Late Autumn 2019: A Personal Compendium

For centuries, strange beasts have been spotted in the waves, at the eastern extremities of Suffolk and Norfolk: giant serpents, a sermonising beflippered clergyman. I want to believe all of them exist, but on a wild day at Horsey Gap, when the sea mist is up and a seal pops its head up from the surf, twenty yards ahead of me, I can – especially if I squint a bit – understand a more rational explanation. There are few better places in Britain in November than Horsey to witness the habits of grey seals or, as they were sometimes referred to in the 1500s by those with an overactive ecclesiastical imagination, “sea bishops”. Right now, there are dozens of them on the beach, mating and giving birth and yawning and stretching like lovely big old velvet post-prandial aquatic professors. The advisory signs and volunteer Seal Wardens at Horsey rightly advise not to go within ten metres of the seals, which, fortunately, is easily close enough to see the sad beautiful intelligence in their eyes and begin to understand the more-eclectic-than-you-thought nature of seal life: all the different dappled shapes and all the soft and gruff and light and heavy character within it. The car park costs three pounds, none of which, scandalously, goes to seals, so I would advise leaving your car further away – perhaps doing a picturesque, reed-heavy walk from Horsey Windpump which, if you manage not to immediately begin repurposing as an insult to describe various prominent Tory politicians, you’re a more restrained person than me. This walk will take you past Brograve Drainage mill, which, not long after its construction in the mid 1700s, the Devil tried and failed to blow down. Unaccessible from the footpath, but viewable from the other side of Waxham new cut drainage ditch, the latter mill is now a slightly leaning wreck inhabited by cormorants, greylag geese and ghosts. As I watched a cormorant balance on its sail, like some omen of Broadland death, I listened for the wailing of drowned children, which is said to be heard coming from Horsey Mere on quiet, cold days. The wailing of the ghost children would not be quite in close enough proximity to harmonise with the sound of the seals on the beach, who can be quite noisy: the one attribute that makes the collective noun for seals, “rookery”, a tiny bit less than confusing. Horribly, several seals have recently been seriously injured by plastic objects at Horsey. As I thought about this and watched a mother seal visibly panic as a passing couple let their dog get too close to her and her pup, I fantasised about a world where humans and their indulgences did not impact on these magnificent creatures, and I did not mourn our absence.

In eras to come, the rise of plastic will surely be remembered as humanity’s most baffling collective delusion. How did we ever not all realise our use of it would kill the world? All those years, all those people, trusting that bins were some magical portal to a universe where man-made crap vanished. Once you’re tuned into the problem, you find yourself looking at everything around you differently: Remembrance Day Poppies, clothing tags, crisp packets, the cellophane on paper bread bags that lets you see the bread, cat food pouches. It’s all been said a lot recently: for change to really happen, it needs to come from corporations, from those in power, not just from the consumer habits of individuals. But that’s no reason not to change your consumer habits as an individual. I’m trying my best, thinking of ways I can change, and be better, and that, by extension, is making me think about what I truly need, in my life, on a day to day basis.  I don’t feel I’m doing anywhere near enough. I have a water canister from which I can drink Norfolk’s awful water, I’ve decided to totally stop buying new clothes, besides underwear, and that I need to give up crisps. I wish I was brave enough to give up my car. I am not doing enough and I need to try harder. I talk to people every week who are having similar revelations. But you look at the advertising around you, even sometimes the part of it that has begun to make slight ecological concessions, and you realise you’re not in the majority. Capitalism is still telling people that all this convenience we’ve been treated to on an increasingly scale for the last half century or so is not enough: that we should want more, that we “deserve” it. Advertising tells us that it’s a drag to have to still type in your pin on payments of over £30, that high speed rail links aren’t high speed enough, that your car needs to be bigger or you’re not a person, that you need a plastic window to see your bread. It’s all bullshit, insidious entitlement mind control whose true purpose is to make the rich richer, not to make anyone’s life simpler or happier, and whose ultimate byproduct is a planet destroyed by the attendant trash of mega-convenience. A lot of people are waking up, but roadside verges are still lined with fast food drinks cartons as four by fours speed past, splattering badgers and pheasants on their way. There’s still litter on the beach and in the sea, waiting like a snare for an unsuspecting seal, who knows nothing of all this nonsense.

“Going to write in a cafe” always sounds so attractive – even now, to me, as someone with a long history of failing to write in cafes. If madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, anyone who had witnessed my attempts to write in cafes over the years would definitely conclude I was mad. Somehow, when thinking about the prospect of writing in a cafe, my brain manages to edit out all the elements that so often make writing in a cafe impossible: the loud people who sit next to you, whose conversation you can’t tune out, the Tracey Chapman song that I vastly, irrationally dislike, which always seems to be playing in cafes, as if a barista is behind a curtain with a finger on the “Play” button of an iPod waiting for a signal from a colleague (“Ok, he’s sat down: hit it!”). Last week I tried to write in a cafe, but couldn’t, so instead I drank my coffee, stared at a blank page, and listened to one of the two loud conversations on either side of me. This involved three posh gym dudes talking very earnestly and with great admiration about their newly gym-converted mate who wasn’t around at present: “He was, like, really narrow, and now he’s like, really, wide,” said one of the gym dudes. “It’s just, like, really great to see.” The two other gym dudes nodded in earnest agreement. I suspect all three would have considered me disappointingly narrow.

It’s sweet when people tell me about some metal dangling off my car and mistake me for someone who might get that fixed within seven or eight months.

In Keith Richards’ autobiography, he says one of the main differences between him and Mick Jagger is that he always assumes the best of people, whereas in Mick’s eyes other people are to be treated as foes until proven otherwise. I’m very much in the Keith camp here, and wouldn’t want to be any different, but I see how it sometimes causes me problems, especially online. I speak to a lot of intelligent, kind people through the medium of the internet, and my default position is that every voice coming at me from it must naturally be another one of these, so when a hateful, judgmental or invasive goblin shriek rises from the mire to make a personal attack it shocks and shakes me afresh, no matter how many times it’s happened (which is now an amount that I’d probably rather not admit to myself). It’s easy to forget that, if you met the owners of these opinions in real life, you’d be fine about them not getting on with you, wouldn’t in fact want them to like you, would be concerned if they enjoyed your work. My innocence, my “everything is ok and everyone is friends” default position is there in my three dimensional life too, albeit in a slightly different way. From my standpoint, walking around the everyday world, every couple I see is ecstatically happy and have worked out a way to be generous and accommodating and in love forever, every conversation I overhear between two people I’ve never met takes place from a position of long-standing intimacy and trust. I stand in line at the post office and listen to the postmistress and the old lady in front of me talking, as the queue grows, and my immediate assumption is that the pair of them have a longstanding family connection, that the old lady’s granddaughter went to school with the postmistress, that they are looking forward to seeing each other next week at some kind of AGM or charity gala. It is only later, after the exchange is over, and an ensuing comment from the next person in the queue, that I realise the old lady is very lonely, and this has been possibly her one exchange all day with another human. From the side of the postmistress, the theme of the conversation has mostly been cheerful tact – something she has clearly come to specialise in by necessity at this post office, which is frequented by a particularly large amount of elderly, lonely people, and often has a queue.

It wasn’t in the post office with the particularly large amount of elderly, lonely people that I queued a couple of weeks ago behind a very old lady with a tiny dog. That was in the shop up the road, which is frequented by just a slightly large amount of elderly, lonely people. The very old lady fumbled for coins for several minutes then, realising she didn’t have quite enough, began to haggle with the cashier over the price of her shopping. The cashier explained that the price of shopping was set in stone by a vast anonymous corporate entity and wasn’t a matter for debate, in a weary manner suggesting that this wasn’t the first time the very old lady had haggled. A man behind me in the queue huffed, then defected to the automated checkout. The very old lady’s face was full of amazing, narrative lines – deeper than the lines on most old faces – but her limbs still looked incongruously strong and I suspected she’d still been handy in a fight only two or three years ago. I looked for cash in my pocket, in case I could help her out, but I had none. She wore white, apparently brandless, velcro trainers, which I suspected she had not purchased within the last twenty years. Her tiny dog, scarcely bigger than one of the trainers, snuffled about, looking gentle and bewildered. I stared at the dog and worried about its fragility: it looked so breakable. Many small insect stings would probably hurt more than a nip from its teeth – not that it looked like it would ever even think of biting anyone. A young mother and her child arrived in the queue, while the very old lady continued to search for coins. The child approached the miniature dog, cooing. “Don’t you worry, my lovey, he won’t hurt you,” said the very old lady, apparently without sarcasm.

Lots of small bits of inspired forward thinking go into making a residential street a nicer place to live and we take almost all of it for granted. Many many decades ago, somebody planted two lines line of tulip trees along the road leading to the road where I live, and now in autumn walking along it feels like walking along a exquisite psychedelic tunnel. Some men drove through the psychedelic tunnel and came over to pollard my magnolia last week. I said I hadn’t been told about it by my landlord but that sounded cool, and it was definitely ok by me. The men consulted their records and discovered it was a different magnolia that needed pollarding, at another house. I bid them farewell and good luck, feeling a sense of anticlimax. Someone once described me as “part tree” and it remains the greatest compliment I have ever received.

There are days when the city looks so shiny, so beautiful and impermeable and solid and reassuring. There are other days – more frequent of late – when it has a certain soggy look, like it’s been rolled around in the back of someone’s mouth, idly chewed by molars, then spat out. I am glad I moved here, I believe there is no finer city in the country, and I’m finding it an interesting and necessary experience, but I am not a City Person, and I doubt I will stay long.

What is lovely, when you’re writing, is when a word pops into your head as the right one to use, yet you’ve never been totally sure on the word’s meaning and nobody has ever explained it to you, then you look it up in the dictionary and the context is exactly correct.

In our memories, when we’re thinking back to a period that was predominantly happy, we have a tendency to make everything Summer. There are some parts of my life where, according to the backward-looking section of my mind, summer lasted as long as 27 and a half months. A weird exception for me is the chunk of time between September 2009 and the end of 2011: the period when I crammed in the most miles per week, as a Norfolk and Suffolk walker. It’s preserved as a very positive period in my mind, but it is also permanently winter, or at least the last damp golden confetti dregs of autumn. On these walks, I took hundreds of very poor photographs, with little thought of framing, first on a terrible cameraphone, then on a slightly less terrible cameraphone, but their very poorness, combined with the ominous objects in them – scarecrows, decaying farm machinery, small dystopian straw bale citadels – has given them a unique quality that I can’t quite revive, now I’m a marginally better photographer with a better camera. It reminds me of something EB White told James Thurber when Thurber attempted to improve the rudimentary line drawings in his books: “Don’t do that. If you ever got good you’d be mediocre.” But, walking in Norfolk and Suffolk again for the first November in many years, I do see that there was another factor at play in those photographs: a smudgy, grainy light, particular to winter in the eastern reaches of East Anglia. On the coast near Burnham Overy Staithe on Monday, I was smack bang in the middle of that light, and I remembered its particular, sombre nature. A ghost story in this light would always be different to a ghost story in the winter light of another part of the country. A sea fret blew in across the marshes and swallowed me up and Canada geese wrote sentences above my head that were very clear in their calligraphy, despite being in a language I didn’t understand. The north Norfolk coast is a place whose alteration from busy to lonely between early September and early November is arguably more dramatic than anywhere else in Britain. I prefer this place in winter, but I don’t prefer winter itself, because winter strips me down and makes me feel sad, but I also need winter to do its work on me, and it’s in an empty place, blasted by rain, where it feels like that work is being done most effectively and nourishingly.

I have decided there needs to be a word for someone who likes goths, and likes a lot of the things goths like, but prefers warm weather and doesn’t listen to goth music or wear goth clothes. Perhaps the word is moth. If so, I am definitely part of the moth social group.

People have been telling me a lot recently that I’m weirdly accurate in my memory of dates. I’ll be explaining that something happened in June 2010, and they’ll say, “How do you know that?” The truth is, it doesn’t occur to me that it would be okay not to know that. It’s one of many examples of how the writer me and the person me have coalesced. Dates are important when I write, because I want to be accurate – even if what I’m writing is something open to interpretation, which people can take their own meaning from, which is what inevitably happens to an extent with all writing anyway. I find, the more the internet takes over, and changes people’s brains, the more faith I have in books, the information and nuance in them. I’m on social media because it helps me continue to sell just enough books to pay my rent, without having to insult anyone’s intelligence by writing a worse book that might potentially sell more but also might not. The great paradox is that each time I do something on social media that might eventually lead one or two new people to read my books, I feel like I’m also exacerbating something else that denigrates what I’m doing in the same books. You see what comes back at you sometimes on social media and you realise that people are doing a lot of filling in of blanks, without looking at the place (this website, the books) that might accurately fill in those blanks. That’s something we all perhaps have an impulse to do to an extent, but the odd thing is when people, usually people chronically addicted to social media who don’t see life beyond it, want to tell you about what – by that method – they’ve decided about who you are. I think there is a way to be totally honest and real about your life on social media, but the bitty way it’s consumed means it’s not ever fully a real way to live. You post a picture of yourself smiling on a bad day, and you are told how great it is that your life is perfect and you have reached your final state of enlightenment. You post a picture of yourself which someone interprets as showing a forlorn expression, in the middle of a really excellent week, and a stranger messages you to check you are ok because “you look sad”. You write a book of spooky fiction and two fairly large psychedelic works of non-fiction either side of it and it doesn’t stop somebody telling you that all you’ve done is write four books about cats, because that’s the reality they’ve constructed for themselves online. You post a passing recycled observation about life from six years ago, which wasn’t even directly about yourself at the time, and someone somewhere will interpret it as rolling news about your life from that very moment. It’s not really anyone’s fault, more the way technology has highlighted a certain side of human nature. But you can perhaps learn a little from it about some – although definitely not all – the root causes of the current epidemic of poor mental health and anxiety. If we’re not perfect on the Internet, we’ll get something back, from someone – often someone we have never met – telling us about who we are, or what we’re doing. You begin to anticipate it, pre-write it. How do you combat it? The answer is by being perfect. So how can we do that, and how can we find a median idea of what people believe “perfect” is? We can’t. We need to be sad, we need to be flawed, we need to be rough around the edges, and we need to be able to make mistakes. We also need to be able to admit we’re sad, some days, without being told why by a stranger, and when we’re happy, we need to be able to not just have to say one hundred percent happy things all the time. When someone once told me quite a few years ago – January 2014, if I remember rightly – “I don’t use Twitter, because there’s so much room for misunderstanding: it’s frightening”, I got what they meant, but I get it way more now, and no doubt would do so even more if I had a bigger following, which I am sometimes conned into believing I want, but actually don’t.

The Norwich Ghost Walk was one of a few group activities I joined in with over the last month. I hadn’t been on the Norwich Ghost Walk since the very early part of this decade, and it’s changed a bit since then. It used to be hosted by a driving instructor called The Man In Black who, as well as telling people about witches and the floating spectral caged corpse of Robert Kett, would stop the party outside the London Street branch of Bravissimo and announce, “There are no ghosts here. I just like it.” The first time I went on the walk, a friend invited a couple of women who turned up on cocaine and ended up offering to pay one of the monsters who jumped out at us by the river £20 to “fuck off”. There were about eighteen people there, and one was a wino who’d just tagged along halfway through, uninvited. By contrast, this time there were around 100 people waiting four the tour to begin outside the Adam And Eve pub (resident ghost: Sam), each of whom had paid £8 for their ticket for tonight, which was one of three tours, all with different hosts guiding their crowd through a different part of the city. Tonight’s ghostly guide called himself Le Morte and whisked us camply and authoritatively around the Cathedral grounds, Elm Hill (“More Tudor buildings are on this street than in the whole of London,” we learned) and Tombland, telling tales of spectral underground horses and a gruesome Victorian murder which involved a husband hacking up his wife’s limbs and distributing them around the city, where they were found by nascent dog walkers. There were no monsters jumping out at us this time, and the tour was as historically interesting as it was supernatural (I had never realised that the lavender still decorating  the plague pits in Tombland was used to cover up the smell of rotting bodies). Later, changed out of his cowl and back into a comfy looking tracksuit top in the bar of the Adam And Eve, Le Morte told me and my friend Fiona he’d only got the job a couple of weeks ago, which perhaps accounts for what I thought had been a slight flash of unintended terror in one of his eyes when he had taken in the size and raucousness of tonight’s gathering. He had done very well, let down (or was it enhanced?) by his habit of slipping into a Geordie accent any time he spoke in the voice of a resident of Olde Norwich, but he had the luxury of being in a good place for his trade: a city of where stories tripped over each other, just like in any townscape where alleys and ancient doorways are rife. As I left the pub a light fog was coming up outside, making the street lamps look like they were covered in the hot breath of something unseen, and the season was palpably turning over, squeezing the day into a brief wedge of light. Over on the more humdrum side of the city were the two malls, Specsavers and its milling identically jacketed employees, the enormous in-construction new Primark and the regionally specific fool’s gold of the West Cornwall Pasty Company, and you could easily look at it all and decide it was wringing the place dry of magic, but then at the same time, there would be winters, there would be more fog, and there would be more life and death, and as long as you still had all that, a narrative of mystery and darkness would be in strong supply.

My new book has just come out. You can order it from Waterstones here or Wordery (with free worldwide delivery) here but I also have some signed ones I can sell people direct, if they email me here.  

My previous book is now out in paperback. Some AMAZING musicians have also recorded a concept LP based on it and you can pre-order a copy of that here.

I am also writing another book. You can help to fund it here.

If you’d like to support this site and help me to continue making a living from writing, you can take out a subscription via the home page.

I am trying to remember to recommend a writer or artist or musician which each new piece I write for this website. This time, I encourage you to check out the prints of my friend Becky Wood.

12 thoughts on “Late Autumn 2019: A Personal Compendium

  1. It is easy and understandable to get depressed by all that is wrong with the modern world. Whilst not ignoring this, your writing makes me look at the good things that it is easy to overlook. Incidentally, “crisp packets, the cellophane on paper bread bags that lets you see the bread, cat food pouches” are all able to be recycled in Norwich as there are collection points all over the city for Hallswood Animal Sanctuary, who managed to make several thousand of pounds for their animals by collecting these and other items.

  2. Hey Tom, the word Moth has already been claimed – it’s the definition of a Goth who also likes metal 🙂

  3. My new favorite sentence: “A sea fret blew in across the marshes and swallowed me up and Canada geese wrote sentences above my head that were very clear in their calligraphy, despite being in a language I didn’t understand.”

    Thank you for a lovely Saturday morning read!

  4. Tulip trees are incredible in the fall! There’s a street by my house full of them, and while the street has unpleasant things like Panera Bread and a bank and a mattress store, the lampposts make the tulip trees look like literal gold in the evening. This year I took several photos of them, both with a shoddy phone camera AND a ‘good’ camera, and want to assure you that no photo can ever capture them in their glory. Also, yes please to a moth social group.

  5. Really enjoyed reading about all these topics in one post. I think it might just have inspired me with how to reignite my blog that for some partly unknown reason I stopped at the end of June, just after the Summer Solstice, along with my yoga (restarted that today too!) The way you describe Norfolk is just how I think of it. Love the description of the seals – they always remind me of some of the best childhood holidays, when we would take a little boat out to sea them from Blakeney, I think it was… Magical.

  6. Introspective and thoughtful, Tom – Thank you for continuing to share with us! I feel less alone in my anxiety over what we’ve done to the planet, thanks to you and the people that chime in on your posts. For that, In addition to introducing me to your writing, I am thankful for social media. Agree that it can exacerbate many negative mental health situations, but it’s also capable of making us realize that there ARE people out there that are carved from the same indescribable, metaphorical material – even if they don’t live nearby. ??‍♀️

  7. Thank you for another fascinating and insightful article. You draw us in to your world, which gives balance and hope in these rather bleak days.

  8. Thanks for these interesting thoughts and observations Tom. Your website posts are like having a chocolate biscuit with my cup of tea. I can’t have one every time I have a tea break, so it adds hugely to the overall satisfaction when one appears unexpectedly.

  9. this line jumped out at me:
    Someone once described me as “part tree” and it remains the greatest compliment I have ever received.

    I am an art therapist and I often ask clients to draw themselves as a tree, what kind of tree would you be, real or imaginary. It is surprisingly insightful!

    I agree with Angela above. Your writing is comforting, even if in a melancholy way, acknowledging the sad and the glory.

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