GW: Hello sword people, this is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy and I’m here today with Tim Parks, who is a novelist, a non-fiction writer and translator and perhaps most importantly, from my perspective, he wrote a fantastic memoir on getting into meditation, called Teach Us to Sit Still. Those of you that train with me know that meditation is one of the core parts of my practise. So it’s a great opportunity to get Tim here on the show. So without further ado, welcome, Tim.
TP: Hello. Good to be here.
GW: So just to orient everyone, whereabouts in the world are you and how did you get there?
TP: Well, I’m sitting right now in Milan, just on the south side of the centre of the city in my apartment, I’ve been living here for about 10 years. I’ve been living in Italy for about 40 years, I suppose. How did I get here? I married an Italian woman. We divorced some six years ago. I can’t remember exactly how long. I was in Verona for a long time. And then I was working at the university in Milan. And so I came to live here. That’s where I am.
GW: Lovely. I visited Milan. Italy, obviously I go there every chance I get. So I imagine your Italian is an awful lot better than mine.
TP: Well I don’t know how good yours is, but yeah, I mean, after all these years, it will be somewhat scandalous if it wasn’t very good. I mean, I used to teach translation into Italian at postgraduate level to Italian students. Which wasn’t probably as nerve wracking as being in a sword fight. But I was always very anxious that I would make mistakes. So, you know, a lot of concentration was put into learning how to not make too many mistakes.
GW: Yeah, I’ve only ever translated in the other direction. The active use of the language or creating the phrases is much harder than just recognising them when they occur, I think.
TP: Oh absolutely. Yeah. I mean, active language is always more difficult than passive language, that’s for sure.
GW: I know you’ve written the book called Medici Money, which I used actually for part of my Ph.D. work when I was looking at pricing up manuscripts. But have you done much work with medieval sources in Italian?
TP: No, no, I’d be lying if I said I’ve done that and I wrote a book called Medici Money, I’m going to use the Italian pronunciation. I wrote Medici Money because I was invited to, it was a crazy situation. An American publisher wrote to me saying they wanted to produce some books about money written by writers. I mean, an extraordinary idea that books would be written by writers. They said, why don’t you write about the Medici Bank in the 15th century? And I said, you know, this is clearly a highly specialist field and it’s crazy to ask somebody like me to do this. And then, obviously having turned down the job, I immediately started reading books about the Medici Bank. And I was fascinated that for me, the key issue at stake was the relationship between money value and other systems of value. Ethical value, cultural, aesthetic value. So that clash between those two systems was absolutely essential to the history of the Medici Bank and indeed the Renaissance. So then I wrote back and said maybe if that job is still up, I’ll have a shot at it. And I did, in fact, get used to… well, I mean, they’re not really medieval manuscripts. It’s kind of early renaissance in the 15th century, and the late 14th century. I did read some manuscripts, but frankly, the handwriting in that period is a nightmare. And so the texts I was reading were either printed text or transcribed text. I don’t actually find the language of the period too difficult, but the handwriting is impossible.
GW: Yeah, I found that when presenting an Italian friend who doesn’t do swords with one of the manuscripts I work with. And he looked at it and he was like, I have no idea what that says. But when I read it aloud to him, it was like, oh yeah, you stand there with your left foot forward. And when he comes to strike like this, do this, do that. Yeah. So that the handwriting can be a challenge.
TP: Yeah, I remember. I did spend some time looking at various handwriting archives and I’m getting some sense of what had happened. And it’s only as you get into the late 18th century that suddenly all the handwriting becomes legible to modern eye. Otherwise actually you really have to work quite hard to learn some of the systems. I did get to the point where I could read all the exchange notes and cheques that the Medici were sending back and forth to each other. But that was about as far as I really got on that. It wasn’t really central to what I was doing.
GW: Most of the work I’m dealing with are manuscripts which are intended to be presented to someone. So they’re usually written by a professional scribe. And so they have a very consistent hand, which may have some quirks to it. But usually once you know what those quirks are, it’s not that hard to figure out. We have more trouble with things like getting a scan, this kind of resolution that you can really zoom in and see the ink strokes. And of course, sometimes there’s damage to the to the manuscripts. So Medici Money was kind of a detour in your writing career then?
TP: Well, my writing career has had so many apparent detours that Medici Money came pretty soon after a book that I wrote that looks like it’s a book about football called A Season with Verona. But again, it’s very much a book about a modern mental phenomenon and again, about the relationship between money and other values. Because if you think about it, football is a classic example of, on the one hand, something that’s evidently about money and on the other hand, something that’s evidently not about money for the fans, but even to an extent, for the simple joy of playing and so on, if that exists for the professional players and I think it does for some of them, not for all of them. So the funny thing when I started working on Medici Money was the feeling of how this whole question of the scandal of money, the scandal that everything can be reduced to a monetary a unitary value. You can say the prayer of a priest will cost you one florin. A prostitute will cost you less, no doubt less, and so on. And that you can actually compare that you can buy everything. I mean, that’s the scandal of money.
GW: That’s the sort of foundation of modern economics, isn’t it? The idea that everything you can put a price on everything like including life, there are ways that they do that by comparing how much money insurance costs.
TP: It is a big issue, obviously, at the moment in the pandemic situation we were living through. The point is that money makes all kinds of things possible because you can do that and at the same time there is something scandalous about feeling, you know, what is the nature of the value that you can’t put a monetary tag on and so on. So there’ll always be tension there. And it was very interesting seeing the kind of negotiation that went on in the 15th century between the bankers and the church over the issue of things like usury, that is lending money and interest, and the whole question of what it what it meant to accumulate wealth inside a religious culture whose initial figure, Jesus, had preached poverty. Really a lot of the kind of compromises that were reached, like you can spend money publicly on art in the beginning, religious art. But then more and more after the near Platonist movements in the mid 15th century, any art is seen as beautiful, is seen as good, morally good. And so although I’ve earned a lot of money, if I spend my money publicly on something good, and of course later it will be things like sponsoring sports or sponsoring parks or something. If I do that, I can earn collective forgiveness for my position.
GW: I see billionaires doing that all the time now, with Bill Gates, obviously, and his work.
TP: And the interesting thing, too, is the way then, for example, for the Medici to see the amount of money they spent on churches and so on, became also a way of showing that they had good taste, of showing that they were special people. So on the one hand, they were spending their money, but on the other hand, they were also collecting prestige as figures of a certain cultural level and so on. There’s not quite so much of that around today, but that it’s a fascinating negotiation. It’s also fascinating on the side of the church, that on the one hand, they’re thinking, this is great, we’ve got this money coming into us, this is consolidating our position, it’s all for the glory of God, this beautiful building. And then there are other people saying, now, wait a minute, this is all about money. This is all about worldly things. This is all about and we don’t want this at all. We don’t want this money. And so you get a kind of backlash, a Puritan backlash with Savonarola and obviously then with the Protestant reform. So it’s interesting, this stuff is still going on today. Obviously the debate moves on. But basic issues stay the same.
GW: Yeah, it’s a fundamental weirdness that we pay footballers more than we pay doctors, nurses and schoolteachers. It doesn’t make sense, really.
TP: Well, of course, it’s a scandal and of course, it’s obvious why it happens. Lots of people can be wonderful doctors and very few people can be Ronaldo. Obviously, if you get a very special athlete with very special talents, and there’s a certain amount of the same thing in the art world with people with special talents.
GW: Or with special marketing skills.
TP: Yeah, this is the logic of money and entertainment in the modern world. It’s a fairly recent phenomenon, though, only when you could start putting this stuff on TV and getting huge crowds and revenues. If you look at the British League football before the second war, people weren’t getting paid very much.
GW: Now, that’s true. OK, now, I actually called you up to talk about Teach Us to Sit Still, but I very much enjoyed that digression. I’ve been meditating for a long time, and I came at it initially from sort of guided shamanic meditation and then got into awareness of breathing, Buddhist-style meditation, that sort of thing. And I read your book, Teach Us to Sit Still, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve read about three times now. I mean, I’ve read the book, but most of my listeners, despite the fact that I’ve mentioned it several times on my blog and at other places, probably haven’t read it yet. Can you sort of summarise how you got into meditation and what it’s done for you?
TP: OK, so, that book starts when I was around 50. I was juggling three jobs and doing far too much and had three children and all kinds of stuff going on and living in two languages and hyper-stressed. I had begun to have over a couple of years a series of disturbing abdominal pains. All kinds of issues. At that period, nobody had actually established the syndrome which I later discovered I pretty much had, which was something called Pelvic Pain Syndrome, where basically you’ve those muscles in your pelvic floor have become so tense from sitting down over computers and generally worrying yourself and working yourself crazy that all the nerves that cross them, which are nerves from the bladder, nerves from the back, nerves and the genitals and stuff, just start sending pain messages, kind of referred pain so that you think you’ve got a problem more or less everywhere, when basically you’ve just got a problem of being of having been super wired up and having these muscles that are in difficulty. So, it was a very miserable period because, of course, one constantly believes that one has something terribly serious. Finally, I found online, after many weary hours of reading of similar problems, I found somebody who was suggesting this line and one of the solutions they suggested was a form of what he called paradoxical relaxation. But basically, it was a basic form of meditation and breathing meditation and body scanning. And I tried this and to my surprise, I began to get results doing that. I found it very, very hard work at the beginning. It was very interesting at the beginning, realising that I had never closed my eyes purposely to not go to sleep, as it were. You know, I closed my eyes just to be there and to observe what it was like being there. And so an interesting thing happened was that I suddenly got terribly interested in it, which was already therapeutic, because when you got a problem, you tend to get over focussed on the problem. And then I tried some shiatsu massage, which was also wonderful, by the way. And the guy there said to me, this breathing you’re doing is basically meditation. Why don’t you learn how to meditate properly? And he suggested to me that I go to a Vipassana meditation retreat. Now, I have to say in a parenthesis that I was brought up in a super religious, evangelical, charismatic religion family, and I had a huge resistance to anything remotely religious. So it took about a year and a half for this guy to talk me into at least trying this out. And again, I was fascinated. I mean, I’m no doubt you and probably most of the people listening will be familiar with these kind of retreats. But basically, one’s invited to meditate anything up to eight to ten hours a day, either sitting or walking. The first ones I went to were all sitting and to a large extent, it was just a discovery of how wild my mind was, really. How difficult it was to calm it down and to invite it to just be still for a while and how you can’t sit still if your mind isn’t still. So there’s a whole realisation of the physical and mental link-up that isn’t intellectual. I mean, you can read about it and say, yeah, that must be true. And but until you’ve really experienced it for hours and hours and then you begin to learn how to negotiate that. So after that, I started going to meditation retreats at first maybe a couple of times a year and then maybe once a year. Now for many years, I go on hopefully 10 day retreats because I think that 10 days is just so much better than, say, five days or seven days.
GW: What’s the difference?
TP: You reach such an extraordinary, extraordinary state in 10 days, I would love to go for longer. I have no doubt now that I’m getting older, the time will come when I do find the time to do that. And then when I’m not at a retreat, I meditate every morning for about 45 minutes. I have the great good fortune that my… I was going to say my partner, but we just got married.
TP: Yeah, we got married in December, in full lockdown pretty much. Married in masks. We got together seven or so years ago and she meditates with me in the morning, which is a wonderful thing, it’s a wonderful thing to start the day with these 45 quiet minutes. So it’s pretty much the situation. I do notice that just meditating every day for 45 minutes, you don’t get into the kind of state that you can get into at the retreats, obviously. If your whole focus for 10 days of silence, because they are silent retreats, if your whole focus is on slowing everything down and just letting everything breathe and be and observing it very carefully for 10 days, you do reach quite a wonderful state of composure. Not always. Sometimes, you know, if you make the mistake of going to a retreat when you’re in the middle of a divorce or a marital crisis, you know. But at least if nothing else, it tells you what bad state you’re in. There’s nowhere to hide when you’re sitting on your own for eight hours a day. There’s nowhere to hide at all.
GW: I mean, just to put this in context, when I start people, when I’m teaching meditation to people who’ve never done it before, I start at six breaths, which takes about a minute, and then we build that up to about five minutes. And then if I’m doing really well, if at the end of like five or six weeks I’ve got them sitting down for 15 to 20 minutes a day, personally I find that for a quick fix, I can get something useful done in five minutes, but to really clear the mental decks an hour is about the time. The first 40 minutes is basically fussing around with stuff going on. And then everything settles down and things clear out. And there’s that lovely feeling of like being in an aeroplane and breaking above the clouds.
TP: Sometimes I do 45 minutes and never really get that. But I think if I’m not particularly wired up, and I think experience is terribly important in meditation. You do learn more and more as the years go by. After half an hour I can probably get into some kind of reasonable state and get rid of all the stuff. I do think one thing needs to be said about meditation, that it seems to be absolutely crucial that one takes a position on it, really. And this is a question of what you’re meditating for.
GW: Right. OK.
TP: Because, I got into this probably about 13, 14 years ago. And obviously the mindfulness thing was just beginning and then it became very big. Now it seems to be maybe less so I don’t know. But it seemed to me that there was this constant thing with mindfulness, that you were doing mindfulness in order to achieve something else, you know?
TP: And in that sense, in hierarchical terms, it was a tool with a goal beyond it. And of course it was like that for me in the beginning, in the sense that I was meditating to get healthy. I thought that as soon as I got healthy again, I’ll stop. Like, you stop taking the antibiotics. But then I began to realise that it was only when you really gave yourself to the thing and you hierarchically inverted the situation that you actually got the result that you wanted in the first place. But you only got the result if you ceased to think of that as the key result, you know. So that’s a very, very curious aspect of meditation. And it does make me very suspicious when, “if you meditate you study better”. The main thing is that you learn about meditation.
GW: Yeah. It’s a phrasing of the outcome over process problem. In swordsmanship training, if you want a certain outcome, generally speaking, the best thing to do is to forget about that outcome altogether and just pay attention to the process and involve yourself in the process. And the process is the point. And then these outcomes may or may not occur and they’re much more likely to occur if you’ve done that. But if you are focussed on the outcome, you missed the process and thus you never get the outcome.
TP: Yeah, absolutely, I do think also that in this kind of conundrum is a kind of factor that doesn’t seem to have been taken into account by a lot of those proposing mindfulness on a sort of routine level for huge numbers of people, because if huge numbers of people get into meditation and meditative states, you’re going to see a greater and greater refusal of many of the goals that they were supposed to be in those states to achieve.
GW: Productivity being a good one.
TP: Because, for example, I know that the American army uses meditation to train people to prepare for directing cruise missiles and so forth. I deeply suspect in somebody who goes away on a Vipassana retreat and learns how to meditate properly, he’s probably not going to be eager to be directing cruise missiles, but the same might be said of all kinds of other goals. So it’s a very interesting thing because it’s not simply a tool.
GW: What is the best way to put it, this is the thing you sell meditation with to martial artists.
TP: Right. I can see. I obviously have brought this up because I see where you are. On the other hand, it seems to me, why does somebody get into something like swordsmanship, for example? I mean, do they really get into swordsmanship just because they want to win?
GW: No, not at all. I can tell you why most people get into swordsmanship, because I recently ran a question to my newsletter list about exactly that. And most people get into swords because at some impressionable age they see Zorro or Luke Skywalker or somebody like that and they go, I want that. And so then when they get older and they get access to, for example, the work that I do, or my colleagues’, and they realise you can actually buy an actual proper sword and you can actually practise with that, then they get into it. And it’s not exactly what they originally wanted. I mean, I fixated on Luke Skywalker fairly young, and I’ve never once done a backflip during a sword fight or indeed ever. But you realise that the real thing is different to the fantasy, but it has all of the things about the fantasy that actually mattered. And so, yeah, I mean, I have students who’ve been training for years. I’ve been training myself one way or another for about 30 years, and it just gets better and better.
TP: There is this whole obviously meditative side to many martial arts, as we know, which is then, alas, presented so comically in things like the Ninja Turtles and so on and so on.
GW: Yeah, but the Ninja Turtles get kids into swords so I think the Ninja Turtles are great.
TP: I can see that actually it’s rather jolly. Yes.
GW: And they’re not intended as fencing instruction. They’re intended as getting kids leaping around the sofa, waving cardboard tubes around, whacking their siblings.
TP: I suppose the wonderful thing is the amount of contact between mind and body required, doing serious gymnastics or sword fighting or football even. So through all this abysmal lockdown, we’ve been doing online yoga staff, and online Pilates stuff like everybody else, and you look at some of the people who are clearly dancers and clearly you just think that their experience of space and their bodies must be totally different from mine, right? Totally different.
GW: Yeah. I once went on a parkour weekend seminar and the guy teaching it called Dan Edwards, when he walks down the street, he sees basically the same thing the child sees looking at a playground with swings and slides and things because it’s not just houses and fences and whatever. Oh yeah, you could get up to that. And he can bounce around the landscape in a way that is simply breathtaking and I think that the real benefit to that is the ability like an artist can see differently.
TP: This is an interesting thing, and this is a thing I’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about. I wrote a book called Out of My Head, which is very much about, like the world for each of us is to a large degree what we bring to it. I mean, on a very banal level, the quality of our eyesight and hearing and so on and so forth. But a musician who comes to listen to a piece of music is hearing stuff that I’m not hearing. Or looking at a musical score, the score is actually a different experience for him than it is for me. And there’s no real, as it were, score. There is his experience and there’s my experience. What the thing actually is when nobody’s looking at it is another question. And certainly walking down the street, if you walk down the street with a fashion expert or an artist or just an adolescent and yourself, the street’s going to be a completely different place.
GW: A lot of sword people make period clothes and my friends who can tailor clothes, when they’re walking down the street, they are seeing details of clothing. There’s a whole world happening that I’m completely oblivious to.
TP: Yeah, my daughter who is an artist into designing clothes, it’s just amazing. You talk afterwards about people and she’ll say, yeah, that thing she was wearing – I didn’t notice it at all. But one of my most intense experiences of this and one of the other things that I’ve done most of my adult life is white water kayaking.
GW: Oh wow, you have to be really in the zone to do that.
TP: Well, it depends on the on the difficulty of the river. I did get into a period, funnily enough, in my 50s when I was doing quite serious rivers in Austria. And one of the things you learn there is how completely a river changes when you begin to really understand rivers and be negotiating a river. And depending on your ability to really read it as you go down, if you’re not going to have a very bad experience. So it’s just a completely different world. And you start taking a beginner down certain rivers and you realise that they’re just aware of the stuff that’s there, you know. One of the wonderful things then about, say, about getting older is that you may lose a bit of, say, your flexibility jumping about with the sword. But you can bring so much more to the world in terms of experiences. You see it more clearly, I think.
GW: We have a saying that youth and vigour are no match for old age and treachery.
TP: Yeah, yeah. Obviously there’s a cut-off point.
GW: For warriors, people actually going out there and killing people, the optimum age is somewhere around 30, that’s when they hit their peak. But the martial arts instructors, it tends to be in their 60s.
TP: You can see this in most sports. Any good football team will have a couple of really young guys who can move faster than everybody else when you need them to. But you need some really canny 30 year olds, 35 year olds in the middle of the field who actually can read the game better than everybody else.
GW: And that only comes with practise. When I was preparing for this interview, I came across a book. Sex is Forbidden, a companion novel to your memoir. I’ve not actually read it yet because I ordered it when I saw it, but it hasn’t arrived yet. So I’ve got to ask, what is it about?
TP: I write novels, we talked about that and in fact, if you look to the subjects of my novels, the subjects in my novels have been very much about the mind out of control. The obsessive mind, the person who’s locked into an issue which then drives the narrative, and novels need a story and they need to go somewhere. I had spent some years then going to these retreats and noticed the tensions that different people were experiencing in them. People bring expectations to these things, especially if this their first retreat and so on. Some people use retreats, particularly the kind of retreats that take place in communities to escape from the world, maybe for two or three years, just living there as a volunteer. Other people come to retreats to escape from a marital crisis or to resolve a marital crisis or to stop smoking. So what I was interested in was just from a technical point of view, what if you write a novel about a 10 day silent retreat?
GW: How on earth do you have a plot?
TP: The other thing is that the kind of retreats I went to were clearly of a Buddhist inspiration. I mean, the nice thing about Buddhism is that they don’t bother proselytising you, which is so different from the Christian community. But they were Buddhist retreats. And if you think about it, Buddhism is very much about an elimination of narrative and the idea of your life as a sort of narrative trajectory. Buddhism invites you to look at the present moment and live the present moment as it is for what it is, and not as a step on the way to becoming prime minister or making a million dollars. So it was partly a comedy because there are people there who are who are there for reasons which are probably not the right reasons, even though they’re not in any way bad people. And there’s a comedy between the reasons why they’re there and then the effects of these meditative hours upon you. It was interesting when you were talking about teaching meditation, and I was thinking how useful that would have been for me to have somebody to teach me to do five minutes and then 10 minutes and then 15 minutes. And instead, my first impact was, I go to a five day meditation retreat. You get up at four in the morning, you start meditating at four thirty, breakfast is at six thirty and you sit for eight hours a day. And of those hours, three of them, they invite you to sit without moving at all for the hour. I mean, nobody’s going to shout at you if you do move. But there’s that invitation and then the danger that it becomes sort of a competition with yourself, you know? So in that novel, you’ve got people coming into this situation, which can be emotionally devastating. I remember myself being emotionally completely wiped out the first retreat. I remember going into a crisis of weeping for no reason that I could understand. You just suddenly find that you’re weeping. You don’t even really know why – you’re happy, you know. So the novel is about that. It’s a kind of fun novel. Well, at the centre of the novel is a very young girl in her 20s. Probably I’m supposed to say young woman now. And she’s come out of a very traumatic relationship situation and she’s been hiding away in this retreat centre for six months. But you get the feeling that she’s really not quite “zen” as it were. So it was a fun book to write, and occasionally people would write to me and say how much they enjoyed it. I noticed that people go to retreats have often read it.
GW: They find it helpful preparation, I expect.
TP: Well, in a way, yeah. Hopefully. That’s not what I wrote. I wrote it for fun. I’m very interested in this idea that what are the things that make us unhappy? It’s usually that you’ve got some narrative, that you want your children to get into this or that job. You want your marriage to go in this and that way. You want your career to go here or there, you want your books to sell this much or not. You have all these narratives that you’re keeping on. And obviously, it’s not going to happen, or not on all fronts or very rare.
GW: The world doesn’t follow your script. We have the same thing in fencing. This is something that I have to teach my fencers when they get to a certain level. It’s that when you go into a fencing match, if you have a story about what you’re doing, you’re likely to fail. Because if you go, yeah, I’m going to feint like this, they’re going to parry like that around. Well, then what happens is you do that feint and then they step around and stab you from the other side and you’re left completely surprised because they haven’t followed your script. So instead we replace that story script with a mantra, a set of instructions, like I will control the weapon and strike. I will control their weapon and strike. So whatever you’re doing, you’re looking to control their weapon. And when you’ve got control of the weapon, then you strike, because that’s a very common problem, is you get control of the weapon and that surprises you because it hasn’t followed your internal expectations and you freeze instead of striking. So getting fencers to get the storytelling part of that brain occupied with a story that isn’t going to interfere with what they actually need to do and then they can actually do the thing. And of course, with your opponent, you want to tell them a story which is a complete lie and have them believe it, or if they tell themselves a story, you let them have it, but then just write a different ending for them.
TP: Well, it sounds fascinating. It also sounds like the kind of thing that as soon as you get into it, you’re going to start getting more interested in the experience than in the outcome. Which has obviously got to be good because you’re not going to win every one. And in fact, it might be worse if you did.
GW: Absolutely. It would be so boring. What would be the point? You might as well not show up.
TP: I often think with writing, and it took me a long time to realise this, that the unhappiest writers are the ones who were regularly successful from the beginning, because then they run into all kinds of trouble when there’s some kind of down time or simply when there’s nowhere else to go. But those of us who had the good luck or otherwise to get turned down constantly for years and years and so on and so forth, when some success comes along, you say, hey, that’s a pleasure.
GW: There’s a wonderful book by Johan Harmenberg, who won two Olympic gold medals in 1980 in fencing. So he knows a thing or two about competition. And he says that a common response to winning an Olympic gold medal, after a bit of euphoria, the common response after that is depression. So I guess it’s the outcome over process thing again. Focus on the process.
TP: Going back to that book, that whole question then of what it means to live without succumbing to your own narratives, staying totally flexible, really. I mean, obviously, you’ve got to have some kind of goal that if you sit down to write a book, you’ve got to want to finish the book and so on, but not become a slave to it. You know, I’ve spent an awful long time, I suppose, because one of the hardest masters in the world is your own ambition. You see all those people like McEnroe complaining about their father and how their father bossed them around and stuff. And you think, yeah, but it’s even worse when you’re bossing yourself around.
GW: Yeah, I’ve been self-employed now for 20 years and my boss is a dickhead and never gives me a raise or a day off. Now there’s one thing I want to get to before we come to time, and that is, you have a book called, Where I’m Reading From, and describing it, you wrote, and I’m going to quote you at yourself, which is kind of a rude thing to do to a writer, but just bear with me: “The literary world is so full of piety and snobbism and in general, a defensive need to describe everything we do as terribly important, central to the survival of Western culture and so on. The experience of reading books, of putting them down before we finish them, a feeling that a book is very good, but nevertheless not really wanting to finish it. Or again, feeling it is very bad, but devouring it.” OK, now the martial arts that I practise are all based on research from historical sources. So we’re fundamentally reading books and then trying to figure out what the author intends the art to look like, and then we try to recreate that. So basically historical swordsmanship is an exercise in literary theory. So, do you have any advice for us researchers on how we should read?
TP: Well, you know, I’m not I’m not sure that the goal you describe is similar to the kind of reading I’m talking about. I mean, let’s try and be quick on this. One of the things I’ve tried to do over the years, I had a space on the New York Review of Books online for many years, is just to be completely honest about what reading is about and what we do when we read and so on. And not to keep pretending that we’re involved in this terribly, terribly important cultural, collective act of being good people and making the world better and so on and so forth. So I tried to talk about the complexity of reading experiences and the way books are different when different people bring different things to them and so on and so forth. Now, it seems to me that what you guys are doing is rather different. You’re looking at these old texts, which are operating in an entirely different context from the world you’re moving in. So the key thing, like, for example, when I translated Machiavelli and when I worked on the on the Medici Money book, which was you can’t understand banking in the 15th century if you don’t understand an enormous amount of other things about the 15th century. You can’t understand Machiavelli and what he’s saying unless you really know very deeply what was going on in Florence in the 15th and early 16th centuries. So I would say to you guys, when you’re reading these books is, OK, the text and what it says and its difficulties. But who are the guys who are actually doing this? What is the world they’re moving in when they’re doing it? Why are they actually doing it? What do they feel they’re gaining? Just context. Books are richer when you can bring context to them. Any kind of context that makes the book live more and makes it speak more deeply. Which is why reading gets better as you get older, because one of the contexts you bring to any book is just your knowledge of life. You know, if you don’t know anything about relationships between men and women, Anna Karenina is not going to be such a great book. And you can’t even argue with the book because you can’t bring your own experience to it. Whereas with the kind of books you’re reading, on the one hand you’ve got the context of your own knowledge of what it’s like to hold that sword and to move like that. And you can say, why is he saying this? It doesn’t feel like this at all. But the other thing is the context of the time. And that context is probably broader than you think. It’s probably more than just knowing in what circumstances these people are engaged in this activity.
GW: Oh sure, there’s a social component to it.
TP: That would be the only kind of professorial advance that Tim Parks could offer to anybody. But yeah, in the end, it’s like saying this: you want to read a book in French, learn French, you know. I mean, OK, obviously the translations are wonderful and we don’t have time to learn loads of languages. But if you should crazily decide that you are going to have to get into this, then you have to know the language. If you find a book was written in a language that nobody knows and there is famously one text, I’ve forgotten the name of the manuscript now written in a language that nobody’s ever…
GW: Oh, yes, every now and then I read that somebody says they’ve solved it and it turns out they haven’t. The Voynich Manuscript.
TP: The Voynich manuscript was found by some Pole in 1910. It dates back to the 16th century. That book kind of doesn’t actually exist, does it? I mean, there’s a paper with signs on it, but whatever it was, it will only happen when somebody finally, obviously for somebody at the time, it would be a different experience for them. But context is everything in reading and context means your experience and knowing things and just getting involved. Everything is better when you get involved in it more deeply. There’s always a cut off, I imagine in your sport there’s a cut off point where young enthusiasts get into it and then they have to decide whether they’re going to really get into it.
GW: Absolutely. We have quite a high churn rate.
TP: My daughters, by the way, this is very funny now because I hadn’t even thought of this before our conversation, but my two daughters, particularly my older one, got into fencing when they were in their teens and they briefly got into this medieval dressed up fencing, in Verona, where they went to these festivals.
GW: Il Torneo del Cigno Bianco, I’ve been there.
TP: Heaving very heavy swords. I’d forgotten about it. And then all of a sudden my eldest daughter just realised, wait a minute, either I’m going to have to invest very seriously, because otherwise this thing is just going to be a game, but if I want to make it really live, I’m going to have to give to it. And that was a tricky moment.
GW: I don’t have time for a proper job.
TP: Well, it’s great when you can make your improper job your proper job.
GW: Yeah, absolutely. Just to finish up, there’s a question I ask most of my guests and answer however you please. What is the best idea you’ve never acted on?
TP: Your listeners should know that you sent me some of these questions. So I looked at this question and I thought, what on earth is this about? Why does a guy feel he needs to ask me this question? Is he inviting me to say that I regret not doing this, that or the other?
TP: I think the point is a good idea is an idea that I can do. And in that case, I do it. I can’t think of a really good idea I’ve had that I didn’t do. I don’t even know if it’s a good idea, if nobody’s done it. You only know if it’s a good idea when it works. Obviously, I’ve had loads of ideas for books. Let me say on a purely kind of practical level, there were times when I could have been politically much more astute with publishers and with sucking up to the right people. “Sucking up” is an unpleasant word. I mean, with flattering the right person at the right moment. I sometimes regret that I wasn’t a bit smarter about how I played a couple of relationships with people that could have been useful, but, you know.
GW: Yeah, well, it’s answered differently by everyone I ask it of. Actually, for many people they have a book. They’ve never written a book, but they have this idea for a book in the back of the head.
TP: I’ve met loads of people like that. Loads.
GW: And others, they haven’t quite got the nerve up to start their own historical swordsmanship club. That’s another quite common one. But it’s really interesting to see how it’s interpreted.
TP: I think it is an interesting thing, when we ask ourselves why we haven’t done certain things, for example, why haven’t I written a play?
GW: That’s a very good question. Why haven’t you written a play?
TP: Why haven’t I written a play? I’ve thought about plays. And I had an interesting idea for a play just the other day.
GW: Do you go to a lot of plays?
TP: I do when I can. I’m fascinated by plays, also by films, but I like something where it’s going to be authorial and I’m going to be the guy at least writing the script. With films I don’t want to become part of some multinational budget. So why haven’t I done that? I’ve had some interesting ideas for plays. I’m not sure if I really know how to write a play, but I’ve never actually done it. I don’t really know why. I think it’s very easy to say I didn’t have the courage to do that. Maybe there’s just some instinct that that tells me not to go there. Maybe I will try. As I said, I had a curious idea the other day.
GW: Well, maybe you will act on it. Actually a very common answer to that question is, every good idea I have, I act on it or it’s not a good idea. End of.
TP: It’s not that it is not a good idea, it’s just you don’t know whether it would have been a good idea. So how many times have I acted on an idea thinking it was good? That happens less now, probably because I just dropped the idea even before it’s really got going. But when I was in my late 20s, early 30s, even early 40s, I set out 15, 20 pages. And then I’d suddenly realised you’re setting this up just because it’s a good idea. And probably for somebody, it might be a good idea. But your heart’s not in this, because in the kind of writing I do, particularly the novels, there has to be an engagement of all of me. There has to be something at stake for me personally and what I’m writing. People send you an idea for a novel. Can you believe that people do that?
GW: Do they?
TP: They do. Just the other day somebody sent me one and it wasn’t a bad idea and they said, OK, you should do it. I mean, for me, it’s just a good idea. Like if somebody said, why don’t you go and see this movie? I’d say, OK, yeah, I’ll go. I’ll go and have a look at that. Sounds interesting, but I’m not interested in investing five hundred hours of my time in doing it.
GW: Yeah. So I think that’s true. That’s right. I have maybe six or seven books that are maybe five, ten thousand words in an outline on my hard drive. Some of them have been there for a decade and they’re probably just going to stay there forever because the others, you just start writing it and I can’t really do anything else until I’ve got this.
TP: Yeah, I usually know after about 30 pages that point where a beginning has to move into a development. It’s very easy to write a beginning but a beginning has to develop. And a story or even a book like Teach Us to Sit Still, has to take on a certain dignity, a certain weight, then you know whether you’re going to be able to do it or not. That’s the time to bail out.
GW: Well, that brings me very nicely to saying we’re out of time. So thank you very much for joining me today, Tim. It’s been a delight talking to you.
TP: Thanks a lot. Thanks, Guy. It was fun for me.