Neil, the older brother of my friend Glen, asked me the other night if I’d finished writing my new book yet. I was able to say yes, which was a great relief, not just because I had finished my book but because for months people have been asking me “Have you finished your book yet?” and I’ve been saying “Not quite” while inwardly wincing and – despite the many tiring hours I was putting in on the book – feeling like a living embodiment of the guy from the famous Peter Cook anecdote who isn’t really writing his novel, just talking about it at social events. The book – my ninth – is called 21st Century Yokel and is not quite nature writing, not quite social history, not quite a family memoir, not quite a book about folklore, not quite a book about walking, not quite a collection of humour writing, not quite a book with a run-through narrative, but a bit of all seven, which is what the book asked me if it could be. There were times when a couple of earlier books asked me if they could be something and I didn’t let them so I thought it was only fair that I listened to this one: got right in close, with my ear to its mouth. It’s been deeply enjoyable and sometimes very emotionally draining to write, is a fair bit longer than my other books and feels like it has taken ages to write, even though, if viewed rationally, it hasn’t. Right from January this year, the finish line always seemed to be a fortnight away. “Two more weeks,” I’d say. A fortnight would pass. “Two more weeks,” I’d say, again, feeling like some fool chasing a rainbow in the erroneous belief that he could touch it. But I wasn’t exactly slacking: I was writing a lot, almost every day, and just letting the narrative pull me along where it needed to go, permitting it to expand, which it did, to a total of 102,000 words.
I could liken the writing of 21st Century Yokel to tuning into some obscure medium wave radio station. When you find the frequency, everything is there, laid out for you, and there’s no extra fiddling to be done, but sometimes it’s all crackly and you give up and go out for a walk instead. At other times I could liken it to reaching up above you into a loft for some stuff you’ve had stored up there for ages: stuff that’s been getting more meaningful and interesting in the meantime, as stuff tends to to when it’s stored in lofts. It’s a loft of a book, in ways: it contains a fair amount of curious objects and is often a little dusty. Not an attic, though: it isn’t quite that posh. Of course, sometimes when you’re reaching up into a loft you can’t find the light switch and some heavy boxes fall on your head. That has happened, too, during the writing of this book.
Neil asked me how long the book had taken to complete, which is a question to which I have tended to have a couple of answers on completing other books. This time I realised I had five. In one sense, the book’s creation began with my birth, since it references and is coloured by my entire life, including my childhood in Nottinghamshire. In another, I’d been mentally writing it since 2001, when I moved to Norfolk with the intention of writing some kind of work of fiction flavoured by the spooky side of rural life, not realising I did not yet possess the ability or experience to carry such a project out. In a third sense, it began when, during the writing of my Guardian column of the same name, I started to envisage a quite different book called 21st Century Yokel: shorter than what it finally became and – I realise now – flimsier. In a fourth sense, it began at the end of 2015, when I began to write the first two chapters, here at my home in Devon. And in a fifth sense, it began again this time last year when, after a data disaster during which I lost all the 23,000 words I’d put towards those two chapters, I began the book again. I believe that the fact that all four of the first beginnings of the book were failures has been ultimately beneficial to it. Actually, maybe it’s a bit harsh to call the first beginning a failure. I couldn’t help being born.
I came into the writing of the final draft of 21st Century Yokel feeling more free, more understood and more misunderstood than I had done as a writer, in more than two decades of putting words on paper for a living. In 2015 I made the bold and some would say reckless decision to quit writing for newspapers and national magazines, choosing instead to put all my creative efforts into my books, the voluntary subscription website on which you are reading this piece, and the spoken word I do on tour and at my local community radio station. I had no idea if this would work out on a long term basis, or provide a viable means of financial support, and still don’t, but I was ready to accept and embrace the consequences if it didn’t, and this in itself was very freeing. Also freeing was eradicating the “newspaper voice” I’d had in my head which, when you write a column or feature for a national publication with its own agenda, cannot help but exist, to a greater or lesser extent, even if that agenda is on the twangy side of rigid. I noticed that I began to enjoy the writing process more, almost immediately, and my inbox suggested readers were responding to that. Going back over my Guardian writing during the writing of this book, some of it seems a little weak to me: I can see it doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions. What followed is bolder, looser, less uncertain of itself. But by cutting ties with national newspapers I was cutting ties with a certain kudos: a little label I’d had next to almost every bit of non-book writing I’d produced since September 1997. Eventually you learn to look at a bottle of kudos and discern that, though often claiming to be full of natural goodness, it is actually made of anywhere between 17 percent and 94 percent pure bullshit, but it is also a fundamental part of what makes the world go around, and none of us can fully exempt ourselves from its rules. Many very good writers have written for the newspapers I wrote for so many people have some degree of trust in the endorsement of those newspapers as a badge of quality. I was abandoning that. Now I was someone who wrote stuff on his own website. Big deal. Who wasn’t, nowadays? You can kid yourself that these labels don’t alter interactions on the fringes of your social life, but they do (although not, thankfully, at the heart of my social life, which is far more important). What writing for my website as opposed to newspapers will exacerbate when I meet a stranger and tell them what I do is the reflection in their eyes of me as yet another person who talks about writing but doesn’t actually do it. I saw the assumptions as I answered honestly, without going into great detail, about what I did for a living. I resisted the urge to explain in any defensive, detailed way. No good would have come of it. The answer had to be in my writing, which I was getting more and more out of. It was as if my career had turned inside out: writing stuff I was truly proud of under no approved label with any notion of cool associated with it, instead of writing passable stuff under exactly such labels, as I had many years earlier. Undoubtedly, it was a stubborn decision I had made. Soon, there were little tests of willpower. When my last book came out in America, the LA Times asked me if I’d like to write for them. Did the rule I’d set myself apply to American newspapers? I hadn’t actually thought about that, not having written for one before. I declined their offer, which was kind of a bugger, as I needed a new lawn mower.
Another even bigger contributing factor to this feeling of being more misunderstood and more understood than ever came from the fact that my last four books had been – on the surface, at least – about cats. I had no problem with what I’d written: the last two books in the series, The Good, The Bad & The Furry and Close Encounters Of The Furred Kind, marked the point from which I’d first felt a new freedom in my writing, finally taken a decisive step closer to what I’d always wanted to do. But on the Internet the books began to take on a second personality, created by attention deficit social media addict gobholes who had not read them. They were, I realised, in some people’s minds, syrupy tales of fluffy goings on, “books of the Twitter account”, picture books with cute captions. Throwaway mawkish shit, to put it bluntly. I tweeted about artistic dilemmas a couple of times and judgemental goblin voice rose from the digital swamp decreeing that I was not permitted to speak about the creative process – their apparent reasoning being that the central subjects of four out of my eight books had tails and a penchant for trout. Of course, he was entirely correct. The artistic merit of writing is entirely defined by subject matter. Every book ever written about politics or sunglasses has been a work of genius, whereas every book ever written about legs or pens has been congenitally awful.
I knew this sort of bollocks would happen, of course. The Internet is constantly pushing its weight around and telling people it’s never met who they are. And if you are perverse enough to write two substandard books about music (don’t waste your money on these, please) then hide your best writing in a couple of books with cats on the cover you had better learn to live with the consequences. Genre-as-expectational-leg-iron is a phenonemon by no means confined to me, in the writing universe. But the regularity of these strong opinions about books that didn’t exist became a bit depressing. It began to give me a new respect for people who’d read my books and said they didn’t like them. Disliking a book you’ve read is at least an opinion based on an experience of something, rather than a presumption based on a facsimile of one. Plus, I don’t want everyone to like my books. That would mean I was doing something very seriously wrong.
It is odd, this feeling of being more misunderstood than ever, while knowing that I am communicating more clearly in my writing than I ever have. I have felt a little alone with it at times. The plus side is that it’s brought me closer to my readers. When you get frequently told what you do by people who haven’t actually bothered to look at what you do it makes you exceedingly grateful for the people who know what you actually do and get it. I think the people who got the most enjoyment out of The Good, The Bad & The Furry and Close Encounters Of The Furred Kind will understand that 21st Century Yokel is not me “making my escape from silly cat books” and that it’s a natural progression. It has many elements of the last couple of books – including (hurray!) some cats – but a lot more on top of that. I might have felt trapped by the limitations of being stuck in the Pets section of a bookshop, but I never felt trapped in the actual writing of my cat books, which is something I feel very thankful for, as feeling trapped is one of the least pleasant sensations a human being can experience. I desired to continue feeling untrapped, which is why I decided not to write a fifth one. It would have been what many might have viewed a sensible commercial decision to do so but I have no wish to patronise readers with a book I didn’t fully believe in. I wanted what I did next to feel as organic and right as possible: to include only the material I was burning to write.
As I began to write 21st Century Yokel, I could see other potential commercial decisions ahead of me that had nothing to do with whether or not the book ended up in the Pets section of Waterstones. I had sold all of my previous eight books to publishers on the basis of a synopsis and two or three sample chapters. Being sensible and thinking about my own financial security, I would do the same here. But to do so I would have to package the book with a very rigid theme that appealed to a sales department. It would need to be honed: made into a “journey”. Unfortunately, the word “journey” – if used in any literary sense – makes vomit spontaneously appear in my mouth and I enjoy writing a synopsis roughly the same amount that I enjoy crawling about in heavy sleet cleaning up the contents of a split bin bag. I know why synopses need to exist but writing them is, in many ways, the opposite to writing books – or at least all the factors I most enjoy about writing books. It’s unfreeing, self-branding, corporation-pleasing. My favourite non-fiction books are on quite diverse subjects but tend to have one uniting factor: none of them would have made sense as a three thousand word pitch. I do not think it is any coincidence that my worst book, Educating Peter (reminder: don’t buy it), made for the pitch that was most exciting to a publisher. A book needs coherence and rhythm and theme but coherence and rhythm and theme are often a mystery that can be hit on only by doing one thing: writing that book.
So, after I’d picked myself up off the floor in the wake of my 23,000 word data disaster, I restarted 21st Century Yokel and pressed on, trying my best not to think about who – if anyone – would publish it or why. Along the way it became clear it could have been many books, all of which would have sounded more sexy to someone whose job it was to push to get a book prominently displayed in a bookshop. I decided to write none of them, but sort of write all of them at the same time, in a way that would hopefully make more sense than any of them would have done alone. Walking is probably the most dominant theme of the book. Ideally I’d have written it all on walks. I couldn’t do that but I think the book has a lot in common with the walks I was on while I was composing it in my head: it’s bewitched by fresh air, intrepid in minor ways, haunted by weather and old stories, restless, sometimes foolish, prone to a few detours. I could pretend that my mission to cover so many different subjects in 21st Century Yokel is solely a gesture of generosity to my reader but truth is that it’s a self-serving act: I get high on going for a diverse wander (not a journey, though – fucking hate those) while simultaneously balancing on the tightrope of a central point. I listened to a lot of psychedelia while I was writing this book and I became more interested in the idea of it: not as a hallucinogenic phenonemon or a short, exciting, strictly defined period in the mid to late-60s but as a way of putting a lot of colours together in quite an ambitious way but creating something that finds its own meaning and structure. I do think the book is more than a collection of essays, or true life stories, but it’s also not a book without a run-through narrative. Had I imposed a chronological structure or run-through narrative on it it would no doubt have made more sense on the outside, but I think that would have weakened the book and I’m more interested in it making sense on the inside than the outside. There is no linear chronology to the chapters but at the same time the order in which they are arranged is crucial, in the same way the order in which the tracks are arranged on a record is crucial. They can be read as stand alone pieces as each is a self-contained story, but they have a definite relationship with each other. They go to the same pub, put similar songs on the jukebox. At closing time a couple of weeks ago, I threw one out of the pub. I was considering having a lock-in, as the chapter was great fun to spend time with, but I’ve decided to save that for another time. That one extra drink is rarely a good idea.
I’ve noticed something about writing, after two decades of doing it: it’s often best when it feels like skiving, sometimes even when it’s skiving from other writing. An atmosphere of industrious skiving was something I created during the writing of 21st Century Yokel. In total honesty I should have been writing another book during the period I was doing it – a third in my trilogy of golf-books-for-ungolfy-people – but I didn’t, because I wanted to make both books as good as possible, and that meant writing this one first. What I was writing felt electrically true. Not that my other books weren’t true. Just that this one seemed somehow truer – in that scary way, where you learn about yourself as you write. I gave more of myself to it, not because I consciously thought “I am giving more of myself to this book!” but because it was the natural, and only, path to take. I realised I’d been patiently saving years of incidents and observations for it, with no guarantee they’d ever get the opportunity to be retold. They burst out of me, relieved to finally see daylight. I’d smuggled a lot of non cat stuff into the cat books but this was a different kind of freedom: even more excitingly, it felt like a path to greater freedom, in future books. But I was exhausted in a way I’d never felt before while writing a book. As a greater test, I dealt alone with the death of two pets during 21st Century Yokel’s final stages. Would it ever be complete? At the beginning of spring, feeling thrilled but also like a collection of broken twigs in a sack who used to be a human, I realised I was not far off the end (“Just a fortnight!” I thought, again, mistakenly, but not quite so mistakenly) and still had no idea who, if anyone, would publish it. I could have sent the manuscript to a traditional publisher but instead in March I decided to sign a contract with Unbound, who crowdfund their books. This was risky: if the book failed to fund, it might never exist. I would also not see a penny from the project for over a year and would have to find other ways to survive financially until then. On the plus side, Unbound would give me more creative control: nobody trying to force the book into a more marketable shape to the detriment of its content, a cover true to the writing, a better royalty rate than traditional publishers offer, and a way for readers to choose to support me and an imaginative, not massively commercial publisher instead of funding the online behemoths of bookselling. I was also lucky enough to find an editor, in the form of Simon Spanton, with a wealth of taste and wisdom and instant grasp of where I was coming from. My mum’s linoprints of the animals and landscapes and objects I’d written about – not merely a representation of what I was writing about, but a daily extra inspiration to me as I wrote – would feature at the beginning of each of the ten chapters, and the frighteningly talented printmaker Clare Melinsky would design the cover art. The response, when the funding went live, blew my mind. In seven hours, the book was 100% funded: a record for Unbound. To anyone who has contributed to that, I would like to extend a gargantuan thanks. If I could, I’d buy you each a nice big psychedelic cake. As it stands, I can at least provide you with a nice big psychedelic sort of nature book. You have made this a reality, rather than just something I talked about, opened up new exciting paths for me and helped me do something I’ve burned to do for most of my adult life but been told repeatedly that I’m not allowed to. Your contribution means more than me being able to answer the question “Have you finished your book yet?” with a relieved, exhausted “Yep.” It means 21st Century Yokel truly exists.
21st Century Yokel will be published in October by Unbound. Reserve a signed copy of 21st Century Yokel here from Unbound or pre-order one from Amazon.
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A short story about scarecrows that I wrote and read for Radio 4 the other day, containing some material from the book.
A short story about scarecrows that I wrote and read for Radio 4 the other day, containing some material from the book.