Thursday, March 02, 2006

The awesome power of Google

Yesterday was a great day for me. I wrote the first chapter of my next novel. Let me say that again. I wrote the first chapter of my next novel. After years of prevarication; half a dozen false starts; and a growing fear that I did not have another book in me, suddenly it all came together.

I can't say too much about the book at this stage - I don't want to kill the magic - but it's a sort of saga stretching from 1953 until 2002. I don't know the plot exactly but I do have a pretty good idea of the main characters and I know the theme that is going to drive it forward. To be honest, I haven't been this excited for years.

The book will be different from A Half Life of One because there will be a fair bit of humour in it - as there is in any life, no matter how dark. Because it's a modern historical novel I need to do a fair amount of research to get the period right. And that, of course, is where Google comes in.

I wanted to check out a joke I read years ago. It was 1959 and my father had just died and we had fled our home in urban Essex and gone to live on a farm deep in the Scottish countryside in East Lothian. I was stuck in the farmhouse, alone and miserable with nothing to read but a stack of old Readers Digests. I was at rock bottom. Then I read one of those humourous shorts that populate the pages of the magazine and it actually made me laugh out loud. That was over forty years ago but I still remember the day that happened. Maybe the Readers digest saved my life.

You can't get much more ephemeral than a snippet in an old Readers Digest but out of curiousity I Googled the punchline I remembered yesterday. Here's what immediately leapt out at me:

[Reader's Digest, 1958]
My friend R.B. Jones doesn't have a first or middle name -- only the initials R.B. This unusual arrangement was never a problem until he went to work for a government agency. The government is not accustomed to initialed employees, so R.B. had a lot of explaining to do. On the official forms for the payroll and personnel departments, his name was carefully entered as R (Only) B (Only) Jones. Sure enough, when R.B. got his pay check, it was made out to Ronly Bonly Jones.

It made me laugh then and it makes me laugh now. But it's pretty spooky, isn't it? The whole of recorded history, no matter how trivial, seems to be available at the press of a button. My life story is out there too - insignificant and half-forgotten as it used to be - and with Google's help I'm going to recover it and re-order it and transform it into my next book.

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