Nearly four months since my last post! Ooof. This isn’t a very good blog, is it? Loads has happened, but I’ve been too busy to talk about it — my usual morass of college marking was swamped by the millstone of an Ofsted inspection, and for weeks all I’ve done is stare at assessment forms. Around all of that, I’ve performed some new stories at Spotlight in Lancaster, had work accepted by Jellyfish Review, National Flash Fiction Day and Ghostland Zine, was longlisted for a NFFD contest and am currently shortlisted for a Liars League competition on the theme of Heads & Tails. I’ve written lots of new flash stories and nearly finished what might be another collection, maybe, probably, perhaps. I also read my version of the Hobyahs at Verbalise in Kendal, which went like this:
I love telling that story, and I need a haircut.
Away from writing, Mon and I are now actively collecting the 214 Wainwrights, having climbed Helvellyn, Nethermost Pike, Dollywaggon Pike, Coniston Old Man, Illgill Head, Whin Rigg, Castle Crag and Helm Crag since my last post. It’s fascinating trying to decode old Wainwright’s spidery notes. He was barking. I quite enjoy the uphill climbs, and I absolutely love the sense of being atop the hills — the way the ranges link into plateaus, and it feels as though you’re walking on the roof of the world. Downhills are not so much fun, but there’s usually a beer somewhere at the bottom, so all is well. A Wainwright looks like this:
The big thing is the novel, I suppose. When I last wrote about it, it was finished, for the third time, redrafted, and sent away to my excellent agent, who gave me some excellent notes. As always, Sue sees what I can’t, and while she loved a lot about the book, there was a structural issue I hadn’t considered, and it needed sorting. She’s absolutely right about the structure, but I can’t go back to the book. I can’t. This is my third distinct version of The Hollows, as well as countless false starts and variations, and I honestly estimate I’ve written about 500,000 words of this story across about forty different incarnations. It has melted my brain and stifled my imagination. I thought for a day or two about whether I should redraft it again, but honestly, I didn’t have to think very hard. For now, The Hollows is shelved.
Given that it’s swallowed three years of my life, I feel surprisingly okay about putting it away. I did most of my grieving for the second draft, which was the one I loved most. The third draft deals with profound ideas, and is more LiTeRarY, but it lost all the impetuous fun of the second draft — it wasn’t fun to write, and I want to enjoy my writing. It had become such a corkscrew of ideas that I could barely think of anything else, and it was making me unhappy. Since putting The Hollows to one side, my brain has begun to thaw, and for the first time in a year, I’m feeling the fizz of ideas. Until that sensation came back, I hadn’t even realised it was gone.
In a few years, I think I’ll go back to the Hollows. There’s a whole world there, and that world is exciting, but I need a better story to navigate it. I’ve already sketched out the plot for a completely different (and simpler!) version of the same idea, and when I’m ready, I’ll see where that goes. Until then, I need a break from swamps and memories — and instead I’ve launched myself into one of the other stories I’ve had circling overhead. I’m taking the advice of sensei Stephen King, though, and writing this one with the door closed. I’ve learned a lot about getting ahead of myself. I’ve also learned why they called it ‘the difficult second novel’.
Because it bloody is.
That’s me for now. Fail again, fail better, right?
I woke early and spent a few minutes listening to the sparrows, then made a cup of tea and settled down to work. With a first draft complete, The Hollows is off to one side, ready for a redraft when it has finished steeping. At something of a loss for what to do, I worked on an older piece, making some overdue tweaks. It was slow, frustrating progress and I was relieved, an hour or so later, when Dora thundered on the ceiling overhead. She clattered down the stairs and burst into the room, as she does every morning, and threw herself at me.
‘Morning sweetheart. It’s good to see you. Did you have any dreams?’
‘Good dreams or bad dreams?’
‘It was a bad dream.’
‘Oh no. What happened?’
Her face fuzzled as she remembered it.
‘There was a big swamp. And a little girl went into the swamp, and she stole a ribbon.’
I frowned. This reminded me of something. Dora continued:
‘And the little girl was chased in the swamp by a very bad man.’
I realised what she was saying. I knew what she would say next. My skin began to tingle, crawling upwards from my ankles.
‘And the bad man took the ribbon, and he took the little girl as well, and then there was nothing but the swamp.’
My four-year-old daughter had just relayed to me the plot of the first chapter of The Hollows. Which would be fine, except for the fact that no one else knows it but me. I haven’t shared it with anyone. No one has read it, and I’m the only person in the entire world who knows what happens.
I’ve been ransacking my brain to work out what happened. I’ve never told Dora any part of the story, and she can’t read for herself. Mon hasn’t seen it yet, so she couldn’t have told Dora either, and no one else has access to my computer. I have no idea how she knew this part of the plot. There must be a rational explanation, but I can’t work it out.
There’s just no way. There is simply no way it could have happened.
And yet it did.
A woman always, always tripped on the bottom tread of the stairs in her new house, her muscle memory convinced and compelled to make an extra step for a stair that wasn’t there. This happened for years. When the house was renovated, and the floor was lifted, the builders discovered an extra step at the bottom of the flight. People wake from comas speaking Latin, or dream across a continent of their brother drowning at sea, and wake to bad news on the phone.
I don’t believe in ghosts as sentient beings. I don’t believe in the supernatural as an anthropology. But human imagination is an engine of staggering power, and we are utterly corruptible. The weight of human history drops away below our feet, and we walk in the shadows and the hollows of what has gone before. Like crossing a clay field after the rain, it sticks to our feet in clumps.
Holloways are ancient droving roads. The weight of carts and cattle through the roads caused the ground below to erode and sink, even as the verges to the side of the road stayed the same. Protected from the passing herds, trees grew on the verges and knotted overhead, while below, the path continued to erode, ground away by centuries of cattle, and so, over time, the roads became tunnels: hollow ways.
That’s where we are, all of us. The trees have been cut and the verges levelled and all of it coated with tarmac, but we still walk along the holloways. A sideways glimpse is all it takes to see the fleeting, teeming strata of the lives we’ve lived before.
I’m currently wrapping up another film project before I get back to my writing. A couple of months ago, my friend Dom Bush and I were commissioned to make a film called Take Me Back To Manchester, based on the extraordinary true story of a lion tamer called Lorenzo Lawrence, an elephant called Maharajah, a cartoonist called Oliver East and a 200-mile walk across the country.
It was an incredibly tight turnaround – we had less than six weeks from commission to completion, and only three weeks from the shoot to the deadline. Dom shot the film, using drones and steadicam, and I cut it. I used the parallax effect for the first time to bring some of our amazing archive images to life. Technically we co-directed the film, but the story was so rich, the contributors so engaging, and the archive material so fascinating, that it pretty much directed itself.
Take Me Back To Manchester has now been shown at Toronto Comic Art Festival, and a shorter version will be screened on a loop in Manchester Museum.
Roll up, ladies and gentlemen, roll up…
This is my last film project for a while. I’ve really enjoyed working on this piece and To The End We Will Go, but I’m more than ready to get back to the Hollows. I’ve been maintaining my erratic early morning writing sessions, even if that means grabbing five minutes before Dora explodes downstairs demanding her breakfast. Those snatched sentences and stolen paragraphs might only give the book twenty words, fifty words, a hundred words a time, which feels painfully meagre in isolation, but they add up over weeks and months. I’m up to about 66,000 words, for all the difference it makes, and happy with where it’s going. I think again of how little I achieved last year, and feel a grim urge to push on and make up for so much wasted time.
Busy busy busy busy busy. This is what I am. I’m finalising my long-running hay meadows film for Cumbria Wildlife Trust, and I’ve just started work on another piece, a film I’m co-directing with my friend Dom Bush about an 1870s animal handler who bought an elephant at auction in Edinburgh, then walked it to Manchester; and the fantastic graphic novelist Oliver East who is retreading the same journey to write a new book. Perfectly normal stuff.
I’m still plugging away with my writing in the mornings, though it’s been slightly more erratic since the clocks went forward. I’ve struggled to catch up on that hour, but my body clock is finally starting to fall back into line. I’m making cautiously good progress. I still haven’t reached that tipping point I crave in my writing, but my new draft of The Hollows is up to about 55,000 words, which I reckon is pretty good going for two months of part-time work. I think I’m about halfway there. It’s starting to get exciting.
So all that, plus college, makes for the busy busy busy. Despite it all, we decided to flee for a couple of nights camping in Buttermere this week, and it was a glorious decision. We only went for two nights, but the lakes, the hills, were entirely perfect. Warm sun, tree swings, cold beers, cooking on a campfire. The forests around Loweswater and Buttermere resounded with woodpeckers. Each evening, we watched the farmer drive his eight cows past the campsite, through the car park, and up to the barns for milking.
The happiest part of the trip was seeing Dora playing outdoors. On a forest path or a pebble beach, her relentless curiosity has an infinite playground of climbing, counting, songs and stories. She tells herself stories, makes nests of magic twigs, decides where the treasure is hidden, then goes to find it.
We chatted to the farmer on our last morning as the tops of the mountains turned amber in sunrise. It’s been good to get away for a bit, we said. And Dora’s had a great time, too.
“Aye,” he said. “Well that’s what it’s all about. Trying to enjoy some living.”
On our last afternoon, we scratched letters to the universe on pebbles and skimmed them into Crummock Water. I hope the universe will write back.
Here’s a nice interview I did with Sue Allan of Cumbria Life last year. It was very weird going out for my first proper photo shoot, standing on the shores of Wet Sleddale, in sight of the farm where Withnail & I was shot, clouds luminous with light, icy winds sweeping across Shap Fell. I even shaved and everything.
Birds called from the web of girders inside the airport. The taxi ride into the city gave us billboards as long as sports fields, shanty towns on roadsides, golden Buddhas measuring every hundred metres of motorway. Bangkok itself was a sprawling, smoky, humid assault on the senses. Our hotel, crisp and air-conditioned, perched beside a lurid grey canal. The surface rippled constantly with the motions of a million tiny fish, while white and orange carp lazed at the surface, ghosts in the murk. A minute’s walk in either direction led to shanties of plastic sheets and corrugated iron. We wandered the neighbourhood. There was a temple on the other side of the block. There were temples everywhere. A minute away, a shop sold pictures of the king, four or five metres high, in ornate gilt frames. Thais are the friendliest people I’ve ever met, though Dora definitely helped us through the city. Her hair is such an unusual colour that people stopped us in the street to say hello, sawatdee ka, sawatdee ka. Mopeds use pavements like roads. Pedestrians take their chances in every crossing. We ate in open kitchens off the street, the smells of onions and ginger and drains all mingling into one rich fug. We met a man selling pad thai from a street cart. It was the best pad thai we’d ever eaten. He was the fourth generation of his family to sell pad thai on the streets of Bangkok, and he’d been doing it for forty years. Beside him, his mother, the third generation, a walnut of a woman, grinned and bowed as we devoured the noodles, sawatdee ka, sawatdee ka.
A young man with grey hair followed us from the hotel to the boat pier, stopping when we stopped. When we reached the river, we watched a metre-long monitor lizard slip into the water. We took the express boat from Banglumpo to Ko Wat, crowded in with tourists and Thais. The helmsman and the skipper communicated over the engine roar with a code of shrieking whistles. Egrets bobbed on rafts of vegetation and polystyrene. We spent the day marvelling at the cloisters of golden Buddhas, ate our first ever guava, and made friends with a Cambodian couple who crossed a park to take pictures of Dora. We dropped 108 coins in the 108 bowls that run alongside the reclining Buddha.
We walked back through Banglumpo markets. A man sold insects on skewers from a food cart – locusts, spiders, shiny black scorpions. The sign on his cart said photos cost 10 baht. I bet he makes more from photos than from food. A few stalls down from him, a beggar called out, baht, baht, baht, baht. He had long legs, though very thin, and long arms, but his torso was little bigger than his head. I watched a thickset American study him for minutes, then cross the road to give him several folded notes. The beggar said nothing, zipped the money into a small purse, and rattled his cup again. Baht, baht, baht, baht. The American scowled and walked away. The beggar’s face was at the height of the car exhausts. When they passed, he studied himself in the fleeting, warped reflection. Then he rattled his cup.
We picked up a flyer for a vegetarian cafe called Mango. It was some of the finest food I’ve ever eaten, fierce with ginger and sopped up with crispy dumplings. It was so good I wanted to hug the owner, Doo. He told us about his farm in the mountains, where they grow all their own food – everything they use comes from the farm. Four hip backpackers, wrapped up in finding themselves, complained that there wasn’t enough potato in their curry. Doo apologised, and they didn’t even acknowledge him. When we left, he was off to one side. He was sculpting, with his studio open onto the restaurant. He was making a beautiful goddamn elephant, and it was as perfect as his food.
Entire neighbourhoods built on stilts, thriving in the shadow of the underpass. Herons fishing from the bamboo rafts that trap sewage on the river. Duk-duk drivers hawking on the ground when we turned them down. Monks taking selfies. A tree surgeon, five metres up, without a harness, one foot on a stump and the other on a telegraph cable, leaning up to cut the branch above his head. Skinny cats, their tails lost to traffic. School kids chasing us to say hello to Dora. Families of five on mopeds. The rangy man who followed us, always ten paces behind, stopping when we stopped.
Jet lag kills me. When I first went to Australia, I didn’t sleep at all for two days, then slept almost continually for a week. In Bangkok, I kept waking in the night, and lying awake while cats yowled in alleyways and the roads hummed with mopeds. I thought I had a handle on Charlie Hebdo, until I saw some French language news on the television. They ran through some of the cartoons drawn in response. They showed one of Asterix and Obelix, simply bowing, and I burst into tears.
Bangkok is a riot of sight and sound and colour and taste and especially smell. Acrid exhaust fumes, the sharp twist of boiling oil, honey frangipani, frying garlic. The people who watched us, morose, from their open front rooms, then burst into smiles when they saw my daughter. It has been a truly extraordinary experience. I’ve never known anything like it. We wish we were staying longer.
Next stop, Koh Samui.
It’s that time again. Last year, I cribbed together some resolutions. Looking back at them now, I’m quite pleased. The Hollows didn’t go according to plan, sure, but I’ve already talked about that, made my peace and moved on. I finished both Marrow and The Year Of the Whale, and I performed at Verbalise, Sprint Mill, Dreamfired, Bad Language and the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam. The only thing I didn’t tackle at all was writing and submitting more short stories. There simply wasn’t enough time on top of the chaos of everything else. Indeed, 2014 actually marked the first year since I started that I didn’t write a single short story, but that’s OK. I’ve been kinda busy.
People can be pretty disparaging about resolutions, but I’m coming to quite enjoy the process of making and sharing the things I’d like to do. Writing them out makes them more tangible, and leaving a record of what I’d like to do makes it more achievable. So here are some resolutions for 2015.
I kept last year’s resolution, and started climbing again. Not all that often, I suppose, but more often than never. I’d like to do more of the same this year. I’ve started going for a few hours on Monday afternoons, after I’ve finished work, and that’s been a perfect fit with my week. My fingers are slowly beginning to toughen up, week on week, and those little successes feed into each other. I’ll take my climbing shoes to Thailand to do a little bouldering on the beaches, and I hope to get out on some Lakeland rock this summer – the Langdale boulders won’t exactly be quaking with fear, but they give me plenty to aim for.
Yup. Again. It doesn’t stop, does it? This year, my writing ambitions are twofold. Even then, the first part is for fun: I want to release another flash fiction collection, which will possibly be called Real Life. I’ve been doing a night class in graphic design, and that’s really helped with the various processes involved. Making books is fun, and it’s addictive. A lot of the stories are ready, but my flash fiction took a back seat in the second half of 2014, and I want to tighten up the whole collection. Even then, though, I mostly want to direct my flash fiction for reading aloud, which is where it works the best – there are dates in my diary for 2015, and I’m already looking forward to stomping my way through some stories.
The second thing is bigger. I’d like to finish a first draft of The Hollows. I had the same ambition last year, and it didn’t happen for a bunch of reasons I’ve moaned about already. But this year is different. I’ve cleared most of my film jobs, I’m not going to work on other big writing projects (unless someone pays me a lot of money, which seems unlikely) and that gives me the space to be a bit more structured with my writing time. In the unlikely event that everything goes to plan, then I’ll get a solid two days a week from February to start finding my way again.
The Hollows is proving exactly as tricky to navigate as the swamp I initially wanted to write about. My head is a zoetrope of ideas, all glass pots and ghosts, ashes and blackened timbers, lost keys and tarot. Mon and I are going on honeymoon this year – we’re going to Thailand with Dora – and I’ll be taking my notebook and my fountain pen. Spending some time away from the internet, away from screens, away from everything except the people I love best, will give me space to work it out with pen and paper. At the moment, I’m not even sure if I’m dealing with one book or two. I’m orbiting the right story, peering down between the clouds, catching glimpses of what it’s going to be… but I still don’t know what it is.
I use a lot of metaphors for talking about writing. The weaving of a tapestry, the nurturing of some unknown seed, the orbiting of a strange moon, the navigation of a swamp. It consistently amuses and baffles me how I find it easier to clarify my thoughts on writing using almost anything other than writing itself. The act of making marks, in ink or pixels, is excruciatingly simple. But getting them in the right order? Damn. That bit is hard.
Dora is learning to write. She knows her letters, and she’s trying to form them all the time, trying to construct a sense of meaning. She can write her name, and if I help, she’ll try her hand at anything. The other day, she wanted to write ‘moose’ against her picture of a moose. I spelled it out for her – M – O – O – S – E – but she ran out of room, so went back to the beginning for the last letter, so the final word looked like ’emoos’. I tried to show her the correct way to spell it, but she wasn’t interested.
There’s probably a metaphor for writing in there, too, but I can’t make that out either.
Resolutions, like word counts and climbing grades, only matter to the person who makes them. And – like word counts, like climbing grades – they only matter if you push yourself within them. That means weaving a tapestry – nursing a seed – orbiting a moon – navigating a swamp – or, sometimes – making a mark that matters to you, even if you get it wrong.
Happy New Year, folks.