A stranger told me the other day – from a place of kindness and scattered facts – what an awful year I’ve had. But that is not my own feeling when I assess this year. Yes, I had the stress of two house moves during national lockdowns, one of them over a distance of 340 miles, leaving me sometimes with a feeling that I’ve done nothing all year but pack and unpack and lift and carry and talk on my phone to robots. Yes, I was driven out of the first house – a house I’d hoped to stay in for many years – due to flooding and damp, got shingles due to the stress of that and my unpleasant landlords’ unwillingness to do anything about it or pay for the repairs, then got an extremely painful blood clot and intestinal infection directly afterwards, all of which greatly hindered my working life. Yes, I am still fighting to try to recover my deposit on the house. But I spent April to mid July in a state of rapture to be back in the part of the UK I love the most, in the sea and rivers, and losing myself in compost as I tried to improve as a gardener. I have ended the year in my absolute favourite part of my favourite place in the universe, in the cosiest, loveliest house I’ve ever lived in, with a landlady who has already become a good friend. I do believe people can have an awful year – especially in 2020 – but often as a year closes the verdict is all a matter of angles. 2010 to me always lives in my head as a year of great freedom and fun and socialising. But I forget about its flipside: the terrible money worries that overshadowed it, combined with a postponement of creativity. What you learn after a while is that most years are difficult years, in some way or other.
I have to confess that I embraced the reduced social potential of the pandemic at first. I was feeling in need of a little reclusive phase, and was at that point in a contented close relationship with one person, which made reclusive an easier thing to be. I was also feeling a nagging need to put fewer words out into the air and more of them on paper, plus the residual effects of a few years of my life where I’d sometimes felt spread a bit too thin, socially. But that has gradually changed, over the last few months, and what 2020 has made me more aware of than ever is that I am a fundamentally gregarious person. My writing, just like my life, benefits as much from good conversation and the positive energy of time spent with nice people as it does from solitary periods of reading and thinking and writing. I am not one of those authors who can shut himself off from all human interaction for weeks on end and, much as I have sometimes envied the work rate of those who are, I suspect that it’s not what could ever suit me, and that eventually it would sap colour and texture from my work. But I find myself looking forward to spring even more as a person than a writer. Just sitting in sunlight in sixteen degree temperature in my garden with a couple of good friends seems like such a wonderful, impossible prospect right now. Even if the vaccine hasn’t done its work yet in a wider sense, and social possibilities remain limited, I think I still might get a bit giddy in spring. I always do. But I have never looked forward more to a spring, particularly that first proper day of spring, when you can feel spring coursing through your being, almost as if you have become spring, and you put your walking boots on and step out into the gloriousness of it, with no fixed plans.
I called Alan Benson last week. “Tom! Are you in the prison?” said Alan. It was a very Alan way of starting a conversation. I said I wasn’t in the prison. “Good,” he said. “Keep being good and you won’t be.” Alan will be 90 in less than two years. I know this because I started caddying for him in 1988, for 50p per round, and that autumn I asked him how old he was and he said 56, and I am just about that good at maths but no better. Alan is far better at maths and would, when ferrying me and my unlikely golfing mates to tournaments when we were in our teens, often inform people how long a journey took on average, to the nearest half minute. Last time I saw Alan was in Coventry. He was with his son, Pete. “How much do you think he spent on fish yesterday?” Pete asked me, pointing at Alan. “I don’t know. £30?” I said. “£180!” said Pete. “Can you bloody believe it?” I was just about to do a talk in a bookshop, which Alan would arrive on stage and sabotage, telling the audience that what I write in my books is a big pack of lies, which – even though he knows it isn’t – he thought would be a pretty funny thing to do, which it was. I thought of Alan lots recently, and particularly during the first week of this month, when the long-serving golf commentator Peter Alliss died. Not that Alan is really anything like Alliss, but because Alliss was a similar age and I conflate Alan a little with Alliss due to the fact both were rebellious authority figures in my life during my anomalous period as an out-of-place struggler with the psychology and etiquette of golf. I only met Alliss a few times, but he was nice enough to read my two books on golf, which weren’t really aimed at him, or even at any really golfy people, and gave me some biscuits to take home when I visited his house. But I saw Alan for an average of three days of every week between the ages of 13 and 16. He looked out for and defended me and my mates in a provincial golf universe most of us were not built for, tripwired with nonsense social codes and disappointed men striving to rescue their lives with tiny hits of power. He also sacrificed endless amounts of his free time to support our dreams of sporting success, even though he probably knew how deluded some of those dreams were. Then, when we’d grown out of it, he did the same for the next generation, and the next, and the next. I had been meaning to return his half yearly phonecall for a long time, and feeling pretty bad about not doing so, because he’s utterly adorable and means a lot to to me, and because I am very aware – especially in this year, of all years – that he won’t be around forever. But something was stopping me, not just all the time moving house and illness had sucked from my life, and the non-existent phone reception where I live, but a need to be able to tell him positive facts, to be able to tell him I was healthy and settled. Because I know how much Alan has always liked to know his lads – whether, like me, they’re now a long long way from golf, or still right in the thick of it – are doing ok, and how important it is to him. I don’t think the phone call lasted more than eleven and a half minutes, which it never does, with Alan, in all his businesslikeness, but I have not made another this year that’s felt nearly as important.
There seems to have been a notably large amount of great music coming out of the pandemic, but that might be an illusion, since most of what has been coming out in the last few months was created before the pandemic hit. Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore’ and ‘Evermore’ albums were actually recorded quickly in enforced isolation. The remarkable ‘Punisher’ LP by the 26 year-old Phoebe Bridgers – memorably described by one fan as “Taylor Swift for girls who have crumbs in their bed” – is different in that it was written and recorded in pre-COVID days, but seems to predict 2020, both in lyrics and mood. “But I can count on you to tell me the truth when you’ve been drinking and you’re wearing a mask,” Bridgers sings on ‘Halloween’, then, on ‘ICU’, “It’s amazing to me how much you can say when you don’t know what you’re talking about” – which, to be fair, would have been a fitting line for social media in any of the last four years, but seems particularly apt for this particularly Trumpian bullshit year. ‘Punisher’ is full – most notably in the enormous, spine-tickling outro ‘I Know The End’ – of images of desolation and societal decay, and repeatedly addresses ideas of hiding and escaping, tapping into a feeling that is very prevalent this year: that hiding is no longer about the physical, however much your instinct tells you it should be be. You can drop out, go somewhere nobody knows you, but you’ve not really dropped out, because you’re still plugged in. “And when I grow up I’m going to look up from my phone and see my life”… “I’m going to kill you, if you don’t beat me to it”… the perfectly crafted lines keep coming, each of them making you more embarrassed about the unsophisticated guff you came up with when you were the same age as Bridgers. It’s a quietly brilliant, candid record, made by a take-no-shit angel, for a time when noise and solitude seem to rise at the same exponential rate and be inextricably connected to one another.
I remember, years ago, a girl who was auditioning me – in a virtual way – for a date looked my work up online and said, “I don’t think you’re right for me. You seem like someone who likes animals more than people.” It bothered me a bit at the time. But now? I accept she was 100% correct, and I’m extremely ok with that. If you’re going to think I’m weird and wrong for wanting to say hello to sheep on country walks, you’re not the person for me. Also, if you think that just because somebody likes animals more than people, it means they have no capacity to also think people can be wonderful and lovely and inspiring and genuinely good, you are a short-sighted fool. It’s easy to think we don’t change much after the age of 30 but, looking back at that incident, I am aware of little ways in which I have, how much more comfortable and confident I am in my skin. I felt, from the damning way her judgement was conveyed, like I was being told I was an antisocial being, lurking on the shadow margins of the civilised and correct world. Whereas now I just think, “Well, yeah, of course I fucking like animals more. Doesn’t any rational person who has considered the facts?” This is also part of why – despite many years of making great real-life friends via social media, and retaining a very positive view of that – I don’t want to do online dating. I want to talk to someone in person, as what I truly am, not be “virtually auditioned” and/or have them pondskim across the internet then take an idea in their head about who I am and run with it in a careening, flappy-armed way. That’s not the basis for anything real. You can Google the date a record came out, what a word means, the name of a wildflower or someone who started a war. You can’t Google a person’s soul.
As you go longer without what was your normal life, you look where you can for social interaction, and more and more that becomes via the screen in front of you. I’m not happy about it, personally, but I’m giving myself a free pass, until the world – hopefully – remembers what it was. In my case, screens help your career survive, and you can’t afford to forget that, no matter how much you yearn to stay away from them completely or recognise the good it would do to your mind. I didn’t sell as many books in shops this year as I’d have liked to, but I physically sold, signed and posted a lot myself, and that – while cutting into my writing time – helped me feel less worried about the future. But selling books myself meant putting more hours in on social media, and permitting myself to share a bit more of my life there, which meant a lot of the difficult aspects of social media were exacerbated: the people who respond to the words and image that accompanied the link to your piece but not to your piece, the people who tell you your own joke, the people giving you advice on something you didn’t ask for advice on (actually, I wonder if unsolicited advice has actually taken over from opinion as the thing on the internet that there is too much of), the people who are so addicted to social media they think that it is the sole narrative of the planet, the people who tell you to smile more or that you look sad or solemn or haunted or tired, the people who tell you because you are smiling for once you have definitely had a good day with no problems in your life, the people who think because you happened to mention you were single you are desperate to not be alone rather than quite enjoying being single but not averse to meeting another person at some point when it’s right. But at the same time, so many good things about what social media can create and lead to were heightened. The comments from people who do take the time to read properly, and do get it. The people who have so much to say and do know what they’re talking about. I have never felt like more readers are truly connecting with my books. I have never received more touching and powerful – and, often, brilliantly fucking written – responses to them. I have never appreciated, more, the freedom an online following, sharing my work, gives me to totally ignore conventional media and be separate to any writing “scene”. Of course, none of this really equates to sales, and I have learned not to expect it to, and I don’t judge my worth as a writer that way. Yet, if I’m honest, one of my strongest feelings as this year comes to a close – especially when I look at the facts of my sales figures – is that my books aren’t good enough. Yet that comes along with a concomitant feeling that this is totally the way it needs to be. I don’t want to be “good enough”. I want to keep trying to improve, and learn, forever. I mean, to feel “I’ve got it now. That’s it. No more reading. No more expanding your mind by talking to fascinating, wise people. No more growth. No more hungry feeling in your heart.” How terrible would that be? I want to maintain the hunger, but perhaps with just a little bit less of the fear. That – plus spending a bit more time writing and listening and a bit less time pushing and chatting on screens – would be a satisfactory way to spend next year.
As someone who always takes an interest in ruins and derelict buildings and other structural remnants on walks, I have taken a bigger interest than ever in ruins and derelict buildings and other structural remnants on walks this year. The idea that nature is rebelling, punishing us for what we’ve done, could well be behind it, plus the housing crisis, the fear that every spare convertible building, every last bit of land, is in danger of being snapped up and exploited. I crawl inside collapsed bothies and sheds and think about a depopulated world, where every building is a ruin, and what it might look like, and what would survive longest. I also look at stone barns that have not been sold as “projects” and celebrate their ivy-strangled magnificence. And then, as someone who now rents one of them, converted in the final part of the last century, I check myself for hypocrisy. I would like to stay for as long as I possibly can in this shelter where cows and sheep once huddled in incessant rainy winters like the current one: it feels like the culmination of something, the end of a long, expensive and tiring journey. It’s where I want to be. It feels like it’s where I’ve always wanted to be. I am fiercely, protectively, in love with it, and have already poured my soul into its layout. And hopefully it will stand up, physically, to any coming tests. If nature is going to change – or heal – I suspect I’ll be hyper aware of it here. As I write these words, the rain has not stopped for days and the river directly outside my kitchen window is filling up again. I put my trust in what I know of the stone bridge just a little further up the hill. It’s been there for centuries, and remains in one piece. But late last week, after one particularly insane day of bucketing sky water, the river reached a new level of rage. It was hurling itself through the gap under that bridge, shrieking blue murder, as if the sea, 15 miles away, had killed its entire family and it could think of nothing but revenge. I went to sleep with its white noise all over me. At 2am, my cat Roscoe woke me up, asking to go out, but when I went downstairs and opened the back door, she reversed back into the house, terrified. She probably thought a monster was outside, and was, in a way, correct. I stood on the balcony above the water. The writhing white shapes below looked like livid swimming ghosts. In the even louder bar of howling sound, I could hear the boulders beneath the surface grinding, forced against one another, again and again, by the current. The water would need to have risen another three feet or more to reach the balcony, and I’m told it’s never got that high, but I have never felt more expendable. The force and fury of those ghosts could have obliterated anything in their path. I no longer thought Roscoe was being a wimp. I did not want her out here. It was a dark and special magic to stand above those ghosts, but very frightening. Next summer, when I sit out there with a book, with trickles and burbles and babbles below me, I will not be able to remember how it felt, just as we can never properly remember how we felt at any time in the past, how the vagaries of weather, seasons, landscapes, buildings, people, misfortunes, years, energies, shaped us at that exact moment, before the moment stretched out, blurred and was gone. All we can do is maybe write it down and try to get somewhere close.
My first ever novel, VILLAGER, is now up for funding. If you’d like to reserve a copy, you can do so here.
My most recent books are:
Ring The Hill – which is also out in the US and Canada in January.
And – this coming March – Notebook.
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