Who among us can lay hand on heart and truthfully state that we have never entertained the fantasy of being stranded on a desert island, like the heroes of the reality show, "Castways"? At a recent school reunion, something I find myself at more frequently than I care to admit, my friend Thomas went so far as to conjure up a vision of himself surrounded by dusky natives plying him with tender coconut and suckling pig, begging him to become their new chief. Since Tom is ever so slightly dark himself, he was subjected to a prolonged scrutiny by the class wag who finally said, "Dusky eh, well you'd fit right in boss, since you are totally IAS." That's short for "Invisible after Sunset."
Thomas indignantly protested that he had been born fair and had become tanned thanks to the Chennai sun, whereupon some nerd pedantically pointed out that UV radiation is the same regardless of one's geographical location. Reunions are fun: where else does one get to hear the unvarnished truth? Speaking from experience I'd have to say certainly not on the social treadmill in Bengaluru, where air-kissing and hypocrisy go hand in hand.
As a part-time scribbler, I am often asked, "What is your real job?" I am not in Nassim Taleb's league so much as I would love to, I can't truthfully say, "Thinking." But the mindset that writing is somehow not a "real" job prompted me to do some research and I am happy to report that my situation is by no means unique. Many writers have had to take on part time menial jobs to pay the bills, thereby allowing their writerly imagination to soar the Milky Way.
Incidentally, they weren't just blue collar jobs; some of them were seriously exotic. According to Eirik Gumeny who explored this theme, when Nabokov wasn't writing about creepy old guys hitting on little girls (Lolita), he was a butterfly hunter who specialised in painting their naughty bits, I kid you not. I mean ok, we all have to earn a crust but think about his readership: how boring does your life have to be to subscribe to Penthouse Butterfly or Playmate of the Moth, pun intended.
Roald Dahl was a master spy serving three terms with MI5 in Washington DC where he slept with several hostesses as part of his brief to draw America into World War II. How precisely bedding Page 3 women helped the war effort is a bit of a stretch logically, but as my Uncle Eustace sagely observed, "There are more than one ways of skinning a cat." True dat, Eusty Bab, my respect and admiration for Dahl has increased dramatically after discovering this snippet. Think of the items on his expense sheet: champagne, perfume and protection.
To get back to the original "desert island" theme, Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, considered by the literati to be the forefather of the novel, started off life as an entrepreneur. He wasn't picky either; he was basically willing to try anything. Sadly for him, whatever he took up sucked, big time. This guy was unable to sell women's stockings and then he made a hash of selling tobacco, wine and beer, something that takes major talent. Then he woke up one morning with his master plan: he was going to buy and rear 70 civets and make perfume from their butts. No, not cigarette butts from passive-smoking cats but attar harvested from their rear ends. Poor Mrs Defoe: she must have had a hell of a shock when he sat up in bed and yelled, "The butt stops here."
Now as any fool who has been to Bali can tell you, Kopi Luwak or coffee made from civet poop, can retail for as much as $500 a kilo. Civets, commonly known to coffee planters as jungle cats, are nocturnal creatures which, despite eating coffee beans, tend to sleep a lot. Keep in mind that this was in the late 1600's where personal hygiene was more of a luxury than a common practice, but civet butt perfume was the next new thing and by god, Daniel was going to give it to them.
So he bought the cats, built suitable cages (so they couldn't turn around and bite his nose off while he was milking them) and buckled down to business with of all things, a spatula, to harvest the "butterlike secretion" that collected between the hapless animal's tail and the anus. Utterly, butterly, ridiculous. Surprise, surprise, the endeavor was a glorious failure which ended up with Defoe being hounded by his creditors and the entire lot of civets being bought, sold and rebought so much so that even his biographer thought it was an elaborate con job. The good thing about him going bankrupt was that he gave up on business altogether and focused on his core competence: writing. The moral of the story if you're looking for one is: stop sniffing cat butt and start writing, because Robinson Crusoe is the second most translated book in the world after the Bible....