Spring, 2020: A Personal Compendium

I have ploughed through a large number of audiobooks in the last half decade, but I’ve probably abandoned as many, sometimes because I haven’t got on with the book itself, but usually due to the narrator. A bad narrator can murder an audiobook in its sleep. Just occasionally, however, you get a narrator who elevates a great book to a new height. Richard Poe has a voice full of refried beans and prophecy that’s very well-suited to the novels of Cormac McCarthy and I enjoyed his readings of Blood Meridian and The Crossing, but hearing the late Frank Muller read McCarthy is nigh on a religious experience. Such is the careful thought, the patent depth of the emotional investment, that has gone into Muller’s reading of the 1992 McCarthy novel All The Pretty Horses, I – as someone with an increasing dislike of driving – looked forward to every car journey like a seven year-old looks forward to Christmas and felt I knew every nuance of the physical appearances of each of the three adolescent cowboys at the book’s core, even though McCarthy barely describes those nuances.

I probably should stop walking in new, remote places using walking guides that are over a decade old. Part of the problem is that I tend to forget that 2008 didn’t in fact happen only a couple of years ago. I look at the date in the front of the book and think, “This will be fine – I’m sure not much has changed since then!” Shortly before the UK went into lockdown I went on a very long walk in a very empty part of Herefordshire using a walking book that was over a decade old. Footpaths had a tendency to vanish into thin air, and I got lost three times, which is the most times I have been lost on a walk for yonks. But I am a great believer in the good stuff that can happen when you get lost on a walk, and on the final time I got lost on my Herefordshire walk, I saw a hare, which only strengthened this belief. I’d thought the hare was a the root of a tree, until, in a brown muscular explosion, it twanged down the sunken lane ahead of me. I lost a bit of my hill walking fitness by living in Norfolk, and was tired by this point of the walk, although weirdly not as tired as I’d been about three miles earlier when I was lost on a hillside, standing beside a deer skull, weighed down by the mud that had entered my sock via a fresh hole in my walking boots. Sometimes, when you’re lost and hot and tired on a long, extremely undulating walk, your knees buckle and you get a bit staggery and red-eyed. It makes you start to feel a bit like the town drunk, but without the drink, or the town. You listen to the rifle shots ringing out in the woodland behind you, shake your empty water bottle, look at your dead phone, the steep hillside and barbed wire ahead of you and the sinkhole of red mud just behind you and you’re aware there are far more naturally brutal places and climates to be trapped in, but you also have the strong realisation that the only person who’s getting you home from this is you.

I mistyped an email sign off as “All the bees” instead of “All the best” but then I realised it was an improvement and I overuse “All the best” so I just decided to stick with it. I certainly can’t think of anything negative about wishing somebody all the bees.

The way that big corporations are set up these days, and the very reason why so many of them are such clever business models, is that you spend hours on the phone speaking to different people within them, all of whom are only allowed to say certain things from a script, have apparently no communication with the other departments you have been speaking to, can’t help you with your problem but can repeatedly tell you they are sorry, and you remind yourself that you can’t get angry with any of the people because you know it’s not their fault, it’s the corporation’s, and while it’s happening you feel more and more sorry for the people you’re speaking to, who are dealing with this every day, but you still don’t get anywhere, and eventually this goes on for so long that it brings you to your knees, and you submit and do everything the corporation wants you to, just for an easier life, because while you’ve been trapped in this bureaucratic maze you’ve totally re-evaluated what “an easier life” means. “Ok, I give in,” you say. “I can wait until autumn 2027 for you to connect the Internet at my house, if it means no longer having all these phone conversations, and I will pay you whatever you want for it. Also, here is my bank card and my PIN code, in case you would like to buy something pretty for yourself over the bank holiday weekend.”

“Oh, that’s far,” a lot of people said, when I first moved to Devon, and told them I was moving to Devon. But it’s really all a matter of priorities and perspective. Devon isn’t far from Devon.

My great grandma had sixteen children. My nan, as one of the youngest of them, concluded this was far too many, and decided she would stick at just the three, since then there’d be more love to spare for each of them. I don’t feel quite this way about my record collection but sometimes, looking at it, I gain a greater understanding of the sentiment. People who don’t own a lot of records laugh at the filing systems of people who do own a lot of records but, once you have a certain amount of vinyl, you need some kind of system, or you’d never find anything. But by doing this you can’t avoid an inflexibility that kills just a tiny a bit of the magic: you’re coming further away from that joy that accompanies having a small pile of records you’ve just bought, spread across the floor, and getting to know each of them intimately. In the enormity of a collection that’s been loved and honed and alphabetised for several decades, records get swallowed and forgotten. You find yourself sometimes putting albums on mainly out of sympathy, as an expression of the worry you haven’t made them feel special enough and that they might be lonely. I am trying something different right now, prompted by my recent house move and some new shelving: my records are in no order at all. None. It’s absolute chaos. I can’t find anything, and the feeling of liberation is enormous. I have never listened to more great music in the space of a fortnight.

We’re not all the same and don’t all like the same things and life would be boring if we were and did but there are some people out there who don’t believe spring to be the greatest season and this I will never truly understand.

Everyone has their own individual sneeze and it’s very important to be comfortable with that. Trying to sneeze like somebody else would probably mess you up forever, if not totally destroy your life. Many years ago I had a friend who sneezed like Mark E Smith from The Fall (“Achoo-aaah!”). Having said that, I met Mark E Smith twice and saw The Fall in concert around half a dozen times, and never once heard him sneeze, so I am not sure what Mark E Smith’s sneeze was like, only that the friend sneezed in the way you suspect Mark E Smith would have sneezed on the basis of the way Mark E Smith sang, and that it seemed about as natural as that could, coming from somebody who wasn’t actually Mark E Smith. The person I can least imagine sneezing like anybody else is my dad, and I think there’s probably something very telling about his personality in that fact. My dad’s sneeze is so loud, my mum can hear it from two fields away, when my dad is collecting the fresh manure of Dave, the village bull, to add to his veg garden.

Cancellation is rarely synonymous with lack of quality. Often, if anything, it seems the opposite is true. Walkers Max Hot Chilli And Lime crisps were possibly the best crisps of all time, and they have now apparently been cancelled. Freaks And Geeks was the second best TV show of all time, and it was cancelled before it had properly reached the end of its first season. Meanwhile, Deadwood, the best TV show of all time, was only allowed to run to the end of its third season before its premature death. I rewatched it for a third time this spring, and its intelligence, its utter unwillingness to spoon feed you or treat you like an attention-deficit imbecile, is more apparent than ever. Its boldness in killing off its most famous historical character less than halfway through its first season feels even more swaggering, and reminds me of those records where the artist is so confident of their brilliance that they put their best track last. “We are so good, we can easily afford to do this,” creator David Milch seems to be saying. So many times, going back to epic American TV dramas, in rewatching their earlier episodes, you’re struck – even though you didn’t quite notice it at the time – that they took a while to find their feet, but Deadwood is firm and solid in its boots from the off, then it gets even better. I saw a lot of new stuff in it this time: always another sign of a great series. Ian McShane’s saloon owner, Al Swearengen, is far more likeable than he was the first time I watched it, despite his frequent knifework on those who displease him. In Deadwood, people mumble what in many other shows might seem like an unimportant, strangely eloquent aside. Two episodes later you realise that aside has become integral to the plot, because Deadwood doesn’t makes its world pander to you and your potentially distracted nature; it merely presents its world as it is, and invites you in for a – far too painfully brief – while. The idea of a “Previously on Deadwood…” recap at the beginning of an episode would be unimaginable. And thank god for that. I long ago reached a point in my life where I am done with recaps, and I am more done still with previews. Show me another BBC4 documentary which opens with soundbites of all the soundbites the incongruously chosen talking heads on it will be offering, and I will show you a picture of me turning off the TV and putting on a record. Give me Ian Nairn or Jonathan Meades instead any day. Give me Al Swearengen. Give me patient, grumpy, erudite TV that knows it’s great, isn’t worried what else you might have shouting for your precious attention, and doesn’t give a flying fuck what you think of it.

My dirty secret is that when I lose my bookmark I sometimes turn down the corner of pages of the book I’m reading to remind me of my place. I’m not proud of it but it feels good to get it off my chest.

For me, social media – and I am talking particularly about Twitter here – is never The Thing, it’s just a portal to the Thing – whether that Thing be a piece of writing, a piece of music, some art, or a physical place – and because of this I feel increasingly at odds with people who use it as The Thing itself. Besides the anger and irritation that now dominates it, the fact that it’s a place where negativity has become the main currency, another difference between Twitter now and Twitter as it once was is how deeply inside it some people have travelled, to the extent it is evidently rewiring their brains. When people used to say on Twitter “I’ve had a bad day”, they often meant they’d had a bad day in the real world; now, as often as not, they mean they’ve had a bad day on Twitter. You can’t be blanket in your views about it, of course, because there are a lot of extraordinarily kind, extraordinarily witty and extraordinarily knowledgeable people still on Twitter, and you still see examples all the time of how it can be a force for good, not to mention a lifeline for many, but I notice, increasingly, a dangerous consumption of the world that is done entirely through Twitter without any attempt to peer over its walls or around its corners. Perhaps I notice it more because it is evident, too, in the feedback I get about what I do: feedback about a social media version of me that is me, but also is so dictated by character limits, the distorting evil of algorithms, constraints of time and my determination to not submit to the demands the Internet places on my life that it can’t fully be me. As an author, it’s a grand act of hubris to expect that anybody who hasn’t told you they’re reading your work is reading your work, but when somebody doesn’t have time to read your work yet does have time to obsess over your social media output and – based on what they have concluded from it – inform you in no uncertain terms about who you are… that is a very bizarre and sometimes quite disturbing phenomenon to witness.

I like to think of myself as a considerate walking guide. I try to tailor my routes to personal needs and passions, often do a bit of accompanying historical research, usually make sure there’s a good pub en route, and usually bring plenty of snacks. At the same time, please do be aware that when I say it’s going to be eight miles I actually mean twelve.

The dog chat on the lane where I live is samey and boring but all the dogs seem fine with that. What happens is the dogs up the hill shout “Fuck you!” at a walker and the dog next door shouts “Oi! What’s going on?” and the hill dogs shout “Same as yesterday” and then all is quiet until the next time.

I’ve given up on trying to fold my most-used map properly. It’s my biggest, crumpliest, most rain-damaged map, but it still works: that’s the important thing. I spotted a valley not far from home that I’d never walked through and was full of curious farm and copse names and had a weir so we grabbed the map and headed for it. Cows strode over and inspected at us like we were the first people they’d seen, maybe not ever, but at least since, perhaps, September. The paths were lined with freshly flowered wild garlic that looked hyper-real, like wild garlic on steroids, and the route led us back to the river and old farm buildings with studios and workshops inside. I saw a thick, grey tree trunk, hooped with ivy, then realised that it wasn’t a tree trunk; it was a chimney from a century whose humans are all now finally extinct. We were standing on rewilded ground. A teddy bear sat atop a double footpath sign, watching us, but he was by no means the first of his species to tread here. From the opposite side of the bridleway, another much, much older teddy bear leaned against some piping, observing his apprentice through tiny grey eyes.

All landscape is interesting if you look at it from the right angle, but some of us are better suited to some kinds than others and there’s a certain part of the London commuter belt, where the western part of East Anglia begins, that always leaves me feeling hollow and despairing. Driving through it feels like travelling through some flatpack furniture, something that’s been sanded and planed and smoothed by humans to the extent that everything organic has been drained from it, but that, in turn, makes it even more intriguing to think it wasn’t always like this: it was forest, once, less vertiginous, but probably no less wild, than a lot of the UK. On my last-but-one journey back through it, during my recent house move, I was thinking damning thoughts about it, and, as if to chide me, the most spectacular pink sun appeared on a ridge to the west. I tried to keep my eyes on the road, but the colour was mesmerising, and just as I reached what was usually the dullest point of the entire journey, a cloud part-covered the sun, and each side of the cloud had wings, and for a moment it appeared that some giant prehistoric apocalypse hawk was at large not far from the big Costa Coffee between Royston and Baldock.

I often wish I’d learned more about plants when I was young and had a stickier mind. These days, I need to discover what a tree or wildflower is three or four times before the glue finally holds. Even then, the information might vanish again, especially if I have a brief period – as I just have – where I’m less engulfed by green spaces in my day-to-day life. I’m relearning a lot of wildflower names and brushing up on my tree identification on my walks near my new house here on the edge of Dartmoor. I’ve noticed, being more attuned to this, it’s also making me aware of the reality of the passing of time itself in a far less slapdash, vague way than usual. You always notice the way a lane, a path, a garden, changes from month to month, but now I am noticing something more detailed: how much can change in just a week, especially at this technicolour time of the Devonshire year. You gasp, observing the canopy over the potholed tarmac, the way it has filled up, realising that seven days ago is already ancient history, and – despite what you’ve kidded yourself into thinking – seven days ago actually will never exist again. The concomitant desire soon arrives to pause amongst, to soak it all up as much as possible while it’s happening, to try to find a way to perform the trick of making time stand still. I want so badly for it to be June – the greatest of all the outdoor swimming months, the month of foxgloves and crunchy sea hair and oxeye daisies and shorts – but I also don’t want it to be June at all, because after June comes July, and July means it’s nearly August, by which time we’ll be palpably heading in the other direction once again.

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11 thoughts on “Spring, 2020: A Personal Compendium

  1. Oh goodness me I do love your writing. It’s so quirky but at the same time connected with the earth and everything. Just read out the bit about the dog chat to hubby because it made us both giggle.

  2. I paused the ironing to read this- so glad I did! Your writing is so beautifully readable and it makes me happy xx

  3. Thank you Tom. This is VE Day +75 and I was sitting here weeping and remembering the real VE Day. I was 18, and working in London. I have been remembering that day, with all the people long gone and the happenings so long ago. Weeping and here in self-isolation feeling sorry for myself. But I have just been for a walk with you in Devon, I have seen the bluebells in the olds and heard the dogs talking to each other – they don’t do that here in West London, in fact I hardly hear a dog at all! I have bluebells in my garden, and it is. Snowing dandelion seeds – it must do that in Devon too! So thank you Tom, please keep walking, and writing!

    1. Maybe the teddy bears have been sacrificed as a warning to passers by who stray from the public footpath.

  4. A diverse compendium as usual Tom.
    Your confession about sometimes folding down the corners on books was a bit shocking. All you need is a shoebox, then fill it with bookmarks collected from various places. Often books from charity shops have strange, random ones secreted within. Then when you start a book, make a cup of tea, go to the box and spend a nerdy ten minutes selecting the most appropriate bookmark. There is some anxiety when a perfect match does not occur, but the surge of joy when when you find a bookmark with an owl on it for a book about owls is second to none.

    1. I agree. As a librarian, I was horrified. As a book lover and rabid reader, I was deeply disappointed. Besides, you must miss out on all the fun of finding 15 year old receipts, and random bits of newspaper and paper bags in your “new” read

  5. Love reading your compendiums though they do make me miss Message From The Country especially when you start talking about your vinyl collection. Incidentally Ordnance Survey have a walking guide called “Dartmoor – Outstanding Circular Walks” which sounds like a lot of fun so I’ve donated the price in case you’d like to pick yourself up a (new) copy 🙂

  6. The last section (well, except for the bit about the house on the edge of Dartmoor, which I haven’t one of) puts into words feelings I’ve always had about fleeting moments and time but never had words for until now.

  7. As an urban public librarian, I have seen much worst done to books. I usually use small pieces of paper towels as book marks since I spend much time cleaning up after cats.

    I live a block from the oak forest part of a 400 hundred acre park in NYC. I go for walks every day along the bridal trails and I have seen the greens expand and deepen and the flowers change from violets and cherries to dogwoods and bluebells during my past two months in PAUSE. I am glad you moved back to Devon, Tom, because you have such a great feel of the landscape. I bought an ebook of “Ring the Hill” to read during my first week in PAUSE and I kept thinking as I read it that you really missed Devon. I am looking forward to reading more about the new house grounds and neighborhood.

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