The Time & The Tools

There’s a great line from Stephen King — one of many — that says something like,

If you haven’t got the time to read, then you haven’t got the time — or the tools — to write.

For pretty much all of last year, I didn’t read. This was for a combination of reasons. Firstly, I was playing some truly imaginative and transporting video games on my iPad, like Year Walk, Limbo, Botanicula, Thomas Was Alone, The Room 1 & 2 & 3, Around The World In 80 Days. I convinced myself that they were an adequate substitute for books, and they also filled my need to solve puzzles and problems. Besides, I had so little time, and it was easy to get a quick fix of something in a game, where books needed concentration and space. In truth, of course, they were making me lazy. They needed more effort, but less imagination.

Secondly, as I became increasingly bamboozled by my own book, I deliberately and increasingly shunned other books. This time, I told myself that I didn’t need any more ideas floating around my head when I was drowning in too many ideas of my own. I wanted blank space in my brain, not clutter.

Thirdly, I was so damned tired that I was only managing two or three pages a night before my eyes began to drag. A book a month, a book in two months. I was writing faster than I was reading. So what was the point? In short, reading had become a chore, and my pile of books to be read was going up much faster than it was coming down. I was tired and lost and my wits were dull.

Eventually, something changes, because something always must.

Earlier this year, I taught a creative writing night class. There were some cool writers on the course, and we had a lot of fun. Each week I gave homework of short stories or novel extracts — Neil Gaiman, Junot Diaz, Amy Hempel — and we’d begin the following session with close reading, trying to dig a little deeper into how the author made the story sing — and how we could test the same techniques in our own work.

Around the same time, my friend Steve started an online book club between a few old friends. Living in York, Kendal, Oxford, London and Nottingham, we don’t really get to see each other anymore, and he thought it would be a good way to stay in touch. (He was right.)

Between these two happenings, I started reading again, and more importantly, enjoying it. Somehow, I’d forgotten how much I loved to read. Before Dora exploded in our lives, I used to read two or three books a week. And I’m nowhere near that, but in recent months I’ve read The Final Solution by Michael Chabon, Taduno’s Song by Odafe Atogun, Thief Of Time by Terry Pratchett, Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Slade House and The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, The Book Of Strange New Things and Under The Skin by Michel Faber, The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley, After The Quake by Haruki Murakami, Sexing The Cherry by Jeanette Winterson, Stirring The Mud by Barbara Hurd, The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan, 1356 by Bernard Cornwell, The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman, The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, an extraordinarily good short story collection by my pal Luke Brown and a bunch of others that I can’t recall. I also reread His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman — nothing makes me feel quite so aware of my own failings as a writer than that extraordinary trilogy of Northern Lights, Subtle Knife and Amber Spyglass.

Now, I know that doesn’t come out at two or three a week, but it’s an awful lot more than none a week. And I’ve come to realise how right Stephen King is. You can’t take a drink without visiting the well. You can’t write stories without reading stories. I’d convinced myself that all those other worlds, other characters, other ideas would jumble and twist with my own, and make things worse — but it hasn’t been like that at all. I’ve come to discover that every time I read a book, it adjusts my compass for what I think writing is supposed to be — and that I can’t write without that compass. I’ve remembered what it is to drown in a story, to be so totally committed to another character that I forget myself, and to come out the other side it, changed.

Listen to the King — reading is the tools for writing. I don’t know how I’d forgotten it, but I’ve remembered now. My compass is beginning to right itself, and the needle ticks, ticks towards the track. The direction is still murky, but it’s surer underfoot, and I’ve Lyra Belacqua ahead of me, tutting.

What have you been reading, people? What have I missed? What are your tools?



Dora and I were listening to BBC 6Music on the radio yesterday morning. The news came on and said something about David Cameron.

‘He takes photos,’ said Dora, with confidence.

‘Umm,’ I said. ‘I’m not sure if he does.’

‘He does,’ she said. ‘David Camera. He takes photos.’

‘Ah. I see what’s happening here. No. David Cameron. That’s his name.’

‘Oh. Who is he?’

I bit back my first response, because I’m trying really hard not to indoctrinate my daughter.

‘He used to run the country,’ I said.

(It’s worth noting that Dora doesn’t really understand what countries are. I mean, she’s five. As we drive around on our daily business, for example between Burneside and Windermere, Dora will gaze out of the window and periodically ask, say, in Ings, ‘Which country are we in now?’)

‘Oh,’ said Dora. ‘And what’s aus-ter-it-y?’

‘Hum. Well. It’s the idea that if you take money away from things that need it, you can save that money.’

‘What sort of things?’

‘Okay. Like the hospital that Mummy was in. Or your school. Or my college. David Cameron took money away from those things and tried to save it for the country, though it hasn’t really worked.’

Dora ignored the last bit. She was frowning. ‘Does your college not have enough money?’

‘No, not really. We’re always worried about having enough to last the year.’

Still frowning, she jumped down from the table and ran into the living room. After a minute of clattering, she ran back to the kitchen, and with great care, placed a €0.05c coin in the palm of my hand. She had raided her piggy bank of ragtag pfennigs, drachma, centimes. These are her treasures.

‘There you go, Daddy,’ she said. The frown had gone, replaced with the clean clear peace of someone who has righted an obvious wrong. ‘Take this to the college. I don’t want it any more. Now you have enough money.’

‘Oh, sweetpea. That’s kind of you. That’s really kind.’

She nodded—yup, job done—and went upstairs.

I don’t have an ending for this story. Dora went for her shower, yelling about it being a hairwash day, and I finished my coffee, rinsed the mugs, did the recycling. But I am thinking about that Confucius quote:

If your plan is for one year, plant rice. 

If your plan is for ten years, plant trees.

If your plan is for one hundred years, educate your children. 



The future of everything

It says something about this last year that I haven’t mentioned pretty much the only good thing that’s happened. Amongst the murders in Saudi, Baghdad, Dhaka and Istanbul, amongst the godawful clusterfuck of the EU referendum, amongst the deaths of Lemmy, Bowie and Prince, amongst the hellmouth of Syria, amongst the swirling labyrinths of my book, and my wife’s recent illness — I haven’t had the headspace to say welcome to my son, Indy Coll Sylvester. He is now three months old, and he’s a wee smasher. He looks like this:

Me and Indy

Amongst the fog of all the bullshit, I’m trying to remember that Indy and Dora are the reasons I’m here, the reasons I work so hard, the reasons I keep writing. All those things are for the future, and the future is a place where life gets better.


I don’t really know what I’m going to say here, other than I need to say something. It’s going to be fragmented, I’m afraid, but that’s how I feel.

Yesterday Britain voted to leave the European Union. I voted to stay, for the little difference that made. I know exactly two people who planned to vote to Leave, and yet here we are. A combination of nostalgia, blind principle, entitlement, xenophobia, fear and blind rage have brought us to an abyss. The EU is far from perfect, and there are some good reasons for leaving, though these are nothing compared to the pragmatic impacts of actually doing so. But I also suspect that for every person voting to leave with good intentions, there were an awful lot of people who simply wanted to break something so hard it would stay forever smashed.

There’s a Combat 18 neo-Nazi on the cover of The Sun, celebrating Brexit.

On Twitter, some cockroach threatened to burn the writer Nikesh Shukla to death for talking about the impact of the result. Someone else told him to go back to brown land.

Brown land.

Every time I found myself on the edge of tears, I had a cuddle with my boy. Indy is now eleven weeks old. When he sees me, his wee face scrunches in joy, and his arms and legs curl in too, as though his whole body is smiling.

A Polish worker at Dora’s school doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t feel at home here any more.

Dora’s best friend is Chinese. Her mother is thinking about moving back to Hong Kong.

A man stood outside a school on Friday morning, flashing V signs at Muslim kids and parents.

Most Leave voters are not racist. But whether they like it or not, they – and now the entire country – have legitimised open racism.

That man on the BBC – one of hundreds, it seems – who didn’t think his protest vote would count, and is now worried about the result.

The same expression on Boris Johnson’s face at that first press conference, knowing that he’d gone too far, that it had really happened, that he’d pushed the button. He’d taken back control, and now he had to deal with it. There’s no rush to leave, he said, sweating.

EU leaders already enquiring when Britain is going to start negotiations to leave.

Big companies already moving staff to Dublin and Frankfurt.

The extraordinary split in age between older Leave voters and younger Remain voters. The older generations have taken opportunity from the hands of their children, their grandchildren, and torn it into strips.

£2trillion wiped off the value of global markets inside 24 hours. A pro-Leave Lord saying that Britain will have to tighten its belt. All that austerity, all that pain. Literally for nothing.

It’s now excruciatingly clear that no one from the Leave campaign knows what happens next. Little wonder they wanted Cameron to stay. He was a Tory puff piece in a suit, and he’s broken everything.

How will we implement a border in Northern Ireland for EU workers moving north from Eire?

Why on earth would France maintain the border at Calais? That’s not their problem any more.

“The thing you need to understand about Michael,” said Cameron to Clegg, “is that he believes in change as a process of creative destruction. He’s something of a Maoist.”

Imagine Michael Gove as Chancellor, looking at the national balance sheets and rolling up his sleeves.

“£350million a week for the NHS was a mistake,” says Nigel. “We shouldn’t have said that.”

“Daddy,” says Dora, “I’ve drawn a rainbow unicorn castle. And some keys. Don’t tell anyone they’re made of paper. They open all the secret doors.”

A man in a cafe told three Poles they’d have to go home soon.

What kind of country have we turned into? Smaller and more selfish, sharper, colder, meaner. Leave voters keep talking about a warm Britain, an open-hearted Britain, a Britain that can finally choose the right kind of immigrants to let in.

The right kind. 

Where will all the resentment go when the EU isn’t there to sponge it up?

If this is all about democracy, when do we move to Proportional Representation, please?

If this is all about democracy, when do we abolish the House of Lords and introduce an elected second chamber?

Yeah, I thought so.

I’m half Scottish. My dad is Scottish, and I was partly raised in Scotland. But I was also raised in England, Germany and Northern Ireland, and I have a very strained and jumbled sense of who I am and where I come from. Until yesterday, I was European more than British and certainly more than English, but now even that has gone, and I’ve been stunned at how bereft it leaves me. I feel Scottish when I’m in England, but when I’m in Scotland, and I start relaxing into the landscape, I hear my own voice, my weird middle-England voice, and feel like a cheat.

I briefly taught adult literacy, a few years ago. I met another army brat, who articulated it much better than me.

“Up north I talk funny. Down here I talk funny. I don’t know who I am.”

Unless Boris finds a way to never initiate Article 50,  which I honestly think he’s terrified of doing, then Scotland will almost certainly have another independence referendum, and it will almost certainly be a Yes. Mon and I are not quite yet packing our bags, but we have started looking for a house in Scotland, and we have started looking for jobs, if only to know where the work is. I don’t want to live in a small-minded country, always looking in. I want to live in a country that knows what it is, and looks out. A country that doesn’t define an immigrant by where they come from, but defines everyone, native or not, by their contribution to the community.

I’m not an idiot. Scotland isn’t perfect – nowhere is. But Scotland is at least trying to move forward with the rest of the world, while England is deliberately, consciously moving back.

This is not sour grapes. It’s a spiritual schism about who we are and where we go from here.

I vaguely remember a book of fables from my childhood – the tale of the dog in the manger. The straw was no good to him, but he refused to share it. I remember, like a dream, the illustration of the dog – teeth bared, crouched low, ready to snap – and the other farm animals clustered at the door, both scared and disbelieving. That’s England today. There is no more United Kingdom and there never will be.

Other people’s dreams

Other people’s dream stories are almost as dull as other people’s drug stories, so forgive me. But I’ve had wretched nightmares, I feel shaken, and I want to write them down.

In the first part, I was being chased and chased and chased in the dark. I didn’t know anything except that I was being chased. I was caught and seized by countless cut-off arms and hands. The hands reached into my mouth, more and hands, gripped my jaws, and began to pull.

The second part was longer and more lucid. I was thrown into the middle of a Hercule Poirot mystery. I was investigating a series of murders. I knew who’d done it, and how, but there was no proof. There were four of them. They took turns to control and possess the recently dead, and marched bodies around like extensions of life. Two dead men shuffled down the street in a pantomime horse. I woke in a four poster bed. A dozen corpses stood in a rigid circle around me, staring, staring. One of the four watched me from a mirror. Another watched from a house across the street. At last, we came to the great denouement and I knew that it would all be over and that Poirot would pin the villains, because he always does. But he turned and pointed at me. The four murderers sat back and grinned as a host of characters fell upon me and ripped me into chunks and pieces. The last thing I saw was a smarmy smile from one of the four and I knew, I knew, that he was about to possess the tatters of my dead body.

And then I woke up.

I almost never remember my dreams. I sometimes wonder if I write as a substitute—if dreams are how the subconscious files information, couldn’t writing do the same? Both writing and dreams are the invention, collection, curation, evolution and distillation of lived experience.

I’ve seen both Indy and Dora with a baby’s nightfrights, their faces crumpled with whatever milky horrors a baby can imagine. Can a baby even experience enough to twist it into nightmares? Probably more than an adult, now I think about it. Dreams tap into the darkest corners of our extraordinary brains. Dreams take us, stumbling, into the unmapped places—and for a new baby, there is far more to explore. Dreams lead us to unopened doors, or doors opened long ago and locked up ever since.

It’s fading, now. I still remember what happened, but the dread is melting away. I rocked Indy back to sleep and now I have a cup of tea. I have a writing day today, and I’m going to see British Sea Power tonight. Sparrows are squabbling in the dog roses. It’s 6.29am, and I think I hear Dora on the stairs. It’s another day.

I’ve Got Heaven At My Door

I’ve now seen Penny Woolcock and British Sea Power‘s astonishing documentary, From The Sea To The Land Beyond, about ten times, including a live screening at Glasgow Film Festival last year. It’s an astonishing work—a feature length film comprising entirely of archive footage and BSP’s score, by turns haunting and playful. The footage was lifted entirely from the BFI archives, and tells nothing less than the social history of Britain through our relationship with the sea. It’s extraordinary: through the flickering windows of hundred-year old reels, the film explores Britain’s food, wars, suffrage, leisure, the rise of the middle class, industrial action, economic boom and bust, immigration, capitalism and more.

Ever since watching From The Sea To The Land Beyond, I’ve wanted to work with some archive footage. I used a little of it in my hay meadows documentary To The End We Will Go, but when I recently happened upon some fascinating public domain material, I decided to cut something entirely from archive. And here, then, is something of a music video; taken from my friend Dan Haywood‘s wonderful album Dapple, I’ve cut together footage of USAAF atomic bomb tests and the seminal agricultural documentary The Plow That Broke The Plains, all soundtracked by Dan’s glorious song I’ve Got Heaven At My Door.

It’s not the most complex thing in the world, but then again, I have very little time right now—I’ll write more about that in my next post—I threw this together over a couple of lunchtimes at college. For now, here’s the video, and I’ll get back to my novel.


Last month, I donated stem cells to someone I don’t know. I wanted to write a little bit about it, because I don’t think nearly enough people know how astoundingly easy the process is, and I strongly suspect more people would contribute if they knew.

So here’s the thing. If I understand it right (this is going to be a very crude description—sorry) then blood does a lot more than carry oxygen around your body; amongst a multitude of other things, it’s also crucial to your immune system, and how your body transports nutrients and waste. Healthy blood is maintained by stem cells, which are stored in your bone marrow.

Leukemia is cancer of the blood. If you have leukemia, your blood loses the ability to replicate and filter itself, and so your blood systems, and therefore everything else, collapse. Chemotherapy can kill the cancer, but also annihilates your stem cells and your ability to produce more. To survive chemotherapy, you therefore need a gigantic transfusion of healthy stem cells.


Matching stem cells is hard. It’s really, really hard. There are some extremely specific genetic factors that go into making a match, and if they don’t line up exactly so, then the transfusion will fail. When someone has leukemia, members of their family or friends will often throw themselves at the chance to donate, but that’s seldom enough of a spectrum to work from. The nurses told me of a man with ten brothers and sisters. None of them was a match for his stem cells (he found a match elsewhere, thankfully).

It’s therefore so, so, so important that as many people as possible register with the databases. The more people who sign up, the wider the range of options becomes, and the more likely it is that a match can be made.

I became involved in this because I give blood. I signed up as a stem cell donor during a regular blood donation clinic by asking for an extra sample to be sent to the British Bone Marrow Registry. That was about three years ago. A year or so after that sample, I was flagged as a potential stem cell donor, and the BBMR sent me a pack of blood tests in the post. These were completed by my GP and promptly sent back in the mail. From this extended test, I was actually ruled out as a donor, but it gave them a complete profile of my blood. Last December, when I came up as a potential donor for a second time, they already had all the data they needed. I was still willing to donate, and so the BBMR passed me over to the Anthony Nolan Trust.

This blog post is about what happened.

On December 21st I took the train to Sheffield, then a taxi to Royal Hallamshire Hospital. Over the course of two or three hours, I had an X-ray and an ECG, they measured my BMI, I gave a dozen samples of blood and one of urine, and spent about an hour talking to a doctor about my medical history and the apheresis process.

What’s apheresis, you ask?

I’d never heard of it either.

Remember how the stem cells are stored in your bone marrow? There are two ways of getting them out. The first is an operation conducted under general anaesthetic, in which a core of bone marrow is removed from your hip. Honestly, that freaked me out. I would still have done it, even though I really, really didn’t want to, but it turns out that operation is quite rare these days—it’s only used in about 5% of donors. For all other cases, they use a process called apheresis, where the blood is removed through a needle, spun in a centrifuge, the stem cells skimmed away and saved for the patient, and the rest of the blood returned through a second needle:


As a longterm blood donor, the thought of this process didn’t worry me at all—particularly when compared with the prospect of the full hip operation. This is why I’m writing this post. Everyone I’ve spoken to about this has said incredibly nice things to me, as though I’ve been making a gigantic sacrifice. I really, really haven’t. It was easy. I’m not being humble, self-deprecating or disingenuous.

It was easy.

We’ll come back to this later.

Back in Sheffield, my medical was finished by teatime. I took the train home that night and went to a pub quiz. A few days later—just after Christmas—I heard back from the Anthony Nolan Trust. My medical was all clear and my blood samples were good. The day of the donation, or ‘harvest’, was set for January.

Stem cells are stored in your bone marrow. They needed to be pushed into the bloodstream to collect them through apheresis and so, in the days prior to the harvest, I was visited by nurses—twice at home, and twice at work—who injected me with a growth hormone called GCSF. This stimulated my body to produce countless more stem cells than I could ever need, and flushed those cells from my bone marrow into my blood. I’d been warned that these injections would make me feel very achy, and set about the next morning like a glass man, only to find that actually, I was completely fine. When I’m hungover, I occasionally get aches in my joints. To begin with, the side effects of the injections were no worse than that. After my fourth injection, my knees and hips became a little sore, and at a couple of points my legs nearly buckled. They didn’t, though. So that’s good.

Almost immediately after the fourth injection, Mon and I took the train back to Sheffield, where we stayed in a hotel a few minutes from the hospital. We set off for the Royal Hallamshire first thing next morning. Within minutes of arriving, I’d been wired up to the apheresis machine. There were tubes and wires everywhere, but as the donor, it was very simple—I simply let them get on with it. A needle went into the crook of my left arm. This extracted my blood into the machine, where it was spun in a centrifuge. The centrifuge imparts massive gravity on the blood, which then separates into its constituent parts. The machine skims off the stem cells, and a little plasma to help the transfusion, and then the remaining red blood was returned into my right wrist. I sat like that for three and a half hours, in which time I read The Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb, which I’d been meaning to get around to for ages. (It was very good.)

About halfway through the harvest, an Anthony Nolan volunteer came to talk to me about the next stages in the process—for me, and for the patient. By the time my donation was complete, a courier was already waiting to collect the stem cells and go. And that was that. We stayed that night in Sheffield, took the train home next day, and I went back to work.

I’m being completely honest in this post, so please believe me when I say this: the single most painful part of the entire process was when the nurses ripped off the bandage that held the needle in my wrist, because that took a block of arm hair with it.

People think I’m joking when I say this. I’m not. I’m really not. That hurt most.

Yes, the GCSF injections made me ache.

Yes, the needles sting, and there are a lot of injections and blood samples.

Yes, my arse went numb from sitting still for three and a half hours.

Yes, I was a little achy for a perhaps a week afterwards.

But that’s it. Hand on heart—that’s the net sum of my discomfort.

My stem cells have gone somewhere, to someone. I know nothing about the patient except he’s an adult and he’s male. He might be in the UK, or he might be on the other side of the world. I don’t know, and I probably never will. It doesn’t matter. That’s not why I donated. I donated because my daughter is four years old and if I was diagnosed with leukemia tomorrow, I’d want a stem cell transfusion, and I wouldn’t care where it came from.

There aren’t enough people on the registers. I’m writing this because every single person I’ve spoken to believed the process was difficult, dangerous and a gigantic sacrifice on my part. It isn’t. I’ll say again: it was easy. I’m almost ashamed at how easy my part of it was, and I’ve been profoundly humbled at the humour, skills and grace of the people I’ve met along the way—my contact at the Anthony Nolan—the nurse who came to my house through floods to inject the GCSF—the doctor who spent a patient hour talking me through the process—the woman who came this close to losing her husband to leukemia, and visited the ward to tell me why he survived—the nurses in the apheresis clinic, laughing about the snooker on the telly, even as their eyes flicked to the machines, to me, to the bags of blood, always evaluating, checking, deciding—to the man who sat beside me in the ward, another stranger on another machine, donating his stem cells because he could.

This has cost me nothing. The Anthony Nolan Trust paid for my trains, my taxis, my food, my hotel. College gave me paid leave (though the Anthony Nolan would have covered me for loss of earnings if they didn’t). There are centres in Sheffield and London. If you’re aged 18-30, you can register directly with the Anthony Nolan, who’ll start things off by sending you more information. If you’re over 30, then ask at your blood donation session for an extra sample to be taken for the British Bone Marrow Registry. If you’ve never given blood before, then start with that and see how you feel about the process. If you have given blood before and still aren’t sure, then consider donating platelets for a quicker experience of apheresis.

I’m not writing this to guilt-trip anyone into registering. There are a host of reasons why your blood is better off inside you than inside someone else, and that’s fine. You might be phobic of needles, or have a family history of chronic illness, or simply not want to, and that’s completely OK. But I hope, for those of you that can donate, that this has illuminated the process a little from a donor’s point of view. If anyone wants to ask me questions then please, please do. I’ll be happy to answer what I can.

Any regular readers of this blog know that I want to write. I hope to be writing all my life. I want to live from my writing, though that’s many years away, if it ever happens at all. But I know this: if one person reading this signs up to the registers—just one—then this is the most important thing I’ll ever write. All my silly stories about mirrors and memories and mandrakes and mud are just a fart in the wind compared to life—real life, actual life, shaved away in seconds—tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

The question isn’t why you should want to save a stranger, but how you feel about the situations being swapped, and a stranger saving you.

Give Blood

British Bone Marrow Registry

The Anthony Nolan Trust