Sunday, 23 May 2010

“... it concentrates his mind wonderfully”

The Reverend William Dodd was a spendthrift parson who in 1777 sought to solve his financial problems by forging a bond for £4,200 in the name of his former pupil, Lord Chesterfield, and who was condemned to death for the then capital offence of forgery. Many petitioned against the sentence and Dr Johnson wrote most of "The Convict's Address to his unhappy Brethren" for the condemned man to pass off as his own. When someone expressed doubts about the sermon's purported authorship, Boswell reports Johnson as replying, "Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

With the deadline for the term essay and two other pieces of work now just twelve days away, I identify with the hapless parson. On Friday afternoon the Society of Authors finally came up trumps by forwarding e-mails a handful of biographers I particularly wanted to contact. There were a couple for whom they did not have addresses, so I sought these by looking for their publishers on Amazon and their phone numbers on Yell, through which to get an e-mail address through which I could forward a request: this was time-consuming and inefficient. Yesterday evening I stumbled upon a British Council website with an excellent directory of British writers which could be searched by genres, which include Biography and early this morning I was able to add forty-plus prospects with details of their agents to my database. First thing tomorrow I'll phone these agents to get their agreement to forward my e-mails, which I have been able to personalise by adding names and dates of their first and latest biographies. This personalising was, as I was sure it would be, important: two out of four responded positively within six hours.

If I have the same conversion rate with the forty as with the four I'll be home and dry. But if so, it will have been, as the Duke of Wellington is mis-quoted as saying of the Battle of Waterloo, "a damn close run thing".

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