January: A Personal Compendium

I have been doing more reading this month than I have for a long time. I read some amazing stories by Steven Millhauser, whose writing I first fell in love with at 24, and which now seems even more sprinkled with flakes of deft magic. One story was about a creator of art who, in his pursuit of brilliance, made his art tinier and tinier until it was invisible, even to his own eye. Ultimately it came across as a story about perfection. Real perfection probably would be invisible since it doesn’t exist. My friend Tiffany’s rescue dog Pablo, who accompanied me and Tiffany on a walk last week, is 25% chihuahua, 12.5% German shepherd, 12.5% Catalan sheepdog and 12.5% Yorkshire terrier and 12.5% “all sorts that nobody is sure about”, which is probably not a serious dog breeder’s, or the current President Of America’s, idea of perfection, yet he is an ideal dog. I can’t image how you’d ever want more from a dog than Pablo. All the accidents that led to him have combined to make him wonderful. Even records and books I sometimes catch myself describing as perfect aren’t. Their flaws are often what give them that extra touch of sorcery: a wild digression, an ethereal change of gear, a voice about to crack, an unintentionally raw moment. I don’t believe in perfection, but I believe in the pursuit of it and what that can create, often by accident. I will try to be a better writer on my next book than I was on my last. I will try to bring more to it, even if much of it is hard to see with the naked eye.


Public swimming pools have a subtle low-lying drama to them: like something very important is about to happen but never does. A tension appears to build for the hour or so I spend at mine but when I emerge from the pool the tension level is in fact the same as it was at the start. The large number of lifeguards no doubt contributes to this atmosphere. I would be totally fine being a lifeguard if I could read books but I am guessing that’s not allowed. This month there was a major crisis for the lifeguards, when a large amount of shower gel was spilt on the floor of the men’s showers. More and more lifeguards gathered around the head lifeguard and a plan was strategically made to defuse the situation. Below the lifeguards, four men in their 50s were ploughing through the water with a fair amount of violence. The men share a friendship – maybe originating in the pool itself, or prior to that, I can’t tell – and I don’t go in the fast lane when they are there: not just because I’m nowhere near as fast as them but because the whole lane assumes a different character when they are in it and I am an outsider. Also, one of them – the one with the most calm, commanding aura, who the others listen to attentively – is a police officer, and there’s mud on my reg plate and I think my front tyre might be slightly bald. When the men swim they do so in a splashy maelstrom that creates a kind of unison, and it is impossible to tell where anyone is. I don’t get the impression they’re people who swim the way that they drive, though, in the way that I do with a lot of people at the pool. In their breaks, the men chat about the quality of the water. “Is it me or is a bit more choppy today?” the large bald one said a couple of Tuesdays ago.


These are the main differences I’ve noticed about Somerset, when compared to Devon, in my five months living here: the sunsets are more spectacular, there is less of a constant ambience of water, the lanes are less tricky to negotiate by car but more dangerous for that fact itself, the rivers are more inhibited, there is less of a sense of joyful separateness underpinning life. There is also a lot of mistletoe. Massive orbs of it, all over the place. It started making itself apparent with the final denuding of the trees in December, like nature was hanging its own baubles. It’s still around now: the last of the Christmas decorations that nobody can quite bring themselves to take down.

Last Saturday I did my new thing of turning up, totally sober, in a public space where someone is playing great music, dancing enthusiastically for a while, then leaving. I enjoyed it. I always enjoy dancing – probably more, in fact, when I’m sober. It also felt like a kind of rule-breaking, and I like rule-breaking, especially when it takes its less bombastic forms. I might do a UK tour.


Nobody told me I’d still want to dance, pretty much all the time, by the time I reached my 44th January. Nobody told me I’d feel better now about my mind and body now than I have during my entire adult life. Nobody told me I’d get more out of music, even more than I did when I was 17 and regularly threw myself into moshpits. Nobody told me how great it was to come through the back gate of an unfamiliar village churchyard in mid winter while a pile of leaves smouldered in a nearby garden. Nobody told me that, when buying tortilla chips, it’s best to go for the absolute cheapest range. Nobody told me all that much. But why should they?


I prefer January to December but I perceive its many drawbacks, particularly for the self-employed. In the dark tiny days, just as you’re starting to forget spring can ever be a thing again, you remember it’s time to pay your tax. In my case, that brings a concomitant reality check, and a release from any financial delusions I might have been harbouring in the preceding months. Another year has gone by and I have not earned more than the previous year, not earned nearly as much as I was earning early in my adulthood, not nearly as much as most proper people of my age. Another book has been written and positively received but nothing has changed, financially speaking. Can I do anything to alter that? I doubt it. And anything I might strive to do would certainly be damaging to my work. Time to step back, get real, recommit to dying penniless. It’s freeing, once you look it square in the face. Then the motivation comes flooding in: to write, to improve, to learn, to explore, to enjoy what I have.


I bought some flea treatment for my two cats. It was flea treatment you could use on house rabbits, too. The box warned that the flea treatment was not suitable for rabbits intended for human consumption. I had not realised anyone kept rabbits with the intention of eating them. Or maybe there are bands of insurrectionary folk who have been known to go out on renegade missions in the countryside, de-fleaing wild rabbits. I prefer that explanation.


I rewatched a couple of Beatles documentaries, including Living In The Material World, Martin Scorcese’s 2011 film about George Harrison. I noticed, again, that all four Beatles shared precisely the same hair colour for the first two thirds of the 60s, and the three most important ones were all almost precisely the same height. People argue endlessly about who the best Beatle was and their choice normally says much more about them than the Beatle they are talking about, but every year it seems increasingly preposterous to claim that any other solo album by a Beatle is better than Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, from 1970. I relistened to Harrison’s subsequent 70s albums after watching the documentary and keenly willed them to be better than they are. I also couldn’t help looking up the full version of Ringo and George’s 1988 interview on Aspel And Co, from which we see a short spliced clip in Living In The Material World. It’s not comfortable viewing. George is patient and quiet and reluctant and wry, and Ringo is that combination of quick-witted and massively boorish that naturally funny people, when very drunk, often are. Ringo’s hair looks like he’s used it to clean the extractor hood on a tired cooker in a bad canteen. George doesn’t look particularly good either, but only because it’s 1988, and nobody looked good in 1988. Sometimes it’s astonishing to think people managed to find each other attractive enough to have sex in 1988, in the same way that it’s astonishing to think people managed to find each other attractive enough to have sex in the 1300s, when nobody used toothpaste or bathed regularly. If you watch the Aspel And Co clip on youtube you might also get a box to your right suggesting you also watch Harrison’s 1971 interview with Dick Cavett, in which Harrison’s hair, beard and clothes look utterly fantastic. Everyone likes to believe every change in their hair and outfit is a step forward, yet sometimes 17 years of apparent stylistic steps forward, with no financial restrictions, can somehow lead you to a backcombed ex-rocker mullet and a light grey suit that looks like it came from the sale rack in Littlewoods. What’s bewildering about the mid to late 80s is less the way people who’d looked brilliant and made mindblowing music in the 60s and 70s started dressing and overproducing their music, it’s the fact that they clearly viewed it all as progress. Even George, a pop star more immune to fads than most, wasn’t immune to this. What’s common to both interviews – and all of Living In The Material World – is an awareness that George is the one Beatle who never came across as an inverted commas version of himself. “I’m even more normal than normal people,” he tells Aspel. I don’t quite believe that, but I do believe that he lived a fantastic, spiritually rich life, as true to himself and bullshit-free as his situation permitted. He also feels amazingly familiar, and not just in a way that all likeable famous people you’ve been aware of your whole life feel familiar. I think it could be a Scouse thing. I’m not from Liverpool but most of my family are, and, as my Liverpudlian friend Andrew claims, Scouseness runs deeper than actually growing up there; it’s hereditary.


I walked near Sherborne. It was my ninth long country walk of the month. A fire extinguisher was lodged in a hedge, far from anywhere there might be any obvious potential use for a fire extinguisher. The wind was strong and had a sharp doom metal taste that it almost never has in the south west. The sky was in the process of getting very clean: the kind of clean that happens when you wash art equipment with oil. My route took me past Sherborne Castle, the former home of Sir Walter Raleigh, whose embalmed head was kept around by his wife after his execution, for company, and also presumably the memories. I counted at least four gatehouses within the grounds – five, if you include the one without the gate. I can’t imagine why you’d ever need that many. The wind felt like the kind of wind that comes to tidy up, so we can all move on.


I don’t write for any mainstream media publications and chose to put my writing on this site instead: around 200,000 words of it so far. It’s all free, but if you feel like donating a small monthly amount to help me keep going, you can do so either by paypal or GoCardless. You’ll also find a subscription link on the home page if you’d like to sign up to be notified when a new piece is published.

Read my latest book, Help The Witch. I also have just a few signed copies here: if you’d like to order one of these direct from me, email me via this form.

My upcoming book, Ring The Hill, is now funding for autumn 2019 publication.

To hear my recent podcast interview with Tiffany Francis (and Pablo), click here.

11 thoughts on “January: A Personal Compendium

  1. A really great piece to read and I enjoyed your comments on George H, I only have a few of his albums but the box set of LitMW is one of my all time favourites. My late husband was a Beatles fan, John L mainly, but Georges music was more to my taste.
    I hope that you keep entertaining us with your thoughts even if it doesnt pay well.
    Looking forward to the next publication.

  2. Love your comments about George, always my favourite Beatle. The hair colour though : I think you will find that Lennon had slightly browner hair with a reddish tinge. ( these things matter).

  3. ‘ a sharp doom metal taste’
    That’s what I read your writing for. A way with words that gives me a jolt and makes me marvel at how many new ways of putting ideas together there are and might still be.

  4. Great piece of writing Tom, it’s like being inside your head for a while. Which is a good thing, by the way.

  5. My first visit to your website – I bought 20th Century Yokel with Christmas book tokens and have just finished it, absolutely loved it, thank you. Bought it because I read a good review where having recently moved to Somerset bits resonated. And now having got used to the thought of you next door in Devon I see you’re in Somerset too! Keep on keepin on, with enough material wealth to fuel your spiritual richness.

  6. As usual, it takes me a bit to get round to reading the new post, and when I do it’s always timely. Yesterday I was tossed aside professionally yet again, by people that had been stringing me along, and find myself without clients to support my future walking habit(and general living, kids to college, etc, but i believe in honesty regarding priorities), and this post reminds me to be ok with just being me and doing my creative thing. Staying in the spirit of being honest, though, it’s honestly bullshit that your work isn’t affording you a financial boon. The ways people spend their money perplex me. Also, it’s been exhausting to convince my brain to replace the repeat loop of a bad Madonna song with George’s cut of If Not For You, but I got there. Stupid 1980’s…..

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