High Summer: A Personal Compendium

We’ve all done very well at forgetting it very quickly, but there was a time not all that long ago when people arranged to meet in a place, sometimes even quite a vague place, well in advance, then trusted each other would be there, having no reason to assume otherwise, and did not fret that the other person would not turn up. When my girlfriend and I left our first Glastonbury Festival, we walked out of the gates then followed a narrow country lane jammed with stationary traffic for around two miles, over a hill, in the hope that we would eventually find the car containing my dad, who had kindly agreed to drive all the way from Nottinghamshire and pick us up. I am not certain, but from what I have worked out over the last year, the spot where we eventually found him was only a few yards from the house I now rent. Last week, exactly quarter of a century later, I did the same walk in reverse, from my front door to the now massively expanded festival site, where I was meeting several friends, at some point later, in no particular spot, the specifics of which we would decide via text messages. In 1994, my friends and I wondered why we’d paid for our tickets at all, as we watched a stream of people crawl through a hole in the fence thirty yards from our tents. This year, three days before the start of the festival, on a lane over two miles from the festival gates, my car was flagged down by an aggressive security guard, who, very reluctant to believe I lived nearby, told my friend Will and I about the serious terrorist threat faced by this year’s festival, and instructed us, “Believe me, you don’t want to see MY FACE again, so I wouldn’t drive up here again in the next week, if I were you.” For someone who claimed not to want us to be on this bit of road, she seemed inordinately keen to keep us on it for as long as possible and, after the fifth or sixth sentences she’d begun with “I’m not being funny but…” – the central hallmark of all people who are, in fact, being funny – it became clear that, for her, this was for the most part not about security, it was about pleasure: that particular kind taken when revelling in a small amount of power.

Because I’ve known I’ll be moving house – and knew that it would likely be to a smaller building – I have been jettisoning possessions for the last few months: books, especially. What it’s left me with is the realisation that I still have a massive amount of books, even having got rid of a massive amount of books. There are two reasons for this: a) I love books, and b) I am now reasonably old and, like most reasonably old people, have had a greater, lengthier opportunity to purchase books than people who are less old. Despite the fact that a few of my books are quite valuable, nearly all the books I decided to part ways with have gone to charity shops or friends. I like giving stuff to friends and charity and, with a few exceptions (thank you for being nice, Lily, at Topsham Books), I find the process of selling books to secondhand book dealers fairly objectionable. The worst kind of secondhand book dealer will want you to haggle and look sad, as he sneers and tells you how little your books are worth. But in this approach he misunderstands the main agenda of someone like me, which is to get away from his presence as quickly as possible.

I am moving to a bungalow. It will be my third bungalow in six years. I am not down with the anti-bungalow thrust of popular opinion that tends to prevail in the UK. A bungalow is precisely what you make it. In America, a bungalow is not generally seen as an expanded antechamber to death; it can be exciting and glamorous. It is a California ranch house. It might have a heart-shaped swimming pool. Eve Babitz might decide to live there, and The Doors might then write a song about it. Put a record on? Here’s some great news: you can hear it in every room. Got an ancient arthritic cat who hates stairs? His life will be easier. Forgot a book or cardigan? Don’t worry: it’s just a few yards away, on the same floor. What is not to love?

My dad often loses me at night. I am a few inches taller than my dad, but in his dreams I am tiny, and he is often forgetting where he put me, before locating me in coat pockets and empty coffee mugs. Sometimes in the dreams, I take the form of a bird and fly away. One night last month my mum woke to a duet: my dad shouting in his sleep and their cat, who was once called Clifton and is currently known as The Bridget, wailing. In my dad’s dream on this particular night a boxer dog had me in its mouth and was running away with me, and he had grabbed its tail in an attempt to stop it. “Fortunately The Bridget didn’t seem hurt afterwards, just a bit upset,” my mum assured me.

There was a point in my life where I thought the world was evolving in a way where people would gradually talk less shit but it turns out I was wrong. Somewhere history took another turn, and to speak in sentences made up entirely of bubbles of rancid hot air became the norm. “Influencer”, “reaching out”, “networking” – these are now phrases people use with either no awareness of how grasping and unpleasant it makes them sound, or total awareness of that coupled with a hardfaced chutzpah about it. I will never reach out, I am not interested in influencing anybody to do anything other than maybe casually check out a record or book I’ve enjoyed or be nicer to animals and the environment, and if some networking is happening I will go to a quiet place where it is not happening and hide. I don’t have a network. I have some mates. My network is an old broken cobweb in my bathroom that I’m trying to rescue a moth from.

My friend Chloe, who lives in the Mendips, lost her hen. A neighbour telephoned to say the hen had been spotted at Wookey Hole, the subterranean tourist hotspot down the road, which, in addition to its world famous caves and alleged witch, boasts such tourist attractions as a vintage penny arcade, an animatronic dinosaur valley and a pirate zap zone. By the time Chloe arrived, the hen had reached the crazy golf course, popularly known as Pirate Island. It was a busy bank holiday at the caves, and as Chloe chased the hen across the crazy golf course, lunging for the hen, and the hen repeatedly eluded her grasp, tourists attempted to get selfies with the hen. After much chasing between the holes – both those designed by nature, and those designed by the crazy golf course’s architects – with little help from the tourists, Chloe caught the hen, and returned it to her garden, where two weeks later it was devoured by a fox.

It took me years of seeing all the heavily promoted “big” books pushed to the fore in bookshop displays before I realised it didn’t necessarily mean those books were always being repeatedly read and repeatedly loved; sometimes it just meant they were being bought. For a spell, I now realise, my books were designed by my former publishers to be bought, not loved. The publishers put covers I disliked on the books, in an attempt to get the books into supermarkets. The covers were misleading: they put a lot of people off who might have liked the books, but encouraged a lot of people who probably weren’t going to like them to buy them. They were chosen on the basis that what matters is sales, not art or longevity. The last six years, and very particularly the last three years, have been very different for me. I do things stubbornly just for me, and am far more interested in writing a book I’m proud of than a book that sells a lot, and I have a publisher who understands that, and because they understand that, it means I take more care over my work. Ultimately it works out better for everyone which, when you think about it, is kind of ironic.

It’s interesting, when you’re looking at houses to rent, that it’s often the dingiest, dirtiest, most tastelessly decorated places that stipulate “NO PETS” most violently. Have the landlords of these houses ever considered that truly discerning pets might not actually want to live in them?

As someone who has spent almost his entire life living in various parts of the British countryside, I can confirm that the area between Glastonbury and Castle Cary contains the strongest rural smells in the country. It goes through waves, but the main smell is not manure, more slurry; it’s salty, industrial, laced with manufactured cow. There have been days recently when the smell coming off the fields around my house has been so strong, it has permeated everything: my house, my bedclothes, my fresh washing, my hair, the very fabric of my being.

My friends Michelle and Sara tried to buy a loaf of bread from the all-night petrol station in Wells, the smallest city in England. The man in the kiosk wouldn’t sell it to them because it wouldn’t fit through the gap under the window. The bread was sliced, so Sara suggested feeding it through the gap, piece by piece, which would have definitely worked, but the man refused, on the basis that he wasn’t authorised to do that.

My dad has come to an arrangement with the public pool in Nottinghamshire where he swims: after everyone else has got out the pool, he is permitted do a somersault, before he gets changed. “THEY OPEN UP THE STORAGE CUPBOARD AND LET ME GO IN THERE SO I CAN GET A GOOD RUN UP,” he said. Last week my dad, who will be 70 in August, got his friend Malcolm, who is 73, to film the somersault. “It’s shattered all his illusions,” my mum told me. “Until he saw the film he thought he was creating poetry in motion. But it’s really just an old bloke who can’t run fast doing a sideways flop.”

I walked the Glastonbury site a week after the festival’s final curtain. It seemed even more vast than it did when it was full of people: a post-apocalyptic dust city, overrun with gulls, many of them carrying flickknives and/or nunchakus. Dead badgers ringed its tarmac borders. I’m one of those unusual Outdoor People who is also Not Really A Festival Person, and I’d had misgivings about agreeing to talk at the festival, having discovered its founder Michael Eavis is pro-badger cull, and having had the not-so-pleasant exchange with the security guard, but I enjoyed my two days there. I enjoyed it because I spent it in excellent company, and because I found the “temporary metropolis” aspect so interesting: the sight of all those lights, on the hill in the distance, as far away as a suburb is from a humming marketplace, yet still part of this same vast gathering you were attending. It made me think of cities, the way they are made, the way they bludgeon and transform the land, and what will be found beneath them when they have rotted away. Also: Fatoumata Diawara’s set was fucking amazing.

Something a little unexpected happened when I was writing the final part of my latest book: the book (which contains many hills) told me that what I needed to do next, both for me and my work, was to move back to the far east of the UK (where there are few hills). I decided to listen, and – after a huge amount of prevaricating and disappointment – found a place to rent there. A couple of weeks ago, only a couple of hours after receiving a call to say the place was definitely mine to rent, I stood on one of the highest points in the Mendips, surrounded by wildflowers, with a handful of friends, and looked at one of the most beautiful views in the country, with the knowledge that I was going to a place where you didn’t get views even slightly comparable to this. The Somerset Levels, close to where I lived now, stretched into the distance, towards Dartmoor, where I’d lived last year, and south Devon, where I’d lived between early 2014 and the end of 2017. In the five and a half years I’ve lived in it – ignoring the aberration of three months on top of a giant snow-dashed hill in The Peak District – The West Country has been good to me, both in a creative and personal sense, but the whole time I’ve been here, a torn feeling has persisted, my extreme love for Norfolk and Suffolk has never died and Norwich has never stopped being my favourite city. I suspect I might always feel like this. Maybe I will continue to zigzag from one side of the country to the other forever. It will be tiring, but there could be worse lives to live. The West has tuned me into the East in a new way and I feel enormously excited about revisiting the places I used to go, with fresh eyes, and discovering plenty of new ones. Everywhere is interesting if you approach it from the right angle. I stared out to the elbow delineating land from sea, where the peninsula begins, and where the sun would soon fall into the water, and felt about as right as anyone can feel upon experiencing the pain of leaving a place of magic and wonder.

To order a special first edition hardback of my new book Ring The Hill, click  here.

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My previous book is called Help The Witch. I have a few signed copies of it here: if you’d like to order one of these direct from me, email me via this form.

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16 thoughts on “High Summer: A Personal Compendium

  1. As a temporary dweller of different parts in different parts of the country perhaps you need a camper van. I’m not sure the cats would take to it so just ignore my suggestion.

  2. I am enormously excited you are moving somewhere to revisit places…as I am sure it will mean another book…please say it will ….I know it will😊 happy move day.

  3. I have always enjoyed your writing about cats and also about countryside and landscape. I am a West Country woman, born in Somerset and now living in Wiltshire, which I love – I went to the Summer Solstice at Stonehenge last month, it was incredible and moving. Will tru to buy your new book from my nearest independent bookshop. I would love to know how Roscoe is.

  4. beautifully written, Tom. your writing brings me to a place of peace and comfort. i am on a road trip at the moment, packed into a car with four other people. but for the last ten minutes i was somewhere else. thank you.

  5. I grew up in East Anglia, settled in Wiltshire, and have strong family ties to the Highlands, so this is a familiar sensation. Wherever I am, something is always tugging me back somewhere far away. It’s a curious sensation, and rather plaintive, but on balance, I think I like it.

  6. This has brought tears to my eyes. I’ve really enjoyed learning about the West Country from your writing and am sad that you will be saying goodbye to it, but I am excited to learn more of Norfolk and Suffolk. All the best for the move. Hope it goes smoothly for you. Hopefully you will be up at Scarthin Books again soon. Lovely piece of writing again Tom.

  7. Hoping one of your future moves could be antipodean. Your views on life here in Australia could be illuminating…We love your writing.

  8. I like your work I love the feel and smell of books whether new or old. You writing about summer and your upcoming move is honest simple and pleasing to me and many more x

  9. Hello from Cornwall, Thank you for your lovely writing. My daughter introduced me but I’m sure my two cats had a paw or 2 in that deal! Born in Somerset, I have lived all over UK & even Turkey for a while. You make me see even more positives in being rooted in lots of wonderful places. Best wishes, Mary J xx

  10. When I talk about your books to people who haven’t yet read them I always say that what I love the most is the subtle humour that you find in your varied experiences. Much nature writing is steeped in pessimism, but to care about the environment around us we have to believe that it can be saved, however hard that task is. I heard one eminent and influential author say that “fundamentally, the world is f****d”, and if we accept that, then some may think why bother with what’s still here? Live for the moment and trash everything.

    I know each of your books is different, but I hope there’s room for a bit of your Dad somewhere in the next one. On my way to Port Eliot soon – we will miss your talks this year.

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