One of my Darwin cousins who I've not yet met (there are a lot of us) is the poet Ruth Padel. Her mother was a biologist, and her grandmother Nora was a botanist in the days when botany was more or less the only acceptable science for women. Apparently Ruth took her mother to a poetry reading, and afterwards her mother said, 'I see the point of poets now. They notice things.'
Don't laugh - though poets are allowed a wry chuckle before they open the email which tells them their publisher has gone bust because their Arts Council funding is now paying for a few seats of one of the Olympic Stadia - because it's actually very important. It's the same idea as Gwen Raverat's 'losing experience'. If you spend as much time around poets as I do, you know that no one observes better, athough people don't think of it as part of the training as they do of visual artists like Gwen. And when it comes to novels, let's face it, people first notice the plot. But that capacity to observe is so important. I don't think I'm the only writer who doesn't read on buses or have an MP3 player because I'm too busy eavesdropping. And I can particularly recommend the cafeteria of the Croydon IKEA, for truly bizarre conversations.
When you say that you spend time observing, non-artists (there, I've managed it, obliquely) think that you're going to start putting the things and people you've observed into your work, but it's not as simple as that. Partly, listening and touching and smelling is just exercise, as artists draw to keep their eye-mind-hand-muscle systems in trim: pure noticing. But when I move on from that I don't sit there dressing the people I'm watching in breeches, I'm thinking about why they might be how they are, wondering how they are at home, imagining them in some more extreme situation, or in conversation with one of my characters.
And, of course, pure noticing is the foundation of scientific thought. Non-scientists think that it's all about facts. It is, of course, and the consequences of getting those wrong are much graver than if I get the facts about Richard III wrong in A Secret Alchemy (well I hope so, anyway, though Richard's fans have a fearsome reputation.). But it's about so much more than that, because while looking for facts you have to be able to see the things you weren't looking for; make connections which no one's made before; persevere with ideas that received wisdom tells you are nonsense; like the doctor who discovered helicobacter pylori. There's the purity, if you like: that it can set its preconceptions to one side.
I've been thinking about this again because last night I was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, hearing John LeCarré speak. Resisting the impulse to kneel and kiss the hem of his mantle, I settled back to listen, and heard a bit of his biography I didn't know. At nineteen, speaking perfect German and doing his National Service in military intelligence, in 1948 he found himself interviewing refugees in Austria when the Cold War was still hot. Some hardly knew whom they were fleeing any more, others had known the concentration camps: few had more than the clothes they stood up in, or slept without nightmares. He was a year older than my son, and his job was to work out who was genuine, who was a Nazi or a Soviet spy in disguise. What had they seen that might be useful? What did they know? Who back home knew they were there, or might they be turned and sent back as a spy? Were they someone who could stand up to that? Were they someone who was telling the truth? What were they witholding? You don't have to read much LeCarré to know that everyone witholds something.
It's hard to think of better training for a novelist, and it's hard to call anything about that world pure. But the observer's mindset must still be so. Or must it? Here are people who don't know what they know, and probably mustn't ever realise. None of it will be any use unless you observe enough to make the right judgement about them and the world they're in. To understand them you must observe coolly but also empathise as novelists do, and as Feynman did as he revolutionised quantum physics by asking himself things like 'If I were an electron, what would I do?'. You must do two things which most people consider incompatible: think, and feel. Good puppeteers peer down onto their little stages, watch the show and manipulate it, but their body sense - their proprioception - is also with the puppet, feeling what they feel and seeing what they see. All creative thought needs this duality of attention. It's an essential element of our necessary capacity to experience where the wild things are and to write about them. It's the essential nature of the artist to observe reality in order to create stories of monsters or genes: the dual nature which Margaret Atwood describes so well in Negotiating with the Dead: the ordinary person, and their slippery double.