Searching for the mothballs
Today I did manage to shut the door against students and all-comers and claim exactly 2 hours and 35 minutes for finishing my book. Writing it I mean, not reading.
Being on the brink of submitting the typescript is about the best stage there is in producing a book. You can gaze in pride at those hundreds of crisp pages that are all yours, and that no-one yet has had a chance to be nasty about. No sharp comments from publisher’s readers. No acerbic reviews. They have not yet (for this is even worse) been systematically ignored by every literary editor in the land. In your mind’s eye, the book is still the mover and shaker that you always hoped it would be, a Whitbread prize-winner and money-spinner. You start to plan the new car/bathroom/house you'll have on the proceeds.
In real life, my own particular literary baby has been in gestation for six or seven years (which is speedy work for an academic tome). It is about the ancient Roman victory parade or Triumph – that jingoistic procession through the streets of the ancient city that has been copied by almost every monarch or autocrat ever since. Not to mention being recreated on canvas and celluloid from Mantegna to HBO’s Rome.
Gratifyingly, for potential sales at least, the whole subject has become a lot more topical than when I started. All my questions about what counts as victory, about the risks of military success and the difficulty of knowing when you've actually won a war, look hugely more relevant now than they did when I first embarked on the project. Even the Bishop of Southwark was banging on (intelligently, I should say) about the Roman Triumph on “Thought for the Day” earlier in the week.
Anyway, I am three quarters of the way through the eighth chapter, out of nine. And apart from the fantasies about the fame and fortune that will follow, it’s the light at the end of the tunnel which is keeping me going – the idea that in a few months there will be a week-end when I can down tools and don’t have to worry about the next sentence.
What's holding me up, of course, is the footnotes -- that no-one will read anyway, but give the book the street cred it needs as “academic output” (as we must now call it). The advice that I give to all my PhD students is: “Write down all the references as you go along and never imagine that you will remember them”. But in the usual "Do as I say, not as I do" fashion, that is precisely where I slipped up.
I pressed on with getting the argument down on paper, and never imagined that I would forget where exactly it was in his twenty or so volumes that Cicero referred to the execution of the chief prisoners at the end of the triumphal parade or the candles lighting its way. But of course I did, instantly. And there are now literally hundreds of such gaps to be filled in ("see 000???". "check!!", "is this true??") before the whole thing can be sent off. Just this part of the process has been the work of months, not only for me but for my valiant Research Assistant, generously provided by the Faculty of Classics -- who are almost as keen as I am that this book should see the light of day.
I must confess that I have decided that some of these unfinished notes are merely anal. Does anyone really needs to know about that nineteenth-century German doctoral dissertation on triumphal chariots . . .? Isn't it just showing off? But some things still nag.
I'm particularly keen to track down the passage (a diary entry? a letter?) where Nancy Mitford complains about duchesses’ dresses smelling of mothballs. The relevance of this to the Roman ceremony of Triumph will become immediately clear to anyone who in due course reads the book. So if you remember where it comes from, please let me know. You will be gratefully acknowledged, and will save me a lot of time.