On Reading

I read and admire books by authors I like (occasionally love), who tell me, sometimes in the text, sometimes later in interviews in magazines, newspapers, online, about other authors they revere. And mostly I have never read those authors they refer to. This makes me question everything. 

Henry Miller, Clarice Lispector, Tom Wolfe, William Burroughs. I have never read anything by these people. How then can I ever grasp everything my author is saying to me, if I am unaware, other than from lip service, of the writing by these influences? 

(A related example: sometimes I would admire the paintings of the artist Sean Scully, without ever really being able to get to the root of the why. And then I heard him talk of his love for JMW Turner. And pennies fell from my eyes like the cascades on the end of the pier.)

Eventually I gave myself the permission to not follow what others have read. It felt like a permission to be granted. Rarely do I like slash read books written before, say, the latter half of the twentieth century, with one or three exceptions. I don’t feel that I am particularly well read. In a traditional sense, at least. But you know what? I decided it didn’t matter. Doesn’t matter. Am I any worse read than someone else because I have read every word ever published by David Peace but have never read any Nabokov? Because I think Tim Winton’s Dirt Music is pretty much the perfect novel but have never read William Faulkner? 

Read what you like. Like what you like. Don’t follow the crowd.

Read what you like.*

*this author reserves the right to read the short Clarice Lispector novel that he bought purely because David Keenan raved about her. 

Making it

As a “creative” I spend far too much time worrying about the (self-inflicted) requirement to “make it.” What does that even mean?

It means different things to different people. Of course it does. But I’ve come to the realisation that it means far too much to me. A possible combination of latent narcissism, the need for validation and a streak of self-protection have resulted in a situation whereby making it has some pretty starry connotations. I won’t embarrass myself by listing them here. Suffice to say that BBC Front Row has surely got a seat somewhere with my name emblazoned across the back. (I’m joking. Really.) Anyway, I’m letting that notion go. 

I recently revisited a couple of short stories that I wrote some time ago. Months, years in one case. At the time of writing them I was convinced they were the best they could be. I was proud of them. Coming back to them it’s like they’ve changed without my input. They’ve opened up, suggesting ways in which they could be improved. Exposed themselves to scrutiny. I’ve edited them, applied more precision to them. And now I prefer them. So “the work” is ever-changing. I’m more proud of those stories now than I am of any work that I’ve previously had published. What does that say about the need for validation, which (presumably) comes via publication?

During so-called-lockdown, I turned to screenwriting. I’d previously completed an online course in it and wanted to see if what I’d learned could be applied to my development as a writer. I’d also been inspired by hearing a podcast in which the musician Warren Ellis talked to Edith Bowman about a score he’d written for a short film called This Train I Ride. It made me question and consider various methods of working and I found it inspirational. I approached a Twitter pal whose music video work I admired, Alec Bowman-Clarke. If I could finish the script I had a vague idea for, might he be interested in trying to make a short film with me? His ‘Hell, yeah’ response provided further encouragement. 

So over the summer we made a film, in a socially-distanced way. Three parts, each filmed separately in three different locations. And as that project nears completion, it stands as one of the proudest things I’ve ever been involved with. Have ever done. No one’s seen it yet. It doesn’t matter. It’s a type of “making it” that satisfies completely. 

When I was little more than a child I used to spend Friday nights in a pub on the Fulham Palace Road watching live music. Two acts in particular were favourites and would perhaps play once a month or so. A band called Blues ‘n’ Trouble, and a guitarist named Sammy Mitchell. My friends and I loved them. Blues ‘n’ Trouble are still playing, I think. Sammy sadly died in 2006. Both had moments of recognition. TV appearances, playing with big artists. Neither are household names. In a modern, media-driven sense I guess neither “made it.” But the point here is that they did to me. That they and their music is still memorable to me all these years later means they made it, in a way.

Over two years ago I read a short story. It was called Sylvia Plath Watches Us Sleep, But We Don’t Mind and was written by Victoria Richards. It was published in The London Magazine. I read a lot of short stories. Most vanish once read. Some linger, fondly remembered. This one sticks around, as much as any short story ever has. I’m jealous of it. It was original, witty, dark and utterly brilliant. With that story, Victoria, too, made it. (She might disagree, I don’t know. Sorry, Victoria. It’s meant with love and admiration!).

Of course, the other element of making it over which we have little or no control is the ephemeral. Talent is not enough. If it were, Sammy Mitchell would be in several Halls of Fame. Victoria Richards would be on the current Booker list. Other things must play their part. Things called luck, zeitgeist, cronyism and its sibling nepotism, catching a wave, right place right time. And if we have no control, why worry about the outcome?

So I’ve realigned the making it requirement. Softened its edges. Popped its balloon. And dare I say it, I think the work I’m creating now is all the better for it. 

On Writing and Collaborating

I’ve been amazingly productive lately. That’s not crowing, it’s just a fact. It’s partly having the time, partly a phantom thing that won’t let me not write. I call it making up for lost time. All those years when I wasn’t ready to accept myself as a creative, as a writer. Not really. But for the past two years and a few months I have. Completely, uncritically, joyfully, unselfconsciously. So in that time I’ve written two novels (and one of them has had four versions of its poor self until it arrived at its final form), a dozen or more short stories, a big handful of poems, three short screenplays and some other bits and pieces besides, such as a 3,000 word essay that I finished recently about whales and the American artist Jules Olitski. I enjoyed that. The most important pieces, though, are the novels and the screenplays. They’re what I want to do forever. 

The first of the novels is in that land that exists between my agent getting enthusiastic about it and a publishing house saying they want it. Hopefully it’ll move on from that space soon. The second is with my agent, who’s reading it. Publishing is notoriously slow at the best of times but the last few months have felt like going into reverse. I’m not moaning and of course it’s the same for everyone, but I’m naturally impatient. Apparently global pandemics and my temperament aren’t natural pals. Who knew?

Anyway, the one thing that I’ve discovered recently is that collaboration can be a wonderful thing. I’m not a great team-player, generally, Too much of a control freak, too fond of my own ideas. But I recently reached out to someone who I really like and respect and whose work I felt had elements that appeared in my writing, albeit that theirs involved different media. I handed over something I’d written and was delighted at getting a positive response in return. Along the way we involved several more people in our project. Again, all immensely positive. I’ll write more about what that is and what we’re working on soon, when we’re a little closer to the finishing line. Anyway, I watched Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s documentary film featuring Nick Cave (in my eyes of course the SAINTED Nick Cave), 20,000 Days on Earth. In it, Nick talks about collaboration. He says:

“To take an idea that is blind and unformed, and that has been hatched largely in solitude, and allow these strange collaborator creatures that I work with to morph it into something else, something better… well, that’s really something to see.”

And yeah, basically. Yeah. It is. 

Black (and white) Books

This morning I encountered a mild Twitter spat between an English author and an Australian film director about a famous American musician’s choice of books. The musician’s 10 favourite volumes had been laid bare in a magazine article and the author was seemingly dismissive of them, although to be fair, the biggest jibe was reserved for the magazine article’s headline, which proclaimed “From Bukowski to Kerouac…” Which is a bit like claiming to be an experienced international traveller having taken in both London and Manchester. The film director took the author to task, saying that the list contained some of the finest writers and as such should not be condemned. The writer countered with the fact that these fine writers were all white and male, which, as a definitive list of influences, suggested that the influencer pool was somewhat shallow. I thought that both the author and the film director had valid points. But my biggest take was something personal that had troubled me about my own list of favourite writers, seen on the About page of this very website.

I have listed 30 books. They’re not intended as a “greatest” list. Instead they are personal to me, books and writers who have given me the most pleasure or been the most memorable or who have a particular historical resonance to my life or even shaped the way I write now. They stretch from books enjoyed in early childhood to books I read only a little pre-pandemic. Some of them aren’t even that great. Richard Llewellyn’s Tell Me Now, And Again is a deeply flawed book and far from his How Green Was My Valley best, and yet when I read it as a teenager it felt daring and domestically-exotic in equal measure. I reread it a couple of years ago and while its flaws were more apparent, I still enjoyed it as a piece of nostalgia and in many respects, foresight. 

More troubling, if that’s the right word (I’m still trying to decide), was that these 30 books contained only three female writers (Anna Burns, Joyce Carol Oates and Erin Morgenstern), with every other writer (with the single exception of Haruki Murakami) being a white male. Not a single BAME writer other than Murakami (whose elevation to the literary establishment seems to surpass such categorisation, unless that in itself reveals another layer of misunderstanding), a thought that hadn’t occurred to me when I wrote the original list and almost included Arundhati Roy, whose novels I like and greatly admire but don’t love in the way I do the others here, and who therefore within the context of the list itself would have felt almost tokenistic. Likewise, Zadie Smith.

Where is Marlon James? Where is Colson Whitehead? Where is Toni Morrison? Where is Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Alice Walker and on and on? 

The truth of that is that these are writers I haven’t experienced, despite both Marlon James and Colson Whitehead having books on my “must read” list.  And it got me thinking about how my choices (not just my “list” choices, but my everyday reading choices) have been made. We can, of course, only ever read the books that we discover, be that through reviews, peer group enthusiasm, gifts, browsing or however else. And as such the social circles we move within play a part in determining our choices. But so do the items on offer, those books published and presented by reviews and bookstores and that huge online repository I try and stay away from. The sheer number of books published has risen in recent years to the point where choice can feel overwhelming. And it would be easy to say it’s publishing’s fault, that not enough BAME writers receive the recognition they deserve; occasionally, such as the recent furore over the launch of Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, claims of outright racism are levelled and often with good reason. 

However, to blame “publishing” feels lazy. Whilst the disparities between white and non-white writers are clearly there and need addressing, on a personal level I need to ask myself why I haven’t read, for example, those Marlon James and Colson Whitehead books? And it comes down to making decisions on what books I carry around with me that, while consciously have nothing to do with race, are nonetheless lazy in terms of what I hoped to gain from the book itself. Possibly my favourite writer, Tim Winton, has taught me huge amounts about different kinds of Australian experience, has highlighted toxic masculinity, has increased my awareness of environmental issues, all while entertaining me with some of the finest prose I’ve ever read. Maybe I should apply this principle to BAME writers, too. Maybe I’d take away a different sense of reading and understanding. Just as on a personal level I seek to learn and educate myself about history and experience, perhaps I should also be doing so on a literary basis. 

Marlon, you’re up next. 

Addendum

As I wrote yesterday’s blog the news about George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis was booming. Today its repercussions are spreading across America. Atlanta’s on fire. Parts of New York look like a warzone. There are stories emerging of an Aboriginal woman dying in police custody in Australia having been arrested because of personal debt. That’s a weird, Dickensian thing to write. In the UK I’ve seen social media posts from 2014 reminding us that the 2011 riots were sparked by the killing of Mark Duggan, an unarmed black man, by a police officer who, it’s said, subsequently lied about it. And got away with it. These are painful times. 

And it seemed to me that the comment in yesterday’s blog about slavery might be seen to be glossing over such incidents. Cloaking them in the big picture. Well, the big picture’s important. But it’s also why we must keep the memories of people such as George Floyd alive. These things are inherently connected. Plot, plan, strategize, organise and mobilise. The great Killer Mike (Run the Jewels) put it better than me. 

The Ragged Trousered Optimist

I feel like we’re at the end of the beginning. It’s been a long time coming. We, and by “we” I mean all or some of the adults currently alive, may not be around to see the next chapter. And that’s fine. Karl Benz, Henry Ford and the rest didn’t stick around long enough to see hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles, although the part they played in their inception was vital. But this beginning has been going on much longer than the gestation of environmentally-friendly personal automotive transport.

The internet can be a terrible place. It’s also glorious. For a start it’s a huge repository of research. Seek and you shall find almost anything. Its strands of connectivity bring people together in ways we couldn’t have imagined even twenty years ago. It’s both magnifier and torch, although rabbit holes and mazes abound. Pick your path with care. Question your own truth. Ask where it came from. 

Today’s rightful, righteous causes go back a long way. All of them. Exploitation of workers? The industrial revolution was built on it. And before that, the tithe system, feudalism, manorialism, serfdom. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Black lives matter? The need for such a slogan didn’t begin in Detroit in the 1960s. Slavery didn’t just involve a few ships and a few appalling episodes. It literally enabled the origins of the modern economy, worldwide. Today’s aristocracy were yesterday’s slave ship owners. The patriarchy? The Bible was its handbook. 

The moments of enlightenment along the way appear so far to have been the blips. The rays of sunshine piercing the darkest corners. Parts of the 1960s counter-culture. The briefest of flashes in the 1990s. The eighteenth century’s intellectual and philosophical thinking that heralded a new form of humanism. Each glimmer made advances into the fields of knowledge and a true meritocracy but were quickly snuffed out by the wealthy, the settled, those who would prefer the status quo to prevail. It’s appropriate that many of those resistant to change question Darwinian evolution, even now. Or else they’ll use its maxim “Survival of the fittest” and assume it means them. It rarely means them. 

So this end of the beginning, conflated with the internet. The blips leave their traces. Their valuable palimpsests. I think what we’re living through is the final breakdown of those long-established barriers built on race, wealth, class, gender. It will be the longest revolution. Not a tsunami of change. More a relentless sea, lapping daily at the shore of privilege and protection. The difference is the immediacy of the communication. The eyes and ears of the witnesses are no longer just those in physical attendance. 

As we’ve seen with the emergence of COVID-19, some things really are still beyond the control of those who would have it all. Climate breakdown will bring another such set of circumstances. The old rules will not apply. Cannot apply. 

The consumerist playbook was the last throw of the dice. Slowly we will learn to value each other, to value creativity (surely mankind’s greatest triumph and asset) more than consumerism. More than stuff. When they can’t sell us any more shit because we’ve no desire for it; we’ve either got enough, or we’ve seen through it, or both; when we’ve learned to say no. When we realise that having each other can be better than having the unnecessary item. Then maybe the new beginning can start.

In Memory of Orwell

There are thoughts that, once they have made themselves known hitherto unbidden, decide to hunker down and stay awhile. 

Today’s interloper is How Have We Allowed This?

It’s probably a question that’s easy to answer, at least glibly. But of course it requires a more forensic, longer exploration for a true answer than can reasonably be expected to be forthcoming, outside of a year of doing nothing else and a bursary from one of the UK’s remaining excellent centres of learning.      

 I ponder the question while going about my “lockdown” (of which more shortly) business. I have written a lot during this stay-at-home period (day 57 for me, I just counted). Having finished and despatched a second novel to my agent (to sit alongside the first, which he is attempting to sell into a publishing market that appears reluctant as a toddler putting shoes on), and written a first draft adaptation of one of my own short stories into a 30 minute screenplay, I have also written a new script for a short film that I’m beginning work on alongside a multi-talented pal; I’ve got a new short story coming out soon and have written a new poem that is apparently due for imminent publication. Alongside the words, I try to exercise, increasing my previous three-times-a-week workout (45 minutes each time on an ageing static bike on which I—sometimes successfully—try to hit the 30km mark, followed by a short stretching and weights regime) to five times a week; I cook quite a lot, and am increasingly inspired by the writing of Nigella Lawson. Yes, that bit surprises me, too, having previously preferred Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy, although Nigella is way better at summoning the confidence with which to attempt homemade flatbreads, or escalope Milanese. 

Back to lockdown, a term that sums up where we are like few others, it being in essence a lie. We are no more in lockdown than we are under martial law, of course, free to wander daily, although preferably not too far from home. Last night my next door neighbour appeared to host a full on party, complete with twenty year old rock and assorted drunken whoops ghosting through the walls. I wasn’t invited, thankfully, and await the outbreak of something more serious than hangovers to inveigle next door. Will they paint a cross on their door to let us all know?

But it is this use of language that disturbs, this “tell us all it’s lockdown and we’ll all come to see it as such” without necessarily observing what might ordinarily be actions commensurate with the term. I read two excellent pieces today by the journalist Hardeep Matharu in which she eloquently and forensically compared the UK’s spread of COVID-19 to Chernobyl, and talked about the infantilisation of the public that has led to a complete absence in critical thinking. In turn, this allows politicians to lie unchallenged on a grand scale. But they’ve always lied! people cry. Maybe, but not necessarily without challenge or consequences. But the population, needing to ask what to do, what steps to take, who to trust, which celebrity’s got a new dress, whether to breathe in as well as out, laps up the part of the lie that it deems acceptable and ignores all else. 

This sounds like some old cynic having a whinge. And fair enough. Except in the last six weeks a minimum of 33,000 and possibly as many as 50,000 UK citizens have lost their lives to COVID-19. That’s like a town the size of Canterbury or Tunbridge Wells or Leamington Spa or Kings Lynn or Jarrow being wiped from the map. And still the papers talk about British Grit or some such idiocy, whip up whisked crap about returning to the pub, simply pretend that it doesn’t matter, that the deaths don’t really matter. Unless they’re nurses, for whom we should clap, or care workers (so appalling abandoned), for whom we should also stand on our doorsteps and show the same appreciation as we might to a batsman coming in for tea having made 100 runs, before returning to the sofa and watching The One Show presenters socially distance.

And now social argument surrounds whether children should return to school. At a time when Britain has indisputably the highest death toll in Europe, the second highest in the world after only poor, poor America, with no vaccine in the immediate vicinity and still only sketchy understanding of the science (remember when that word meant something) surrounding COVID-19, we demand, insist, shame, bully our teachers into opening schools so that children may return, and we do it in the name of The Economy. Because, the zealots tell us, the Economy is the lifeforce, the totem. the engine that drives all else. Never mind the science. What utter nonsense. However we have allowed this, we surely cannot allow it any longer. 

Writing a stream of almost-consciousness.

This like a diary in a time of COVID, of Corona, of so-called “Lockdown” and vapid bulletins that even the most generous may see as disingenuous at best. This time of hot environmental soup on the fringes of quantum physics. 

Sitting indoors, surrounded by Netflix and jigsaws, planning dinners like long-ago foreign excursions. Recipe books as maps. Tonight, we’ll explore the Amalfi Coast in linguini. The sounds of people talking too loud, bonhomie ringing down the road in booming, beery voices. Don’t they know there’s a war on? Hiding and the wildlife is crashing about outside. My Australian prison warder neighbour playing classic rock through the walls. Ruining Purple Rain forever. Slurping Stella from a tin and you can check out but you can never leave. My god he likes a scrap. 

Glomming inspiration from multiple things. The TV series Devs reminds that most of us will never understand that the future exists in the present. It’s beautiful. A documentary about the writer Joan Didion says that the past was a mystery too. Scrolling through art galleries on a screen two inches by four. All the music is wistful, lonesome, driven by winds and the sea. For the past few weeks I had a project to complete. A novel, version five, no less. Set myself the task of ensuring it became a finished thing as we hunkered down. Worked on it daily, sometimes for hours and hours. And then it was done. Sent it to a couple of trusted people. Talked to my agent about it. He wants to see it and maybe he will, when it’s settled and stopped moving about like a cat on a blanket. So now the project’s finished. Begin another, there are already notes. Realise it can’t be written to order. So write this instead, just to write something. Just to write.

Go Back to Normal

normal wasn’t working.

normal had become marooned in a blind sea

normal had a lilo. a jetski. a yacht.

normal put on new clothes and a wig

sunglasses.

normal went out in disguise.

normal told you what you wanted to hear like an abusive lover.

normal said it would never end.

normal set light to everything you held dear.

normal rewrote the rules, made you trust it.

normal was stone deaf, tone deaf, shown deaf

and proud of it.

normal was a killer. normal was a cult.

normal was a lottery with secret rules.

normal was a game of monopoly, normal would never allow you park lane for your single house, normal said it would let you have old kent road if you were lucky, normal never drew the card that said go directly to jail.

that wasn’t normal

normal was the banker with a secret stash.

normal wore the scent of burning fossil fuels 

normal said it was chanel number five. 

normal wasn’t working.

hadn’t worked

never worked

normal said that you could have it all too if you just 

worked a little

bit

harder.

normal wasn’t working.

Hope in a Time of COVID-19

When news of the seriousness and extent of the Corona virus broke—travelling the world quicker than you could say Globalisation—and it became apparent that some sort of lockdown might be enforced, the Twittersphere was liberally littered with comments that suggested now was the time to write that novel, take up painting, learn to play the ukulele, speak Mandarin. This dark cloud’s silver lining was going to be the gift of time to do all of those things you knew you could do if only your life wasn’t governed by the daily slog. Yet a fortnight on, those time-free enthusiasms have dimmed like house lights before the overture. And there doesn’t seem to be any overture.

The time has been filled by a sense of dread, rising like the sourdough loaves that have started to appear like landmines on my Twitter timeline. Baking is seemingly the one thing that has staged a comeback, powered by a nostalgia for simpler times, empty shelves in Sainsburys and an endless stream of Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding yelling ‘Bake!’ on repeat. They are the Thinkpol of Orwellian dreams now. 

People are finding that rather than uncovering a shiny new streak of creativity, what really lies beneath is a notion of futility. Why write the novel if there’ll be no one left to read it? What if the only tune left to play on your battered old uke is Chopin’s death march? Understandably, accompanying personal dread is a side-serving of daily anxiety about loved ones, elderly parents or grandparents we can no longer visit but instead are left to phone so frequently it starts to feel weird for all concerned. The news that my niece had remotely taught my 86 year old father to both download and use WhatsApp and had joined him to the family group chat was greeted as if they’d shared the award of a Nobel prize. 

And yet within the pathology of it all there is hope. I’d noticed a few people echoing my own thoughts, suggesting that such was the disruption caused by the virus that when a vaccine is found, when things inevitably turn outwards again—for nothing lasts forever, not even rampant disease—perhaps here was the chance to Reinvent that we’d been abstractly pondering. Nodding along to columns that bemoaned the callousness of a few billionaires while continuing behaviours that had enabled them to become billionaires in the first place wasn’t ever going to cut it. 

Slowly there are signs. Footage on phones of wildlife returning to reclaim the street, the mountain goats of Llandudno, the wild boars in Bergamo. Sightings of stars in the night sky over densely populated cities as daily pollution levels fall off the charts. 

And then came Arundhati Roy and The Financial Times. In an article for the FT, Roy wrote that this pandemic “is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” I’ve loved that woman since hearing an audiobook of The God of Small Things on a long car journey back in nineteen ninety-something and here she was like some god of somewhat bigger things, too. 

What’s more, the FT then surpassed itself. Looking to what will be needed post-Corona, the FT championed “Radical reforms—reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades—will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the wealthy and elderly in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.”

The FT. Not The Morning Star, not even The Guardian. The FT. Something is definitely afoot here. 

And then I received a poem from a dear writer friend. She hadn’t seen the Arundhati Roy piece. Hadn’t read the FT. Yet her new words were a searing call to accept what’s happening with dismay but also with grace, and to start planning for a future in which the change that we forever promise ourselves we’ll make, to be kinder, to live more sensibly within the context of limited resources but also more freely, with a greater sense of generosity, to shuck off the teachings of the past fifty years and see them merely as part of an evolutionary process that we need to leave behind like some dried out exoskeleton, becomes enacted. 

There is the opportunity. You might not write a novel, paint a masterpiece, become fluent in another language. Perhaps that won’t matter in the long run. But not seizing this new opportunity to live a life that is materially more simple but intellectually enriched surely will.