Elizabeth Chats With…Jonathan Higgs
I first met this month’s guest back in 2013, when he first ventured into the ‘surreal and alternative world’ – his words, not mine – that is the Writers’ Summer School in Swanwick, Derbyshire. Since then, he’s returned every year and is currently on the Committee and in his third year co-ordinating the TopWrite scheme supporting young aspiring writers. He is part of the technical support team that keeps all the presentations running; and every August, he can be found moving at speed between conference rooms, clutching cables and frowning. On the rare and special occasions on which he completes his jobs list sufficiently fully to reach ‘Writing!’ (triple circled and underlined) he tends to generate either play scripts or the next syllable or two of a novel draft which, at this point, may be slightly older than he is. He also enjoys acting and directing, when he gets the chance. I am delighted to be chatting this month with Jonathan Higgs.
Hello Jonathan and welcome. Let’s start in the time-honoured fashion by taking you back to your childhood. What is your earliest memory — and how old were you at the time?
Like, I imagine, most people, my earliest memories are probably deeply untrustworthy, having been shaped by repeated access over many years and strayed across the border into fiction. I have vague recollections of sunny days outside a house I lived in until I was about three, and of a red, aeroplane-shaped birthday cake, shared with friends in a back garden. But there are a couple of fairly early memories that I’m more confident about. Both of them involve jumping.
In one, I was on a primary school outing to Blackpool. Let loose in an adventure playground, I found myself at the top of a fireman’s pole and was afraid to slide down it. I vacillated, and dithered, and procrastinated. Eventually, a toddler half my size pottered past and leapt onto the thing without hesitation, and I realised how daft I was being. I slid down and hit the floor in a buzz of adrenaline and self-belief, newly convinced of my ability to conquer anything – only to hear our teachers call that it was time to leave. There is a lesson in here, I think.
The other is of a swimming instructor ordering us to jump into the pool in any way we wished with the aim of travelling as far as possible, but not to dive. I was determined to work out a method that would see me clear to the middle of the pool, but plainly nothing was going to work as well as a dive. As we stepped up to the edge and the instructor counted down, the only idea in my head was ‘Don’t dive, don’t dive, don’t dive…’ So, when whistle blew, of course, I dived. And got sent to the changing room. I believe there to be a lesson here, too.
What was your favourite subject at school — and which was the lesson you always wanted to avoid?
I’m not sure that I really had a favourite lesson, to be honest, but – at the risk of being predictable and tedious – I did always enjoy writing. One of my earlier memories of primary school is of ‘writing books’: single sheets of A4 paper folded over, to allow me a beautifully crayoned front cover, a back cover full of effusive praise for my literary accomplishments, and two whole (half) pages of epic narrative in between. I recall one called The Little Spaceship. I can’t tell you much about it, but I think it’s safe to assume that the title did an accurate job of conveying most of the significant story content.
As for ‘wanted to avoid’… I suppose my ‘worst’ subjects were probably PE and Maths: Maths because it always took me a long time to satisfy myself about why each new process worked, after which point it seemed to make a very swift transition from ‘utter mystery’ to ‘grinding repetition’; PE because I have very little difficulty falling over my own feet. [The picture shows the closest I’ve got to an actual dance – what passed for a Charleston in Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, in 2018. Photo credit.]
What would you have printed on the front of your T-shirt?
An answer to a slightly different question: I have a T-shirt which bears a legend that I rather like. It was a cast T-shirt from a production of Richard II (in which I was miscast as Bolingbroke). The front of the T-shirt reads ‘I wasted time’; the back completes the line: ‘and now doth time waste me’. I am late for everything, a horrific procrastinator and an expert at squandering opportunities, so this T-shirt feels like it rolled out of the factory destined to find its way to me, where it can cheerfully advertise my flaws to the world.
Would you describe yourself as left-brain (analytical), right-brain (intuitive) or a mix of both?
I’m sceptical about the ‘left brain/right brain’ distinction, so, unsurprisingly, I’d say I’m a mixture of both. I often wish I were a bit more intuitive and am usually quite pleased with myself if I manage to have an instinct and to act on it. I’m a big fan of rational, reasoned thinking (one book that I have been very influenced by is The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan: a tome of cheerful debunking and a paean to the virtues of scientific method); but, at the same time, I’m delighted by the emotional and atmospheric intensity of, say, Romantic art. I’ll trust rationalism to save me from spending my savings on Quantum Healing Crystals when I have a cold, but I wouldn’t want to lose the mercurial, maniacal tour guide of my gut feelings in the world of creative endeavour.
If you could take part in one television programme, which one would it be?
Not actually the sort of programme that one can take part in, this. I’d (literally) burn out of Masterchef or Bake Off in Round One; I’d contradict the title of Britain’s Got Talent; the financial promise of the various quiz programmes has its appeal, but I’d end up not being able to name a football stadium or a soap opera character and going home with nothing; Only Connect is appealing for its gleefully sadistic obscurity, but I can look stupid all on my own, thank you. After first achieving (the triviality of) stardom, a season on Strictly would – in my dreams – be marvellous, but only if it goes as it does in my dreams – that is, if I transform from the knock-kneed, malcoordinated ugly duckling that I instantly become in the presence of a dance floor, and execute an astonishing Journey, to become…someone reasonably competent at moving whilst wearing glitter, I suppose.
But none of those shows are my answer. My answer is that, back when I was about fourteen or fifteen, I remember watching The X-Files and thinking ‘I would like to be an FBI agent.’ I then quite quickly disagreed with myself: no, I reckoned, in reality FBI agency would likely be a lot of paperwork and then maybe risking getting shot by gangsters during a protracted and psychologically damaging undercover operation. I realised that I also wanted to be a doctor on E.R., except that I didn’t really, because it would be all fiddling with people’s exposed hearts after fifteen minutes’ sleep in four days, and that didn’t sound like a recipe for happiness, either. What I wanted, I decided was to be those FBI agents in those stories, and those doctors in those plots. What I wanted, I realised, was to be an actor. This was a profound realisation at the age of fifteen. [The picture shows a bit of acting, in the last play I took part in: Simon Stephens’ Bluebird. A taxi driver wasn’t among the things I wanted to be aged 15, but being this taxi driver, in this story, was fantastic. Photo credit.]
In ‘real life’, I am an English teacher.
How do you relax?
In entirely ordinary ways. I often watch television whilst eating, as these days I am usually working when I am not eating. Reading has rather got squeezed out lately, too, but I sometimes manage to sneak in a page or two whilst waiting for a kettle to boil or something (I have, in this way, just finished The Saga of the Volsungs. Very stabby, those vikings.) I committed, last September, to exercising for at least ten minutes every day; I’ve made it through 308 days, so far. I drink more often than I should. Several of the above things often happen in the last hour before bed (exercise, eating, television) so I suppose they qualify as my most common, true relaxation activities. My unread books, unplayed guitar and unwritten pages would like me to make some adjustments.
If you knew you only had 24 hours left, how would you spend them?
In crisis, I fear.
Almost certainly, I’d drive over to my parents and spend it with them. We’d probably all try to get over to my sister’s house, too. What we’d do then, I don’t know, but I’m pretty much 100% sure that, whatever it is, it’d be with my family.
If you had to escape from a fire, what three things would you take with you?
Much of this is dependent on where exactly this fire is taking place, of course. If it were at school, where I work, for instance, then it would be whatever bags I have with me and my umbrella. Definitely my umbrella. I am very attached to my umbrella. In school, it is an aid for pointing things out on the board, indicating my intended path through a crowded corridor or ramping up from ‘Shhh!’ in an overly-noisy classroom by bringing it down sharply on my desk. At a Year 11 prom this week, a student asked if he could have his photograph taken with me. ‘Of course,’ I replied. ‘Have you got your umbrella?’ he asked? [The picture shows that I did in fact have my umbrella with me.]
But, the idea is that I’m at home, I suppose. Hmm. Well, this computer, definitely. There’s a lot on this computer. A Lot. Even when it’s trying my patience as it has been doing today (by doing something mysterious and unseen that causes it to operate with the alacrity of an injured sloth in a bath of treacle) it is still deeply precious for the work and writing and memories it holds, the potential for more of all of those that it offers, and the portal to the rest of the world that it provides.
After that… I’m going to need my contact lens kit. I’m very short-sighted, in the sort of way that tends to startle people who tell me how very short-sighted they are, because when I tell them my prescription they think I’ve misplaced a decimal point.
And lastly, mundanely, the shoulder bag that I have full of medical bits and pieces. Creams and ointments to keep my skin from being annoyed at everything (it annoys easily). Antihistamines to prevent an adventurous choice of dinner from killing me. That sort of thing.
But, if I’m allowed to group the lens kit with the creams and pills under a larger banner of Medical Things, then probably my umbrella. I do like that umbrella.
There is a saying: to make the punishment fit the crime. Which character from fiction would you like to punish — and how?
I love this question and am deeply annoyed at myself for simply blanking at it. There are so many wrong ’uns in literature. I can’t believe I can’t think of any.
As a weak placeholder, I’m going to suggest Ishmael. Thank you for these facts about whales, Ishmael. I hadn’t realised that this narrative was going to be quite so padded out with miscellaneous observations about every single conceivable practicality concerning the hunting of cetaceans. I naively supposed that there might be more to the tale of Ahab’s doomed revenge than is expressed in each and every of its brief rehearsals in an endless succession of films, television programmes and other books – but no. It’s a short story. And a wardrobe full of facts about whaling.
Ishmael can take a course on brevity, run by Polonius. That seems reasonable.
If you had a message for your younger self, for the Topwrite students you work with each year, or for anyone else, what would it be?
I think that there are, at present, two main messages that I’ve come to regard as quite useful and important. They’re both of the ‘have confidence’ and ‘just do it’ and ‘follow your dreams’ sort.
One is about realising that you get better at things, so not to be put off by the daunting excellence of others. Believe in your capacity to improve, and commit to doing that.
The other is about fear. Lots of people tell you not to listen to fear; never to give in to fear; shut out the voice of fear, etc. They don’t tell you how sneaky fear is. Fear doesn’t always arrive with a marching band playing Mozart’s Dies Irae and twenty-foot banner spelling ‘FEAR’. It often looks and sounds exactly like something else – like common sense, or prudence, or responsibility. Somewhere inside, you might have a sneaking suspicion that actually what you’re justifying is essentially cowardice – but it’s just so easy to rationalise. I imagine that this is a tricky problem to counter, but I suspect that working out what you want and developing a very clear idea of the sorts of behaviour and types of choices that will produce that thing – and the sorts that won’t – would probably help. If being Sensible or Prudent or Responsible is actually taking you by the hand and drawing you away from the difficult path to accomplishment, then maybe you want to politely wriggle free and run like hell the other way.
Jonathan, thank you for finding time in what I know is a very busy schedule, to come and chat to us today. I look forward to throwing more of my IT problems at you next month in Derbyshire.