The 21st Century Is Old Enough To Legally Drink Alcohol: A Diary of Life, One Day in 2018, For My Future Self


I don’t really have regrets in life. I’m not giving myself some bollocks motivational pep talk here, or coercing myself to view it that way; I just find it hard to have a regret, because I find it hard to view most events in my life in as black and white a way as to box them as “a regret” or “definitely not a regret”. My parents sometimes say they wish they had sent me to the quite nice secondary school we lived five miles away from when I was 11, rather than the rough, apathetic secondary school we lived four miles away from, which I did go to and whose roughness and apathy becomes more lucid to me with every year that passes and every further fact I learn about the rest of the planet. They needn’t worry. It worked out ok. It’s quite good to go to a shit school in lots of ways, and lots of other experiences in life serve as metaphorical shit schools: tough experiences you are ultimately glad you went through. However, I think I can view one thing in my life plainly as “a regret” and that is the fact that I didn’t keep journals prior to my 30s. I’m not just talking about ideas I could have jotted down and have lost; I would also like to read them simply to find out what life was like then. The little differences in the everyday. What was it like to arrange to meet someone at 8 by the Left Lion in Nottingham Market Square, and not have any way of contacting them if they didn’t turn up, or cancelling at the last minute? What was it like to not constantly have stuff buzzing at you, and to have an attention span not run over with the microplane grater of technology? Soon, the stuff I’ve said here will look old too, maybe even quaint, so I’m writing it primarily for the future me who might view it as old, or quaint, and enjoy swimming in the detail for a bit. The ground is slowly shifting beneath your feet, all the time, and before you know it you’re in a different place. A minute ago, we were all wondering if there was something we could call these first two decades that wouldn’t sound awkward. The Noughties? Eugh. The Teens? Pfff. It looked like being a long term problem. Soon they’ll be over, and it will be the the Good Solid 20s: a decade that, the last time it came along, was confident enough to be a Jazz Age. The 21st Century is already old enough to legally drink alcohol.

Nobody should go to a supermarket when they’re very hungry or not hungry at all. Supermarkets must always be negotiated at a medium hunger level. I would quite like to go back to a supermarket from the 80s. Maybe the Co-op I used to go to with my nan, where you sometimes found old ladies – although not my nan herself – shopping in their slippers. I am sure the food in supermarkets was a different colour then. I am also sure supermarkets were far less cold. Some supermarkets are brutally cold now. I have been known to choose my supermarket based less on budget and quality of stock and more on how nesh I am likely to get in their cool aisle. I also get IDed in supermarkets now far more than I used to get IDed when I was close to an age where I should realistically have been IDed. I was asked for ID in Waitrose in Gillingham the other week. I’m 43. I admit it made me feel good but it’s probably no reason to get cocky or smug. Adults find it harder to judge how old other other adults are nowadays, generally, I think. I’m constantly thinking 32 year-olds are 20. Sleep also affects the matter a lot. Once you’re over 30, you can look any age from 21 to 86, depending on how much sleep you’ve had. Today I look about 67, but that’s because I didn’t sleep last night. My last landlord thought I was 29. The night before I met him, I’d slept very deeply, and I am sure this explains it. I mistook myself for 27 for a whole month recently but then had more than three drinks one night and remembered the next morning that I was in fact not 27 and had not been for a long time.

I am listening to two audiobooks at the moment: The English And Their History, by Robert Tombs, and Life by Keith Richards. The former I expected to be utterly fascinating, and it is. The other, I didn’t have very high hopes for, but I’m twenty minutes from the end now, and it’s been great fun, a bit flabby at the beginning and end, but full of insight, and revealing Keith as far more of a softy than many people might take him for: forever musically open-minded, animal-loving, full of integrity and terminally curious about the world. He talks of his one problematic pet, a myna bird. “It was like living with Mick in the room in a cage, always pursing his beak,” he remembers. More time is devoted to a story from the late 1990s about some missing spring onions at his daughter’s wedding than to the making of 1976’s Black And Blue LP. Bafflingly, Johnny Depp reads the opening section of the book, then – with no warning – a guy called Joe Hurley takes over, doing what seems to be a Stella-Street style impression of a sleep-deprived, wasted Keith, then sticks around for the next ten hours or so, before Depp – again without warning – returns for the last section, where the Stones stop writing good music and Keith explains what a total prat Mick has become.

I moved a plant – a plant I love, which has lived with me almost forever, with a pot full of earth and big pebbles, and which even the strongest of the removal men who helped me move house recently would not risk carrying alone – and deranged a disc on the lower left side of my back. A deranged disc sounds much wilder and more rock’n’roll than a slipped disc, but isn’t as bad. But it’s been quite bad, and limiting, and has made me realise that a back isn’t a thing to be taken for granted, ever. I find myself thinking a lot at the moment about the stuff I can take for granted, in the rush of life. Other functioning body parts. Having a brilliant family. Being able to enjoy music. Walking. I want to find more ways to slow down and appreciate it all.

One of the most amazing things I ever found in an old box was a scrap of paper from 1984 on which, in red felt-tip, I’d noted down my top records of the week. Some were as anticipated (Nik Kershaw, Duran Duran), some were a total surprise (Propaganda). In the same spirit, here, for future me, are my top records of this week:

Pentangle – The Pentangle

NWA – Straight Outta Compton

Pentangle – Reflection

Marsha Hunt – (Oh No! Not) The Beast Day

Booker T – Tennessee Voodoo

Pure Prairie League – Pure Prairie League

Charlie Brown – Charlie Brown

The Lemonheads – Shame About Ray

Bonnie Koloc – Bonnie Koloc

I’ve never taken coke or, to my knowledge, had a helicopter doing surveillance on me. Yet, merely because I watched Goodfellas at an impressionable age, and several times since, every time I see a helicopter I feel like I’m on coke and the helicopter is doing surveillance on me. I have felt like this for two and a half decades now. I wonder if it will ever change.

Social media seems to be full of all this “love yourself” life coach stuff nowadays. I’d like to see a bit more “Like yourself, but also be sure to regularly take the piss out of yourself, and don’t be such a fucking bighead.”

You can’t win, as a writer, so you should never see it as being about winning. You can read the best book you’ve ever read, by a writer whose lyricism and insight and wisdom leaves you in awe, and you’ll find a one star review of it somewhere on the Internet left by someone who, not content with just being an idiot, wants to be a bastard too, and gets their kicks from trying to ruin somebody’s day. If you get published, it’s going to happen to you, so get ready. You’re never going to please everyone and “getting better” doesn’t necessarily mean “success”, in any conventional definition of the term. Some people would actually prefer that you wrote inferior books to those you are capable of. So you might as well just say fuck it and do what you enjoy doing most. Some writers come straight out of the blocks and write their best book. I was never going to be one of them: I didn’t have the education or the confidence or the wisdom. My books were always going to be a necessary learning process. That said, I see attitude as being responsible for a marked difference between my first six books and my latest four. I’m being a bit harsh on myself here, as I enjoyed a lot of the writing of my first six books, but ultimately they’re books written by someone who was trying to write the books he thought people wanted him to write. My latest four – and especially my latest two – are different. They’re books by someone writing the books he wants to write.

It felt like irons were poised to be a much more important aspect of life, when I was growing up. Same with shoe polish. I’ve got an iron, but I haven’t used it for ages, and I haven’t applied any shoe polish to a shoe for even longer. Life has gone on, and nothing too horrific has happened as a direct result of my neglect. If you’re diligent about ironing you might spend, say, 13 hours of the next year ironing. You’ll have neat clothes but remember the cost: that’s 13 hours you’ve lost that you could have used walking through haunted forests, visiting esoteric museums or befriending strange dogs.

Loads of people start sentences with “So…” at the moment. It’s been happening very noticeably for about three years. I imagine it’s probably something to do with diminished attention spans, and the fact that “So…” is quite a good way to get people’s attention and convey a sense that you’re about to make an involving and well-explained statement. I’m sure I’ve slipped into the habit on occasion, and I’ve had a word with myself about it. Some people who don’t start sentences with “So…” have been a bit mean about people who start sentences with “So…”, but there are definitely worse things a person can do than start a sentence with “So…”

I was born midway through 1975, and, with the advent of my birth, popular music instantly went into irreversible decline. I apologise profusely to anyone who has suffered because of this. All my life, I have been obsessively interested in the music, films, books, clothes, cars and architecture of the era immediately preceding my existence, but in reality this thrilling aesthetic period was also when humans were at their most environmentally destructive. I often tell people I want to live in 1969 but that’s not true. I want to live in my own optimistically edited version of 1969 with a high level of ecological awareness, better food and bath products, no sexism or racism, plus easily available roadside recovery.

Growing up – and I include part of being a fully grown adult in my definition of “growing up” here – I was warned a lot about the dangers of having no money, of all the bad things that could happen to you if you didn’t work hard enough. What I wasn’t warned about were the bad things that could happen to you if you worked too hard. There is a fear in me that comes from what I was told about money and work when I was young but from something ingrained by centuries, too: being from generation upon generation of people with not even a tiny cushion of wealth. I also remember what it felt like when it seemed like nobody was going to pay me to write any more. So I sometimes push, because of the fear, and believe I’m Superman, that I can do three times as much as others do in a day, and I end up wearing myself out. But I view The Fear mostly as a positive thing. It lines my writing with something it wouldn’t be lined with if I’d had a family I could turn to for money or came from a more middle class background. But The Fear doesn’t want me to be truly comfortable. It has a fear of that too. It just wants a modicum of freedom. I am not saying that writers from more affluent backgrounds aren’t driven by a fear, but my fear is different, and it’s a part of what has shaped my writing life. It has taken me a while to fully recognise that.

Some luck is earned but some comes about by pure chance. One way I was lucky by pure chance is that I managed to get paid work in the media as a provincial 20 year-old, with no A-levels or degree, from a working class family. My luck was being 20 in an era when stuff like that was more possible. To do the same now would be much, much harder, and I wish it wasn’t.

I tire of hand-cooked crisps. They don’t excite me. Crisps cooked by the assured steel talons of robot hawks would at least make a nice change. Expensive crisps do nothing for me. Crisps are the most subversive snack because they rewrite the established rules of food pricing: the cheaper you go, the better the taste. There is a lower limit to this rule, however, as the packet of Aldi Monster Claws my friend Andrew bought me last year demonstrated.

I need more pens. I always need more pens. But I always forget to buy them. What I don’t need is more notebooks, yet I buy stacks of them. I will always buy too many notebooks because, no matter what experience tells me, I am always convinced the next notebook will be The One. I’m massively anti wasting paper and massively pro beginning fresh notebooks and it causes me to lead a very conflicted life.

Before I post something on social media, even if it’s not opinionated or contentious – which it almost never is, with me – I have already mentally pre-written upwards of thirty potential replies to it in my head: the sarcastic ones, the uppity ones, the invasive ones, the passive-aggressive ones focussing on something irrelevant in the corner of a photo, the ones that tell you you’re rich because you own a nice chair and four nice lamps even though in reality you can’t afford to buy a house, the ones that tell you you’re looking tired, the ones that tell you you have lived an entirely blessed life from beginning to end because you once walked to a field where a flower was growing wild and took a photo of it. This has become more necessary over the last few years, and I don’t expect the pattern to go into reverse any time soon. It comes, of course, hand in hand with a huge amount of good vibes from good people that far outweigh the bad but I do feel it’s all got to be finite for me. I don’t want to carry on looking at screens as much as I do now and there will be a point when I withdraw. I have already withdrawn a bit. I will never go on TV. I no longer write for newspapers. I don’t want to be well-known or in people’s face and I don’t enjoy self-promotion; I just want to write, and be read. When I fantasise about my future, I fantasise mainly about all the books I still want to read and write, but that fantasy goes hand in hand with a fantasy about having more time to read and write them, and, at more extreme times, the fantasy extends to not telling people about them at all – maybe just leaving them in a cave, in a damp-proof bag. It’s a fantasy that a properly well-off person might even be able to go through with. Someone who, say, owned four nice chairs, and sixteen nice lamps. But even if I was to attain this position of rare luxury I doubt I’d go through with it. I write for myself, and I’m rubbish at dealing with compliments, but I’m also human. I like feedback.

I used to be very attracted to mysterious people, in both a romantic and non-romantic sense, and I don’t think that’s changed, but I think my definition of “mysterious” has. People who gave very little away and used words sparingly were often extremely alluring to me. Sometimes, though, people give very little away and use words sparingly for a very disappointing reason: they’ve got little of interest, worth or generosity to say. Clumsiness, openness, storytelling, warmth, manners, honesty, a self-awareness centred around absurdity – that’s where the real magic is, and, often, another, deeper kind of mystery. Some of the most talkative people I’ve met are also some of the most mysterious.

One of the reasons I want to read old diaries I didn’t keep is that I want to find out quite mundane stuff about my immediate environment at the time: how much stuff cost, what I did in an average day, what I ate. Today I ate the dusty end of a box of Dorset Muesli (which is dusty, even though people say it isn’t, although admittedly not as dusty as the end of the packet of most mueslis) with some blueberries on top, some onion bread type stuff and tomatoes for lunch, then for dinner threw together an omelette with pretty much all the leftovers I had in the fridge. The latter tasted astoundingly good even though I damaged it a bit when I flipped it. I hold butter, rather than my own culinary skill, responsible. I went to see an excellent chiropractor in Wincanton who prodded and jerked me in lots of helpful ways. The appointment cost £32. I posted half a dozen signed copies of my new hardback at Wincanton post office, which I could only tell was a post office because it said “Post Office” outside and had some scales. The weather is just getting slightly cooler, after several days of perfect blue skies shining down on LSD leaves. Insects are still quite confused. A shield bug flew through my living room window and landed on Pentangle’s ‘Reflection’ LP, which I had somehow ranked in my head as the weakest Pentangle LP: something that isn’t true, because there is no weak Pentangle LP. Every Pentangle LP is perfect, even in its small flaws. The photos of Pentangle on the inner gatefold cover of ’Reflection’- the particular combination of hair and knitwear and winter coats and the washed out green-brown light – always remind me of the way the now sadly defunct folk band The Eighteenth Day Of May looked when I met them in a pub in Caxton in Cambridgeshire during the researching of a feature I was writing on them for the Observer which, out of all the features for newspapers I didn’t end up actually writing, was definitely the one I spent most time on and was most disappointed not to write. That is now 12 years ago and that fact hits me hard because I feel I could open the door of that pub now and The Eighteenth Day Of May would still look the same, be the same, have the same jumpers. ‘Reflection’ is next to me now. I’m writing this sitting on the squeaky 1970s leather sofa I bought remarkably cheap a year and a half ago at an auction in Bristol, but should be at a standing desk, because that’s what the chiropractor said would be best for my back. My black and white cat Roscoe has just come in, spooked, having been chased by a new neighbourhood cat that looks like a fatter-headed, meaner-eyed version of her. I’m reading the at times heart-stoppingly sad In Camden Town by David Thomson, from 1983: a book about a part of the UK I thought I wasn’t very interested in, but am now, very, because a great writer can make any place or subject interesting. I am carrying around with me today a feeling that I know too many people, which is one I didn’t begin to carry around with me until about seven years ago, but am carrying a concomitant feeling that I don’t want to stop myself getting to know more people. Even though it’s not technically true, I feel like I’ve done nothing but reply to messages since I woke up, yet I’m heading to bed with a feeling of guilt about all the people I haven’t texted, emailed or called, as I so often do.

Have a read of my new book, Help The Witch.

30 thoughts on “The 21st Century Is Old Enough To Legally Drink Alcohol: A Diary of Life, One Day in 2018, For My Future Self

  1. I’m sitting in a small classroom in a cram school in Taiwan with 3 teenage boys whose grasp of sexual double entendre and innuendo is far too good to require much teaching. I miss the English countryside that I hardly knew, so much and I love your writing as it brings back what little I know. 30 years ago I left UK with so little forethought and so much anger and swore never to come back . But I have every few years. I love your writing and hope you are well and often happy and will continue to share your life.

  2. I laughed out loud several times. As a 40 something from a working class background I can relate to much here Tom. I too wish I had kept journals to reflect on. Thanks for a great read 😺

  3. Just read your piece and thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you. I, too, collect notebooks, but then never use them. So, if you ever run out I can always top up your supply!

  4. There is something lovely about the way you write. It makes be feel safer than before l read it. Always worth the effort required by a dyslexic like me.

  5. Evocative as always.

    I wish I’d kept the diary I wrote as a 10 year old, I suspect it would be a little confronting, 1975 was not a good idea.

  6. Even when you write a small piece on your thoughts it’s eloquent, true and I suspect many people have these thoughts but never say or do anything about it. As you get older you do think back and wonder about things. Like you I have no regrets what was happened and can’t be changed. So many people live either in the past or future not in the present. They miss so much of the little things that matter. Your books give an insight into a way of life we would like to live. ❤️

  7. There is something very comforting and profound in your writing Tom, and I hope you continue to share your stories. Your humour is generous, and your observations of human frailty, and everything else, are a joy to read. Thanks for putting it out there in the world.

  8. So many of the things you write about, Tom, resonate with me. You’re the words in my head but in the right order! Reading your work brings me cimfort and delight. Thank you. Also love your new book! Spooky!

  9. So many of the things you write about, Tom, resonate with me. You’re the words in my head but in the right order! Reading your work brings me comfort and delight. Thank you. Also love your new book! Spooky!

  10. I switched to writing letters to close friends when I found it impossible to write things in journals without later destroying them. I was always too self-critical, but for some reason others seemed to value what I wrote them, even more than knowing me as a person otherwise. Now nobody writes letters (or even emails) anymore, the travel journaling I’ve done has never been read (unless my mom still goes through my things as I’m convinced she always did), and most of the time I’m traveling I’m busy interacting, observing, or sleeping instead of having time to write anyway. I do still miss writing though, so I need to work on becoming interested in myself enough to start going off by myself and writing again, instead of sleeping during whatever film or tv show is on for the sake of human companionship, or pursuing other forms of creativity I’m less suited for. Until then, I relish the thought and detail with which you share your unique take on life.

  11. Hey Tom!

    Brilliant as always!
    I’ve just given Pentangle a listen, and I’m not at all suprised by the fact you like them, very mellow from what I’ve heard so far.

    Keep it up, don’t stop what you do, it’s bloody fantastic!

  12. Your old diary musings really made me think, Tom. I wrote one in the mid 70s when I was at secondary school. I only really wrote about food. Detailed descriptions of my packed lunches every day, which I tried to make interesting (the lunches, not the descriptions) with custard doughnuts and Kennerty yogurts from the village shop. Yogurts were exotic then. I remember some comments about radio music programmes, boys and buses. I think my mum chucked the diary out when I left home. I suspect it would not have been a great addition to Irving Finkel’s Great Diary Project.

  13. I’m sure there are many worse things than starting sentences with “So” but it drives me crazy. I heard a TV presenter say it 4 times in the one short discussion.

    Love your thoughts

  14. I truly enjoyed this piece. I write up some memories of my small-town (USA) childhood for a newsletter; I think I would find myself burdened by notes in a journal. Perhaps what is most important about memories is that they distill to an essence of why we have become our present self, and not that they always be spot on accurate as to details.

  15. Great writing, as always, Tom. Good advice about not shopping hungry or too full, either. And it’s wonderful that you found a good chiropractor. I’ve been hoping your back is feeling a lot better.

  16. ‪Reading this piece was like being invited to listen in on the stream of conversations we all have going on in our heads most of the time. In this case your conversations, which I found more interesting than my own often are. Maybe that’s because they’re mine, and so familiar. The piece seems on the surface to jump from subject to subject, but it really doesn’t. It’s like a collection of mini essays on life reflections in Tom’s world-past, present and future, big and small. Anyway, that’s what it seemed like to me. I have a feeling there’s more in the spaces than I got this time, so I’ll need to read it again in a different mood, or at a different time of day. Regardless, it’s a privilege to be allowed to listen in, so thanks.

  17. Agreeing with all the comments above. Thanks for the insight into your creative journey as well – I feel I’m about 5-10 years behind you in my own process, but without reading your insight into it all, I think I might not have looked hard enough At myself to realize what path I was on in the first place. Pieces like this encourage people to look at themselves and to relax a little about things. But the fear is always on my mind as well, and it’s good to know others share that pressure. I don’t think it’s a bad thing either….

  18. Ah, the good old left lion! I have fond memories of meeting and being stood up by people there. Left lion and then onto Rock City or The Broadway cinema was the usual routine.
    Loved reading this, I wish I’d kept better journals growing up too. Would be interesting to look back. It would probably be a mixture of moaning about my friends and family, comments on the latest Buffy episode and various bits of poetry written in that fake Atlantis language Disney invented which I learned by heart so I could write secret messages to people, but never did as nobody else bothered to learn it!
    Left lion forever!

  19. Well that really brightened up my morning. Especially the part where I had to explain to my 3 year-old niece about notebooks. Twice. I love reading what other people write. Thanks Tom.

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