, “Even old Kugelschreiber’s given up on that ‘un. Months he’s been ‘ere, workin’ on some great sprawling saga.” The old man leaves us, his meal barely touched, and Sid tells me how Kugelschreiber has used an alias to set himself up as his literary agent: “The old boy thinks he’s sending stuff off but it never leaves t’building- after a few weeks they write back sayin’ the work’s difficult to place or between genres or summat, but he just rewrites it all and sends it off again. Nowt they can do wit’ ‘im.”

   Sid joins me that evening at my first group therapy session and warmly pats me on the back after I have summoned the courage to stand up and say, “My name’s Will Wright and I’m a graphomaniac.” My first thoughts are that it is going to be just like the meetings of the writers’ circle that I had joined years before, seeking out the company of fellow addicts, but it is explained that the object of the session is to discourage and completely stifle the writer’s efforts. No form of constructive criticism is allowed.

   A little, grey-haired old lady opens up a thick lever arch file and launches into the first chapter of an engrossing account of life as an evacuee in rural Devon.

   “Not another war novel,” groans a skinny girl in tatty jeans. “It was sixty years ago, love. Move on.”

   “Don’t like the switching viewpoints,” says Sid. “One minute we’re with the girl getting off the train, next sentence is her mum fighting back the tears as she queues for coke in Wanstead.”

   “Too much description,” adds a lady. “Kills the pace.”

   Everyone in the group wades in and, quickly catching the mood, I add a few nit-picks about her choice of particular words and phrases and whether a six-year-old girl would have realised the enormity of the situation. The author sighs deeply as she closes her file but thanks us all for our help. Next is the merciless destruction of an appalling crime novel read by a middle-aged lady from Suffolk. Many of the group have obviously heard some earlier chapters and savagely attack her for a glaringly inconsistent plot.

   “This victim- Hugo,” begins Sid, “- is what? Sixteen stone? But ‘e’s killed by a single stab from a Swiss army knife? Blade’d never get through the fat, let alone ribs.”

Tuesday 7th February

   Sid and I have a coffee in the common room before the next group session. He explains how, when he had read out the first chapter of his thriller, Kugelschreiber had drafted in an expert from a pharmaceutical company to refute his scanty research into the effect of the drug used by his killer. “Made mockery o’t whole plot,” he says proudly. He also tells  me that today we will be joined by a renowned lecturer in English from Cambridge who simply tells everyone that their work is, at best, derivative or even plagiaristic. “That frightens a good few off,” smiles Sid.

   My pulse throbs at my temples as I nervously deliver an extract from the novel that I have been working on for the best- or worst- part of sixteen months:

   “Commander Berkeley kept his gaze fixed on the slender figure of Marika. She stood behind the Boss, her long fingers resting lightly on his shoulder while she elegantly smoked a menthol cigarette. Berkeley scanned her from her expensive Italian shoes, up the sleek lines of her silky smooth legs to her flat belly and lissom hips. The shimmering designer dress caressed her pert breasts and her tumbling tresses of jet-black hair had been pinned up with a single white orchid above her left ear. Finally their eyes met. She returned his stare, unblinking like a cat. Her dark eyes seemed to betray no emotion, unless it was the anticipated pleasure of witnessing his fate.

   It had all been so different, only seventy-two hours earlier when she had floated across the departure lounge bar and asked him for a light. Struggling against the rough ropes that chafed his wrists, he cursed himself for dropping his guard. After twenty years in the business he should have known better than to trust anyone who had not received red level clearance from S.A.S.C.O. And he should have known that the seductive charms of a beautiful young woman could be just as deadly as the fists of a hired henchman…”

   “Sexist bullshit,” screams the girl in the tatty jeans. “I hate these boys-with-toys jerkfests. Girls just looking pretty.”

   “‘Spot the cliche’, ain’t it, mate,” sneers a young man in glasses. “Flat belly, lissom hips, pert breasts, tumbling tresses, jet-black, hired henchmen. Need I go on?”

   “Why’d t’lass float across departure lounge bar?” asks Sid, “Were it flooded, like?” Everybody laughs.

   “What’s the hero’s outfit called?” asks the writer of the crime novel. “S.A.S.C.O.? That’s an office supplies company, isn’t it? You’ll have to change that- unless the world of paper-clips and biros is a lot more cut-throat than I realised.” Everyone collapses with giggles.

Wednesday 8th February

   I have been awake since the early hours. At first I had appreciated the laughter and the cutting criticism- my novel was crap. What was the point in going on with it? What was the point in writing another word? But, unable to sleep, I jump out of bed, grab a red pen and begin hastily editing my opening chapter. If it’s ‘spot the cliche’ I’ll find another way to say the same thing. If it’s ‘sexist bullshit’ I’ll make the character of Marika less cardboard- she could even be manipulating the Boss for her own ends. By the time the sun rises I have rewritten two chapters, but I feel disgusted with myself.

Friday 10th February

   This treatment is not working. The more extreme the criticism from the group, the more determined I am to produce a flawless novel. Last night I resisted all temptations to write a single word but I awoke in the small hours in a cold sweat after a dream in which I was bound to Kugelschreiber’s couch. “You are nothing,” he snarls at me. “Everyone thinks that they can write a novel, ja? Is not so simple. Could you score a three-act opera with no training? Or chisel away at a block of marble to make a sculpture? You writers are all the same- deluded. That is why I have to liquidate you, Herr Wright.” And all the time, standing at his shoulder while she elegantly smokes a Menthol cigarette is the slender figure of the orderly in the shapeless slacks, her pert breasts betraying the anticipated pleasure of witnessing my fate.

Saturday 11th February

   Despite my growing misgivings, Kugelschreiber urges me to continue with the therapy. With the criticism of my rewritten  first chapter at the forefront of my mind I dash back to my room to begin afresh. I am six hundred words into the second rewrite when there is a knock at the door. The caretaker wants to check my room for signs of cockroach infestation. This involves moving my desk and takes twenty minutes. No sooner has he gone on his way than an orderly appears, asking for my responses to simple multiple choice questions about the facilities of the Institute and the treatment I have been receiving. By the time I get rid of her it is nearly midnight. I have written only two more sentences when there is yet another knock. It is Sid. “Any chance of borrowing a pen, lad?” he asks apologetically.

   “Yeah, yeah,” I answer sharply.

   “Hope I’m interrupting something,” he says, looking at the pages spread on my desk.


   “Old Kugel sent me along. It’s part o’ treatment. The Porlock Method, or scriptus interruptus. Constant disturbances are s’posed to destroy the creative process.” He leaves, without the pen, which he returns to collect five minutes later.

Sunday 12th February

   The end of my first week and I demand a consultation with Kugelschreiber to discuss my lack of progress. The Porlock Method is not working either, merely making me bad-tempered. I could easily revert to the darkest days of my addiction when any time spent not writing left an awful, hungry feeling in the pit of my stomach.

   “I am surprised,” admits the Professor. “At first I thought you would be a simple case, but we have other ways of getting you to stop. We could try occupational therapy. It works for some people- a few days making baskets or airfix models, or gardening. Umm?”

   I am highly sceptical. What is the point of occupying my hands when my mind will be left free to plot a whole series of novels? I tell him that it is my mind he should keep busy.

Tuesday 14th February

   This is better! After two wasted days, spent on dozens of crossword puzzles and Mensa tests, I am surprised by a visit from the Professor himself. He brings with him a month’s back issues of ‘The Racing Post’ and a brown envelope. “I understand you like the dogs, ja?” He tosses me the envelope. Inside is a racecard for that evening’s meeting at Walthamstow and two hundred pounds in crisp ten pound notes. “Study the form, go to the track and bet! Any profit is yours!”

   The man clearly has some radical ideas. The displacement of one addiction with the potential for another? But, keen to give it a go, I push my novel off the desk and plot my bets. After an early dinner in my room I’m off to East Seventeen and have a marvellous evening. Two five-to-one winners before doubling up with outlandishly ambitious tricasts. In total I make over four hundred quid. But as soon as I return to Bloomsbury I am scrabbling for my paper and pens again.

   “There is a hushed expectancy in the raceview restaurant as the floodlights highlight the oval sand track. The hare rattles its way around the bend before the traps clatter open. In this brief moment before hopes and expectations are swept along in an unpredictable, eddying current, every punter thinks he’s got the winner. The dogs surge forward, long mouths gaping open, psychotic eyes focusing on the ever-elusive hare, fragile legs devouring the ground with long raking strides that flick the sand skywards…”  

Wednesday 15th February

   I have been up all night again, bashing out a two thousand word feature on the dogs that might be of interest to one of the Sunday supplements. But what drives me to write it? Is it purely and simply the urge to set every one of life’s varied experiences into the concrete form of words? 

   Kugelschreiber is perturbed by my continuing addiction. He takes me immediately to the copying room, where a handful of other patients sit diligently at their desks, copying longhand from books selected by his team. The sexy orderly fetches me an A4 pad and pens and the Professor brings over a well-thumbed Penguin Classic novel. “Write,” he commands and I turn to page one.

   “On a very hot evening at the beginning of July a young man left his little room at the top of a house in Carpenter Lane, went out into the street, and, as though unable to make  up his mind, walked slowly in the direction of Kokushkin Bridge…”

   I write for two hours before we stop for coffee. It is easy. No inner struggles over the next pithy phrase. No plot to imagine or characters to think for. Just words. Except, of  course, copying isn’t writing. It’s exactly the same physical act but the creativity has gone. I think the Professor may have found the ideal treatment for me, and, as I learn from my fellow patients, mine is in a very mild dose. One lady is also copying “Crime and Punishment”, but her copy is in the Russian Cyrillic text. She explains that she cannot read Russian but has been prescribed this extreme treatment after earlier failures. She had been set “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” which she duly copied in full, but then went away to write the sequel- Angel Clare’s life with Liza Durbeyfield after Tess’s execution. It has so far been rejected by three publishers. Another man has been copying out the instruction manual to a 1982 Betamax video recorder, itself badly translated from the Japanese. His previous doses have included the West Anglian Great Northern railway timetable and Wisden’s Cricketers’ Almanack for the 1934 season.

Saturday 18th February

   Copying is going well. Four days of toil and I am a hundred pages into the novel. It is great to write without wondering about what to write next- it is almost as if I am weaning myself off the drug of creativity.

   I meet up with Sid for a farewell drink. Kugelschreiber is sending him home as he is delighted with his progress. “Went to last workshop today, lad,” he says proudly. “This woman had a bag of all different kinds of shoes- we were s’posed to pick one and write a monologue by the character who’d wear that shoe. One old gal produced pages about a green welly. I got a football boot and I couldn’t think of a bloody word! Not one!” He beams widely before wishing me good luck and catching his cab to the station.

Tuesday 21st February

   My treatment has been modified. In addition to the substitute therapy of copying Dostoyevsky, I have been sent to the library to read selected essays from American literary journals on Modernism, Post-Modernism, Structuralism, Naturalism, Symbolism, Impressionism, Expressionism and Surrealism. The effects are astonishing. When I read them very little seems to sink in, but, if I am tempted to start writing again, my creative processes are soon completely stifled by obscure meaningless phrases relating to the cultural and intellectual climate of modernism. Kugelschreiber advises me to subscribe to a few of these journals, if only for six months, as the effects of aversion therapy can wear off if not regularly topped up.

Thursday 23rd February

   I have a long consultation with the visiting English lecturer. After a discussion on the crisis of language in Russian modernist fiction, he quizzes me again on my motives for writing. He asks me why I feel the need to add to the world’s already burgeoning stock of books. Suddenly it comes to me- the only way for a writer to become fulfilled is to either write all books of every kind or to write the one book that encompases everything. Of course, neither is possible, therefore what is the point of writing? The lecturer is impressed and has recommended my discharge to Kugelschreiber.

Saturday 25th February

   I am on my way home! Kugelschreiber has signed me over to a carer who will visit me and continue to monitor my progress. Before I leave the Institute Kugelschreiber gathers all the patients and staff into the garden to witness the ceremonial burning of my novel, its accompanying notes and every other piece of paper in my possession. There is a round of warm applause. The Professor has advised me to apply for another job that will require me to work longer hours. He has also persuaded my long-suffering wife to enrol my daughter in a local swimming club- she will need taking to early-morning training sessions while the weekends will be occupied travelling to galas in far cities. He is sure that I will not be able to find the time to write, although he tells me of the patient who relapsed and wrote a romantic novel during visits to the bathroom- her husband had no idea that she was writing again. The Professor has warned my wife about the possibilities of a relapse and the signs to look for- scraps of paper and pens hidden around the house, a desire to spend more time alone, a fixed and vacant expression upon the face while “plotting”.

   I reassure myself with the thought that every day is a fresh start and, that, if I should weaken and write the occasional short story or poem, it is then no justification for drifting back into a novel-writing bender. I arrive at King’s Cross in good time for my train, only to learn that problems with overhead power cables in the Hitchin area have caused severe delays. My first reaction is to dash to the platform bookshop and buy a notepad. The delay could last for hours- I could write a short story! But the craving soon passes. Instead I buy a packet of twenty Bensons and head for  a nearby pub that is only a stone’s throw from a bookies. Is this the normal life that the Professor recommends?

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