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Christopher Hart

Rise and Shine

Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work
By Mason Currey (Picador 278pp 12.99)
Matisse, 1944: the early bird gets the worm

Erik Satie may have worn chestnut-coloured velvet suits, eaten thirty-egg omelettes and founded the Church of Jesus Christ the Conductor, but this was just bohemian decoration. He also walked 12 miles into and out of Paris every day, composing all the way. In his introduction to this wonderfully entertaining little book, Mason Currey quotes V S Pritchett: 'Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.'

It should come as no surprise, perhaps, that most high-achieving creative people who have given something permanent to the world are not really in the slightest bit bohemian. They discover for themselves Flaubert's famous advice that one should live like a bourgeois and put one's bohemianism into one's work.

Food is often of little importance, mere brain fuel. Patricia Highsmith lived on vodka, cereal and bacon and eggs. For lunch Ingmar Bergman ate a revolting sort of baby food made up of yoghurt and strawberry jam which he mixed in with cornflakes. In the evening he enjoyed watching Dallas.

Few strike you as being terribly busy or working long hours, though poor Mozart is one. His daily routine in Vienna in his twenties was: hair done by 6am; dressed by 7; composing until 9. From 9 to 1 he gave lessons. Then lunch. In the afternoon he would either give a concert or carry on composing until 9pm. Then a visit to dear Stanze, home at 11, a little more composing and finally to bed at 1. Five hours' sleep and then the whole routine again.

Beethoven had it easier. Up at dawn, coffee (with exactly sixty beans to each cup), then work. A light lunch, walking all afternoon and, in the evening, dinner out, theatre or a quiet supper at home. Bed by 10pm at the latest. This essential routine of working all morning, walking all afternoon, recurs in the lives of other creatives. Benjamin Britten was the same and Mahler too, though his poor wife, Alma, had to look after him, lamenting, 'I've sunk to the level of housekeeper!'

The best inspiration often came while walking. Beethoven always took a pencil and paper with him in the Vienna Woods, and Kierkegaard often came home and started scribbling again still in his hat and coat. Some always wrote standing up - Hemingway and, I think, Virginia Woolf (who is not covered here). Nabokov started standing up, then progressed to sitting and finally lying down. Few seem to have practised any more violent exercise than walking, apart from Byron with his boxing and riding and, rather surprisingly, Joan Miró. The dreamy surrealist was an ardent practitioner of boxing, running and 'Mediterranean yoga'. He detested going to parties, telling an American journalist, 'They get on my tits.'

A key component of genius is sheer energy, and that requires health and self-discipline. Haruki Murakami writes in the morning, runs or swims (or does both) in the afternoon and is in bed by 9pm every day. He observes, 'Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.' Bohos on self-destruct might write a few exquisite fleurs du mal, but they are rare.

For stimulants, again and again, it's just tea and coffee, rarely alcohol, let alone anything else. Balzac drank fifty cups of coffee a day and so did Voltaire. The latter's doctor warned him that it was a slow poison, at which Voltaire quipped that it must be, since he'd been drinking it for seventy years. He also liked to work in bed, as did Descartes, who hated rising early. Unfortunately he took a job teaching philosophy to Queen Christina of Sweden, was commanded to be ready to start her lessons at 5am and was dead of pneumonia within weeks.

Thomas Mann evidently loved his kip, rising at 8am, enjoying a good hour's nap in the afternoon and going to bed around midnight, in a separate bedroom from his wife. Richard Strauss appears to have slept a good ten hours a night. The results of all this bourgeois self-discipline and these early nights are plain: many of those who followed such a regimen were hugely prolific as well as great, from Bach to Balzac to Dickens. F Scott Fitzgerald, I was astonished to learn, sometimes wrote up to eight thousand words a day. This is approaching Barbara Cartland levels, but it didn't seem to do his prose much harm.

Proust, unusually, slept all day and wrote all night, lying in bed propped up on one elbow, by the light of one weak, green-shaded lamp. It sounds like a recipe for backache, eyestrain and misery, and he wrote, 'After ten pages I am shattered.' Should he have gone for a good walk, even with his asthma? Dr Johnson was also a nocturnal writer, as was Kafka, by necessity rather than choice, and Flaubert. He began writing only at 9pm, spending the earlier part of the day lunching, dining, strolling, sitting, reading or applying a tonic to his head that was supposed to stop him going bald. He was pleased to manage two pages a week. (It would of course be unpardonably philistine to suggest that this was because of the time of day he chose to write, rather than because he was painstakingly crafting the most pristine prose style in modern literature.) And there is only one figure here who seems to have worked in the afternoon: James Joyce, while writing Ulysses.

Daily Rituals is a thoroughly researched, minutely annotated and delightful little book, full of the quirks and oddities of the human comedy. How striking that both Milton and Richard Strauss, quite independently, compared their creativity to a cow being milked. Its main lesson can be summed up simply enough: get up, have a cup of coffee, sit at your desk and begin.


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Christopher Hart's daily ritual involves an early morning walk, a lot of tea, and no phone, email or internet before 6pm (if at all).


John Murray


Royal Literary Fund