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.
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.
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 trail led through the house and up the stairs. Moss, feathers, tweaks of red fur. I peeked around the bedroom door.
She lay in the bed, head in her bloodstained hands. She’d been crying. The carcass of something, a pigeon or a dove, lay dismembered on the floor.
“Oh sweetheart,” I said, “not again.”
Last night was my third reading in a week, returning to Verbalise in the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal. It was a quieter night, after a couple of busy ones, but I enjoyed it. I read from The Hollows for the first time – a draft piece about exploring something like a haunted house, which was a lot of fun to read. I also brought out a couple of older pieces for the first time. Books Like Grains Of Sand and Tank Trap are both flash stories in Marrow. I’ve never read them before, as I’ve always thought they were too weird, too abstract for performance. But after what happened with Dora and The Sea Tiger this week, I also wanted to draw a line in the sand for myself – to remember that magic and wonder is why I write. I’m not going to be scared of reading those pieces anymore. And in the end, I think they went better than I’d dared to hope. I’ve felt just slightly off the boil with my last few readings, but I enjoyed last night a lot. Dora’s given me courage.
I also sold three copies of Marrow, which was lovely – I now have fewer than ten copies for sale, so if you want one, get amongst it while you can.
Next gig is at the end of the month in Lancaster – Working Title in The Three Mariners – be great to see some of you hobbitses there.
Dora has a lot of favourite books. We try to keep them on her own wee bookshelf in her room, but as the days and weeks roll on after a big tidy-up, they inevitably gather in a strata by her bed. That teetering stack becomes an archaeology of her favourites. There are all sorts in there, but some books are never far from the top. Where The Wild Things Are. The Gruffalo, Zog, Room On The Broom. We’re Going On a Bear Hunt. The absolutely terrifying Tailypo. Mrs Gaddy & The Ghost. I Want My Hat Back.
Dora’s current favourite is called The Sea Tiger. We spotted it in Waterstones while we were in Scotland last month, and we couldn’t resist. It’s a extraordinarily beautiful book:
The Sea Tiger is Oscar’s best friend – his only friend. They do everything together. Where the Sea Tiger leads, Oscar follows. They explore, they have adventures, until a point comes where Oscar needs the strength to go alone. It’s a book about being brave.
To celebrate World Book Week, all the children at nursery were asked to bring in their favourite story. Dora chose The Sea Tiger without hesitation. We packed her off for the day, lunchbox and wellies, slippers and book. I didn’t think another thing of it until I came home that night.
‘Did everyone at nursery like The Sea Tiger?’
Dora thought about it, then remembered. Her face clouded over. ‘No. It’s a silly book.’
I was astonished. ‘What? Did someone not like it?’
‘They thought it was silly,’ she said, face scrunched into a frown.
I was dumbstruck. She was repulsed by her favourite book. Why would other kids have disliked it? Too weird? Too odd? Too magical? Compared to what? All the books she loves are weird and odd and magical. Children are weird and odd and magical. All that anarchy, that chaos, exploring and categorising this insane planet for the first time.
I’m not sure what I’m trying to say. I’ve been absolutely shaken by my daughter’s first true experience of shame. She was ashamed, ashamed of something that she loved. That’s heartbreaking. Three years old, and another step on the long path to adulthood checked off the list.
I read The Sea Tiger again, to myself. It is everything a children’s book should be. Surreal, wild, enchanting, transporting. It’s a book about imagination and courage. It’s a book about finding your own way. I thought of Robin Williams and that little spark of madness we mustn’t lose. I thought about what I write, why I write, seeking out those kernels of magic and madness and paying them whatever meagre tribute I can muster.
Dora wouldn’t even look at the book last night, but this morning I read it to myself until she came to join me. She was as entranced as ever, thrilled and enchanted by Oscar and the tiger and their undersea adventures. That helped, but I feel very much like it was a finger in the dyke, plugging up an overwhelming inundation of the ordinary, the acceptable, the normal. I hope Dora clings to her spark of madness. I hope she never lets it go. For her next years of play, of princesses and pirates, of dinosaurs and monsters and treasure and kittens, it’s up to Mon and I to nourish it, to feed it, to fuel the fires of her imagination. That is our role as parents: curators, not makers. But then will come the homework, the tests, the clothes, the friends and the not-friends anymore, Dad, the cycles of approval and rejection. When she leaves us, she’ll have to feed her own fires.
I know all this is melodramatic. I have always tended towards extremes, especially in my words, but that’s who I am. I hope we can give Dora both the space and the guidance to be whoever she is. And I hope, with every fibre of my soul, that she stays more a tiger than a princess.
“A young couple trapped in a remote estate of empty houses and shrieking foxes are beckoned from their isolation into a twilight world…”
This is a haunting, excruciatingly tense short film, worth every frame of its fifteen minutes. Metamorphosis and the idea of threshold places – of things having twin natures, existing in two states at once – are becoming increasingly key to my work. A film like this gets my pulse racing and synapses snapping, hungry to write.
It was Simon’s turn to choose a picture, this time, and this is what he chose:
I found this one very difficult. With Cathedrals, I had the story in an instant, and writing was a cruise, but this has taken some working around. I guess that’s the way with writing. I can’t turn it on like a tap. Sometimes the stories shimmer into view as though they’d been there all along, and sometimes they come word by word, kicking and fighting, refusing to stay on the page. This one’s been a toughie, and I’ve tried it three times. My first attempt was an illiterate dystopia where an old man found a book he couldn’t read. It spiralled very quickly, and I abandoned it at 600 words. My second attempt was about a haunted library, and that was a little better – I think I can rescue it for a short story – but it wasn’t good enough for this, and I hadn’t the heart to stick at it.
I have written a previous piece that fits this picture exactly, which doesn’t help. The abandoned library is a perfect representation of one of my Twitter shorts. Struggling to get that story out of my head, I posted it again in the hope of exorcising the blasted thing. It looks like this:
Having sent that back out into the big wide world, I did feel a little freer, but it wasn’t until I discussed the picture with Mon that I came up with my final idea. She imagined the books dropping away into nothingness, and that was the spark I needed. Time and time again, Mon reminds me of the stories I like to tell the most. She keeps me on track when I’m getting lost. With that image in my head, I sat down and wrote the final piece fairly quickly. It’s the middle of something much bigger, I think. I can see this growing into a novella or even a novel, given time. I’m not done with the characters.
Simon Hart found this one tricky, too, which is a relief. It’s taken both of us longer than the fortnight we’d agreed, but then, hell; we’re busy people. This is what Simon has to say about it:
“Well, it’s finally been written and this has been difficult! I saw the picture and thought it was interesting, suggested it and went ahead with it as the challenge piece… ignoring the fact I have written creatively about libraries before. What it has meant is that those pieces of work have been clamouring at my brain to be let out again. I have refused them, and eventually created this new poem, but not without help. The title and line relating to it come from my Dad pitching me a line far greater than anything my feable mind was coming up with, and I finished only because I cheated and read Simon’s excellent entry on the same photo. Cheers gents.”
Here’s Simon’s response to that troublesome picture:
Engines of Thought
by BigCharlie Poet
There were books strewn everywhere
Left without much apparent care
Though some were in bundles, others in stacks
Most were just left to cover the cracks
In the old dead library’s floor
The words on the pages, scattered like dust
Engines of thought now turned to rust
Childhood stories being lost by the hour
The Tempest losing so much of its power
From the old dead library’s floor
The shelves have been looted for perceived greater worth
And the paper that’s left returns to the earth
The knowledge inside no longer at hand
The words pour away like loose grains of sand
Through the old dead library’s floor
They once taught us magic, and fanciful tales
Told us stories of mad Captains hunting white whales
Taught that being obsessed was a kind of disease
That carried you away on angry dark seas
Not the old dead library’s floor
But now they do nothing, we won’t let them teach us
And where they sit they will struggle to reach us
Abandoned and now out of our sight
They are doomed to their own perpetual night
On the old dead library’s floor
And here’s my response:
Books Like Grains Of Sand
The creature stepped out of the darkness and into the candlelight. It was smaller and far slighter than Morag, and carried itself daintily, as though it was frightened of breaking a limb. Its tiny eyes were black pinheads in the cloth. It had a ragged hole for a mouth. It smelled like coal sheds.
It led her to a door.
“In here, my pet,” it lisped. When it talked, stuffing spilled from the corners of its mouth.
In jerky, spastic movements, it opened the door to the library, and daylight spilled into the gloom. Squinting in the light, Morag peered beyond the creature and saw a vast room. The floor was entirely carpeted in books. Books, books and more books, gathered in loose stacks, strewn by the dozen, piled up in the corners.
“All of them?” she whispered.
The creature’s smile wrapped around its head. Morag heard stitches popping as it grinned.
“All of them,” it said.
It turned the hourglass again, and the sand began to flow.
Morag slung her knapsack, took a deep breath and brushed past the creature into the library. She stumbled to the top of a nearby stack and surveyed the room. The door creaked shut behind her, and the creature’s smile receded to a single line as it melted into darkness.
She was alone in the library. Before her, books lay scattered in their thousands.
“But where to start?” she murmured.
She took a single step, and then she heard the slithering. It was so faint at first, ghostly whispers, but gathered to a rush. Morag scanned the room. The books in the middle were moving. They revolved, and more volumes fell inwards as they shifted, gathering momentum. They spiralled, forming a circle and starting to drop into the floor. It was spreading outwards, increasing speed. It was a whirlpool. With a jolt, the stack beneath her shifted, throwing her to the ground. Morag fell headlong into the torrent.
The daylight closed overhead, grey and fluttering with loose pages. Books battered and struck her as they ground and jumbled in the gyre. The movement was inexorable, dragging her down, dragging her into the centre. Her feet lost contact with the floor and then it all dropped away and Morag was falling, flying, plunging into nothing as the books tumbled all around her. She panicked, flailing and groping for contact, anything to arrest her fall. There was nothing to hold on to. The space beneath her and around her was empty entirely, a sea of nothingness stretching on forever. Books fell around her like rain, covers flapping and pages rippling. As they fell, Morag realised they looked exactly like the sand in the timer.
In a heartbeat, she remembered what Badger told her: about time. About the creature. About this place.
She took a deep breath, shut her eyes, and reached out. Her hand closed around a book. Still falling, she opened her eyes, and turned to the first page. Morag began to read.