Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Becoming a Writer

Word Magic

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Are writers born or bred? One of my grandfathers was a poet – an exact contemporary of Kipling, though rather less famous. His main contribution to literature was the invention of the poetry postcard. He also invented ‘The Quick and Easy Method of Washing Floors’, that ingenious bucket with a pedal that presses two rollers together and squeezes your mop, and which is found in every school and hospital throughout the universe; he sold the rights to it for, I think, twenty guineas. I’m sure I’ve inherited his lack of business acumen. Perhaps I’ve also inherited his way with words. But if there is indeed such a thing as a literary gene, I don’t believe it’s yet been mapped.

I can, however, map the beginnings of my path to writerhood, the nurture rather than the nature. First, there’s me lying in a cot in a bow window, listening to a blackbird singing in the silver birch, and to my father and his friends playing string quartets in the room below (probably Haydn, and jolly, though they had their darker moments). In my memory, music comes before words. But words come early, too, together with images. There I am again, still in the mewling and puking phase, being wheeled along the road to see my favourite image, the Esso Tiger.


my mother would say, reading the slogan on the giant hoarding. Then one day she recited,

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night . . .

The words came like a spell. The Tyger devoured ‘This Little Piggy’ and all its feeble peers; or nearly all, for there could still be poetry in the nursery rhyme:

Hark, hark, the dogs do bark:
The beggars are coming to town . . .

thrilled me, and still does.

More thrilling still was Matins, which we attended every Sunday in ‘the fairest, goodliest, and most fa

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About the contributor

Tim Mackintosh-Smith has spent the past four years pinned down by conflict in his adoptive land, Yemen. He has, however, been writing to the roar of missiles, not least a 3,000-year Arab history (The Arab Story, Yale University Press). His article was first published in the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature’s anthology For the Love of Words.

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