Exercises want to be free

Just over two years ago I began the project that became Exercises in Song. Over the course of six months I wrote some sixty variations on the theme of an old English folk song, as an homage to the Oulipo co-founder Raymond Queneau. By Christmas I had enough material to publish a compilation of twenty-five of these, and published them as both a print-edition Pocketful of Lies and an online advent calendar in time for Christmas 2008.

After that, I largely dropped the project. Apart from a couple of new exercices, I wrote nothing more in 2009. The time consumed buying our first house certainly contributed to this lack of creative output, but it's also clear that I'm not one of nature's finishers. It was always at the back of my mind that the project was unfinished, and melancholy for that very reason. Half a success still feels like a failure.

Three events have prompted me to return to the Exercises in Song. The first was when Barbara Wright, translator of the original Exercices en Style, passed away in June last year. I had considered contacting her about my own work, but had never grasped that particular nettle; now it was too late. The second was the death of a close college friend late last year, which---and I'm sure every untimely bereavement provokes these feelings---brought home to me how few chances we have to fulfil even our smaller and more mediocre dreams.

The final event was at a protest march a few weeks ago, when I was asked to write an impromptu song and managed to produce one. Someone suggested I should do a variation on "Show Me The Way To Go Home", and for half a second I wondered: "why on earth would I choose that?" It still surprises me that, in my head and heart, I had ceased to have ownership of the Exercises in Song and the folk song which underpins all of them. I felt sufficiently guilty for having shelved the project indefinitely, and sufficiently sad that I might never have the urge to finish it, that I had pushed all recollection of the exercises out of my mind.

Sorry, Exercises; sorry, M. Queneau; sorry, Ms Wright: I've betrayed you all, in a small but significant way. But things are changing round here, and the Exercises in Song will be finished, and published, before too long. Just wait and see.