Early Autumn 2019: A Personal Compendium

A lot of people have now died. That much is clear. John Barker, the steam circus proprietor, was crushed between two wagons at the original Norwich Cattle Market in 1897 while setting up a steam roundabout. He suffered fractures to the spine and breastbone, punctures to both lungs, and broke fourteen ribs, which is at least a couple of ribs more than I had thought humans had in their bodies until just now when I read about it. A renowned campaigner for travellers’ rights, he was survived by a wife – although only for three more years – and 15 children. There’s nearly always a squirrel or three playing up near Barker’s stone bust, which is perched on a small plinth in the Rosary Cemetery on a stationary stone carousel which seems to suggest that, were you to insert an old coin into it, his carved industrial face might come alive and speak to you, offering one fact about Victorian circuses for each halfpenny proffered. On recent walks through the cemetery I’ve seen a white cat and a black cat close by Barker’s stone head, the black one scuttling off yesterday in embarrassment after being witnessed unsuccessfully attempting a leap from one gravestone to another. Norwich’s cemeteries are at their most poignant and beckoning at this time of year, as their long green avenues begin to rust, reminding you of the way everything keeps rolling over, and will do forever, and your part in it. You cut through the one on Dereham Road on the way to hunt for old Viragos in the Amnesty bookshop and it never seems to end and you think, “Surely this should be enough, for one small city? Surely more people than this have not died, over the years?” then you remember Earlham, Bowthorpe, all the others, the little ones, and the bones under the bones, piled up underground, altering the actual terrain. Two friends of mine went for a run here recently then one had to stop and have a cry, quite understandably, because, as everyone who has tried it knows, running is very upsetting. A workmate of the other friend watched her cry from a bush, where he had been hiding in order to get the best possible photograph of a fox. He remained in the bush, silent, feeling that was the most socially acceptable course of action, and did not reveal he had witnessed the crying until the following day, at work.

The angry postman came this morning, not the friendly postman, or the friendly postlady, who sadly very rarely works this route. I always know it’s the angry postman because he knocks really really loud before he rings my doorbell, which he must realise by now is a loud doorbell. I don’t know if it’s something he does at every house, or if it’s some kind of passive agressive vendetta, dating back to one morning in July when it was obvious I was in because he could just hear some flute coming from my living room speakers and see a light burning but I didn’t hear him because I was in the shower. I always thank the angry postman for my mail but he never says a word as he hands it to me. Maybe something horrible has happened to him recently. Maybe he has an angry postman too. I notice that I feel a fair bit worse about the world after I’ve been handed my mail by the angry postman, just as I notice I feel a fair bit better about it when I have been handed my mail by the nice postman or postlady, or had a chat with somebody who works in a shop or a cafe or a pub who seems in a genuinely bright mood and curious about their environment. All these little invisible rods of energy, good and bad and indifferent, are being passed between humans like little red hot and ice cold and lukewarm relay batons every day, altering our moods, perhaps even sometimes fairly significantly changing the path of our lives. But we pretend they aren’t there. We pretend it’s only the big stuff making us happy or sad: love, new life, houses, death, career, heartbreak. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s just a stranger smiling and saying good morning while they hand you a VG+ record by The Doors you bought off Discogs.

I want to be a person who can admit he was wrong, and something I can admit I was wrong about is The Doors. I was wrong about The Doors when I was 17 and briefly thought they were the greatest band ever, but I was much more wrong about them in my mid to late 20s when I joined in with mates who claimed they were rubbish and that Slade were better. I was even wrong about them when I began to warm to them again and decided they had about four brilliant songs. They have at least twenty brilliant songs* and, once you begin to separate them from the occasional ridiculousness of Jim Morrison, you realise what unique dark alchemists they were, but I’m not even sure I do any longer want to separate them from the intermittent ridiculousness of Jim Morrison. I find that I am enjoying that intermittent ridiculousness more and more: his early pouting, his nonsense imagery in Peace Frog, his ghosts crowding his young child’s fragile eggshell mind, his precious angelic sex hair, the full and rapidly changing life he appeared to live in so few years, the lack of cliched simplicity to his descent, which – contrary to much belief – involved The Doors losing it for a while, but then getting much much better, when he was physically at his worst, right at the end, and making the two most interesting LPs of their career. If you banned people from being intermittently ridiculous, we’d all be a lot more bored.

The chasm between what people who’ve never read my books think my books are and what people who’ve read my books know my books are is vast. I walk along the edge of the chasm every time I go online, careful not to fall in. It seems to get more vast as I write books that are truer to me, no longer ask permission to do what I’m doing, and enjoy the creative process more: the feedback I get from readers has more layers, is a more fulfilling connection, more moving. The feedback I can get from the rest of the universe is more and more flimsy and confused, scrabbling for a simple toehold. I don’t even know why that feedback needs to exist. But it arrives, almost every day. I’m sure a lot of it is my own fault: I’ve written on a lot of different subjects, which is confusing, so it’s easiest for people to latch on to the most obvious one, and tell themselves a story. Far easier than, say, reading an actual story, which is, after all, time consuming and requires that outdated human quality known as an attention span. But I think a lot of us are experiencing the same process, to a greater or lesser extent. It’s a symptom of the Internet in general, not just for creative people, but for people full stop. Social media’s very nature, the very way it encourages a shouty, oversimplistic vision, the way it finds fuel from negativity, tends to create alternate thin facsimiles of humans that have less and less to do with the Us who wander around in real corporeal spaces, with our varied interests and contradictions and anomalies. There’s always somebody on the Internet who’s made no effort to find out who a person is or what the person does telling that person what they are and what they do. Doing more of what you do and being more of who you are doesn’t change that, because it doesn’t change the fact that a few select people take pride in being giant diseased testicles. But the fact that it happens and that the Internet has given the giant diseased testicles a voice adds extra meaning to the comments from people who find out who you are and what you do and appreciate it, and makes you even more glad of them, their moments of thought and kindness, and – if you work in a creative field – the fact that, out of all the great work that’s out there, they’ve taken time to check out yours.

I sold about 500 of my records to fund my cross-country house move. I selected them slowly and carefully and, so far, I haven’t missed any of them. A bystander might argue that I had a few too many records and I would be very willing to chat this out with a bystander, potentially agreeing with at least 80% of where they are coming from. Around the time I was selling my records, I also gradually discovered that I’d lost about £600’s worth of other records to warping due to my neglecting to keep them properly covered up on sunny days in my last house’s insanely hot, glass-dominated living room. That hurt me in a soft vulnerable place beyond my skin that nobody can see, and with hindsight I did quite well not to fall onto the floor in a heap and cry, but I’m slowly recovering emotionally and hope that I might financially soon, too. A record collection is always a story. The question is what kind. You can let the story keep expanding, like some epic work of fiction written by a writer so famous and intimidating that their editor is too scared to be honest and tell them they need to get a grip and reign it in a bit. Or you can continue pruning and shaping the story, keeping it as honest as possible. I’m tending more towards the latter approach. But then I am a person who is passionate about editing: I regard it as one of my top five parts of writing, along with faffing, researching, thinking and writing. I like the music of Kevin Ayers but I don’t like the music of Kevin Ayers as much as other people have told me to like the music of Kevin Ayers, so, in the interests of honesty, I have recently removed the small Kevin Ayers chapter from my story. Also: selling records means I can afford to buy more records, and I don’t want to stop buying records. I don’t want to say, at the point where I am now in my life as a music lover, “Ok. That’s it. I’m finished. The story is done.”

Sunday morning. A brief break in what has felt like six or seven years of rain. The city semi-deserted, a different ambience to some Sundays, like the dregs in the bottom of an alcopop bottle six or seven strangers took sips from the night before. A walk to the University Of East Anglia: a place where a brave future that never happened still looks so architecturally thrilling you start to believe in it all over again. A place where concrete is a solid, redoubtable promise, where you just want to get inside the concrete and lose yourself in learning forever and forget the rest. Hungover students milling about in kitchens in the Ziggurats, striving to locate cheddar and coffee and paracetamol. Water cascading efficiently down the terraces from satisfying v-shaped drains, which poke out of the building like guns from a robot outlaw’s hideout. I noticed the Ziggurats – designed by Denys Lasdun, in 1962 – before, noticed them hard, but never properly noticed Lasdun’s drains. Are the freshers in the picture windows aware of what a wonderful building they live in, or will that you-don’t-know-what-you’ve-got-til-it’s-gone sensation hit them in twelve, thirteen years? “I never realised it at the time, but it really hits home a lot more, now that I’m living in a house with very ordinary and unimaginative drains, that those drains on my old student digs were really fucking amazing and enhanced my aesthetic life.” 2032. That’s really not far away. I hope to have learned a lot more by then, and read at least another 1350 books. But, knowing from experience the way it tends to pan out, I’ll probably only manage half that figure at best.

I remember, when I collected my brilliant and opinionated cat, who was then just a kitten, from her original home, my cat’s mum tumbling into the room, and my then girlfriend nodding towards the older cat and whispering to me, “I hope she doesn’t end up looking like that, with a tiny head and a big round body.” I sometimes find myself thinking about that now, when my cat walks into the room, with her tiny head and her big round body.

Is the utter appallingness of my short term memory a price I pay of the weird, random brilliance of my long term memory? I am starting to think so. As my short term memory becomes increasingly haywire my long term memory only strengthens: one day, I fear, I will misplace every cup of tea I make, not remember to text any friends back at all, but recall the events of 1993 in their entirety. Short term memory and long term memory are so different in their motives. Short term memory latches onto one negative in a sea of positive and torments you with it. Long term memory is a snob, a perfectionist, turning so-so summers into an intoxicating psychedelic montage. Even when you properly learn this, and try to account for it, it’s still a snob. 2010, for example, is now far enough away to be part of my long term memory, which has decided that it was a year without a winter, or at least without any of winter’s drawbacks, where I did nothing but meet interesting new people, hold a party at my house every week, walk every footpath in Norfolk and Suffolk, and drink beer twice a week in my garden with friends when it was warm, or, when it was cold, in our favourite pub where the log fire was always burning and our favourite woodworm-infested old bench at the back was mysteriously always free, as if we were characters in some unlikely Norfolk sitcom. Long term memory has conveniently removed from the picture fortnight-long headcolds, speeding tickets, a painful blood clot, the person I liked who didn’t like me back, the person who liked me who I didn’t like back, a spell of creative block, Internet trolls, money terror. I knew it was very important to try to remember that, in deciding to move back to the county where I lived during that year, and had such a good time. You can’t have the 2010 of your long term memory back because you can’t have any year back but also because that 2010 wasn’t quite real; it was just an angle, created by a director with some fancy technology who wants to keep your attention. Also, the pub has new owners now, and new seats. It’s lost all its soul. We don’t go there any more.

“I will probably pop into Candlesock for lunch on the way to Derbyshire, if that’s ok?” I said to my mum. “What’s Candlesock?” she asked. “It’s the old saxon name for your village,” I told her. “I looked it up.” A small river weaves mildly through Candlesock and as you walk along its mild banks, you might mistake it for a place where only mild people have ever lived, giving rise to events that are exclusively mild. But that’s not true. Once, the houses close to the river in the centre of the village were shops. One mistakenly once sold laudanum instead of tincture of rhubarb. It killed a man in the village. The man’s son then broke into the shopkeeper’s house and murdered her in her bed. On the west side of the village, the river hides for a couple of hundred yards in a corridor of trees, whose branches, when they have fallen in strong winds, have often been dragged by my dad to my parents’ shed then used as firewood. You walk across the field from here and reach my parents’ garden, where you will frequently find my dad burning garden waste, or making friends with dog walkers and asking for their life stories. Sometimes, he will be wearing a high visibility jacket. He tends to favour bold colours, as he does not want to turn into what he calls “AN OLD BEIGE PENSIONER”. He recently showed me a mustard jumper he was wearing. “LOOK!” he said. “THEY’RE MAKING CLOTHES IN ALL SORTS OF GREAT COLOURS NOWADAYS. NOT LIKE ALL THOSE BORING BLUES AND GREYS AND BLACKS.” I pointed out that those were the colours I usually wear. “YEAH,” he said. “THAT’S WHAT I MEAN. RUBBISH.”

You get older, and your body hurts a bit more, but because you’re more used to it hurting, it doesn’t hurt as much. You get drunk on an eighth of a pint of ale and the ensuing hangover lasts six or seven months. Hair starts to grow in some new places and stops growing in others. You develop a greater awareness of the crap most people are going through, all the time, and all of what you should be thankful for. You buy maps you don’t need, notice the way tables have been made, and want to swear when you sneeze, but in a good way. All this is true, and people might tell you about it. What people don’t tell you about as often is the limitations that maturity places on spontaneity, even when you don’t want it to. People have children to look after, mortgages and stupidly high rents to pay, health problems to manage; they’re tired from working too hard, they are starting to wonder if it was the right decision after all to adopt seven dogs, but now are limited to the sole choice of living with the consequences. Just to survive, time must be blocked out carefully, far into the future. It means that reaching lunchtime one day and announcing “Guerrilla knitting party in the water meadow, 3pm! Be there, and spread the word!” becomes impractical. I’m a pain in the arse to be friends with in some ways, as I still like to wake up on a lot of mornings and not really know what I’m doing and see where the day takes me, and that doesn’t always fit particularly well with not being in a culture of being 21 any more. I have loads of mates I can arrange to meet for a coffee or a beer or a film or a walk in a fortnight’s time but nobody who is poised at any point to embark with me on a last minute dancing tour of 1970s funk nights throughout the Western Hemisphere, which is a situation I constantly lament, but also implicitly understand and choose not to berate anyone but society for.

*None of these are ‘Light My Fire’.

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.

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

If you wish 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 beautiful sun-kissed music of Zervas And Pepper

14 thoughts on “Early Autumn 2019: A Personal Compendium

  1. I love your non conformity your simplistic yet complicated view of the world. You aren’t even a square peg in a round hole because you have your own shape. If you reverse Tom you get MOT which could mean “Most of time” or Meaning of Tomorrow or Mean Old Twat (no insult intended) I follow you on insta and twitter so I know you occasionally cuss. I looked up Ziggurat as well so thanks for me learning a new word I may use it when Im driving instead of C U next Tuesday ?

  2. Dear Tom,
    I so enjoy our “visits,” and look forward to the embellishment you add to my day. My copy of Ring The Hill arrived yesterday, and I look forward to starting that journey later today.

    I tried to send a picture of one of my cats with your newest tome yesterday, but they were NOT cooperative at all. Pearl was terrified, Walter was indifferent, and Zuzu was too busy napping to be bothered. Our family of felines have yet to understand the correlation between my reading time and their lap time.

    Enjoy this beautiful season, and thank you for sharing your perspective with such charm and wit.

    Another friend across the pond,

  3. I totally understand the short term memory thing. Starting to fade I decided it was prudent to write down anything of importance that I might forget, and indeed it’s been invaluable. My partner is able to decipher how long phone contracts run for, what the car insurance covers, what excuse we used to get out of a boring family do. It didn’t help much yesterday though when I wrote ‘don’t forget the oven is on’.

  4. Dear Tom
    Thanks for the bonus track as I am approaching the final third of Ring the Hill. I keep saying to everyone “ you must read Tom Cox…” but then I spoil it by saying “ if I was thirty years younger ……” and they say I’m being pervy.
    My the long time sun shine.

  5. Hi Tom, Thank you for the angry postman bit. Reminiscent of certain cold callers recently especially the banging on the door when there is a bell available.
    The importance of moments of kindness and connection is what Stephen Porges’s Polyvagal Theory and the Social Engagement System is all about. This system of cooperation developed in mammals about 200 hundred million years ago to protect themselves against dinosaurs etc. As Dobzhansky said ‘the fittest may also be the gentlest, because survival often requires mutual help and cooperation’ (Dobzhansky, 1962). It’s why I live in Cornwall.

      1. To be fair we still get the occasional cold caller, Mother and Father Tamar are not always impregnable. ??

  6. Every time you write a snippet about your Dad I laugh and feel I would like to be one of those dog walkers he meets and asks about their life story.
    I wonder if he has his own fanbase now, and if people lurk around the fringes of your Mum and Dad’s village, asking men in high visibility jackets for a selfie.

  7. Thank you Tom for another glimpse into that wonderful mind of yours. I have just begun a Creative Writing course at uni and I aspire to be at least a fraction as good at writing as you are. Just a few words and I’m there too, trotting along like that adorable dog you used to take walking with you. Ring the Hill is sitting on the table, waiting for me to pick it up and begin reading, a treat for doing my homework on time. Btw, I love your dad’s antics too!

  8. Totally enjoyable evocative writing, always impressed with your joy of the beautiful kind, a cat in a graveyard, a vinyl record, a happy postie, and 70s aesthetics, and of your honesty of the cruelties in life.

    1. PS: Your book arrived in Australia this week, love the cover artwork in real life. Allowing myself small portions at a time, like a favorite bag of sweets, loving the imagery so far.

  9. I still remember my visit to the UEA campus (for a conference) some ten years ago. I had been abandoned by the people I’d gone with (because they had an important dinner to attend and I, the grad student, was not invited), unable to find anywhere to eat on campus (it being out of term, and the campus also being entirely unlike my own so unreadable, and as it later turned out, probably not possessing anywhere to eat anyway), and no idea how the local buses worked. When I did find the bus stop it didn’t work because the buses had been rerouted. So, I walked into Norwich, which took me nearly an hour, found a tiny Italian restaurant where the owners were very kind and fed me, couldn’t find the bus stop to get back, so walked back in what was by now dusk, all of which is a long run-up to what happened next. Exhausted by this time, and not overly happy with the world, I tried to find my way across a fairly dark campus to my room, to discover an endless series of enormous bumps seemed to have arisen from the grass while I’d been gone, like mushrooms, huge mushrooms. Wondering what they were – maybe they really were mushrooms – I walked over to one, which then moved, ever so slightly, and revealed itself to be a gigantic rabbit. As were the rest. Obviously. There was something weird and dreamlike about the whole scene, like something out of Alice in Wonderland. As I discovered during the rest of my time on campus they were everywhere, day and night, huge, entirely uninterested in moving more than the minimum necessary to avoid having you fall over them, and that for their convenience rather than yours. How I didn’t notice them when I first arrived I’ll never know, but I’ve never seen anything quite like them before or since. I’m hoping they’re still there.

  10. Another fascinating and insightful piece. The angry postman…….so true that our spirits are raised up or down by tiny events throughout the day.
    Thank you!

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