En route for the tiny and remote Hebridean island of St Kilda I found myself grappling with a tiny and remote problem. I have told myself time and time again that there are no technical solutions for writers, only imaginative ones – but that doesn’t stop me from falling prey to these delusions: this computer/typewriter/research will catapult the work in hand to new levels.
My tiny netbook had burnt out after I’d stupidly shut it while it was shutting down then left it to burn out its mother board. Or so Nomi, the guy in the local cyber-café-cum-phone-unlocking hangout, told me. He ordered a new mother board from Hong Kong to replace it, and when the job was done (160 shitters), we checked that it booted up and I tucked it away in my rucksack.
But on the train the keyboard obstinately refused to work at all; disaster: I had two pieces to file before I got beyond internet range in 36 hours. I called Toby the computer man: “Oh,” he said, “it sounds like this guy failed to reconnect the keyboard, it’s a simple enough job but you have to open the machine and obviously you need to know what you’re doing.”
Obviously I wouldn’t know what I was doing: I orbit the world of handiness in a space station of cackhandedness banged together out of old 2x4s and six-inch nails. Some years ago I reached the tipping point and had to acknowledge that I would probably never be able to put up a set of shelves or flambé a crème brûlée. I concur with Dr Johnson that to be unhandy is in itself a form of stupidity, and although I once – to please my wife – spent something like a fortnight installing a new toilet-roll holder (I did drilling and everything!), when she returned home from her holiday, she tartly observed that it was the wrong way round.
When I came off the phone and was sitting there gently weeping, the young man sitting in the seat behind me leant over and said, “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation and I think I might be able to fix your computer.” Yes, bizarre – but true: a good computer Samaritan. A Phillips screwdriver was quickly obtained from the train guard and Alex (for this was his name) set to work. I couldn’t bear to look, given that manipulations like this seem like neurosurgery to me. Within what seemed to be a few minutes, Alex had done it and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that it would have another pretentious art catalogue essay by Will Self after all.
Alex wasn’t just a whizz at mending computers, he was also a soon-to-be-qualified psychiatric nurse who was thinking of going on to qualify in law so he could act as an advocate for mentally ill people. Moreover, he also grew all his vegetables on allotment near his home in Glasgow, and liked to go bare-bones backpacking around the Highlands. Indeed, rather like Bruno who took me down the London sewers a few weeks ago, he was one of those young men who seem to move lightly and efficiently around the world, and to me – who when young moved heavily and inefficiently around the world, trashing bits of it along the way – this seems far more of a miracle than a pathetic little netbook.