Speak, memory! Frank reminisces about his own juvenilia…
When I was about eleven years old, I devoted much of my time to nisbet spotting. For a child growing up on a featureless suburban council estate, it was perhaps an unusual pastime, and more unusual still that, so young, I was the editor of the Nisbet Spotting Society’s official journal. A few words of explanation are in order.
I was delighted to see that Janet Aitchison saw the piece about about her Pirate’s Tale and responded with her memories of having written it, aged five-and-a-half. I was prompted to recall my own juvenilia. I was not as precocious as Miss Aitchison, and was twice that age before I put pen to paper.
And when I did, it was to write, illustrate, and staple together the pages of volume one, number one of the Official Journal of the Nisbet Spotting Society. Several further issues appeared over the next year or so, though the circulation never rose above one.
In retrospect, I can see that the whole nisbet spotting business was Hooting Yard in ovo. It sprung, fully-formed, into my juvenile head one day, and I set about chronicling it, with a biro. The basic idea was that there was a society devoted to this important activity, with its headquarters, oddly, in Biggleswade – oddly, because I knew nothing of Biggleswade and had never been there, indeed as far as I recall I have still never been there. The name appealed to me as faintly comic.
From the outset, I devised two iron rules. First, I would never attempt to explain what a nisbet was, so it remained simply a word and nothing more. Had I been aware at the time of structuralism and postmodernist theory, no doubt I would have heralded it as a signifier without a signified. But we didn’t use language like that in the London Borough of Barking in the 1970s The second rule was that none of the members of the Society would ever actually spot a nisbet. I recall at one point including a chart listing the official spotting numbers for the interwar period, and gleefully writing “Nil” against each year. I found it endlessly amusing to write putatively learned articles about, in essence, nothing. Readers familiar with my Hooting Yard work will immediately see the connection.
Tragically, during my earnest and bewildered teenage years I destroyed these youthful outpourings. Determined to be a “proper” writer I typed away frantically on the family’s Olivetti, page after page of awful twaddle, doubtless with a message for the world. It was not until my mid-twenties that I got all that nonsense out of my system. I think I was twenty-six when I read the line, by Dallas Wiebe, “when you have nothing to say, you write prose”. That was a thunderbolt, and liberated me. I have consciously had nothing to say ever since, and have been saying (or writing) it for three decades. But it all began with the futile and pointless activities of an imaginary group of hapless hobbyists, trying to spot a nisbet with insane persistence, when I was eleven.