Late Summer, 2020: A Personal Compendium

I have shingles at the moment. I remember at various points in my life people talking in a tone of great pity and sympathy about other people who had shingles but I don’t think I’d ever properly considered what it was. Now I know. What happens is a furious stoat somehow gets inside one side of your body without you noticing and gradually begins to chew all your flesh and nerve-endings. You never see the stoat, but after a while the scars from its work begin to show on the outside, then begin to blister. At night, it’s a little different to that: you wake up at 2am feeling like you and the stoat have been involved in a fire at a biochemical factory. I’ve got quite a high pain threshold but, even so, I’ve found it all surprisingly nasty – particularly the bit where the stoat bought some hot chilli sauce as a dressing then ate my bellybutton from within. What is also startling is that shingles is actually a little bit of chickenpox that’s been sitting dormant in your body, waiting patiently to come back and get you. My chickenpox were a bastard in December, 1992, when I was 17. Like me, they look less grunge rock than they did back then, but they’re still a bastard and have become more bitter and cynical with age. I have no doubt that the reactivation of that pox is a direct result of the recent flooding at my house, my landlord’s continuing refusal to pay for the work undertaken to put it temporarily right (their argument is that it’s my bill to pay, because – having still received no evidence of anyone coming out to attend to it over 17 hours after I initially alerted them to the flood, and three and a half days after I told them about the beginnings of it – I did not continue to wait and instead took it upon myself to call a drain company out, rather than face the prospect of an entire weekend in a house where water had been gushing through the kitchen ceiling and I couldn’t use the taps or toilet) and the additional damp issues here, not to mention the correspondence surrounding it and the knowledge that, if I am to fight for some kind of justice and financial reimbursement, it will all add to my stress and continue to swallow my life. When my house became what a lot of sensible people would deem uninhabitable, I had been thoroughly enjoying working on my new book, but it’s now been three weeks since I wrote a word of it. My cat Ralph has been very ill, too. But I’m strong and fit, and I have supportive, loving people around me, Barbara at the Citizens Advice Bureau has been a great help, and I think I’m recovering (and Ralph is a little better). What I mostly have ended up thinking is: What about other people who aren’t strong and fit, who maybe have less emotional support, who have been victims in similar or far worse ways of the increasingly terrible and desperate renting climate in this country? People who have been victims, in a wider sense, of the way the housing system in this country continues to benefit only financially comfortable people and people who have been born into money, making them ever more comfortable and the gap between them and people who have not been born into money ever more heinously, unbridgeably large?

Rich city people bought up all the good houses where I live this summer and made the less good ones even more unaffordable. Why wouldn’t you, if you could, I suppose is one way of looking at it. It’s a beautiful part of the country. I don’t know how they let somebody like me in here. My way of being a south Devon resident for much of the last seven years has been to rent houses ostensibly above my means, live otherwise cheaply, not go on holiday, and opt not to think sensibly about the security of my future self. Most people younger than me, who don’t have the benefit that I did of growing up in a less stretched and claustrophobic era, can’t even do that, and it’s desperately unfair. It’s not an awful, greedy thing to want your own little private space in the world. Yet some people make you feel like it is and reprimand you for it. Usually, they’ll disguise this reprimand in a cloak of humour and a quasi solidarity for what they believe it means to be working class. What you find remarkably often is that the people who do the reprimanding are people who have always had the option of their own little private space in the world, effortlessly, people from a very different place to you, who have never had to work as hard as you. They’re often the same people who judge you for enjoying ambitious and interesting music and books and films and eating basil and avocados. They tell you you don’t really come from where you come from because you now live somewhere different, because you have the temerity to want to enjoy nice things, because your parents finally, in retirement, after a lifetime of struggle, got to live in a lovely house with a lovely garden, in the place where you come from. What these people are saying, really, is “Get back in your corner, you. Get back where you belong.”

I am aware of the insurmountable problems with most forms of idealism, and the complexity of life, but I don’t think a world where nobody is allowed to own more than one house – the same one they actually live in – is such a crazy or unreasonable dream. I never fantasise about a second house and I fantasise about a big house in only one way: I like the idea of a place where lots of artists and musicians could live and create, close to the natural world, exchanging ideas and living off their art. This is me being an idealist again, being pissed off that great musicians for the most part can’t any longer make a living off being great musicians, being in total denial of the fact it’s 2020, and also not considering the potential internecine squabbles, the infidelity, the drugs and the division of cleaning tasks. But great artistic movements aren’t always just about the “something in the air” factor. They need more help from the universe than that. When a bunch of musicians moved to Laurel Canyon in the late 60s and began to nearly all make mindblowing record after mindblowing record, there was something else at play apart from the beautiful landscape, the drugs, the changes going on in society and the congregating symbiotic talent: it was a very cheap place to live.

Something else that stuck with me after watching Alison Ellwood’s recent two-part Laurel Canyon documentary is that several times musicians who’d been at the centre of the Canyon scene talked about their ambition at the time having been to make enduring art, something that would still be enjoyed in four decades’ time. This is the opposite to a narrative we are often fed about the 60s: that all the groundbreaking songs people still listen to today from the era were just seen by their creators as something temporary and throwaway, pop, really, or at least not much more than it. The reason they are still deeply adored now is because they are pure magic, dark and light, preserved in a bottle, but also because of the deep level of care and love that went into them: most of them were made by human hands, to last, not on a conveyor belt, and the ones that were made on a conveyor belt were made on a much more lovingly constructed conveyor belt than we could conceive of today.

I found myself approaching a small crossroads on the edge of Dartmoor at sunset: a meeting of small narrow roads with scruffy green central reservations made by nature, where water and leaves get together and share ideas. Illuminated by the diagonal shafts of sun coming through the gaps in the trees was an enormous dog, almost but not quite at the limit of how big a dog can be, standing at the precise centre of the crossroads, staring directly at me. Nobody else was around. Not even a horse. Just me, and the giant dog. I made a sudden, violent movement, as if to run at the dog, and it bounded away, wailing and whimpering like a frightened girl in a 1950s film.

The best song to listen to at sunset is What Are Their Names by David Crosby. There are a lot of good sunset songs but nothing else comes close to it. It’s a song beamed down from some other place, definitely nowhere that could possibly be here on earth, yet is eminently suited to soundtracking earth’s most elemental and pure moments, and has undoubtably got a tiny bit better with every sunset since it was first recorded. Its mellowness is all-consuming, and, for many who know the work of both men, doesn’t sit easily with the fact that not long ago on Twitter Crosby, of Los Angeles, blocked my mate Seventies Pat, of Dudley. Shortly before that, Pat had tweeted in criticism of the production quality on one of Crosby’s more recent albums. Apparently Crosby, who will be 80 next year, has also blocked his former Byrds bandmate Roger McGuinn, who will be 80 in two years: the latest episode in a cat fight that has dragged on for over half a century. Would Crosby have done the same thing in 1967, if Twitter existed, after he left the Byrds and McGuinn and the other remaining members put a horse in his place in the cover of their brilliant Notorious Byrd Brothers LP? Probably. The 60s would have been a very different place with technology but people would still have been people, or at least a recognisable approximation of them.

In other recent catfight news, I decided my experiment of bringing my mum and dad’s (and originally my) cat George back here to live with me wasn’t working, after George violently bit my other cat Roscoe’s tail, and also started taking vast quantities of cocaine in the early hours of the morning and beating up the rugs in my house. George is now once again living with my mum and dad in Nottinghamshire, where he seems to be, remarkably, not bullying their other cat Bridget (his harassment of her had been the reason for the rehoming experiment) and, after a few brief days of continuing cocaine abuse, is going easier on their rugs. Meanwhile, on Bridget’s frequent absences, my dad has been imagining her as a time-traveller and painting her in various well-known historical scenes, such as crossing Abbey Road with The Beatles in 1969 and joining Pieter Breughel’s Hunters In The Snow in 1565. Also, I found a cat on a beach: a very remote beach, on the southernmost tip of Devon, over a mile from any residential building. My friends and I attempted to carry the cat – who was black and white and scrawny and old – up to the clifftops, but the cat wasn’t up for it, so later that day I mentioned the cat on social media, aware of the fact that, because I wrote a few semi-successful books about cats several years ago and a lot of cat lovers are very caring people, any time I mention cats on social media my laptop bursts into visible flames right in front of my eyes. People in Leeds and Bradford and Glasgow and France asked me to call them back with the cat’s precise co-ordinates, announcing they were intending to drive down to Devon the following day to rescue the cat. In the end, a lady called Kim from Cats Protection in Exeter went down to the beach the following day and, after four hours, managed to capture the cat, and take him back to their rescue centre, which – although the idea of him living wild on a remote cove and catching fish is very romantic – was probably the best outcome.

My friends and I went back to the Cove a week later. Above the cove, in the bracken, we saw a decomposing fox. It was a strange place to find a dead fox, definitely not like the places I’d seen the previous dead foxes in my life. The fox had probably been dead over a week but not a lot more than that. It was a very small fox but I don’t think the cat killed it.

I don’t read a lot of horror and it’s extremely rare that a book can bring me to tears but last month Silent Spring by Rachel Carson did, and it is undoubtedly the ultimate horror book, all the more so because it’s totally factual and was written almost 60 years ago. So much of the ecological emergency we are now in the midst of was predicted in it by the passionate Carson in 1963 who, dying from cancer at the time, bravely laid bare the horrific impact pesticides and other chemicals had been having on the natural world since their development in and around World War II, and predicted the further devastation that could take place if we kept “breaking the threads that bind life to life” and we did not make significant changes. I did not enjoy this book, not one bit, and I only managed one chunk at a time before coming up for air. I found its descriptions of the death of birds and cattle and insects and people, the selfish corporate destruction of landscape, hugely upsetting. The whole time you read it you are thinking “But that was 1963, which we romanticise as an innocent time, with so many more species, and immeasurably more insects and birdlife. How much worse are things NOW?” It felt like having your eyes pulled wide open and your eyelids nailed in position. But reading it felt like a duty, as a human being, and I wish I’d done it earlier in my life.

Of course, not everybody is you, with your problems and motives. I was in a secondhand shop a month or so ago sizing up an old plant pot outside a large village 50 miles east of my house and a man was telling his friend that he sometimes feels he has too much money, and doesn’t know what to spend it on, and – outside of the regular Indian takeaway, once a week, and the holidays with Julie – he begins to struggle for ideas. “She’s still having trouble with her baguettes,” a woman walking past me said to her companion, when I reached the centre of the village. On the other side of the conurbation, I began the walk I had planned, following the instructions in the book I had with me. A man in a Range Rover asked if I was lost. I told him I was fine, waving the book at him to show him everything was very much under control. “When was that book published?” he asked. “2004,” I said. “Well, the footpath is a quarry now,” he said. Rerouting, I noticed the countryside here was just like the countryside around my house if you only took in the basics of what was in it – big hills and steep-banked rivers and crumbling stone barns and hump-backed bridges – but what it actually was was a far more polite version of the countryside around my house. It was like what the hills and fields and sheep and lanes where I live would be if they decided to stop swearing and injecting heroin.

There’s so much more moisture here than there is 50 miles east, or even 10 miles east. It’s part of what makes everything less polite, and I like it, when I’m outside. When you’re in a house with damp problems, however, it doesn’t give you a lot of confidence about the upcoming onset of winter. The damp problems aren’t causing me as much trouble as the drain problems have, but I’m still in fear of what they might do to my health, and my possessions. The letting agents have told me that it will be fine if I put the central heating on, open the windows, and don’t dry clothes in the house. I am sure they’re correct: I am, in fact, totally certain it is just the fact that I haven’t had the heating on enough in July and August, that I don’t dry clothes out in the rain, and that I have not had windows open all the time that accounts for the fact that paint is peeling and flaking of the walls in large chunks, some of the floorboards have turned black, and the living room walls are wet to the touch. Just as I am totally certain that when it is very windy at the top of High Willhays Tor on Dartmoor it is all probably because of one person up there causing a nuisance with a handheld hair dryer.

I am truly sick and tired of moving and truly was intending to stay in this house a long time, but I clearly can’t, not just because of the conditions, but because on principle I no longer intend to give money to non-empathetic, money-grabbing people who don’t need it. I will miss a lot about the place: the lovely old garden walls, the sound of the stream across the road, the mason bees who live inside the gable to the right of my bedroom window. The bath is good too. It’s basic, in size and shape, but seems good owing to the fact the bath in my last house was weird and uncomfortable. Last night, because my course of shingles medication is almost complete and because it had been a while, and because I’d had an offer accepted to buy a tiny bungalow half an hour away in an area where aspirational rich people have no desire to live, I took a beer into the bath with me, but only managed to drink two gulps before I dropped it in the bath. All the beer went in the bath. Remembering then that Warren Beatty, who had the best male hair of the 1968-73 period, used to wash it with beer, I then dunked my hair in the bath, and let the beer soak into it, but I am yet to see any particular difference it’s made. I’m sure there’ll be other, deferred things I miss about the house. There always are, with houses. About nine months after I left one house, I began to miss the postman there and his habit of walking into the living room without knocking and leaving my post on the sofa. I don’t remember ever saying it was ok for him to do it but it was. Which is weird, because even if some of my very best friends broke into my living room, without any prior warning, I probably wouldn’t be all that happy.

I never understood the big deal about vampires needing to be “invited in” before they can enter a house. That’s not “being a vampire”. That’s just being polite.

Many years ago, just before they found their current house, my mum and dad had wanted to buy another old house in Nottinghamshire. A woman in late middle-age lived in the house with her teenage son, who stank of marijuana, and a very old man she called “Uncle Alexander”. When my mum and dad went to look in the bedroom, they were told “not to mind Uncle Alexander” who was asleep in there and “didn’t have his teeth in”. The bed was a single metal one, of the kind found in hospitals, with an uncovered mattress, and they discovered Uncle Alexander on top of it, asleep, in a button-up onesie that appeared to come from a far earlier epoch. As they examined the room, Uncle Alexander showed no sign of waking up and they worried in a very real and frightened way that he was not asleep at all, but deceased. The toilet in the house smelled, had brown walls and no seat, and the sewage worked via an open air cesspit. The third bedroom, where the teenage son was smoking a large spliff, smelled of all manner of the worst teenage smells. Queen Elizabeth II lurked in almost every part of the house, either in painted, embroidered, or photographed form. Nonetheless, my parents, being very romantic sorts, fell in love with the house, or at least the idea of what they could make it, and put in an offer. The owner told them she was was off to buy a house in Cornwall and that, because she was strapped for cash, the estate agent had loaned her the money to get there from Notts and spend a few days doing some viewings. She said my mum and dad could buy her house but only if they could feed her large ginger cat while she was in Cornwall, so my mum and dad drove several miles to the house from their rented one twice each day and fed the cat, half-expecting to find Uncle Alexander still in the bedroom on their first visit, and feeling an immense sense of relief when he wasn’t. But Cornwall turned out to be too expensive for the woman, her son and Uncle Alexander and the survey for their house shed a light on many, many structural failings. My mum and dad did not buy the house. On a recent walk in the area, they were slightly surprised to find it still standing. In the intervening years, my mum had seen the owner one more time, in a local supermarket, with a very old man. But on closer inspection she realised it was another very old man, definitely not Uncle Alexander.

My first ever novel, VILLAGER, is now up for funding. If you’d like to reserve a copy, you can do so here.

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24 thoughts on “Late Summer, 2020: A Personal Compendium

  1. Brilliant writing as always. Would like to subscribe, but have a warning to coming up saying that isn’t secure??

    Is there another way to subscribe please? Thanks

    1. Thank you. The only way to do it is via the homepage. I think the “not secure” thing is just a glitch (will try to sort it) and you can ignore it.

  2. Thank you Tom,
    Glad you are getting better, and very glad you will be leaving that house! Good luck with the next place, we want to know everything when you move, and photos please! Take care, good health.

  3. Fabulous piece Tom, I’m sorry you will have to leave your ‘ideal if it wasn’t so bloody damp place’ ….hope the bungalow works out ?

  4. Crossing my fingers that all goes well with buying the bungalow, Tom! Much love to Ralph from my Bertie, aged 16 minus four days, who has also spent most of lockdown being unwell.

  5. Thankyou for another great piece. I always have so many questions and comments after reading anything you’ve written! A sign of good writing.

  6. I’ve read this whilst attempting to wrangle two cats and a mouse. I’m sad that your bastard landlord is a bastard, especially since you made the garden so lovely. I hope the bungalow works out. Being a house owner has its own range of problems but at least you know who’s responsible for them. Good health to Ralph and you and I hope Roscoe’s tail is back in order.

  7. I was thinking about Janet a few days ago, out of nowhere, and then reading about dead foxes made me think about him again. Weird.

  8. Congrats on the house!! I hope it all goes well, and you can enjoy doing just as you please with it for a long time, without having to answer to anyone. You’re braver than I for reading Silent Spring, but you’re right that we all should do it – maybe someday I’ll be emotionally together enough to do it, or just less exhausted and heartbroken and guilt ridden by what I already know about what we’ve done. On the upside, I laughed out loud when I learned about your laptop catching on fire, so thanks for that!

  9. I am relieved that you are making plans to move to a more habitable property, you have had an awful few months with the house and it’s water problems.
    I am glad your singles seem to be getting better, both you and Ralph need a warm dry place for the winter.
    Good luck with the move.

  10. Being born in one class and ending up, culturally and/or financially in another is never easy. There will always be stuff you don’t know, stuff waiting to trip you up. Tea is “Dinner”, “Supper” is god knows what. The look on their faces when they ask “And what was your father in?” And you answer “In an iron foundry”.
    Hope the shingles gets better soon and that your house purchase goes ok.

    1. So true David! Trying to get people to understand the concept of ‘shifts’ and that I only saw my Dad properly one week in three. And yes, what is supper? I still don’t know and when invited I always have visions of us all sitting round with a cup of tea and slice of toast (which is what we had before bedtime as kids).
      Good luck on the house Tom. Sounds like your walking slowly out of this dreadful period of your life.

  11. Small donation sent and hopes that things are now improving for you, Tom. Even a small bit of damp is horrible and unhealthy but that is INSANE. Glad you’re escaping and that you and R are a bit better

  12. I’m sorry for your house woes. There are plenty of other neglected walled gardens needing your love. Stick a couple of mackerel down back of the radiator before you leave.

  13. The Uncle Alexander story brought a smile to my face this morning.
    Thank you!

    Good luck with the bungalow purchase. Make sure you own the freehold….

  14. Thanks that was lovely to read whilst I’ll in bed this morning. Houses are a pain. I sold my York stone cottage in Sheffield (due to menopausal madness) and now rent a room in a large shared house with polish people which is fine for now. I’m constantly being told I should buy another house though!

  15. Brilliant writing as usual Tom, thank you. I really hope the house purchase works out for you, it’s about time you had a bit of stability. My heart goes out to you each time something awful happens, my maternal instinct kicks in and I want to bring you flasks of coffee and wrap you up in a blanket (can you still get blankets?). Anyway, really hope you and Ralph get better quickly, I’m going back to uni soon and need you two as my muses.

  16. Very best wishes Tom, I sincerely hope both you and Ralph are soon in fine fettle, living it up in your bungalow. Your writing is as always so evocative and thought provoking. Thank you.

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