Notebook

Harry Mount: The recipe for genius – keeping busy

Work pours out of him: David Hockney at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October (Getty)

One of David Hockney’s favourite quotations is from Tchaikovsky – “Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.”

The quote certainly applies to Hockney, whose vast, new show opens at Tate Britain this week. The exhibition covers all the phases of his career: his portraits, swimming pools and Yorkshire landscapes.

Work just keeps on pouring out of him, constantly changing and almost always in the first division. At 79, Hockney, and the Tchaikovsky quote, are ripostes to the idea that good art must be produced with great pain and only rarely.

There are artists who find it hard to produce their work: Virgil, squeezing out three lines of the Aeneid a day, or Francis Bacon, tearing up his paintings because he didn’t think them good enough.

But there’s no reason to think a prolific artist should be a bad one. Good builders finish on time, while bad ones miss deadlines. Certainly, in journalism, the fastest writers – like lightning-quick AN Wilson – are often the best.

The late Beryl Bainbridge had no time for self-indulgent agony over the production of art. When a friend of mine said she was having difficulty finishing a book, Bainbridge said, “Oh, writing’s very easy. You just think of an idea and write it down.”

The same goes for painting. A quick picture needn’t be a bad one.

I think it’s more that artists and writers are allowed to be lazy, because they don’t normally have deadlines. When they do, they’re incredibly productive.

I’ve got a book on Brexit out this week, less than eight months after the referendum. I’m by no means the first, though – there have already been half a dozen Brexit books. Big news is the mother of invention.

Last week I was at the Garrick Club, giving a talk to alumni from Magdalen College, Oxford, on the ingredients of a journalist’s brain.

What are the natural qualities – or faults – of a hack? Nicholas Tomalin, the foreign correspondent killed, aged 41, in the Yom Kippur war in 1973, came up with the most famous answer: “Ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability.”

For my talk, I came up with a few other qualities. “Eskimo journalism” is useful – an echo of the idea that the Eskimo uses every part of a whale: the blubber for fuel, the meat for food, the eyebrows for toothbrushes. In the same way, the hack turns anything into copy: his journey to work, a bad sandwich, speeches at the Garrick.

A macabre interest in gloom is a bonus. When I worked at Reader’s Digest, I was shown an uplifting article in the American edition about a crack addict who’d become a brilliant teacher; in British papers, my editor told me, “We prefer to write about brilliant teachers who become crack addicts.”

The best journalists have a good memory. On the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Festival of Britain, Charles Moore, the former Telegraph editor, asked the late Bill Deedes what it had been like.

“Oh, pretty good,” said Bill, who was then 88. “Not a patch on the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924.”

Before my talk, I asked Peregrine Worsthorne, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, now 93, what qualities make a journalist.“An absolute inability to do anything else,” he told me.

Normally I don’t agree with John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons. But he’s right about wigs in Parliament.

The Commons Commission, chaired by Bercow, has rubber-stamped a plan by parliamentary clerks to get rid of their wigs because they’re too itchy.

I occasionally wore a wig when I was, briefly, a barrister. They were itchy, sweaty – and pointless.

Charles II brought the wig over here in 1660 from Louis XIV’s court, where he had been exiled. In time, everyone gave them up, except barristers, parliamentary clerks and Terry Wogan. Since then, barristers have justified them by saying they prevent bias in court. Because people all look the same in a wig, the argument goes, a jury can’t side with a good-looking barrister, and a convict won’t later recognise the lawyer who sent him down.

I never thought that was convincing – in that case, why don’t barristers wear balaclavas?

Time to ditch the wigs.

Harry Mount is the new editor of The Oldie. His Summer Madness – How Brexit Split the Tories, Destroyed Labour and Divided the Country is published on February 10