Early 2021: A Personal Compendium

There seem to be more horses on the moor than usual this winter. Alongside the horses, you normally get one or two very assertive humans, more often than not female, making sure the horses are in absolutely no doubt about who is boss. It is rare that you see a person who suffers visibly from social anxiety or timidness taking the role of horse caretaker. A typical horse would cotton onto that straight away and royally take the piss. I am not timid, nor do I suffer from social anxiety, but I was once thrown quite far into the air by a stroppy horse, and I am pretty sure word of this has got out on the equine grapevine and horses see me coming and mark me out as somebody with a high potential to be fucked with. I’m less cautious around the ponies of the moor, not just because they’re smaller, but because they’re less in the habit of sarcasm and more prone to minding their own business. You could argue that the moorland ponies are much tougher than horses, in that they never wear jackets or hide inside during inclement weather. I felt for them a couple of weeks ago, as – during one of my recent walks – giant arrows of sleet tore across the sombre peaks from Princetown in the direction of Widecombe and the ponies sheltered behind an old granite wall: thirteen of them in total, in an almost perfect line. You know the weather’s seriously unpleasant if the moorland ponies are sheltering. Three sheep had also surreptitiously joined the line-up so I decided it wasn’t species-exclusive and snuck in between the seventh and eighth pony from the left. Not one of the ponies raised a complaint or an eyebrow. A car passed, travelling east on the B3357, and the woman in the passenger seat glanced briefly across at us. “Erm, Graham,” I imagined her saying, a moment later. “This is going to sound weird, but I think one of those ponies was holding an Ordnance Survey Explorer map and a bag of Bobby’s 39p Salt And Vinegar Spirals.”

Writing fiction isn’t maths, but for a while I thought it had to be. Which in retrospect seems particularly insane, considering just how much I hate maths. When I began a novel, what I wanted was a reassurance of precisely where it would go and the equations it would solve, and because I could not find that reassurance, I was not brave enough to get very far into the narrative  before throwing in the towel. What I didn’t realise is that not having that reassurance is a – perhaps even the – central part of the pleasure of the process. Of course, that is partly due to the choice I have organically made about the kind of books I want to write. I’m not writing airport thrillers, or rigidly plot-based novels where characters and places are merely ciphers on a fast route to a rushing crescendo where all the strands come together and everything is ok and the world is solved. Probably the biggest revelation I’ve had as a fiction writer is that you cannot totally solve and tie up the world, nor would you want to, even though you are very aware that there are many readers who would prefer that to be the case. The people who hated my short story collection Help The Witch seem to have almost without exception been people who would have preferred me to get a trumpet out at the end of each story and, reading from a script in front of me, play some cover version of a fanfare I’d vaguely heard elsewhere. But doing that doesn’t interest me or challenge me as a writer, nor is it a feature of any writing I love. You don’t get to the end of an Alice Munro or Grace Paley or William Trevor or John Cheever or Annie Proulx short story and see them going, “TA-DA AND THAT IS THE END EVERYONE LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER AND HAD CLEARER SKIN AND MORE MONEY.” I like the writers who take more pleasure in using a very fine craft knife to cut the jigsaw than they do in putting the pieces back together, writers you want to hang out with, not rush to the final page so you can get away from them, writers who don’t solve the world but help you understand it in innumerable small ways. But what is interesting as I get further into this current book – and I have never felt this more, possibly because of where I am going with it, and because of what is happening to attention spans right now in a wider sense – is that at each juncture in the narrative I am very clearly seeing the easier option that I could take and turning defiantly away from it. That is to say: the option I would learn nothing from, that would move me nowhere new creatively, that would swim out much more smoothly and remuneratively into a climate where the oversimplified soundbite and the inspirational quote are King and Queen. I do this not out of sheer contrariness, only out of the contrariness that wants to be able to look at my finished work and say “That was 100% me and I moved things on a bit” before attempting to move things on some more.

There’s a gate on Dartmoor, leading up onto Black Down from the old silver-lead mine, Wheal Betsy. The gate is totally functioning and a legal part of the footpath, but you have to climb through a gorse bush to get to it. I’m guessing only me and maybe four other people have gone through it since July. You get gates like that sometimes. I think it’s because the main road leading from Tavistock up towards Okehampton is in the way and the continuation of the footpath isn’t directly on the other side of the road. You come to think of these big roads as borders to the moor, but they’re not, and as I walked over to Blackdown last month I thought about a time when this one wasn’t here, cutting through everything like a carefully cultivated insult. I climbed Gibbet Hill, which is only one of many Gibbet Hills in the UK, but one that lives up to the ominous promises of its name more than most. From the top – unless the day isn’t made totally of cloud, like today – there’s a view directly across the valley to the church of St Michael de Rupe, on top of Brent Tor, which was allegedly dropped on top of the high forsaken hill by the Devil so nobody would worship there. This stretch of countryside was once home to the Gubbins, a kind of Sixteenth Century Dartmoor answer to Robin Hood’s Merry Men but with none of the famed noble aspects of those outlaws, a pitiful grasp of the English language and a sideline in sheep theft. Highwaymen often preyed on travellers in this region of the moor and, after being caught and tried, were returned to the scene of the crime and left in metal cages to die, with only scraps to feed on handed over by the occasional local who took pity on them. Sometimes a passing villager handed them a candle to eat. As I hooked back around to Gibbet Hill from Lydford Gorge and walked into the flourishing gale, the rain redoubled and pelted my face, stinging like Dartmoor rain had never stung before, visibility was reduced to a few yards, and, due to not seeing the red flags that had been raised to alert walkers that the military firing range on White Hill was in use, I heard shots ring out only 80 yards or so in front of me, and changed course, even more directly into the rain, which now felt like being pelted about the ears and mouth with gravel. I consoled myself with the thought that I was not in a cage, eating a candle.

I knew something bad was coming when I was on Gibbet Hill and for the next three days all the filthiest, most blinding weather in the galaxy hit the top of the moor, then was siphoned – every last bit of it – into the opinionated river that runs past my house. The storm had a name, but that wasn’t important. Every storm has a name now. They’ve even run out of normal names for storms and started giving them fancy middle class names instead. The point was, there was a lot of weather up there. It was, for a day, like living next to the planet’s longest, most fucked off jacuzzi. I stood on the bridge and pictured the force dislodging the four century old stones of the arch. In my mind I saw various objects from my house bobbing about in the waves, down beyond Dartmouth in Start Bay. A framed poster for Roger Corman’s 1967 film The Trip, starring Peter Fonda and Susan Strasberg. The 1975 LP ‘Lazy Bones!!’ by the Zambian psychedelic rock band, Witch. A very elderly deaf cat with an even more confused expression on his face than usual. A lamp. But then, with merely a reduction in the state of the rain from “End Times” to “Pretty Damn Heavy”, I walked outside two mornings later and it was all calm again, the water level at just half the frightening height it had been. I felt like somebody who had been yelling at me about all my shortcomings the night before had greeted me in the kitchen with a cup of tea, some pancakes and a smile. “Is this a trick?” I wondered. It seemed impossible, the personality change: too radical, too quick. But it was real and by the afternoon I’d relaxed, and begun to live again.

You hear a lot of people call art – particularly music – “pretentious” when what they mean is “brave”, “ambitious”, “heroically flawed” or “ambitious” or a bit of all three. I remember this happening all the time in my late teens and my early days hanging around people in or on the murky flanks of the music industry. Long songs featuring fantastical or poetic imagery were typically described as “pretentious”. Anything with a punk ethic, anything punchy that purported to be about the real world, working people, politics, wasn’t. It’s nonsense, an oversimplification of everything creating art is about. Of course, lots of progressive rock and jazz is pretentious, but no more so than punk, at its worst, can also be pretentious. But somehow it’s by making any art that stretches the boundaries of what is normal that you risk the criticism of people who spontaneously belch out the description “pretentious” without knowing what pretentious truly means. ‘The Dragon’, the mindblowing and feral record Vangelis made in 1971 directly after he left the band Aphrodite’s Child, would no doubt be described as pretentious by many, merely owing to the fact it features a dragon on the cover, no lyrics, and just three songs, the longest of which is fifteen minutes eighteen seconds long. It is in fact anything but pretentious, due to its total, relentless, authentic commitment to recreating the sound of somebody being chased by a fire-tongued mythical beast through dripping caves on a futuristic island. When they made ‘Anthem Of The Sun’ in autumn 1967, the Grateful Dead decided it would be interesting to go to Los Angeles and record thirty minutes of heavy air then go to the desert and record thirty minutes of clear air, mix the two together and turn it into a rhythm track. Maybe it was a redundant experiment, maybe it was indulgent, but what’s important is that it’s representative of the exact kind of thinking that makes ‘Anthem Of The Sun’ still sound like a timeless record from another planet almost five and a half decades after it was made: the same thinking that made the band try to bring elements of cinema into their sound, jump cuts and cross fades, the attitude that, in Jerry Garcia’s words, allowed them to “buy themselves an education”, then gave them the confidence to make the more rootsy and effortless ‘American Beauty’ LP a few years later. The record company pestered them to write a hit, which they had the talent to do with little fuss, but they refused. Where does the particular magic of the period of music between 1965 and 1973 come from? A collective sense of optimism and hope? The tactile nature of the equipment the songs were recorded on? A cyclonic cross-fertilising of ideas amongst imaginative, eerily wise young people having the time of their life? Probably all of these things. But I am sure it also comes from more people at that time being more willing to respond to all the pressures asking them to do the obvious thing – the thing that wouldn’t be in danger of being misinterpreted as pretentious – and say, “No, fuck you. I’m going to do this wild thing instead, unique to me, that might not work but also might create pure nirvana.”

Simon The Osteopath has had me in a headlock this month and been cracking six or seven of my vertebrae. Before he did the most assertive and dramatic procedure, he said I might feel quite emotional, and that, if I did, it was quite normal and nothing to worry about. I said “Ok” and got ready to suddenly break down in tears and tell him about a memory of a deceased pet, a friend I’d lost touch with or a rare record I had never recovered from selling. There was an audible crack, a little bit of pain, and, though I felt a notable lack of emotion, I did kind of want him to do it again.

It’s great when you’re inside the writing of your book and whatever invisible force that writes it for you is pulling you along but as soon as you step outside of that, there’s lots of noise and distraction to potentially put you off your stride, so it’s important to renew your creative vows to yourself every so often. Mine, this time around, are as follows:

  1. I vow to make this my most psychedelic book so far.
  2. I vow to continue to think with my own brain and not the brains of some people I’ve met in the past who also write or want to write books but have a different brain to me and write or want to write books for very different reasons.
  3. I vow to avoid making it a book that makes a big obvious statement, or purports to be some kind of motivational or inspirational “how to” guide, even though the whole world seems to think right now that the only way to make books a success is by selling them as a big obvious statement or at least some kind of motivational or inspirational “how to” guide.
  4. I vow to use the cross fader, if I need to, and to go – spiritually, if not physically, since the latter would currently be illegal – to Los Angeles and record the sound of heavy air, then go to the desert and record the sound of clear air, then mix them together as a rhythm track, if that feels like the right thing to do at the time, even though it might not work and someone who doesn’t know what pretentious means might denounce it as pretentious.
  5. I vow to be somebody who knows a tiny bit more about stuff by the time I’ve finished the book.
  6. I vow to try my best to make it a nice book for eleven people not yet born to find in bins and the homes of deceased people eighty years from now.
  7. I vow to try not to worry about the fact that people’s attention spans are increasingly shagged to shit by social media and the inevitable consequence that this makes them increasingly unlikely to have time for a book like the one I am writing.
  8. I vow to keep listening to a load of untamed psychedelic music, during breaks for tea, food and household chores.
  9. I vow to try to listen a bit harder to nature around me and people who are curious about their environment.
  10. I vow to shut out thoughts of how the book might be evaluated by algorithms and twats, since neither of these are who I am writing the book for.
  11. I vow to continue letting the book be whatever the fuck it needs to be.

My first thought when I saw the ewe on the ledge above the creek where my friend Nat and I were walking was that it looked like a portent: a vision from a nightmare, some kind of semi-real gatekeeper to some place you entered and never came back from. The ewe was so dark, darker than any sheep I’d met, darker in a way even than black ones, darker than the colour of the day, which was as dark as a day could be, at the darkest time of the year. My second thought was that it should not be where it was. We stopped and discussed the situation and called a local pub and a shop to try to get the number of the farmer who owned the sheep but nobody answered. I managed to get a couple of toeholds in the limestone rockface and clambered 20 feet up next to the ewe on the ledge, all the time avoiding sudden movements that might scare the ewe and cause her to plummet over the edge to the rocky ground below and break her legs. I noticed barbed wire wrapped around her neck and front haunches and managed to gently untangle the barbed wire, only cutting my hands and wrists a little in the process, while  she breathed her hot, surprisingly sweet breath on me. I now realised she was pregnant. She could not jump onto the ledge above the ledge she was on and when I tried to push her up there, the weight of her and the fetuses inside her was too stubborn. All the time Nat stayed directly below the sheep, pledging to turn herself into a human cushion if needed, to break the sheep’s fall, even though I said this might not be a great move for her future as a physically able person. We reluctantly left the sheep and walked to a farm a mile away, to ask for help. The rain now got heavier and I was sure that if I had jumped in the creek, I would be drier than I was now, and at least a little less muddy. There was no answer at the farmhouse but just as we were giving up hope, a man in a flourescent jacket opened the door. He said very little when we told him about the sheep, but said it didn’t belong to him, but wasn’t quite clear who it did belong to, or whether he would help us. But he drove down to the creek beside us on his part-covered quad vehicle. On the way, we encountered a drenched dog walker who told us she’d been down by the creek and hadn’t seen any sheep on a ledge, but when we arrived the sheep was still in the same place. The farmer approached the sheep from the field above but was reluctant to step on the precarious ground above the ledge, which was mostly just a brittle latticework of tree roots. He didn’t seem to have a solution to the problem, remained monosyllabic and unclear when I asked if we could telephone the sheep’s owners, and referred to the sheep as “he”. “I’ll fetch the bucket,” he said, and I wondered what good a bucket would possibly do. I asked him whether he had a rope and he said yes and while the farmer was fetching the bucket, and Nat was once again below, priming herself to become a human cushion, I climbed back up the ledge and managed to knot the rope around the ewe’s chest but, stepping over the roots to the higher vantage point, and pulling on the rope with all my strength, could not winch the ewe up onto the higher ledge. It was clear that the water that had accumulated in the ewe’s wool during the period it had been stuck on the ledge – which could actually have been quite a long time – was another contributing factor to her immense weight, along with the fact it was in the family way. At this point another farmer – also not the sheep’s owner, but a much more dynamic and businesslike presence than his colleague – arrived with more rope and attached it to my rope and wrapped the rope around a tree trunk. Nat joined us and while the two of them pulled on the upslope, I used all my weight on the downslope, on the other side of the tree, and the sheep bumped up the slope and ran to freedom. Less than a minute later, the original farmer, with comic timing, arrived below us with his bucket, which I now realised was not the kind you use to wash a car or put sand in on a beach but a much bigger kind, attached to a tractor. This might have proved a less fraught and painful way to rescue the sheep, but there was no guarantee of that, or even that it would have been a success, and as Nat and I walked away, back into the throat of the rain, we had no regrets, even as it dawned on us that the whole episode had taken the best part of three hours and I began to remember the whiplash I’d sustained just over a week earlier when I’d written my car off after skidding on black ice on a narrow country lane narrowly avoiding a head on collision with an SUV coming fast from the opposite direction, and began to feel my neck and back throb as if they couldn’t quite hold my head up, as if my head itself was as heavy as a waterlogged pregnant sheep. We had prevented a sheep’s death, and possibly the death of one or more lambs. Further, for my part, I felt I had quite probably prevented a recurring vision in my future nightmares: the sheep’s two faces, its dark apocalypse gatekeeper face as we first saw it above us as we walked along the creek, but also, more poignantly and potentially troublingly, its close-up intimate face. The face that looked into mine from the distance of a kiss as I untangled that barbed wire, breathing its hot quick breath on me, terrified, but trusting, because that was the only choice available to it.

My first ever novel, VILLAGER, is now up for funding. I’d be delighted if you were able to help with its funding by reserving a signed first edition hardback – with your own name printed in the back – here.

My most recent book is Ring The Hill – which is also out in the US and Canada this month.

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My next book is out on March the 18th. It’s called Notebook.

10 thoughts on “Early 2021: A Personal Compendium

  1. Thank you for that totally gripping piece! You really have to be tough to live there. It is another world. Don’t think I would last a day! Good luck with the writing and keep Well!

  2. Have you read The House That Sailed Away by Pat Hutchins (1975)? Thanks for this excellent piece and esp ‘I knew something bad was coming’ which brought a sudden flash of that favourite childhood book back to me.

  3. Every time I read a piece of your writing I like you even more.
    I was lucky enough to be young when that great music was being brought to life….and it was bliss indeed. Even in Slough.

  4. Thank you for transcribing some of your thoughts and musings from the Ramblecasts Tom. It is strange how seeing the sheep rescue story in print made me appreciate it in a different way. I love the Ramblecasts as they make me think I am getting out for a walk in moorland areas where I can’t get to at the moment (apart from Gibbet of course).
    I was given a really lovely hardback copy of The Shipping News the other day. American edition. Looking forward to reading it for the first time!

  5. Thank you for the sheep rescue – she is a fine looking sheep of a splendid colour.

    And the writing is, as ever, densely descriptive and colourful.

  6. Loved the sheep story. Hope she’s grateful . . .

    I do actually get weepy after a visit to the osteopath, although she doesn’t do “adjustments” as they are euphemistically called. I have wondered if it’s because muscles have been “made” to relax and there’s a sort of knock-on effect. Always feel like I’ve been run over by a bus the evening and next day after treatment. But it does help.

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