“On a morning like this, it was hard to recall the dark, deep days of winter, the ice and wind and hunger; the months when inaction and confinement, the empty waiting between scant meals, had gnawed through the soul as much as the stomach.”
A father and son struggle to overcome the distance between them. Each is drawn irresistibly to an unforgiving landscape, one that has been the scene of tragedy and loss. The son’s return to the northern shore he abandoned as a young man promises the chance to heal the rift. But is it too late?
"A moving exploration of the relationship between fathers and sons, and how the passing of time does nothing to quell grief."
CUB Magazine review
Árni left his remote corner of Iceland as soon as he could, seeking opportunities beyond winter and fishing. Married to an English woman, he builds a life as a successful scientist but can never quite escape the pull of the West Fjords and the bleak landscape of his birth, nor shake the guilt he feels towards his distant father. When Eiríkur goes missing, he sets off to find him on the windswept spit of land lost in an angry ocean.
A story of loss, belonging and the silence between fathers and sons.
"From the beautiful rugged descriptions of landscape to the subtle and perceptive observations on relationships this is a powerful and gripping read. Beautiful and haunting."
NB Magazine review
“Oh come now, Mr Buchanan. When one goes out into the world, one always ends up smelling of something or other.”
Fergus Buchanan has led a charmed life: a doting family, a loving sweetheart and the respect of his neighbours. All is as it should be and nothing stands between him and the limitless happiness that is his destiny. But then he is sent from his remote island to retrieve the cursing stone, and his adventures in the wild world beyond cause him to question everything he thought he knew. Succeed or fail, nothing will be the same again.
“a wonderfully charismatic story of family ties, loves lost and found, courage, duty and a long awaited revenge.”
– Amazon review
“The prose lingers over the landscape and the life of the people on it.”
– Strange Alliances review
James Townsend is not a bastard, he just can’t make decisions. At least not the right ones: about what he wants or who he is. The affair had seemed like a good decision but now that this too has crashed to failure, he has returned into his past in search of something to make sense of how he got here. At home, everyone else is just trying to find some meaning in the debris.
“the writing is absolutely beautiful; mature and with a deep understanding of how to construct characters, the writing is warm and inviting.”
– My Little Bookblog review
You can read some reviews at My Little Book Blog, Linda’s Book Bag, Trip Fiction and at The Bookbag, who also interviewed me. And you can read my guest blog on the inspiration for the novel at A Lover of Books. And, over the summer of 2015, Being Someone was selected for the WH Smith ‘Fresh Talent’ promotion, “showcasing the very best in new and emerging writing talent”; the book had a lovely new cover for the occasion and made it into the WHS chart.
“lucid, engaging and emotionally intelligent, with a filmic quality borne of the narrative style and the profound sense of place”
– Amazon review
Most of my creative writing is focused on my novels, but other things slip out between the cracks. Occasionally I will post those things here: short stories like Fuse (a reflection on my home-town youth) and poems like Between (which I wrote as a reading for a wedding).
He is there again. Alone, as usual, lost somewhere, past the tables and the teacups, the shops and the neon. His tea must be cold by now. It is practically untouched, although the ashtray is filling steadily. He rolls the thinnest cigarettes in the world. His whole face puckers to suck in the smoke, the thin crumple of paper pinched between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. The nails are bitten back; the skin on his finger ends too. His cuticles are rags. His herringbone coat, shrugged from his shoulders, hangs from the back of his chair. Its torn lining spills its guts in voluptuous coils; he looks as if he is sitting in the remains of some disembowelled beast. Alone, as usual. His aloneness is captivating.
She snatches what glances she can across the cafeteria’s muddled congestion. Around her, there are explosions of laughter, of sarcasm and innuendo. Jinksy, raven hair streaming down over his heavy black coat, is on form today. The girls are swooning over their tea and flapjacks; the boys are sullen, cowed. Sometimes one will try to capture the conversation, to impose himself on the table, to say something funnier, ruder, cleverer. But Jinksy, Jinksy is having none of it.
It’s like this every Saturday. Whatever else happens in the week, by 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon everyone in town, everyone interesting, has gathered in the Friary to boast and brag, to be seen, to watch. She fell in with them earlier in the autumn, and they are her family now, whenever she is in town. Which is every Saturday. What else would she do?
She met Jinksy through Leonie, the friend she made on her first day of college. Leonie knows Steve, went to school with him, and Steve knows Jinksy. Worships Jinksy would be more like it. No longer at college, Jinksy is unemployed and spends his days writing desolate poems in his bedsit up by the Garibaldi. Someone said that he sleeps in a coffin. A real, actual coffin. Part of her can believe it, but when she pictures the scene she wonders if he has a duvet, a pillow, if it is a new coffin, or a second hand one. A used coffin. She stops herself then, not wanting that thought to linger. She is disturbed by her easy slip from the banal to the macabre.
So Alice sits with Jinksy and Steve and Leonie and the others, and tries to pretend that this corner of a provincial shopping centre is the coolest place on earth. Certainly the coolest place in her rubbish, tawdry town. At least here with her friends the only currency that counts is a knowledge of music and movies and books. Alice brings books and Leonie, music; they nod ponderously at the mention of films they haven’t seen, directors they’ve only read about in the NME.
Leonie tilts her empty teacup towards her and peers down to confirm its emptiness. Unthinking, she reaches over and takes the little metal teapot sitting in front of Alice and pours the last of its contents into her own cup. Only then does she think of her friend and, coyly, offers a piece of her flapjack. Alice declines. Instead she looks at Leonie, at the pale face behind heavy black eyeliner, at the piece of purple lace tied into her henna-red hair.
She wonders if she only made friends with Leonie because of her clothes. When they met, in the queue to sign up for English Lit, she looked like the kind of person with whom Alice had decided to surround herself in her new incarnation at college. She was alone; no one from her school had gone to college. They had either left to find jobs or stayed on in the sixth form. She had despised the lack of imagination of the workers and the timidity of the rest. She couldn’t understand why anyone with the chance would not choose to rewrite themselves. Only now was she beginning to understand that the potential for reinvention is finite. The self you show to others sort of sticks to you. Unless you get it just right, first time, it will grow to bind you, to ensnare you, just as much as the things you are trying to leave behind.
Leonie now seems like more of a constraint that anything else, but how had Alice been supposed to know that? Leonie had been so much cooler than anyone she’d met before, certainly more so than anyone at her suburban comprehensive, where the girls liked Duran Duran and the boys pretended not to. In the queue, Leonie had been so exciting, so open to everything. Within minutes, she had told Alice that her brother had been at school with the bassist from Bauhaus, and this slightest of coincidences had seemed like proof of Leonie’s specialness. Alice had marvelled at the confidence, the self-assurance, and the glamour of this girl in black and purple, who stared at the world with an insatiable hunger.
Now, two months into the first term, Alice is bored of her friend’s vacuous insincerity. She still has the clothes, and her knowledge of gothic punk is encyclopaedic. But there is nothing there, just surface, shallow and plastic. She is a perfect facsimile of cool, which is by definition not cool. And now they are tied together: until she can escape to university, Alice is simply one half of Alice and Leonie.
She looks from her friend to her teacup, to the little empty teapot, and back to Leonie.
“I’m going to go get some more tea. Anyone want anything?”
She already knows what she is doing, that she will not go back to the table, at least not yet. She orders two teas and a millionaire’s shortbread. The woman in the brown checked tabard smiles as she takes the carefully counted stack of change that Alice slides across to her. The crockery rattles wearily onto the tiled counter.
She can feel the eyes falling on her back as she passes the table and continues through the emptying café to where he is still sitting with his cold tea and his red carnation. Her red carnation. She had given the flower to him, earlier in the day. Leonie and she had been circuiting the centre, as usual. He had been wandering in and out of Revolver and W H Smith. She had recognised him from previous weeks. As usual, he was wrapped in his oversized coat; an unruly mass of snags and knots emerged from beneath the peak of a cotton cap.
His haunted eyes had searched the dark marble walls and shop windows, but never rested anywhere long, never gave you to believe he was seeing what you were seeing. She knew Leonie wouldn’t approve. Maybe that was part of the attraction. She had wanted to say something to him for weeks, but had never had the courage.
Until today. Today she had decided.
She had bought a single, blood-red carnation. Leonie had gone with her despite her misgivings and had even been polite when they caught up with him outside C&A. Alice had told him that she and her friend had been judging a Best-Looking Man competition and that he had won, that the flower was his prize. She had held it out to him, stretched across her two upturned palms. He was probably eighteen, maybe older, but for a moment he looked younger, unnerved and embarrassed. He had asked if it was a joke, had expected the girls to burst into laughter. But Alice had assured him that the judges’ decision was final. He had bowed slightly, Alice thought, when he had taken the flower.
Of course he remembers. How could he not? Her gesture had been well-judged, both knowing and innocent. A flower. Not a weighty rose, but something light enough to brush aside if need be, yet meaningful enough to capture attention, to convey intent. She pushes one of the cups towards him across the Formica and takes a seat opposite without waiting for an invitation. Her sudden capability intoxicates her.
He looks at the tea, at the fingers of his left hand, then up at Alice through the cracked ends of his unkempt fringe. He has brown eyes. Soft, like a cow’s. He says thanks, indicating both the tea and the carnation, before pushing the plastic wrap of Old Holborn towards her. Alice shakes her head in a tight, rapid vibration, her lips pursed. Instead, she cuts the shortbread in half, and then into half again, then she cuts each of the four new squares on the diagonal, so that the plate is littered with triangles and crumbs. Alice drops one of the triangles into her mouth before pushing the plate towards him.
“I’m Alice. Pleased to meet you. Properly, I mean.”
He looks at her primly extended hand, smiles, and simply dips his head in acknowledgement. There is no handshake; Alice wrestles with her awkwardness.
He is called Hal, but not like Henry IV; like the computer in that film. Alice rides over her disappointment and is off, telling him about herself, about college, about the music she likes, the books, a sudden flurry of facts and positions. Hal watches, waits. While he asks no questions about her, neither does he fill the space with his own voice, his own opinions. Alice is aware that this unnerves her. It is unexpected and unusual. His quiet command of this table, his table, is so much more complete than that exercised noisily by Jinksy across the way. She can hear the blood thumping behind her ears.
“What about you?”
He looks puzzled, but still says nothing, only watches.
“I mean, are you at college? What music do you listen to? That kind of thing. I mean, I feel like I’ve been boring you rigid with my life story, and yet I don’t know anything about you.”
“Why would you want to?”
Alice is about to answer honestly but catches herself. She would be giving away far too much far too early. So she says simply that that is how conversations are meant to go; it is the normal way of things. Hal’s nostrils flare slightly, but he answers her questions nonetheless. Eighteen years old, he works in a record shop, saving some money to go abroad for a few months before university next autumn; for now he lives at his parents’ house. He listens to The Smiths and the Jesus and Mary Chain rather than the Cult and Fields of the Nephilim; he watches Lynch and Cronenberg, reads Kundera and Camus.
“Alice? I’m going, mate. Jinksy and them have already headed off. Do you want to get the bus with me, or what? They’re shutting the place up.”
Leonie is standing behind her. Alice knows, if only from Hal’s face, that while Leonie is talking to her, she is staring at him with something like disgust.
“No, I’m going stay for a bit.”
Alice turns in her chair to offer a smile to her friend, adding: “You remember Hal from earlier, yeah?” Leonie manages a dismissive nod in Hal’s direction. Then she is gone and there is only Alice and Hal. In the conspiracy of solitude, both the posturing of Jinksy and the limits of Leonie become brittle and plastic. Hungrily, Alice soaks in the depth of Hal.
“I fucking hate this town. I mean, why would anything sentient want to live here, right? It’s like they put something in the fucking water. Like the air is dosed up with something.”
His anger is sudden and shocking. He draws furiously on the cigarette that has been resting extinguished in his left hand for ten minutes. In the end he gives up on the idea that he can re-ignite it with his own incandescence, and leaves the cigarette between his lips and reaches for his lighter. Sparks splutter before a shallow dome of orange flame settles into being. It is at this point that Alice notices that his right hand is planted firmly in his coat pocket.
Metal shutters clatter down behind her, signalling that the counter is now closed. It is five o’clock, and she has been sitting with Hal for almost an hour. She realises that during this time he has been doing everything – smoking, drinking tea – one-handed. She frowns, squinting at where his right hand disappears.
He shakes his head. Something flickers behind his eyes, and he leans in slightly across the table. His voice lowers.
“Shouldn’t really tell you; might freak you out. Let’s just say I’ve got something in my pocket that I’m… I’m keen to hang onto.”
The woman in the brown tabard ignores them as she shuffles past, towards the bus station. Over the chocolate acrylic of her workaday uniform, she is wearing a blue quilted coat trimmed in scarlet, but she is unconcerned by the inappropriateness of her choices. Watching her leave, Alice does not need to turn around to know that there is no-one left in the courtyard of the cafeteria, that the little shops that surround it are either shut, or shutting, or empty. Her vulnerability nags at her shoulder.
“Alright, look. Do you promise not to go mental if I show you?”
He too is aware that they are alone, that there are no witnesses to whatever secret he is about to share. Alice knows that this is a moment to test her presumed audacity; that to hold back now is something that Leonie would do. The person she has willed into existence would embrace this. She knows that the world will hold bigger shocks and terrors than anything that Hal could carry in his coat pocket. She studies his face, his eyes, looking for any trace that he might be some sort of pervert.
“Yeah, go on then.”
Needlessly, he looks over both shoulders. His eyebrows twitch upwards, maybe as a warning, or perhaps as a drum roll. His right shoulder drops as his arm snakes out from under the folds of gabardine; Alice looks only at his eyes, does not want to uncover the mystery earlier than is necessary.
He has stopped squirming in his seat, is still, expectant, yet her gaze remains fixed on his face. Impatient now, he nods slightly, eyes widening, to where his hand must surely be beneath the Formica. She leans around, hesitant, boldly, to see. Under the table, he clutches a hand grenade.
“Fucking hell! I did not see that coming! I thought it was going to be something sleazy…”
Alice laughs a nervous laugh, a flash of mischievous delight on her face. She knows that to Hal this is serious, but she cannot contain her relief, the joy of finding something so outrageous in this humdrum shopping centre, in this pointless town. Before she can ask where he got it from, whether it worked or not, Hal is talking again, his voice level and confident, but maybe a little too cold, a little too rapid. There is anger still, but no bile, no blood and heat, just iron detachment as he explains that he had taken the grenade from his father’s collection.
“Another time, another place, he’d be a fucking Nazi or something. He’s got knives; I mean big knives, by the bucket load; rifles and that, too, most of them replicas. But not all. That’s how he keeps himself anaesthetised: pretending to live in some made-up Second World War adventure. He comes home from work and numbs the boredom with all this… It’s real, you know, I’m not messing about.”
“What do you mean? Not messing about?”
Before she reaches the ‘b’, she sees that Hal’s hand is clamped hard on the lever, that there is no pin in the mechanism.
“Where’s the pin, mate?”
She doesn’t have time to ask what he means by this.
“I took it out this morning, threw it in a bin on the market square. I’ve been carrying it round, primed, all day. Locked in. In case I start to wuss out.”
Alice remembers that he had taken the carnation with his left hand earlier on. Even then.
She is angry now. There is living on the edge and there is being bloody stupid – she can hear her father’s voice in her head, and strives to shake it out. Looking at the floor, she struggles with the ‘w’ of why or what, or any number of questions that are jostling inside her mouth.
“Wuss out? Wuss out of what? This is messed up, man.”
For some reason, as if it made anything better, Hal slides the grenade back into his coat pocket.
“Look, I was never going hurt anyone. Just, you know, make a mark. I was going to wait in the centre until it had all shut up, then throw this at the shop that’d pissed me off the most today. C&A most likely. Maybe Chelsea Girl. Hadn’t decided. Probably C&A.”
He laughs then. The conviction is gone, and he is left only with uncertainty and a live grenade. Alice reaches out to touch his free hand and his eyes soften again. She asks what he plans to do now, knowing he has no plans. His not knowing is reassuring.
Abruptly, Alice pulls a scrunchy out of her hair, then a second, and hands them to Hal. She explains, in her impatient adult voice, that he should secure the lever of the grenade with them, that he should still hold on, just in case, but less fiercely than before; she has an idea, a way out of this, an alternative to the demolition of C&A.
She is all bustle and motion, collecting her things and leading him out of the deserted cafeteria and past the bored and vacant stores, which are killing time until they are allowed to close at last. He offers no resistance as they plunge out of the yellow brightness of the arcade and onto the already dark street. Despite herself, Alice is thrilled by their secret cargo, the potential it carries, and the ignorance of the stubborn shoppers and eager drinkers that coalesce on Abingdon Street.
She leads him down Fish Street, then out along Derngate, as far as Becket’s Park, its darkness ringed by the insidious sodium glow. They push on into the blackness, darker yet under the trees, and towards the looming bulk of the perfume factory across the river. They are laughing now, giddy in their freedom, in their adventure. Alice squeals, exuberant, as they trip over their heels, tumbling down the slope towards the light band of water, luminescent orange, distinct among the shapes made up of shades of black. At the bottom, by the swings, they stop, sucking air into their lungs, shaking out their remaining laughter.
There is low lamp light here, and they sit on the wooden boards of the little roundabout. He struggles to roll a cigarette with his free hand, and Alice asks if she can hold the grenade, to make it easier; they exchange a look, and he hands the weapon to her, his pupils dilating so wide that she sees all the world reflected back in them.
“It’s not my real name. Hal, I mean. I lied. I’m sorry”
But Alice does not mind and her eyebrows rise in encouragement. He stares at the glowing tip of his cigarette, searching for the words or the courage or another, better lie. Eventually, he tells her how he hates Phillip, hates his parents for imposing it upon him, how the decision to name himself anew had arrived late one night in front of the television. She feels the warmth crackle between them and pulls him to his feet once more.
Across the first bridge, then the second, past the factory and its empty car parks. The tarmac melts to gravel, and they are on rough paths. The intermittent street lights disappear, and only the orange sky illuminates their careful navigation of open ground. Alice still holds the grenade, will not give it back, refuses to surrender either the responsibility or the thrill. She weighs the potency in her palm, needlessly clasps the lever’s spring in her trembling fingers, tastes the sweetness of latent destruction, its power.
And then it is there: the rippled slab of water, phosphorescent. Pocked with dark clumps that she knows to be islands. Above them, a stream of light slides off the edge of the dual carriageway, hoist above the water on concrete piles. Yet despite the constant flow of traffic across the flyover, they are essentially alone, separated from all those lives by speed and steel and combustion. She thinks that it is odd that it is possible to be this close to so many people, but to feel completely separated from them, alone even.
Except for the boy, of course. In the darkness, unseen, he is asking what she has in mind, what her plan is, and she smiles invisible smiles, forcing down pride and excitement.
“It’s better than C&A, anyway. And there’s no danger of us getting caught. Nor of anyone getting hurt.”
Out in the lake is a jump ramp, a boon to the town’s water skiers. Alice has often seen them on weekend days through the window of her parents’ car. She first noticed them a few years before, when she was being driven to see her grandmother in the hospital, during the weeks of illness before she died. Ever since, Alice has been fascinated by the men and their boats, their wet suits and skis and pointlessness. Every weekend, from thirteen until she left school, she would be driven past them, violin across her knees, and she would stare and wonder why they were there, how they came to the decision to spend their free time like that, why they were allowed to defy the gravity that sucked at her feet.
“That. We blow up that.”
She is pointing at the ramp, some 30 metres away across the water. Phillip hesitates, complaining that he cannot throw the grenade that far. Alice appeals to Hal, calling him out to see off the boy with feet of clay, the man who lives with his mother. Her frustration dissolves, almost as soon as it has risen, in the paleness of his outstretched hand, palm upwards. Alice passes the grenade to him, surprised at the relief of its absent weight. Hal takes the weapon without a word, the darkness cloaking his smile. He is smiling. She knows this without seeing. There is that sparkle again, the twist of his mouth, invisible, the devilry, the child. It is elemental.
Hidden, he removes first one band, then the second, from the lever. He pushes the black scrunchies into her palm, firmly but without aggression. Her fingers close over their softness, forming a fist, too tight for its purpose. Her jaw is set, clenched like the lever on a grenade, and its tension surprises her.
She knows that his left arm is extended, his finger trailing in the dank air towards the black fuzziness in the water. She nods, knowing he does not need to see her to know.
When it comes, she is surprised by the movement, the violent displacement of his arcing, straining arm, the rushing of cotton and wool against each other, against skin. She believes she can hear the grenade looping through the air; she can almost see it, even though she knows this to be impossible, imagined. Only the sound of metal parting water in the distance is real, is physical.
They stand at the water’s edge, separate and together, staring at the flat surface. Silently they count, first to seven, then to ten, then twenty, both braced against the blast. The evening’s darkness wraps around them, holding them in its chill. Alice slides her hand into his, and together they stand on the shore, waiting while nothing happens.
I love words. The way they flavour the things we feel, the things we see, the things that touch us. I love the way that they collaborate, conspire, and conjoin: the shapes they make in the mouth. I have my favourites, of course. Words whose geometry and chemistry give me secret pleasure in their repetition. Cadence. The way it hangs, amplifying its meaning in measured resonance. Resonance itself resonates, but verb and noun taste distinct upon the tongue.
I have no knowledge of the hierarchy of nouns and verbs: which is the parent and which the child. No inkling of the relative pre-eminence of action and indolence, of the transient and the immutable. With adjectives and adverbs things are clearer: they are secondary, the supporting actors of elaboration. But nouns and verbs tussle for supremacy in my sentences, playing chicken and egg with my reasoning.
To delve into the richness of allusion that my mother tongue affords, to unwrap each evocative layer from brute communication, prompts questions. Does a Spaniard savour the texture of expression with such gusto? I have no reason to doubt he does. But I am certain that, of all the advantages of my birthright, this shifting, subtle language is the most prized. I love these words, they are my favourites: which are yours?
Wrapped today in pageant paper,
tied in ribbon, tied in knots,
a spotlit summer Saturday
of greenery and white.
Yet the point between remains,
On other days too, hidden amongst
through murmuring tunnels, lost under trees
draped over downs;
between postcard lines sent from tourist towns,
behind rainsmeared windows
on stolen autumn days;
or in the shadows of hazy half-curtain light,
where afternoons embrace evening,
in the distance of absence and between the tears
left on an empty pillow,
and again on their return;
and even in the voice-crack snap of anger,
and the damp-dark patches
beneath long silences.
Sometimes an ocean,
sometimes less than skin,
moments between remain,
Instead of a family, I have a city. It is as precious to me as an aunt, as timeless as a grandfather. Its shapes and sounds are etched still into those that remain.
A glimpse of its bridges, arcing over that slow stream, fills me with regret, longing; or simply with a nostalgia for something beyond the reach of memory. It is beautiful to me; it is a thing of pride, a site of unquestioning belonging. A marker of specialness.
It is mine and I am its. But I could not live within its walls: its close familiarity would murder me.
I’m a policy wonk by profession and, over the last twenty-odd years, I’ve worked in think tanks, public agencies, and charities, in Whitehall and in local government. I’ve covered a variety of policy areas, but usually with an emphasis on place. My experience extends across the whole waterfront, from research and analysis through policy development and on to strategic influencing. Over the last couple of years, I've been using my experience to help a number of clients with policy projects.
I’m an Associate of the New Local Government Network, a think tank that does what you’d expect it to, and regularly help them with projects, from supporting local authorities directly as they respond to the difficult circumstances they face, to writing research reports on a range of policy issues around places and local service. For example, I helped a consortium of local authorities develop their plans for a bid to Government for a ‘Devolution Deal’, I wrote a short pamphlet on arts funding cuts, and more recently I wrote a pamphlet on how good urban design in new housing developments can improve social and economic outcomes.
I advise The Connection at St Martin in the Fields, a high-profile homelessness charity working with rough sleepers in Westminster, central London. Drawing on my 20+ years experience of pubic affairs, I am helping them to develop an influencing strategy so that their unique expertise and insight can contribute to national and local responses to homelessness more widely.
I am an Associate of Frame Projects a consultancy offering design review services to local authorities and other organisations. I primarily work with them to draft the reports of reviews of proposed development, particularly new housing, to help local planning authorities improve the quality of the changing built environment.
The walking charity Ramblers collected a massive data set on the condition of the country’s public rights of way through their Big Pathway check app. They commissioned me to analyse the data and to draft the final report, The Big Pathwatch: The State of Our Paths, which was published in November 2016 and launched a major public-facing campaign. I also worked with them as the interim Head of their Policy and Advocacy team, helping them to develop a new strand of work around urban walking, including establishing the Britain's Best Walking Neighbourhood Awards.
I’m an Associate of the think tank, Respublica and helped out on their Beauty commission, seeking to find policy responses to the dearth of beauty in our towns and cities. I co-wrote the initial pamphlet, A Community Right to Beauty and continued to advise them throughout. Recently, I helped them produce a report for Suffolk County Council on the development of a county-wide housing growth strategy.
I worked with Plan International, a global NGO supporting children around the world, to write op ed and speeches for their Chief Executive, Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen. These pieces usually focused on promoting girls’ rights, and appeared in places like the Huffington Post and the WEF Global Agenda site.
Working with the consultancy, BOP, I co-wrote the most recent triennial report of the World Cities Culture Forum. The Forum is a global alliance of over thirty world cities from San Francisco to Seoul with an interest in harnessing the power of culture to further their urban policy goals.
Inspiration comes from many places. You’re never sure where, or when, or even whether, it’s going to appear, so the trick is to be ready, to be vigilant. But you can go looking for inspiration. Personally, I’m fascinated by places and the stories that emerge from them, so simply being in new places, ready to listen, is sometimes enough.
About seven years ago, I was in the far north west of Iceland. I love Iceland and have been there several times, most often to walk in its sparse, stark landscape. I’d found my way to Isafjordur in the West Fjords because someone on another trip had mentioned a place called Hornstrandir. The walking was supposed to be spectacular, the landscape too. So I’d made it this far, intent upon a recognisance trip ahead of a possible longer trip.
I took a little boat early one morning out of Isafjordur, headed towards Hesteyri, the ghost of the largest settlement on Hornstrandir. Ghost because the whole population had voted to abandon the peninsula in the early 1950s. There is no permanent human habitation and visits are only allowed during the short two months of summer.
Since the abandonment, the landscape has been left to return to its natural condition: with the sheep gone, the orchids have recovered; with the shepherds gone the Arctic Foxes have become bold and playful. It is a truly special place (although the snow still sits on the beaches in July – the merest thought of a February there makes it easy to understand why the people left.)
All of this I knew from the guide book and the internet. But on the boat heading across the great bay, I got talking to the young Icelander who was our guide for the excursion. Her family had lived in Hesteyri, and her grandfather had left with the others in the fifties. He’d had a cow and, once across the bay, that cow wouldn’t milk, so he had taken the beast back across a couple of summers later and, sure enough the cow gave milk.
A couple of years later, that story of a homesick cow became the starting point for my latest novel, Time's Tide. Between that short seaborne conversation and sitting down to start writing in north London, the story had become one of the relationship between a father and son, the guilt of leaving and the powerful pull of place. But its roots run back to a sunny day on the edge of the Arctic and the story of a cow.
It’s hard to get lost on Canna. At only five miles long and one mile wide, you can pretty much always see the sea, usually from the tops of tumbling cliffs. It’s a good thing because, especially at its western end, the island itself is fairly featureless moorland, a rising and falling strip of grassy undulations reaching out into the western ocean. And aside from a million rabbits, thousands of birds, and hundreds of sheep, it is empty once you leave the clutch of houses that cluster around the natural harbour.
Only three of us got off the good ship Loch Neibhis when it tied up briefly at the concrete jetty, and the other two disappeared into a waiting Land Rover almost immediately. They were the last people I would speak to until we were reunited on the 6.30pm boat back to Mallaig and the mainland. I’d come to research my second novel, The Cursing Stone, to smell the smells, feel the winds and absorb the light of this tiny island: I like at least to taste the air of a place before I write about it. Because Canna was going to help me construct the frankly made up island of Hinba, the setting for much of the novel’s action.
Not entirely made up. Because the island of Hinba is where St Columba established one of his first monasteries, back in the sixth century – it’s just that no-one knows where it is. Some believe that Hinba is Canna, and when a bullaun or cursing stone – the first in Scotland – was found on the island in 2012, it underlined the Columban connection. The Canna cursing stone also pulled together a set of ideas I’d been kicking into something like the shape of a novel.
Canna is the western-most of the quaintly named Small Isles. Its near neighbours – Rum and Eigg and Muck – are familiar names, but Canna is a little off the beaten track. Owned by the National Trust for Scotland, its few inhabitants croft or raise sheep and a few cattle. The island boasts a post office, in a garden shed; there is also a community shop and tea room. But there is precious little else: just a clutch of houses, and a thin strip of green stretching off to the west, until a burnished sea swallows every solid thing.
The road from the jetty skirts the inlet that sits between Canna and its mini-me island of Sanday, passing the Rocket Church (just as bizarre in real life as its name suggests), until it arrives at the gates to Canna House. From there, a sign indicates straight on for Tarbet and Sanday, or right for A’Chill and its 1500 year old Celtic cross. Through a stand of conifers, past a newish grave among the trees, I came into clearing where the cross stands, along with a small slender standing stone (described as the ‘punishing stone’). There is a small ruined chapel nearby, its graveyard full to bursting with daffodils, as was every garden in the little village.
I planned to reach the far end of the island by lunchtime to eat my sandwich under the shadow of an ancient fort, so I left the houses and the graves behind and set out along the track: high cliffs to my right, the sea racing into the clusters of basalt columns to my left. Every so often a little beach was cut into the black rock, notches scored by fiercer seas: the sand bore no marks other than the footprints of oyster catchers fishing at the gently lapping water’s edge. Everywhere I looked inland, a flashing bob tail raced away.
More gates, more track, more blue sky. The road snaked around under a small cliff, from which white-tailed eagles launched themselves onto the wind, and then it dropped into a shallow valley that bisects the island from north to south: Tarbet. The stone walls and lines of wire that parcelled the flat land, the set of farm buildings, were all unexpected: the island had become wild already despite the closeness of everything.
The road, such as it is, stopped here. There were cows as well as sheep in the fields; and then I spotted the bull: a massive chestnut mountain of a beast, with horns that were visible from the best part of 150 metres distance. I scanned the greenery to trace the lines of wire and wall, to make sure that he was on the other side of something.
Past Tarbet and up over open moorland. The grass was longer, the ground wetter, spongier, and the terrain turned into a series of ever-climbing ridges. I stayed close to the south coast in as far as my haphazard route and the tricky terrain allowed – there were no paths and the need to weave through marshy patches and hummocks made sticking to a line difficult. There is a ruined convent at the bottom of the cliff, and to see it I needed to arrive at the cliff’s edge at just the right point. I took a back bearing from the church at Sanday, some 3 miles behind me, cross-referenced it with a stream and took an anxious final line to the cliff top: bingo, the convent of Sgorr nam Bàn Naomh was directly below me.
The archaeology came thick and fast after this, just as I had hoped. I passed the remains of an old settlement (perhaps the outlines of houses or maybe simply of sheep folds) and then just headed westwards, keeping my shadow on my right hand side. Across a line of rusted wire and then it was two, three ridges, a sodden foot, and I could see the end of the island.
I had not thought that the old Dun would be at the bottom of the cliff, some 100 metres below me. How had I missed the contour lines? The sun was still out (just) but the wind was fierce, so I took my lunch in the shelter of a little crag and looked out across the grass and the blue of the ocean. Aside from the blue-grey bulk of the Outer Hebrides there was not much to interrupt the horizon and I had the sense that I was at the edge of the world. It struck me that I hadn’t seen another person since passing the post office.
For my return, I decided to shadow the north coast, hoping the ground would be a little less marshy. It wasn’t. I skittered through the mossy clumps trying to pick higher, firmer ground; what appeared to be paths were nothing of the kind, simply peaty streams. Snipe launched out from under foot as I walked; the birds seemingly playing ‘chicken’, leaving their escape to the very last minute.
Above me I spotted a large collection of ruined buildings, an ancient township according to the map. I picked my way through the swampy ground to explore, then further up onto higher ground. The going got easier and the view down and along was spectacular. I reached the land’s northern edge once more and followed the cliff top until I reached Tarbet again. The bull watched me as I scuttled back onto the track I had left behind 3 hours before.
I had some time yet, before the CalMac ferry returned, so I walked on to the eastern end of the island. On a beach of large pebbles, under a rambling cliff, I scanned the serrated profile of Skye, the purple mass of Rum and the distant snowy peaks of the mainland. Terns screeched overhead, hanging on the wind. The walls of an ancient castle clung to a rocky stack at the south end: Coroghon Mor. Later I would read that it had become a prison and it would find its way into my story.
‘Are you looking for anything specifically?’
‘Thank you, no. I’m just looking around. But thank you.’
‘No problem. Would you like an espresso while you look?
‘Um, actually, that would be lovely. Thanks.’
‘OK. Our recommendations are on this table. Some are new releases, some are older. Take a look while I get you your coffee.’
I had booked the guesthouse in part because it was around the corner from my favourite bar in Reykjavik, in part because it was just up the hill from Mal og Menning. But mainly because it was across the road from the mighty 12 Tonar record shop. I was only passing through, on my way back from walking in Hornstrandir, and would only have an evening and a morning in the city before my flight left Keflavik. I had wanted to make the most of my time.
After breakfast at Kaffibrennslan on the main drag, I had taken a brief loop about the city. I have been to Reykjavik a few times now, but not for three years, and despite the compact familiarity, I still found charm gilding every street and building. I had planned to end my morning at 12 Tonar, before picking up my bags from Thor’s. I had allowed myself half an hour.
Before my look of bemused wonder had attracted the attention of the guy behind the counter, I had already done a couple of turns around both floors. I had listened to a few unknown tracks on the sofa-side players and lingered over a Rökkurró t-shirt before reminding myself I was here for records, not clothing.
I don’t know exactly when Icelandic music became such a thing in my life. I suppose it crept up on me in stages, like the midnight sun on a long summer’s evening. I remember swooning over the Sugarcubes in the 1980s like everyone else, but was more drawn to the clashing, barking voice of Einar than to Bjork’s elfish range: if the more famous Sugarcube sounded on the verge of madness, Einar seemed well past the line. After that? Sigur Ros in the 90s, of course, but not so much.
Then in 2012, driving around the West Fjords in a hire care without any records, we stopped at a cafe. They sold a handful of CDs on the counter next to the cakes. We bought an album each by Bjork and Sigur Ros and, on the recommendation of the woman making the coffee, a copy of Í Annan Heim by Rökkurró. My current obsession, if it can be dated at all, started in the next two or three days of driving, listening to that on loop.
Back in the UK, while filling in other Rökkurró records, I stumbled across Sudden Elevation by Ólöf Arnalds, opening up a whole new set of possibilities; a half-remembered hankering for a band called Mammút led me back to 2008’s Karkari, and then to Oyama. Fortunately, 12 Tonar deliver to the UK, but what I really craved was another recommendation over coffee.
By the time the guy with coffee and a calm reassuring beard returned, I’d already picked up an unknown EP of covers by Ólöf Arnalds (to satisfy the completist in me). He pointed me straight to the new-ish Mammút record, Komdu Til Mín Svarta Systir. Then, without being asked, and based on just my few minutes of me gushing about Icelandic bands I liked, he picked up a record from the recommendations table, a record by a band I had never heard of, let alone heard, and simply said, ‘This is a great record.’
Now, I’ve worked in record shops. I know how the ‘recommendations’ rack works. The staff, generally speaking, do not have strong feelings either way about the greatness or otherwise of its contents; it is merely a promotional tool to shift new or stubborn product to unfocused punters like me. But something about the shop, about the guy, about that recommendation in a cafe in the West Fjords, made me believe. So when he led me, my records and my empty coffee cup to the counter, I followed willingly. He was already removing the outer sleeve from the nameless record I had yet to say I wanted; he rang it and the other two through the till and I paid, full of the most glorious glow of retail happiness.
The next morning, back in London, while I tipped dirty waking gear into the washing machine and tried to adjust to an additional 20 degrees of heat, I put on the record. I eventually worked out that it was 0, the second record by Low Roar. I played it again, and I am still playing it while I type this. It is a great record. And he’s not even Icelandic.
12 Tonar deliver: buy records from them. And if you’re ever in Reykjavik (seriously, why aren’t you?) then stop by for a coffee and some seriously good recommendations.
Writing a novel is easy. You just need a bit of time, an idea and considerable curiosity. Re-writing a novel, now that’s the hard part. On the eve of the publication of Being Someone, I thought it was time to reflect on how I got here, about what I wish I’d known then that I do now.
I finished the first draft of my debut novel about two and a half years ago. In naive satisfaction, I posted here about the sense of achievement that completion brought me. Of course, I recognised that it was just the end of the beginning; except, in reality, I recognised no such thing. In short, I had no idea how much more there was to do: sure, I knew that there was a re-drafting process to go through, but how onerous could that be, after the triumph of the first draft?
It took two years of re-working to get the manuscript into a state fit enough to be seen out on its own. It also took a huge amount of advice. Much of this was specific and I owe a great deal to the various readers and editors who have, ever so politely, pointed out quite where I’d gone wrong. It was seldom comfortable, but it was always helpful.
Beyond the comments on Lainey’s limitations and the psychosis of James (someone even psychoanalysed my narrator, and concluded on a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder) there are three general pieces of advice that I got that might be useful to you, should you be embarking on what, for me, is one of the most rewarding things you can do with your life.
1. Don’t get it right, get it written
Writer’s block is, unsurprisingly, a fear of failure. Committing words to paper, by which I might be judged, was at first terrifying. After all, they might not be the right words. Only when I realised that no-one had to see those words until I was happy with them, at some distant future point, did I discover ‘flow’: a frankly sublime state of fluency, within which words, sentences, and paragraphs appear unbidden, cascading in the most almighty torrent of bliss. I had set myself a net word target of 1000 per day of writing; pretty soon I had upped this to 1500, slightly ashamed at my initially paltry ambition. Even then, I surpassed my target with gratifying regularity; I came up short maybe three times.
2. It’s laying pipe
But it’s not simply getting the words down, beautiful or otherwise. The process of writing a novel (or at least re-writing one) is a window on the mechanical elements of others’ fiction. From the formulaic to the avant garde, the fiction that works is that which takes you, the reader, from point A to point B; each paragraph pushing the narrative and character development on. There is very little room for verbal passengers. So the first step in writing Being Someone involved not paragraphs, either crafted or scrambled, but an A3 sheet of paper. It was pencil-scratched over with arrows and boxes, linking plot incidents in forward-backwards loops; characters, unnamed, ill-formed, bumped into each other along the way, all just junctions in the pipe work. My greatest satisfaction on completing the first draft was that the end product was, by and large, faithful to this original sketch-map. I still have it, and will keep it long after the drafts and redrafts have been returned to wood pulp.
3. Kill your darlings
This is perhaps the most cited piece of writing advice of the last hundred years, but its glibness belies its brutality in action. A phrase, an image, a scene of which you are immensely proud does not advance the pipeline of narrative or character: no matter how fondly it is held, it must be put to the sword. You can kid yourself that you’ll store it away for future use, but unless your filing system allows for remarkable cross-referencing, it will in fact go the way of countless beloved words from my manuscript: forgotten and lost forever. And you can’t allow that to bother you. How to make it easier to smother your pearly genius? I refer you to the first piece of advice – don’t get too attached in the first place. They’re only words, after all…
My debut novel, Being Someone, was published by Urbane Publications in May 2014.
Note: the title of this piece is a nod to the REM song of the same name, not a typographical error…
The Olympics came to my city, and so did the world: it seemed impolite not to say hello. So, armed with only a camera and an Oyster card, we set off on a marathon of our own. The mission: to visit eight of the national ‘Hospitality Houses’ that have set up shop across London for the duration of the Games.
These Houses act as the national base for most of the competing countries: for their VIPs, their athletes, their media and officials. Many are not open to the public; but some outward-looking countries positively welcome visitors, recognising the value of a high-profile platform from which to promote their countries, their food, their music, and their eccentricities. Some are grand affairs, like the Dutch takeover of Ally Pally in north London; some are ticketed only, like the Czech House at the Business Design Centre in Islington (fronted by a double-decker bus doing press-ups on Upper Street); others still are completely free, including food and (non-alcoholic) drink, such as Bayt Qatar at the IET on Savoy Place, where hospitality goes to another level (the food looked remarkably good); and of course, there is the marvellous Borough of Hackney’s own Hackney House, down on Shoreditch High Street. But these were not among our targets for today.
Things started out badly. By the time we’d reached Club France, housed in Old Billingsgate Fishmarket, the queue was stretched along the street. Neither of us could face the wait, failing at our first attempt, so we continued eastwards towards the Tower, thronged with tourists and Olympic visitors wearing or carrying their national signifiers. Always cosmopolitan, today London felt like the meeting place of the entire world. Up on Tower Hill, at Trinity House, was Austria House Tirol, the front terrace of which was open to the public.There was no queue, which immediately increased my admiration for all things Austrian, and with the sun shining, we ate lunch as if at a ski lodge; indeed, skis and snowboard’s littered the scene, and a chair lift seat leaned against Trinity House. Inside a red ‘phone box, there was a ‘yodel phone’; bar staff in lederhosen busied themselves and, had it not been for the thumping Tyrolean Techno, we might have been tempted to linger. But we had a race to run.
Next up were the Danes, who had taken over St Katharine’s Dock, bringing with them stylish furniture, free food (‘100% Danish meat’) and more Lego than you could shake a relay baton at. The Lego wind turbine was appropriately Danish, but it was the modest plastic rendition of the Olympic park that kept the kids (and me) engrossed.
We had already eaten, so we moved on, taking the DLR to Westferry to find the Deutsches Haus Fan Fest at the Museum of London Docklands. There was good beer and good wine (served in a proper glass no less) as well as pretzels and rye bread and wurst. What’s more, there were tv screens showing the ongoing German/Japanese table tennis battle: actual Germans had showed up in their hundreds to cheer on their women in the ping pong. It was a slick and substantial operation, no entry charge and no queue. Had it been something other on the screens, I would have – again – been tempted to linger over a couple more Weissbiers, but I remained disciplined.
We took the cable car from Germany to Jamaica. The Emirates Air Line, as I suppose we must call it, ferries thousands across from Royal Victoria Docks to North Greenwich and the Dome. The queues were lengthy, but moved quickly enough; the views from the gondola were fantastic, but it too moved quickly, too quickly by far. The Air Line is London’s new London Eye, less an addition to the transport system, more a spectacle for Londoners and tourists, a new perspective on the city (and the City). Despite the queues and the brevity of the crossing, it’s an exhilarating way to cross the river.
After the sophistication of the Germans and the Danes, and the thrill of the ride over the Thames, the descent into the suburban brutality of North Greenwich was unnerving. I hadn’t been here since the thoroughly disappointing production of Damon Albarn’s Monkey; and I hadn’t missed it. The place was thronged with thousands of visitors and hundreds of Games Makers. We had timed it badly, as an event had clearly just finished and the area was filled with people heading for the tube. Getting to Jamaica House, which is inside the Dome and therefore the security cordon, involved a convoluted route around past the tube station and back again. Once inside it became no less manic, and both of us became tetchy. For me, the Dome has become simply an over-packed and over-sized peripheral shopping centre and multiplex; inside it is quite charmless (despite its still stunning exterior). The mood did not improve when we discovered that Jamaica House was full; the prospect of hanging around for a couple of hours did not appeal. Besides we were on a schedule.
The tube whisked us easily to London Bridge, where we struck gold at the House of Switzerland at Glaziers Hall, arriving just in time to see their triathlon winning athlete, Nicola Spirig, being greeted by the crowd and collected Swiss media pack. The excitement of the crowd rubbed off a little and the tribulations of our failure at Jamaica House were forgotten in the swirl of red and white, cooked cheese and beer.
The RV1 (possibly my favourite bus in London) took us to Somerset House, where Casa Brasil has set up camp, taking over the courtyard as well as much of the exhibition space. As the hosts of the next Games in 2016, they are taking this seriously, with live music every night, for the duration. As it was, the performance of Sargento Pimenta (a samba act doing Beatles covers) made everything pleasantly surreal.
By this point we were well into the home straight: only one House was left on our itinerary. Belgian House was scheduled to be open until 2am, and of course the beer would be good. We barrelled along Aldwych and Fleet Street as far as the little alley down to Inner Temple and a little piece of centuries past. We were almost there… but it was full. We stood in the aimless queue for half an hour, waiting to see if they’d release more tickets (it’s £5 in), before we conceded defeat and headed for home, exhausted.
That we finished on failure was a disappointment, but overall I feel proud of our achievement. We failed to get into three of the eight Houses we visited, but when we did succeed, the hospitality of the nations concerned was warm. The quirkiness of the Danes and the Austrians was commendable; the enthusiasm of the Swiss (not a phrase I ever expected to write) was infectious; the grooviness of Rio was uplifting; and the sheer quality of the Germans was embracing. By the time we got home, to the news of Team GB’s success, we both felt far more Olympic than I ever thought we would.
It is the end of the long long weekend and we are determined, despite the lethargy, to squeeze in one last adventure before returning to our dull desks and the endless quotidian. E awaits us in the lee of the Tea Building, sheltering from the British summer. It is raining still as it has for days, but as we turn onto Bethnal Green Road, the wind and water rakes the pavement and us, drenching our shoes and jeans below the knees. The rain provokes skittishness instead of the usual damp depression, but yet we will the doorway of Rich Mix westward.
Eventually. Eventually inside and dry, to drip and steam with the rest. The main space of the Rich Mixarts centre has been transformed and is filled with table tennis tables. This is Pongathon. I don’t know why it isn’t pingathon, but either would work, for this is ping pong in overdrive. P and B are already at the table they have booked for the next couple of hours. This is to be the site of our contest.
Conversation is difficult on account of the DJ. But at least he plays songs I want to hear: Joy Division to Human League, via The Long Blondes. Around us, assorted hipsters bat orange and white balls across the little nets on the surrounding tables. Many of these go astray, over-hit and misdirected, and the air is full of wayward plastic bubbles. They skitter across the floor or ricochet from hard surfaces and heads. A woman in a gym skirt and sweat band sweeps through the room with a fishing net, collecting the surplus projectiles. On the stage above us, the players run around what is surely the prestige table, striking the ball on the hoof.
We remain at our stations, playing serious games for serious points. We argue about the rules. We are focused. And yet often we are less accurate than the players of the circuit games above us. B and M and P (and E and J; everyone in fact except K and I) display a degree of competence, but rallies do not last long despite our exertions.
And it is hot: before my socks have dried, my head is glistening with sweat. Competition is fierce; laughter is frequent. The last game goes to 23-21; the penultimate rally seems to go on forever; then, bang on 9pm, as our table booking ends, I find myself once more on the losing side. But only just.
The room is suddenly emptying. We gather our damp coats to head off into the dying evening light, to Dalston for tapas and wine at the really rather niceViva. As we leave, J says ‘Good bit of wiff waff, that!’ and I dredge my memory to see if I have ever heard table tennis described in that way before. I do not want to concur with something inappropriate. Deciding it is probably a northern thing, I nod.
Language is for conveying meaning, of course.
But it is not that straight-forward. As Elina Löwensohn says in Hal Hartley’s short, Theory of Achievement, “Meaning is differential”. How much more so when we start to translate text into other languages?
That was the central theme of an interesting discussion on Storytelling and Translation, part of the LSE Literary Festival 2012. An engaging panel of Marina Lewycka, Jeremy Sams, and George Szirtes talked around the issue, especially as it relates to the more tricksy business of poetry and opera, where words are always much more than meaning. Sams talked about the relative importance in opera of retaining vowel sounds as opposed to maintaining meaning: most singers apparently prefer the high notes to land on ‘-aah’ sounds, and could care less about the semiotics. The implication seemed to be that prose, and by extension novels, were (relatively) easy.
Then Szirtes (for me, one of the most interesting writers around when it comes to the subject of language, of writing itself) crystallised the topic with some reflections on bread. Bread is a simple word, signifying an almost universal object (not even a universal concept, but a solid lump of something). Yet even here, language is slippery, not to be trusted – it is, as Szirtes put it, always evanescent. The translation of ‘bread’ into the ‘kenyér’ of his native Hungarian is simple enough, but should you ask for ‘kenyér’ in a bakers in Budapest, you will receive something that looks and tastes different to what you would find in Bridport.
Which then is the real bread? ‘Bread’, ‘pain’, ‘brot’, ‘chleb’, or indeed ‘kenyér’? The meaning even of bread is subjective (shaped by the bread of your childhood, just as the first window you see is the template for every window thereafter). And that is before we even start to consider the wider cultural and linguistic resonances that the word holds. Of course, you do not need to travel across national borders for words to become unreliable: you only have to move across generations, classes, and communities, sometimes just across town, before the ground beneath you becomes less certain.
Of course, words are no that slippery. If they were, none of us would understand anyone else (as in the case of the Metropole in which a professor of linguistics finds himself stranded, the local language resolutley impenetrable). But while words are not meaningless, there is a sense in which they mean so much more than their meaning. The richness of their ambiguity is a cause for celebration rather than regret: bread is more than a cooked paste of ground-up grass seeds in any language.
Jeremy Sams, sometime translator of operas and the key figure behind the enticing new Baroque opera mash-up, The Enchanted Island, made the point with the best joke of the day. A few years before, he had been sitting in a Berlin café, working on a translation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. A local asked what he was busy with; after Jeremy had explained his task, the German expressed his admiration and added: “When you’ve finished, can you translate it into German?”
The pride I felt just a few weeks ago is still there: I can pick up the sheaf of pages, the product of this year’s labours, and feel the weight of satisfaction. But it is an anxious pride now. The novel is now out of my hands, at least for the time being, as I try to find an agent to represent me, to represent my book. I am unsure whether I am more afraid of being ignored or of being read harshly. I only know that I am nervy.
Comments came back during October from the good, good people I asked to read for me (well, from all but one of them, but he knows who he is…) They were helpful, immensely so. The second draft is in much better shape thanks to their generous expertise and insight: characters are sharper, themes more explicit, language tics moderated and repetitions expunged. It’s not there, still, and I doubt it ever will be, at least to my satisfaction. But, as William Goldman said of writing, “nobody knows anything”: it’s all wrestling in the dark.
So the first three chapters have been sent out, along with a 500 word synopsis that was harder to write than the whole thing. And I wait, hoping that my work will somehow make it out of the slush pile and into a briefcase, to be scanned on a tube train, or a sofa, or wherever it is that agents choose to catch up on the masses of reading that they have to process. Maybe, out there, is one who will be interested enough to want to read the rest.
But I can’t afford to hold my breath. It could be weeks before I hear, if ever, and I am slowly relearning the art of managing hope. With cavalier abandon, I’ve started to sketch out a second novel, building characters and narrative as comprehensively as I can under the shadow of my anxiety. I have no idea if this one will ever be completed – I have to find myself a job, my year off drawing to its close – but I don’t see that as a reason not to start. I had no idea before I started whether the first one would be finished. But it is. It may get no further, but it exists. That flash of pride is there again, pouring a little light the drab November darkness.
Everybody hates lobbyists. That is the only conclusion I can draw from the fallout from the Fox-Werrity debacle. A consensus seems to be solidifying that the lesson of the scandal is that lobbyists need to be tamed. We seemed to have passed pretty quickly through the stage where we blame ministers, and the Prime Ministers that defend them, for their appalling lack of judgement, if not their complete contempt for the standards of behaviour they expect of the rest of us. No, what we need is to register feral and rapacious lobbyists, to protect ministers from their own hubris.
Because everyone hates lobbyists. I knew that, of course: lobbyists are short-hand for the henchmen of modern corporate villains. They are the handmaidens of nefarious of big pharma, big oil, big tobacco. The movie Thank You for Smoking nailed the profession. Hell, even Family Guy has taken a shot. Maybe it’s because I’m contrary, but when I was one, I delighted in answering the question, ‘What do you do?’, with a shameless, ‘I’m a lobbyist’ just to watch the flinch of discomfort on the questioner’s face.
Because everyone hates lobbyists, what we need to do is establish a register of them – agency and in-house – so that we can track their movements and meetings, shedding light on the murky world of influence. Except it won’t work, at least not as intended. The agency-side is dealt with easily, but we already know who they are: the members of the Association of Professional Political Consultants are already publicly available. The freelancers would be harder to track down, since it would be tricky to draw up the terms for any ‘licence to practice’, but I suppose it could be done. But the in-house teams? Impossible.
I worked in ‘government relations’ in an in-house capacity. But that term, or the words ‘public affairs’, were nowhere near my job description, let alone job title, for half of my time there. More importantly, the most effective lobbyists in my organisation – in the sense of actually influencing public policy – were the senior managers and board members who would talk to ministers and senior officials in the course of their primary duties or in the social situations they habituated. Is it really meaningful to register such a wide pool of people? Every chief executive and chair of every charity with a point to make about the protection of birds or the safety of children? Because that’s what lobbying is about too; not just the big corporations buying access, but ‘nice’ causes making their voice heard.
Even lobbyists hate lobbyists, even if they see them as essential to an effective democracy. In a piece yesterday Henneke Sharif made the point that government is complex and difficult to navigate (aka ‘bonkers’), and consequently it is the causes without privileged access that need lobbying most. The underlying social, economic and occupational structure mean that big oil will always be better placed to get the minster’s ear than the child poverty campaigners.
If anything, professionalised lobbying levels the playing field. In much the same way, professional electricians allow social science graduates to benefit from artificial light (to me, electricity is more complex, difficult to navigate, and bonkers than government). That’s why I think Henneke makes a much more interesting proposition for rehabilitating lobbying than a register when she argues that:
“the lobbying industry should offer a free advisory service to small groups who, for whatever reason, need to enter the political arena.
“Every practitioner could offer a free consultation covering such advice as: the background to a policy, how to frame an argument, the relevant decision-makers, what activity to take along. Perhaps professional recognition would depend on this sort of thing being made available.”
Surely it is better to make the public policy process more open and accessible to more people, and to make more widely available the tools to navigate the complexities of the system? A record of everyone employed to influence public policy would be vast and incomplete; a diary of meetings, with or without officials present, would be cumbersome and incomplete; ‘good causes’ would find it even harder to make their case; and you know what? Big oil would still get the ear of the minister, at family weddings, if not in Whitehall.
It was a faintly forbidding place, before. Not even a place, really, just a traffic island, a bus interchange, but one that managed to blend threat and blandness into the character of an area best avoided. It seemed the only reason to visit was to change buses, as quickly as possible, on your way to Hackney. I looked at a flat once, on Beresford Road, and had a saunter around the neighbourhood, to get a more nuanced feel for the place. But despite my best efforts (I actually quite liked the flat) I only came up with menace. Not terror, certainly not edginess; just insipid, damp menace.
Now I live around here. It’s changed a lot, of course. The general gentrification of London has helped, but there have also been great improvements to the public space, in part due to the work of the Newington Green Action Group. Interventions like the early Noughties’ the Treasures public art project have also rehabilitated the idea of the place.
I visit regularly, more often than I venture onto the slightly closer Stoke Newington Church Street. Primarily, my visits centre on the offerings of the finest green grocer in the world, which inexplicably hasn’t yet officially named itself Newington Greens. But there’s also the marvellous bread at Belle Époque and the Turkish necessities – halloumi, anari, yoghurt – from the shops at the start of Green Lanes. The Peanut Vendor doesn’t sell peanuts, strangely, but rather ‘pre-loved’ objets. Then there is the perennial Alma, which does food very well, and the recently refurbished (Edinburgh) Cellars, which always has interesting beer on. Even on the day after the last day of our false-bottomed summer, when a crisp carpet of honey-coloured leaves covers the Green, toddlers are still playing on the swings.
So far, so lovely. But then you notice the ghosts, those remnants of place that make it all the more remarkable that, a decade or two ago, the area was nowhere. It is a place with history, as so many places are. Writers, radicals and non-conformists have based themselves here for centuries, and the Green is home to the oldest terrace of houses in England. There is even an internet whisper that the Muppets were conceived and made in the area.
But the area’s first brush with celebrity dates back to the sixteenth century, when Henry VIII had a hunting lodge here, long before the railway and the suburbs came. The only remnants of the Tudor past are in the street names: King Henry’s Walk, Boleyn Road (formally Ann Boleyn’s Walk), Wolsey Road and Queen Elizabeth’s Walk. It was still pretty rural around here in the seventeenth century, when Samuel Pepys came to stay to benefit from the fresh air and open spaces. There are other literary connections. Daniel Defoe lived and studied in the area, and Edgar Allen Poe stayed here for a time, describing Newington Green as a “misty looking village of England with gigantic and gnarled trees and deeply shadowed avenues.”
There is a history of radicalism too, especially that rooted in religious non-conformism. The oldest surviving non-conformist meeting house in London sits discreetly on the north side of the Green. One of its more prominent ministers was Dr Richard Price. He set up home at number 54, which became a meeting place for some of the greatest minds of the day: Adam Smith, Tom Paine, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson all stopped by.
But the most exciting discovery for me was that Newington Green was the site of Mary Wollstonecraft’s school. I’ve long been in awe of Mary’s fury and energy, of her intellectual and personal chutzpah in running Enlightenment rationalism to conclusions that none of her contemporary (male) radicals seemed to find. A tattered copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman still sits on my bookshelf. I’d known that she had associations with the area, had lived here for a while. But I didn’t know that this was where she had established her day school for girls in 1784.
Two years later, she published Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, which for my money is the foundation text of British feminism: Mary later expanded on its themes in A Vindication. And the site of its inception is just down the road. There is a plaque on the current Newington Green Primary School, but you can only really read it from the top deck of one of the buses that stop alongside. This seems a shame to me: fortunately, there is a campaign underway to build a more fitting memorial to Mary, and the Newington Green Action Group is hoping for funding from NatWest’s CommunityForce initiative. You can vote for Mary on the Green, until 23 October. It’s the least she deserves.
Cayenne pepper was supposed to work. Not only did the internet say so; the always-helpful woman in the garden centre also seemed certain that chilli would keep the blighters off my plants. They can’t stand it apparently: it irritates their little paws and their noses as they go digging and snuffling through my already sprouting tulips, my freshly planted irises, my ailing samphire, leaving holes and shredded roots and up-turned bulbs in their wake.
I’m fairly certain that I used plenty. I had left a heavy dusting of brick-red powder over every patch of exposed soil. But by this morning, the garden was once again cratered with squirrel-sized holes, only this time each was surrounded by the remaining pepper covering the undisturbed soil. They’d gone straight through this supposed irritant and had made merry as usual with my tormented plants. They had been completely undeterred. And now, I am undone. I had been keeping the chilli powder solution up my sleeve, for when all else had failed. It has, and now so has my last resort.
I’m not sure I’m surprised, to be honest. Stoke Newington squirrels are bolshie little things. When I see them scurrying down the fence, heading for some flower pot or other, I tend to leap out of the back door to confront it. Of course, now I take a broom: north London squirrels are fearless, and brazen, and frankly scary. Scary in a way that I do not appear to be to them.
Too many times the rodent has simply sat there staring me down. They seem unimpressed by my size advantage, by my flapping arms and half-strangled shouts (I wouldn’t want the neighbours to think I am mad). If I get within a metre of one, it will scamper up to the top of the fence, which puts it at eye-level, and continues watching me disdainfully. Only the twitching swishes of its tail suggest it might be encouraged to move further.
There is something distinctly unnerving about a defiant squirrel, what with all the teeth and claws and what not. I have no desire to actually grab one with my bare hands. Maybe they know that, can sense my fear, and so are happy to sit there, with justifiable security, even within my reach. There was a story going around a few years ago, which to me had the ring of truth about it, involving a spate of random squirrel attacks, particularly on women in skirts walking through London parks during the summer months. These attacks apparently resulted in severe bits and scratches to the victims’ bare legs. Some even required hospital treatment.
Across the country, across Europe and even the States, there were stories of aggressive squirrels making unprovoked attacks on passers-by. At about the same time, reports of squirrels attacking telephone lines, of stripping out wiring in houses and cars, made it seem to me that a major inter-species confrontation was on its way, with the rodents taking out our communications and transport systems ahead of an all-out assault.
This might seem melodramatic. OK, this is melodramatic. But the fact remains: I appear to be powerless to exclude squirrels from my garden or to stop them from wrecking my lovingly tended plants. With the failure of cayenne, I am now out of ideas. Someone suggested covering the entire garden in chicken wire. It seems extreme, costly, and I’m not even convinced that will stop them (I refer you to the press reports of squirrels making their way through electrical cabling). Obviously, I don’t have time to sit out there, broom in hand, 24 hours a day, and I don’t want a dog. So if anyone in internet-land has any suggestions for an effective, long lasting deterrent, I would love to hear from you.
So, it’s done. Not finished by a long chalk, but out of my hands for now. The first draft of my first novel has been titivated and combed, made broadly presentable, and sent out to four incredibly generous ‘readers’. They, I hope, will give me the first impartial assessment of the product of my last six months. It’s a nerve wracking thing. I wish I had managed it a month ago when I could have made a clever comparison to the feelings of a parent on little Johnny’s first day at infant school. But I didn’t, so nerve wracking will have to do.
The summer, the final push, was the difficult part. Until then, word count targets were easily hit, surpassed; characters made sense, the plot cohered; it felt good to be writing. By July, that breeziness was over and each writing day became ever more mired in self-doubt, frustration and failure. My least productive day, a net addition of 30 words after six hours of writing, felt as though the joyful charabanc of spring had not only run into the sand, but that the sand had completely clogged the engine, that every last moving part had now ground permanently into crusty rigidity. I no longer believed in any of the characters, but they still haunted me day and night, parading their unfinished forms, their irresolvable flaws. And the plot, the story I’d carried around with me for months before I ever started to write it, that too no longer made sense. Worse, I no longer cared.
I was stuck. Stuck seems a so much more accurate metaphor than blocked. The word conveys the feeling of gluey immobility. It wasn’t simply a matter of getting past an obstacle; absolutely everything was a weary struggle, and I was unwilling to fritter away a single written word on anything other than the novel. Stuck and faithless and clueless, and I really didn’t like it. They were difficult weeks, for me and for those around me. Specifically for K. I am seldom a ray of sunshine, but I was unusually irritable, withdrawn, and grouchy; had there been a dog, it might well have been kicked.
But I ground it out. Over the late August Bank Holiday weekend, I ‘finished’ it, ahead of my self-imposed deadline. Dogs were safe once more in my presence. There were some ‘continuity errors’ to resolve, some facts to check, but it was done, a first draft. I can’t remember feeling more proud of myself. Reading through, I quite liked it. Of course, there is still a great deal to do to make the writing really shine: this is only the end of the beginning. The first chapter, which I wrote in those bright and breezy freewheeling days of spring, is the least accomplished, and I will redraft it next week. The difficult chapters, hammered out in those oppressive August days, are actually my favourites, the most effective, the best written.
While the draft is being read, I have some time to think about what to do with it, what to do next. I’ve already started to sketch out another story: I woke up early yesterday and started to scribble out some pen portraits of some new characters, plotting their interactions and the events from which their imagined lives hang. But that’s for next week. I can hear the call of the park, dressed as it is in unseasonal sunshine, and don’t want to miss the last of summer.
The sound of heavy breathing from the gent’s toilet fills the dark corridor, simultaneously comical and threatening. The smell of mildew hangs in the air and the light that has stolen into the building is reflected in the inch of water covering the floor of the facing room. At one end of the corridor, grass grows from decaying floor tiles under sudden sunlight; at the other, a woman in white is dancing silently behind glass on the half-landing on the way back up to the comparative safety of the ground floor. It’s Saturday afternoon on High Street Ken.
This is Fruit for the Apocalypse’s Common Sounds, Touching the Void, a series of installations and dance pieces that for one weekend animated the disused galleries, meeting rooms and corridors of the Commonwealth Institute, ‘the most important public building in Britain of the late 1950s.’ Sitting at the bottom of Holland Park, fronting onto the High Street, the building hides behind a copse of unused flag poles and its own overgrown gardens. Although only abandoned sixteen years ago, it is already looking very dishevelled. It is soon to be reborn as the new home of the Design Museum – which makes both the Design Museum and Londoners very lucky – but for now it is deliciously derelict and the perfect setting for a series of hit and miss artistic interventions.
Perhaps very little of the art (performance and otherwise) would stand up to scrutiny in any another setting. Certainly, the opening piece, Junk Mail, was completely underwhelming, while a piece of music, hung on a guitar, a violin, a female voice and a bureaucrat with a megaphone, was pretty mesmeric to me. Some, but by no means not all, of the choreography was haphazard, although walking past a subterranean corridor and glimpsing a small group of white clad dancers moving silently in the gloom is striking no matter how accomplished or otherwise the performance. And the staged dance piece in the basement cinema was striking, even as the inky darkness of the invisible space was unnerving.
But, whatever weaknesses there were in the work on show, they could all be forgiven, since the star of the piece was undoubtedly the building itself. The central space, all tiered ellipses and floating staircases and diffused light cascading from the hyperbolic paraboloid of the roof, will make a glorious centre-piece to the new museum. It’s the kind of internal space at which Modern buildings excel (sorry, Gothic cathedrals and Victorian railway stations, but it’s not you). Even in its unkempt state, it is a magnificent building, made all the more enjoyable by the work of Fruit for the Apocalypse. If you’re interested, some photos of the event and the building interior are here.
It is always a joy when you get to see the riches of the city’s fabric – especially the hidden and forgotten – from a new perspective, but all the more so when London is not just the stage for, but a character in, the drama. The marvellous Dennis Sever’s house in Spitalfields is a captivating example, where the building itself (assisted by some recorded footsteps and muffled voices) is the only actor in a piece of immersive theatre. As you walk through the preserved/abandoned Georgian house, someone has just left the room, leaving their tea cup or needle work and the sound of their footsteps on the stair. You make the narrative by nosing around, reading the mail and studying the portraits. Without the advantage of a fine Georgian house, Punch Drunk managed to recreate a Victorian soup kitchen in a vacant shop unit on a 1960s parade in Hoxton for their latest production, The Uncommercial Traveller. A piece of immersive theatre where, in ones or twos, the punters talk to one of the characters over unpleasant vegetable soup, eliciting their stories through questions and polite conversation (since my exchange largely made me an accessory to conspiracy to murder, the conversation was painfully polite).
These things exist in other cities, I am sure. But the richness of London’s layers and scale makes the drama that emerges from its stones and concrete especially compelling, whether it is the contrived artifice of theatre groups or the accidental business of everyday life.
Like pretty much everyone I know, I watched the Culture, Media and Sport Committee ask questions of two Murdochs and a Brooks. Throughout I was caught somewhere between mirth, outrage and squirming discomfort. It was a bizarre event (even without the unhelpful childishness of Jonnie Marbles) and one that, in Murdoch Senior’s case at least, would have been unthinkable just a couple of weeks ago.
That #hackgate (as we surely must now call it) has travelled so far, so fast is astounding, all the more so since it’s only just beginning. But it has already proved mesmerising. Forget The Apprentice, this is the ‘shared media experience’ that Sky’s multi-channel universe was going to consign to history.
On the substance, it’s hard to say anything about the car crash that is News International’s UK operations. In part, this is just because it’s moving so fast that any observation I could make would be out of date before the sentence was completed. I am in awe of the journalists, Tweeters and bloggers who have produced oceans of text over the past couple of weeks, exploring every twist and turn, and I am aware that anything I could add would add very little.
Suffice to say, the (alleged) facts, from illegal hacking to complicit coppers and pally politicians, are worthy of the level of opprobrium and public outrage they have prompted. And, yes, I admit to a degree of delight – glee, even – at both Murdoch’s discomfort and Cameron’s aimless ineptitude. Was the News of the World uniquely evil? Is Murdoch the proprietor of the worse stable on Fleet Street? Are Labour politicos, past and present, unblemished? A resounding no to all of them (although Labour’s Tom Watson deserves a medal, or a pint, which I’m sure he would prefer).
But there is one uncomfortable thought that has nagged me since the Milly Dowler allegations ignited this inferno of moral outrage and I’ve been trying to find a way to express it without appearing to be callous and contrary. My awkward thought returned with Murdoch Senior’s first, rehearsed contribution to Tuesday’s circus, faithfully repeated the next morning on the front pages of his newspapers (and unaccountably the FT also). When Rupert said that it was the most humble day of his life (itself a curious turn of phrase), he was talking about the Dowler allegations.
The whole thrust of his contrition was that the ‘bond of trust’ with his readers had been broken by this one case, just one of thousands of accusations of law-breaking and intrusion. The implication of the Murdochs’ response to the scandal, of the media coverage of it, indeed of the circumstances under which a long running sore finally ruptured, is that a precondition of our moral outrage is the presence at the scene of a dead child.
Of course, I am moved by the death of a child. I think intruding into the phone messages of a missing girl (even if it were legal, and didn’t jeopardise a criminal investigation) is morally unjustifiable. Same goes for the widows of young men sent to fight overseas, or the victims of a terrorist attack closer to home. But also, as far as I’m concerned, for Hugh Grant, Sienna Miller, John Prescott and Steve Coogan, whatever I think of them as individuals or as categories. It’s the ‘crime’ that offends me, not the character of the victim. The kind of speculative ‘fishing trips’, such as those allegedly conducted against Gordon Brown, are if anything more disturbing than the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone, where the intention was to find specific information, rather than hopefully to dig up dirt (that they found nothing on Brown says quite a lot about the man).
If, as Murdoch implied in his evidence on Tuesday, intrusion into the privacy of a private individual is unacceptable, but public figures are fair game, then we will only have saints entering public life. And there aren’t any of them. I do not accept that the necessary cost of being a politician, or an actor, or a footballer, is that the man from News International has a free hand to root through your rubbish bins on spurious ‘public interest’ grounds. There may come a time when I feel that public life is enhanced by revelations about a film star’s infidelities or a politician’s sick child, but it hasn’t happened yet.
But more than that, I find it disturbing that the vast majority of the press and the public seem to agree with Murdoch: aside from the Guardian and a couple of Labour MPs, no one took much notice of what was clear and systematic criminality on the part of one of our major newspapers. Only once the dead child appeared on the scene was our collective moral outrage provoked, and Tom Watson’s ‘dead horse’ became a scandal.
I have no idea if this is a new phenomenon or not. I rather suspect that even before the death of Princess Diana, our public morality was sentimentalised. But in an era of instant plebiscite by Twitter, judging a ‘crime’ on the basis of what we think of the ‘victim’ is both dangerous to justice and risks driving good men and women out of public life.
In an interesting piece in yesterday’s paper, Rick Gekoski suggests that, while reading might only be harmless, writing actively erodes the soul. So, writing about the essential isolation of writing, he highlights three key characteristics he acquires while he is working: “irritability, abstraction, and a tendency to fall asleep on a sofa at any time”. He continues:
“There is nothing unambiguously agreeable about this to my loved ones, nor to me either. It is embarrassing, being thus conquered by an inward voice desperate to formulate, reconsider, construct, deconstruct, seek out the right phrase, amend it, think again. And I am only a writer of bits of non-fiction. You’d think it would be easy. Or easier, certainly, than being a novelist. I can hardly imagine what it must be like to be inhabited by many competing voices, ceaselessly reconsidering the flow of a narrative, charting the development of character, juxtaposing one thing with another. It’s astonishing that novelists have any social life at all.”
Now, a declaration of interest. I’m currently trying to be a novelist. Or at least I am trying to write a novel, if that is a distinction worth drawing. However, I believe I still have a social life (and have yet to fall asleep on the sofa) so maybe I’m not doing it right. But I have been increasingly fixated by my own question about the effect of writing on the soul: is it possible to maintain normal social relations while writing a novel?
Some background. When I started this process, I found it surprisingly easy to do the things that I most expected to be difficult. Sitting down to actually, you know, write. Actually turning in, or exceeding, my daily word count target (I made sure I did that before writing this). Constructing and sticking to a coherent narrative arc, but being flexible enough to accommodate fluctuation and modulation. Not becoming anxious to the point of paralysis about the internal coherence of my characters or the authenticity of the emerging sub-plots. Yet.
None of this means it’s any good as a bit of writing, just that the process has been relatively straight forward, and certainly better than I could possibly have imagined. I’ve written a lot before in a work context and, whether it’s been a 500 word article or a 70,000 word report, it’s always been hellish. A pulling-your-own-teeth-out kind of hellishness. In comparison, this novel-writing lark has been a breeze (thus far, I should add, touching wood and throwing salt over my shoulder as I do so).
But in the last couple of weeks, I’ve started to think about what writing something as sprawling and omnipresent as a novel is doing to me. You see, it never quite leaves you. It hangs around outside, like a ne’er-do-well behind your house, unnoticed; then, like a brick through the window, some phrase, or sentence, or new idea that would make sense of an entire chapter, comes crashing in, and you have to act. Immediately. I woke one morning in Vietnam at 4am to make sure I captured some nocturnal insight about a minor character, now discarded.
So much, so manageable. But then there’s the other thing. You can only draw on what you observe: your raw material, especially for the fine grain, the patina, is everyone you’ve ever met. When you’re writing a novel about human relationships (aren’t they all?) and you’re perpetually hungry for ever more granularity, every conversation – those you participate in, those you overhear – is legitimate source material. Every hair cut, every nose, every pair of shoes or nervous laugh is fair game.A writer observes, for sure; but more than that, a writer listens. If you can’t hear it in your head as you write it, the words and the cadence, then nor will the reader when they read it.
This I knew. Then I started to notice that I was actively mining conversations, exchanges, interactions for material. Not just observing, noting, what was going on, but mentally writing it into my novel as the exchange was happening. And if the conversation didn’t fully meet the needs of the character or plot, I found myself steering it in ways that would. I stopped it of course, for my own sake as much as my friends: it felt like stealing, but moreover I was disturbed by the idea of fictionalising my life, of turning my relationships into the components of characterisation.
So while I’m not worried about irritability or sudden snoozes, I do worry that writing this thing, if not risking my mortal soul, changes the way in which I relate to friends, colleagues and the bloke in the corner shop. I’d very much like to believe that it doesn’t, that it won’t. But I really do want to get that shop assistant character right.
Summer in the city is a great time to amble around the streets of the capital. You can take your time, looking up and around rather than hurrying, head bowed against the dark and the rain. The pace slows, and errands become less a chore, more a pleasure.
Except for the tourists. I know that London’s streets, at any time of year, are an obstacle course of language students, snap-happy east Asians and shopaholic Europeans, but the summer transforms the steady-state congestion into gridlock. I retain a residual politeness, despite a decade and a half in the city, and my instinctive reaction to someone pointing a camera across a pavement, to where their friend is leaning out of a red phone box or grinning in front of Big Ben, is to try to not get in the shot. There are parts of London where this can double the distance you have to walk.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I know that tourists are an important part of London’s economy, bringing in valuable money to keep the shops and cafes and theatres in business. I also appreciate that visitor overload is the price you pay for living in the greatest city on the face of the earth: you can’t keep all this to yourself.
Longer term migrants also are inevitable in, and vital to, a world class city like this. Cities were ever thus. Migrants bring enormous economic benefits, of course; but, moreover, London is the interesting and vibrant place that it is because of in-migration, layer upon layer of it. It’s not just the food and the festivals, like last month’s Anatolian Cultural Fete in N16’s Clissold Park, all whirling dervishes and börek. The creativity and innovation that diversity brings is the life-blood of London’s dynamism: the immense contribution of migrants to the intellectual life of Britain is the subject of a seminar next week.
None of this is to deny the downside to migration, the costs of which tend to fall on those least able to bare them, simply to restate what is blindingly obvious to me: not only is London a better place because of migrants, there simply wouldn’t be a recognisable London without them.
It would be impossible for me to think otherwise. I am, after all, an economic migrant myself, abandoning my tatty Midlands town for the city’s economic, social and cultural opportunities. More than that, I’m a migrant who won’t assimilate: during my time here, I have been part of the gentrification of two north London working class neighbourhoods, a drain on community resources such as affordable housing and fundamentally altering the cultural make-up of each through my inexplicable preference for organic vegetables. Incomers like me have made both Crouch End and Stoke Newington unrecognisable to their original inhabitants.
So Government plans to artificially limit in-migration, rather than addressing the disbenefits directly, can only impoverish the city: hence the unease of the CBI, the universities, and even the Conservative Mayor. London became and remains great because of the steady flow of industriousness, creativity and energy brought by incomers. As for the tourists, I’d rather they just wired the money over directly.
Standing in a field in Kent at the weekend, I realised that my imagined New York – we all have one – was almost entirely described during my adolescence by Lou Reed. Before the placeless audacity of Iggy and the English pomp of Morrissey, Mr Reed had scowled his way onto the stage at Hop Farm to grate every last shred of bitterness and regret from Who Loves the Sun. From then on, I got lost in his songs and stories (until his ‘challenging’ reworking of Sunday Morning – he really can’t sing anymore).
And it struck me: it’s not just the words, the tales of sordid lives in New York City, but the sound and the look that evoked everything that made up my Gotham. Long before I visited the place, I had a sense of what it would be. Of course, countless movies and TV series meant I knew it would look like. But the smell, sound and feel of the place, the essence of New York, was distilled for me in the dreamy, crunchy, fuzzy, angry, dirty, melancholia of VU and Lou Reed records (Blondie records also helped).
Of course it wasn’t real. New York isn’t like the sound of Lou Reed’s Telecaster, nor the gravel in his voice; it isn’t his sunglasses or his sneer. It’s more complex than that, and almost certainly a much nicer place to live and work as a result. But it’s not the place I imagined when I was growing up and fell in love with the metropolis, with the idea of the metropolis.
A day or so later, I am sitting having a coffee on Goodge St. I know the area as Fitzrovia, although some would redefine it as Noho, in a marvellous example of ahistoricism, of chronological and geographical laxity, of NYLon elasticity. And it strikes me that if I was busy constructing my own private Gotham, there must have been teenagers in the States doing the same for my adopted city.
I wonder which cultural reference point would describe London in those terms. At first, I can’t think of anything, safe in my assumption that London is just too complex for that. Then, with horror, I realise that the imagined London of thousands of US teenagers could well be forged in the image of the movie, Notting Hill. Even remembering the Kinks and the Clash, love them as I do, doesn’t help, and I suddenly feel that, as cool an envoy as Lou Reed is, I have done a disservice to the second greatest city on earth all these years.
I caught the wrong bus this morning. Head in the clouds, thinking about who knows what, I didn’t notice until we sailed past Newington Green in the wrong direction. Since I wasn’t in a hurry and it was still a nice day, I decided to stick with my error and take a walk along the Thames from Waterloo – where I was headed – to London Bridge – where I wanted to be.
There was a quiet bemusement to the others down on the South Bank, dressed again in their summer clothes, more in hope than expectation following a very British heatwave – a couple of days of sunshine sliding into sticky closeness before the inevitable rain. A couple sat cross-legged on the giant green sofa outside the National Theatre. Others leant on the railings looking at the river, while the more purposeful walked distractedly to wherever it was they were heading. The tide was out, and one or two people were doing their thing on the Thames’ tiny beaches. No bustle and very little noise in the still air. I sauntered, enjoying once again the realisation that London’s riverside was no longer threatening, no longer reeked of urine.
Then the construction work at Tate Modern diverted me inland. Turning onto Southwark Street I was struck by the immensity of London, its formal chaos, its familiar strangeness. I’ve lived here for a while now, but no matter how well I come to know it, its details and its whole, the city still has the capacity to startle me on turning a corner. Like an elephant.
Bear with me – I realise I am preoccupied with elephants at the moment – but the old adage about blind men describing an elephant struck me as particularly apt in relation to London today. The randomness of the buildings and streets doesn’t make sense within the context of the city’s silhouette. And then there are the surprises, like a startling tongue that pushes from the front to back of a raggedly triangular mouth, or a courtyard of mid-eighteenth century almshouses nestling under the hulk of a big blue building from the mid-Noughties.
But there is something else. Like an elephant, London is a vast and threatening thing, capable of crushing a mere human without a thought, carelessly. When either turns their mind to it, both can wreak havoc. It is only by maintaining a faith in their essentially benign nature that living in their shadow remains possible. Keep out from under their feet and their intelligence and erratic beauty are wonders to behold, like the squat grey bulk of Guys Hospital suddenly fragile beneath the emergent elegance of the Shard. Like an elephant, the sum of the parts shouldn’t work but they most emphatically do.
I am fascinated by narrative and by the places from which stories arise. I love London, especially the northern part of it, and think it is the greatest city on the face of the planet. I like to visit as many other places in the world as I can to reassure myself that it is, in fact, that great.
My day job is in policy, working mainly on the challenges facing cities and other places; in my spare time, I’m writing my fourth novel – my first, Being Someone, was published in May 2014, and my second, The Cursing Stone, was published in November 2016. My third, Time's Tide, was published in March 2019.