Cats are picking their way along. Heart-eyed dogs strive to chase but are restrained. All the birds round here have been immortalised in graffiti. He is sitting at his desk in the window and the sun is coming in through the glass. Ticking time is biting at him. The coffee machines are on strike. Everyone’s out, trying to grind out change. All the rabid atoms agitate. The rain steams in to pound down on the hot hard streets and the beasts rush to cower under covers. And crush. The news is unreliable. The sums are made up out of new numbers no one knows how to count. He makes friends slowly, but always gets there eventually. They keep building bigger and bigger buildings. He is stuck at that desk with the sunshine sloshing in, stuck at what to put next. Beasts are on the ground and up in the buildings and around in the air. Retreating or emerging or jostled, caught between the two. He doesn’t know whether he’s coming or going. It gets crepuscular, lurid, the colours all coming out of lightbulbs now. The beasts sniff and saunter through the streets. Text buzzes around, making jagged cut out shapes. There are lapses in concentration, things smashed apart. They swim out of focus, back into focus, out of focus again. He is glad no one is watching, it gives him a freedom to do what he wants. To make whatever sense of it he can. Heart-eyed moths burn themselves up. Spiders pick their way along. Every individual fox round here has been immortalised in graffiti.
In the same way that football players endorse particular boot manufacturers and pop stars sell their favourite fizzy drinks (I assume these things still happen, I don’t really know), I would like to turn the crisp sheet of my newspaper to discover a full page ad with e.g. Jeanette Winterson advertising her favourite pen or George Saunders extolling the virtues of a certain make of desk.
For my part, when I am grown up and a fully-fledged famous author with pages and pages being written about my pages and pages, I would have no hesitation in agreeing to become the face of the Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbook Medium (A5).
“Details make all the difference,” I would purr in my by-then-distinctive handwriting.
I have kept notebooks for the last 16 years. Each has served as a place to jot down half-thought out ideas, scribble little messages, expand ideas into sentences and paragraphs and stick cuttings or wayward pieces of paper.
The ideal notebook is smart enough to care about but not so polished to give the impression it must be kept immaculate. Part of its job is that it must be possible to make mistakes in it – making mistakes in is what it is there for.
Its pages must be welcoming – it is a mobile office to use however, whenever and wherever you want or need. It needs to be ok with having something incongruous stuck in with glue, to have a sentence that might not work yet scrawled in it or to house a preposterous idea written with confidence in big letters.
A few years ago I bought my first Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbook Medium (A5) during a visit to Fred Aldous, the art supplies shop in the centre of Manchester. I was looking for a new notebook as the one I was using at the time was running low on unused pages, so I had a little flick through one of the Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbooks they had there. It seemed decent enough.
But after using it for a few weeks I came to appreciate its many qualities. Slim, with decent paper, and bound loosely enough to accommodate being fattened with stuck-in cuttings but not so loose as to feel like it might fall apart. Then the nice touches – rounded corners, page numbers (!), a contents page (I feel no real need for a contents page, but I have found fun uses for them).
I haven’t really looked back and must be on my sixth or seventh Leuchtturm 1917 Jottbook – my preference is for the ones with squared paper but blank pages works well too (for some reason, I have never found lines conducive to work). All of which makes me, I think, the ideal face and handwriting of this particular brand of notebooks.
What would you like to see advertised and who by and why? What kind of notebooks do you like using? Is this how I am supposed to end blog posts, with a series of questions? I wasn’t sure how else to wrap this one up to be honest? It was just a bit of a vague ramble, wasn’t it? Oh well?
I am on the cusp of doing nothing.
When I am working through the tasks that are lined up in front of me, i.e. ‘what I have on my plate right now,’ I am also trying to slow to a halt.
But then an existing process requires some attention or a new process suggests itself and must be set in motion.
I have previously come very close to doing nothing. We had exactly one too few spoons of a certain size in our cutlery drawer. Once I had purchased another spoon there would be nothing left to do, and I did successfully purchase exactly the specific spoon required.
But when I got back home, a bowl had been overturned.
That morning you had cut your hair into the shape of a house.
I couldn’t wait to see it. The look of triumph in your tuna-mayonnaise eyes.
Emoji-ing my way along the street, thinking about what I was into, stream-of-consciousness stuff…
On some rain-toussled scratch of land by the turning for the industrial estate, some hi-vis dayjobbers were using wood to construct a new 3D space for displaying 2D pictures.
I was on your street then I was in your home. I kissed your cheek and nuzzled in, rubbing my eye in the kiss-wet on the curve of your face.
Then we watched music videos together before fucking in a big pile of balloons.
By the time we had finished, your house was reduced to rubble.
You said you had to shop for a box full of pockets for something you were up to. So we went back out in to that damp and fidgety world.
Now the erection of the billboard was complete and they were using rollers to paste up the first of the pictures that would cover that new space.
Your hair fell around your face like a tonne of bricks.
Some dogs passed by with some people. Those people didn’t look like the kind of people who should own dogs.
Sometimes we just liked to make up things like this and say them out loud to one another.
Cars were whizzing past us but we just stood and stayed there, looking.
On the billboard, galloping hooves had appeared and now some horse legs too.
My hands were in your pockets and your hands were in my pockets.
Drizzle rain was slow-clapping to the ground and making invisible things. All the cars had their garlic-butter headlights on.
But the rain hit us differently to the way it hit everyone else. Our very selves glowed with the righteousness of knowing that.
Pretty soon they had added the straining bodies of what were probably horses and then some grimacing faces that confirmed the fact.
A band of horses twenty-feet tall were racing towards us, kicking up little cakes of turf as they came. A line of miniature birds formed a queue on top of the picture.
We stood in front of the horses and laughed so hard we were crying and then our crying mixed in with the rain which was hitting us just the way it did.
Those gigantic horses looked so supremely lifelike.
Other people’s existences were not running as smoothly as ours – their lives were going wrong, frame by frame by frame.
They were stopping their cars. They were getting out. They were looking at the billboard. They were clutching their heads in their hands. They were screaming. They were running away through the industrial estate.
We were meat and bones like those gorgeous gigantic galloping horses’ meat and bones.
Next you were going to cut your hair into the shape of a horse and I was going to ride it to several famous victories.
As I usually do at the end of a year, I thought I would set my thoughts down on some things I enjoyed reading in 2018. I know it’s now the beginning (ish) of 2019 but the idea is the same. In places these thoughts may be fragmentary or only semi-useful… nevertheless, here they are.
One of the first books I read last year (because it was a Christmas present at the end of the previous year) was Joff Winterhart‘s beautifully observed and drawn Driving Short Distances (2017). Whilst examining everyday-type people, its power comes in highlighting the tiny details – winks, grimaces, tufts of hair.
David Keenan‘s novel This Is Memorial Device (2017) boasts the fantastically overblown and brilliantly specific subtitle ‘An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Music Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978–1986.’ Keenan borrows the energy of the most hyberbolic kind of music writing and allows a population of strange characters to reverberate against one another in the claustrophobic small town setting.
Dreamlike in a completely different way, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (1992) cast a spell on me. It is however going to be difficult to describe why… it had a haunting quality to it and seemed composed of thoughts which ran from one thing to the next. Beautiful and sad, though more beautiful than sad…
Having first encountered Cesar Aira in 2017, I continued with my Aira fandom last year, and actually happened to meet another fan for the first time, which kind of confirmed that Aira was real. All of Aira’s books proceed in strange and unexpected ways, a product of his ‘constant flight forward’ philosophy, and my favourite of the ones I read this year was How I Became A Nun (1993), which is worth it for the opening few scenes alone – a fiasco in strawberry ice-cream.
Ferenc Karinthy’s novel Metropole (1970), a present from friend Lee, was the most terrifying thing I read all year. A traveller is diverted to another city, one whose language and organisation are both incomprehensible and unfathomable. Struggling to get a foothold, he tries in vain to understand the city’s food, transport, leisure, failing to get anywhere with increasing alarm. The effect is mesmerising, suffocating, frustrating – like the character, there is nothing to which us readers can cling.
My two favourite short story collections of the year were James Baldwin’s Going To Meet The Man (1965) and A Manual For Cleaning Women (2015) by Lucia Berlin. Both wrote with clarity and beauty.
The James Baldwin story Sonny’s Blues (with its sadness leading to a jazz club redemption) and My Jockey by Lucia Berlin (one and a half meticulous pages) were amongst my favourite short works this year. But there was also Doppelganger, Poltergeist, the final piece in Denis Johnson‘s final collection (a friendship becomes defined by a conspiracy theory about Elvis being replaced by a double) and the remarkable reading experience of Triptyks by Ann Quin (a piece of work which doesn’t seem to make any narrative sense, but does progress as you allow another part of your brain to enjoy the cascade of images and scenarios). Plus Defending The Pencil Factory a one-off from one of my favourite current writers, Adam Marek (which pursues a slightly surreal premise before finding an original ending by alluding to another piece of work instead of actually finishing the story). There were probably other great short pieces of writing that I enjoyed and have forgotten, I should keep better notes.
Last but by some means most (by virtue of me deciding this might be my favourite thing I read all year) – Man With A Seagull On His Head (2017). Harriet Paige’s wilfully disobedient novel stubbornly refuses to fit in the template you expect. Despite at first appearing fairly sedate, it is whimsical and unpredictable, and at times seems to hang together by a thread. Much of it revolves around not-quite coincidences, characters not-quite meeting, loose ends not-quite being tied up. I recommend it.
So this was this year.
In February, I completely failed to mark the ten year anniversary of the creation of this blog. But when I checked, later in the year, it turned out to be true and I had been posting things here since February 2008.
In the Spring, I finished two longer slabs of short story that had been on my plate for a while. I will look for somewhere to publish these.
In May, I attended the Guernsey Literary Festival, but this time didn’t write anything about it here or anywhere else. Nevertheless, it still happened. My highlight was probably attending a workshop run by Daljit Nagra.
Towards the end of June, I started a new project that resembles a novel in size and shape. I aimed to write one page (roughly 400 words) every week day and give it to Rach to read whilst she ate her breakfast. The story slowly started nudging its way into existence.
In the Summer, my (informal, semi-regular) writing group set ourselves a couple of writing challenges and then met up at the pub to read them out (we also met throughout the year to discuss things in general, but there’s no section in this thing for things that happened throughout the year).
In September, I scurried away to deepest, darkest, dampest Yorkshire for a week-long experimental fiction retreat. The course was geared towards exploring and trying new things, not necessarily working towards a thing that was finished and complete and shiny. It was refreshing to have that impetus removed and to just spend some time playing and trying things out. I also met a great bunch of people.
In November, I read a short story to around 40 people at the inaugural Guilles-Alles Library Fiction Open Mic night.
In December, my short story, ‘An Ambulance’ was published online by the Mechanics Institute Review.
Later in December, I completed the project I set in motion back in June and found I had surprised myself by finishing the writing of the first draft of a short novel. This piece of work has been locked away to mature for a month or so, then I will look at redrafting it.
I am pleased to point you in the directon of The Mechanics’ Institute Review, which today publishes my short story An Ambulance.
MIR is an online literary platform affiliated with Birkbeck College in London. Many thanks to Toby Litt for putting me in touch.
It was the the times when you got things wrong that did you in. Those were the times people remembered.
You could work in the same village for thirty years, delivering folks’ letters and parcels with professionalism and a kind word. But no one noticed the days when it all went smoothly. Even your cat sat there giving you sly glances or – worse – refusing to acknowledge you.
And those times you did get things wrong, they kept replaying in your head, at night, when you were trying to get to sleep. Like some television programme that was always on repeat. You kept going over what you did, what you could have done, what you should have done. What you should have done.
It was all about trying to do things differently. Thinking more, or better. Thinking before doing. Pat was trying, he really was. Trying to take things slowly, carefully. Think through a plan of action then execute it step by step so nothing could go wrong.
But sometimes you just knew. You knew that whatever you did would be the wrong way of doing it.
This morning, Pat has to deliver some helium balloons to the school. The potential for calamity is obvious. So obvious. Pat has already collected the balloons from the depot and now they are bobbing around in the back of his van, a nest of brightly-coloured problems.
He stops at Ted’s, hoping that talking to his friend might help shift the feeling of futility. But he finds Ted standing at the counter of his store, his hands flat against the counter.
“Ho there, Pat.”
“Ted,” nods Pat.
They stand for a moment.
“So,” says Pat. “Got to deliver some helium balloons to the school.”
Ted winces, looks down at his hands. “Oh no, Pat.”
“Might just stop here for a moment.”
“Fair enough. Just having a little stop myself. It’s for the best. I get this terrible feeling sometimes, Pat, as if… if I start doing something, whatever it is, it’s going to go wrong.”
The two men stand together, in the quiet.
“It’s just,” says Pat eventually, “I know exactly what will happen. Those damn balloons. They’re going to escape, aren’t they? I can be as careful as I like, it won’t make a bit of difference.”
Ted nods. “They’re as good as in the sky already.”
“And that would be fine,” Pat continues. “They can float away for all I care – I’m sure they’ll look very pretty up in the air.. What gets me is that I’ll have to chase after them, and…”
“It’s the same here,” Ted interjects. “I’ve got some new rollers for the car wash. That’s my next job. Install the new rollers. Should be straight forward enough. Job done. Cup of tea.” He looks down at his hands, still pressed flat against the counter where they can cause no harm. “Rollers roll, don’t they?”
“Things always seem easy at first.” Pat shakes his head.
Around the two men, displayed on every shelf and stand of Ted’s store are items designed to fix things or help solve problems. People would come along to buy these things when something was broken and they needed to repair it – like as not, some of these projects would end in calamity too. It was the way of things.
Those balloons really should be getting on their way. Pat would just have to get on, see what happened, then deal with the repercussions. It was not that people were unkind. They were, broadly speaking, sympathetic. When he finally got things sorted they would cheer and say he had done a good job. Somehow this only made things worse.
“We’re going to get on with things now Ted,” says Pat. “We have to.”
“We’re just going to calmly, carefully get on with what we need to do.”
“It’ll be ok. In the end, it’ll be ok.”
Ted nods. His eyes remain locked with Pat’s. The futility of their daily tasks – fixing things, delivering stuff, keeping on going as the world turned round and round – like a bridge between them.
“One,” says Pat.
They both take their hands off the counter and those dreadful utensils are free to wreak havoc once more.
“Good luck, Ted.”
“Good luck, Pat.”
This all started when we were kids. Then, a telephone call cost more than a train ticket. So we wrote.
I was the furious green haircut. You were a real rolling trembling body of thunder.
Love? Love was in a mess – mired in popsong cliche. We Were Always Meant To Be Together, You’re The Love Of My Life, My One And Only. So, we were determined not to be in that.
Of course, that didn’t work out.
What we had in common was this. We both had a hobby in creating, or curating, little boxes of essentials, things that could be taken in an emergency evacuation. We would send each other lists of our latest efforts, e.g.:
A ball of string (always useful)
A decorated teaspoon (for beauty)
Fake treasure maps (for decoy)
A long-discontinued limited edition chocolate bar (for leverage)
A list of numbers (for mystery)
A tiny toy soldier
The soldier was of no significance really – but it was small and fit in the box. And if I did have to escape my burning home with only a small box of objects, and a toy soldier was one of the few possessions I had left, then that toy soldier was going to take on a whole load of significance.
There were various scenarios in which a small box of essential objects might be required.
In a storm a tree was blown down, landing on, and somehow setting fire to, the house. The power went out and the fire brigade pumped water over everything until the whole street was flooded and everyone who lived there had to be evacuated, leaving with only the important things they could grab and carry.
But this wasn’t my house or even a house on my street – this happened to some houses about a mile away. My house was fine. I didn’t have to leave carrying only my most recently curated box of belongings. Those kind of emergencies never happened to me. Though I was hapless – in my hands, small objects, tools or devices were always falling apart or grinding to a lifeless halt – the wider narrative did always tend to arc around me, leaving me whole and unharmed.
And so that was how our teenagehoods progressed – in letters detailing tiny boxes and in wider narrative arcs that barely brushed our lives but which perfectly described popsong cliches and the cost of telephone calls.
Suddenly the cost of a phone call fell. Before we could speak, the price of a train ticket plummeted too. It was a time of adjustment that coincided with the two of us making our first tentative steps into adulthood.
The day before we were due to finally meet, I went to get my hair cut. I asked for my usual – furious green. There was nothing green about my hair, nor was it cut in a particularly severe style to suggest fury. But my hairdresser knew exactly what I meant, exactly what I wanted. She cut it to look the way it always did, but she knew that on the inside my hair was green, was furious.
“You go get her, tiger,” she told me as she finished snipping.
We had agreed to meet midway between our two separate lives. When I got off the train I bought you some flowers but before I could present them to you, a bird shat on them. Later that day, when we were sitting on a bench in the town centre, a bird shat on my ice-cream. What was with all those shitting birds?
“Why do birds suddenly appear, every time I am near,” you said-sung sweetly. I loved you for that.
We Were Always Meant To Be Together. It was what we had wanted, ever since we first started resisting the urge to fall in love. There would be no need for either of us to return to our previous lives – we had both brought a carefully-packed box of only the most essential of our things. There was no need to serve a notice period, we could start right away.
That same afternoon, we got jobs working side by side, putting the rings into telephones. They said it was a good job for a couple. We held hands all through the interview.
After that we went looking for somewhere to live. On the bus, we passed a beautiful house on fire – we could never have lived there.
But there were still houses we could live in. In the midst of all the complex cost adjustments – telephone calls, train tickets, other things of which we had neither control nor understanding – some unfurnished, unwanted houses had emerged. Unfurnished was all we wanted.
I remember the first night in our house, the two of us. We used an upturned cardboard box for a table, played games with some post-it notes which we had drawn on to make them into playing cards. All the other rooms were silent, it felt like they were watching us to see what we would do next.
We got sold a washing machine full of firewood and after that we could have clean clothes and warm air. We got sold a fridge full of clothes. So often in our lives, things made much less sense than they should.
It felt like we were being played by the objects around us, like we were only instruments.
And I worried about writing all this down in case anyone ever found it and thought we were being serious.
After dinner, we trooped round the streets again, the whole family, taking down the ‘missing cat’ posters we had stuck up earlier that week. There were no signs of it getting dark outside, as if the night had overslept or forgotten to turn up for work.
There were other people still out and about, just going for a walk or sitting and drinking on the streets, just standing there talking, saying all the things they never had time to say in the course of a normal day. Over garden hedges, there drifted smoke from barbecues and music from radios. We collected up all the posters, then went home.
I needed sleep – there would be business to attend to tomorrow. But it was difficult, with it being so light. It felt like the world had been split open with a knife and spread out flat, so now the sun had no choice but to meander around the sky, there being no horizon behind which it could disappear. Lying there, feeling increasingly fractious, I felt like I was missing out on something, some action. The possibilities seemed endless, there were infinite permutations for things that might be happening, and here I was lying in bed.
I must have fallen asleep because at some point in the night I was jolted awake. Instinctively, I thought it had been the cat jumping on the bed, but I was mistaken – it had been the sound of a horn or a scream, or something crashing down. Half-asleep, I didn’t really know what was going on.
When I woke again, it was light. Had I not stirred briefly in the night, I could have believed there had never been any darkness. Now, there was the sound of a soft rain falling; next, a flurry of birdsong drowned it out; then, when the birds had finished, the soft rain could be heard again. By the time it stopped, it was only five o’clock. I got out of bed, quietly slipped some clothes on and left the house.
I walked through the streets. The fabric of that morning felt like it had been worn through by the previous night’s transgressions, like the air itself was hungover. I went down on to the beach and walked along with my eyes closed – walking in this way, I felt I was only lightly touching the world. As though maybe I didn’t properly exist.
I opened my eyes and the world was still there – furthermore, there was something new in it, lying just where the knackered sea was meeting with the slumped sand. A guitar riff became lodged in my brain and I started to replicate it by making sounds with my mouth.
Da-na-na-na-na-now, diddly-dee-dee-dee, diddly-dee-dee-dee, bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, bam-bam-bam-bam- bam-bam, dow-nnnowww. And by now I had reached the edge of the creeping tide and stood looking down at that lifeless body, its clothes tangled in seaweed. The world would tilt and we would proceed to winter.