JMW Turner said it is only when we cease to be fearful that we begin to create. This has to be true and may be growing more so. Creativity often requires divergence from accepted norms. This is not to sit in praise of the transgressive, which can often be banal. But it is to acknowledge that stepping off the path of orthodoxy bears a cost.
This is a long-winded way of introducing my own creative dilemma. In 2013 a think tank was kind enough to publish my book about family size. It was a subject chosen for several reasons, one of which was that it was insufficiently controversial to get me the sack.
To be even-handed, news presenters must appear impartial. The better ones do this without succumbing to blandness.
The grander ones, especially if their private prejudices accord with prevailing mores, sometimes let their petticoats show. Those media big beasts are often further along journalism’s evolutionary track. No mortgage, fat pension, brimful awards cabinet, grown-up children. I have ticked none of those boxes. And yet the call of the publisher still sounds its siren song.
Which is why my new book proposal currently sits with a literary agent introduced to me by a highly successful, hugely tendentious and humblingly plucky author. His example makes me feel cowardly and shallow, which is excessively self-critical. He is childless and I am anything but.
My 2013 book sold very few copies. But because it was printed by a think tank, sales were not the measure of success. Sparking debate was. And in that respect it did well.
It was picked up by broadcasters, most notably BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Radio 5 and ITV. There were full-page articles about it in newspapers as editorially opposed as the Guardian and Daily Telegraph. My fellow journalists played the ball, not the man, which meant my delicate attempt at calibration had worked.
There was bile online. But the criticism of childless-by-choice campaigners and neo-Malthusians outraged at the idea of someone arguing for big families did not summon the Twitter mob.
I’m less certain my latest idea will thread the needle. Our culture is now sensitised to the taking of offence.
Careers and livelihoods are cut short when employers opt for the line of least resistance in response to howls of online indignation.
If my literary agent gets a nibble, I will then face Hobson’s choice. Do I risk writing a book that could spell financial ruin for me and mine, or do I publish because “I can do no other”?
It’s endlessly fascinating, if only for the parents, to see which characteristics are inherited by a child from their mum or dad. Our 13-year-old, Constance, is definitely her mother’s daughter. A tumble of implausibly yellow hair, ebullience, a natural disposition towards acts of charity and, it seems, low blood pressure.
This last, and hitherto unrecognised, characteristic announced itself on Christmas Day when Connie enlivened Mass by fainting. It was discreetly done.
Not one of those guardsmen on parade, collapsing like a chimney rigged to blow by Fred Dibnah. She was kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer and simply pitched forward until prostrate. It would be nice to imagine this to have been an act of piety, it being her Confirmation year, but it was almost certainly a function of circulation not devotion. Priests see a lot of this, of course, weddings being notorious for the lights going out. But Christmas? Low blood sugar? Surely not.
The cold snap before the New Year brought, as the AA says, treacherous driving conditions. I was gingerly commuting to the studio early one morning when I saw car headlights pointing down the dual-carriageway at me. Was it a drunk driver going against the flow of traffic? I slowed down. The car wasn’t moving and must have spun in the snow.
The driver was fine, but the car was a hazard. I called 999 and spoke to an operator who sounded as if she’d had a night of it. But as we talked she warmed up. What a job these folk do, never knowing from one moment to the next what hideous trauma or ludicrous time-waster awaits their calm authority.
Emergency workers, paramedics particularly, we have learned to lionise. But we might spare a thought for those people whose place of work looks indistinguishable from a call centre, but whose conversations frequently inhabit the space between life and death.