Bricks

I used to have a smartphone. My brother gave it to me — in fact he gives me lots of things. At least half of my clothes are Tim’s cast-offs, and I think he despairs of me a little sometimes. When I was getting ready for my wedding, he was extremely irritated to learn that I didn’t own a tie. He then loaned me a tie to get married in, and actually he had to tie the knot as well. Sorry Tim.

But this post is about phones, or rather — technology. See, this smartphone that Tim gave me, all those years ago — it was great. I could check email on the go. I wrote my Twitter stories on it sometimes, and took lots of photos. When I was bored, on trains or at bus stops, I played Catan or chess.

Now, bear with me. This post will go sideways a couple of times, because it is also about notebooks. For almost as long as I’ve been writing fiction — about eight or nine years, now — I’ve kept a notebook in my back pocket. Into those notebooks have gone countless ideas, most of them nonsense, and lots of lines of dialogue, or overheard snatches of conversations, even single words I wanted to think about later. The act of writing them down was perhaps more important than reading them later — I liked the moment of formalising and clarifying the thought, no matter how fleeting it would prove.

It used to take me somewhere between two weeks and two months to get through a notebook. I gradually found myself taking longer to fill them — and then so long that they disintegrated in my pockets. It probably took me a year or so before I connected the smartphone to the notebooks, but once I’d joined the dots, I couldn’t unjoin them — the simple truth was that I was writing less since I’d got the smartphone. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I wasn’t simply writing less — I was thinking less. I was feeling less. Before I owned a smartphone, I’d spent my train trips and bus stops eavesdropping on people, real people in real places with real lives, imagining who they were and where they’d come from. I used to write down the cadences and accents of their speech, and bring those patterns in my writing. I wrote about their clothes, their shoes, the way they walked. With a smartphone, all that stopped — because I was playing Catan instead, and that was easier.

When Tim’s old phone died, I didn’t replace it — instead, I spent £9 at the supermarket and bought a dumbphone — a brick. We call smartphones smart, but in truth they dull our senses. They lock us into ourselves, shut us down. On the rare occasions I’ve been asked for writing advice, I’ve suggested getting rid of your smartphone, should you have one. They are vampires for your time and your wits.

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This isn’t only me being a Luddite (although there is also some of that involved). I’ve been worried for a while about social media, about online interaction, about the casual saturation of technology into every bit of our lives. In my younger days, when I had a little more piss and vinegar, I got into some humdinging arguments online. I once lost out on a dream job because I couldn’t bite my tongue in an email exchange — I simply couldn’t abide for someone else to have the last word — and this is interesting, because in real life I consider myself to be exceedingly diplomatic — I’ve worked for monstrously unreasonable people and more than once sustained a wage by biting my tongue. So what is it that happens to us, below the line? Why does a red mist descend, once we’ve plunged into the comments?

Part of me thinks it’s the lack of body language, the lack of nuance in our communication — but then surely that would be true of letters, too, and it’s not. Perhaps the difference is in the immediacy and the spontaneity of our response. There’s no delay anymore, no moment of measure. Communication has become a mirror. We look into the screens, and they look back, and if we miss the moment, it’s gone — and the compulsion to curate our own image leads to meltdowns, polarisation, echo chambers, horseshit and dead ends. The need to share, share, share — it’s left us so lonely.

I’m talking about this because Jonathan Safran Foer has just written a compelling piece about how technology diminishes us. His article is far more coherent than this one, and he’s right. How often do we see cafes or carriages full of people staring at their screens? I take a train to work at the same time as scores of secondary school kids. Almost all of them are almost always on phones. And again, I teach in a college — last term, the network server died (there was an incident involving paint) and we went two days without internet access. Most of my students were climbing up the walls. So that’s the Western world, that’s modern life — right? Evolve or die. And that’s okay. I think I’m happier as a dinosaur.

A few years ago, the college gave me an iPad to improve the use of technology in my teaching. It was a nice idea, but it didn’t actually happen. The single biggest impact on my life was the sudden impossibility of escaping work. My colleagues and I regularly sent work messages at 10 or 11 or midnight. My cat Remus is a gigantic soaring arsehole, but I was delighted when he knocked my iPad off the sofa a month or so ago, because now the screen is broken. I genuinely miss 80 Days, but in return I’ve recovered hours of my life. I’ve come to relish the moments without wifi, without a phone signal, those moments when we are offline, like it or not — it’s one of the reasons I love the Hebrides. I use Freedom when I’m writing, and I get most of my real work done while it’s in action.

There was a study, a few years ago, that showed how people modified their real-life behaviour in order to gain better online approval (can’t find the link, sorry). Another study suggested that taking a photo actually reduced the photographer’s memory and perception of the moment. It’s nothing new to say that these technologies are becoming filters that we can’t escape.

Another sidestep — on Wednesday, Mon and I went to watch Frightened Rabbit in Manchester Cathedral. It was our first night out since Indy was born. The band were magnificent, but the audience were not so good, and I lost count of the glow of smartphone screens. They made a constellation of the crowd. I don’t go to many gigs these days, so maybe this is how things are, but it seemed to me that a lot of people were at the gig to tell people they were at the gig, rather than to see the actual band.

I know I sound like a scared old man. And I’m not blind to the irony of posting this online.  The internet and these technologies have brought us wonders. Email gives me an online book group with friends I’d otherwise meet once or twice a year at best, and that book group got me reading again. Thanks to Facebook, my brother gets to see more of Dora and Indy than he would in real life. I can follow the antics of my cousin Ali in Antarctica. I’ve applied for jobs online, and solved technical crises while editing my films — won competitions, promoted my books, discovered scores of extraordinary things. I first met Mon in 2000, when the internet was new and odd and easy to turn off — but without the internet, we wouldn’t have discovered each other again in 2008, and we wouldn’t have started going out.

So yes, of course, the internet saturates my life too, and I’m not trying to take a moral high ground. There are still times, lost in strange cities — and all cities are strange — that I want the safety of Maps. There are many occasions when I’m aching for a camera, walking to work, when the sun casts fire through the fog, and all the world is aflame — or when I need a number, or directions. But look — even now, as I write, I’m curating my own image in how I shape this article, how I pick my words. I very seldom go to cities. Most of the photos I’d take would not be of foxfire. I prefer real maps to the pulse of a tracker, talking to itself.

I know this is confused and contradictory. I’ve spent 1,500 words discussing my quiet worries about technology. I’ve used technology to write it and technology to share it. I am painfully aware of this, and I have no solution, other than an instinct that we needn’t even stop and think — so much as stop, for a while, for a while.

A business of wrens

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I’ve been making good progress on the book in the last two weeks, so I’m allowing myself a wee break to write about collective nouns. I love collective nouns. There’s something about them, at once melancholy and sweet — an innocence — that I find utterly beguiling. We all know prides of lions and herds of cows, but the rare ones are better, because they’re strange and odd and upside-down. In his heartbreaking new album Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave sings about a charm of hummingbirds. A week or so ago, researching a story about birds, I wrote of murders and murmurations, wakes and gulps, springs and flings, scolds and pantheons.

A good collective noun needs to personify some characteristic of the collection, rather than simply iterate what the noun is or does. My favourite collective noun is a drift of swifts — the sheer simplicity of the rhyme, the soaring swing of the swifts as they zip around the house in the sheerest of circles.

In the new book, I wrote of a pocketful of jackdaws. I didn’t think a thing of it until reading the chapter back, later on, and wondering where it had come from. Then I decided to ask people to make up some collective nouns of their own. This was only a few days after Trump had been elected, and around a third of the responses were basically ‘a bastard of Trumps’ or similar. Here are some of mine, on the left, and my favourites from the folk who joined in on the right:

A business of wrens
A pocketful of jackdaws
A compass of clouds
A misery of clowns
A duplicity of toads
An orchestra of bees
A clarity of cats
A spindle of witches
A philosophy of starlings
An orbit of angels
A kerfuffle of mice
A haunting of pike
A cathedral of jellyfish
A parley of pirates
A calamity of bats
An ocarina of ocelots
A knot of weasels
A panic of pigeons
A snippet of crones
A juice of pumas
A punnet of fucks
A scuttle of rats
A tangle of sparrows
A sundial of shadows
A shower of seedlings
A murmur of dreams
A wheeze of bagpipers
A choir of carnations
An apprehension of streetlights
A bribe of winkles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were many more — I couldn’t include them all. There’s something in a good collective noun that elevates the noun itself, or reveals another side of its nature. Some of these are so obvious they should fit into daily use — ‘Pigeons exploded in their panics, clattering about the station roof’ — and others are more abstract. There’s no particular reason, for instance, why ‘a juice of pumas’ should work, but somehow, it does — ‘One by one, a juice of pumas slipped from the gloom and gathered near the tracks.’

What are your favourite collective nouns? And what would you invent for a new one?

 

Watershed

verbalise

Last night, BigCharlie Poet and I headlined Verbalise at the Brewery. We’ve known each other for years, and we’ve been working on these photo challenges for almost as long, so to perform together for the first time was a real buzz. Thanks to all the glories of PowerPoint, we also projected the images onto the screen behind us, and hopefully the audience enjoyed seeing how and why we interpreted each picture.

It was a particularly good open mic, with stand-out performances from Harriet Fraser, John Scott, LD Brown, and three poets I hadn’t seen before — Clare Proctor, Louise Barklam and Roland Crowland (sorry if I’ve spelled your names wrong). I had an excellent time, and sold some more copies of Dare. They’re starting to run out, now, so get amongst it if you want one.

BigCharlie and I have now done the photo challenge for Cathedrals, Graffiti, Libraries, Foxes, Scarecrows, Suitcases, New York, Europe and Keys. These last four were the new pieces, and they seemed to go down okay. My stories were called Drums, Murmurations, The Slips And The Cracks, and The Four Things That Happen After You Die. These were the photos — can you guess which image goes with which title?

I’m not going to include the stories here, because they’re bound for another flash collection, probably late next year — that will be called Soup Stone. More on this another time. I might submit them for publication, too, when I work out who’s printing flash fiction these days. That scene changes so fast, and when I’ve been away from it, I struggle to catch up. Suggestions very welcome. (Please…)

The photo challenge always freshens me up as a writer. It breaks me out of whatever ruts I’ve worked myself into, and helps me to look at something new, to consider a story with fresh eyes. As ever, I’ve enjoyed working on these pieces, but I’m also glad they’re done. My head has been stuck in the novel for months, and dislodging myself for this has been a great wee holiday — now I’m ready to get back and get it finished. As if on cue, I woke early this morning, after a fortnight of sleeping in.

I’ve now written over 100,000 words on the book, which is psychologically well past that tipping point where the inevitability of finishing outweighs any possibility of abandoning it. This is the third (and bloody final) time I’ve tried to tell this story, and writing it has become like working with blueprints on top of blueprints on top of blueprints — the ghosts of the last drafts keep drifting through, whimpering for love. That said, with only another 20,000 or 30,000 words to go, the chance of the story evolving reduces with every new word I write, and there comes a point when it’s simply — done.

But I’m not there yet. I have some big scenes still to write, and it’ll need a lot of streamlining when I’m done. I’m trying to keep my head, but in the time I’ve been working on this novel, I’ve seen friends and peers publish one, two, three books, and it’s hard not to get disheartened sometimes about how    S    L    O    W    my progress has been. But that’s also when I need to remember that I’m writing the story for the story — for myself — and that thinking of anything else will drive me demented.

So Verbalise with BigCharlie will be my last gig for a while. I’m treating it as a watershed between then and next. I’m so desperate to focus on the novel and get it finished that I’ve been turning events down, lately — and while I’m reluctant to step away from the readings and the communities that I love, I absolutely need to have nothing else to do. No deadlines, no events, no short story submissions — nothing but novel until it’s done. My blogging has been sparse this year, and will probably become even sparser, but I’m so close to finishing, and finishing it properly — and then I’ll return to the world, and wonder at whatever comes next.

 

What’s For You Won’t Pass You By

Well, I could scarcely be more pleased with this: the mighty Liar’s League of London have accepted another of my short stories. After Carrie Cohen did such a fine job with Art Is Long, Life Is Short, I’m absolutely delighted to share this brilliant reading of What’s For You Won’t Pass You By.

The actor, Cliff Chapman, has transformed the story. The dull-witted violence I imagined for the farmer is gone — and in its place something far more human, far more visceral, and far more frightening. The farmer has become more downtrodden, more wounded, sadder and more reactive, and the character is all the stronger for it. I’d imagined him as Irish or Scottish, but Cliff’s West Country realisation is absolutely perfect — it’s better than my version. This is the second time Liar’s League have transformed one of my stories, and I absolutely love seeing what these talented actors bring to my work — on each occasion, they’ve elevated my story and made it into something bigger.

Here, then, and nicely in time for Hallowe’en, is my short story What’s For You Won’t Pass You By, read by Cliff Chapman for Liar’s League.

 

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?

tools

Austerity

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. 

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