I went walking at Cley-Next-The-Sea, in that washed out light you only get in Norfolk in winter: a sky of overthinned paint. A Sunday. Reed cutters on the marshes. Beyond the 18th Century windmill, the coast path was like a six lane People Motorway, but inland, the flinty footpaths between the houses were quiet, and full of architectural surprises. The front of the old post office here was built from the ground up bones of cattle and horses. We called these narrow paths between houses jitties or twitchells where I grew up, on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border, in Sussex they call them twittens, and my Yorkshire friends call them gunnels, but here they’re more commonly known as ginnels. “Beware Of The Bear!” announced a sign down one, adding more intrigue to an already very intriguing wooden door in a garden wall. Is there anything more enticing than a wooden door in a garden wall?
I do not remember living in the 80s and the early 90s and being unaware of the existence of the Internet and mobile phones, and thinking, “I wish somebody would hurry up and make the Internet and mobile phones happen.” I listened to music, I read books, I played sport, I walked down the jitty up to the woods, I drove over to the Peak District and had a picnic, I called friends on the phone, I caught the bus into town and met friends in the market square by the left lion at a pre-arranged time. If someone was late, you waited for them, then you went to the pub, which was one of only two pubs you ever went to, so they’d know to find you in there anyway. One time Surreal Steve, who lived rurally like me where there was a limited bus service, was really really late, and the rest of us went to a different pub to normal, which somebody said had a good Screaming Trees song on the jukebox. But even that was ok. Surreal Steve just waited for us outside the club we were going to. We found him sitting on the steps, a couple of hours later, wearing a Seal t-shirt and a bandana, and looking a bit sad. But in those days Steve had an imaginary dog who went with him almost everywhere, so at least he wasn’t totally alone.
I didn’t see Surreal Steve much during the last decade. When we finally caught up in Wetherspoons in Bingham, after an eight year break, I was pleased to discover he still had his imaginary dog, which hadn’t been with him last time I’d seen him. The dog was very old now, and less active, and mostly just slept under the table while we talked.
I go to the gym but I don’t go to the gym, and never would. My current gym is the second gym I have joined solely for the swimming pool, ignoring the other facilities and declining the offer of a tour of them upon enrolment. As I walk through the car park, and past reception, I feel sterilized and numbed: by music, by smells, by light, by the big screen near the entrance and the strange seating area which feels like a departure lounge for an airport without any planes. But it’s the coldest part of winter and I don’t get in the river or sea in the coldest part of winter. I reached the poolside last week, and was relieved to see the water was empty, as the pool had been busy lately. As usual, there were lots of people congregated around the pool edge, chatting, using the hot tub, going from the sauna to the steam room. Still, it was surprising, seeing the pool entirely empty, on a weekend afternoon. “I wouldn’t get in if I were you,” said a woman heading in the direction of the steam room. “Someone’s just been sick in it.”
I received an email from my dad. No subject heading. Just the words ”WE ARE LIVING IN THE AGE OF THE GIT.” His pillow was still at my house. He’d stayed here six nights ago and had only just noticed.
I walked across the heath, along the path where I once saw a woman successfully meeting the conflicting needs of three ferrets on leads. Just beyond the border of the other side of the heath is a shock of farmhouse, with a treehouse, arched windows and lots of unused outdoor space, a very Fenland, not very Norwich building: a piece of the stark, utilitarian countryside incongruously sprawled in a leafy corner of city, as if injured after falling out the back of a vast truck. As I passed it, my path crossed that of a man in a leather waistcoast with big bare arms, a pony-tail and thin black trousers like the ones I was told I had to wear when I worked in a chain pub, where, a lot like the American-themed Zaks Diner – which dominates the centre of the heath – cold baked beans eaten by children with tiny forks smeared the tables, and left me for several years afterwards with a disliking for baked beans and an aversion to tiny forks. It was January when I walked past the man and a wind from the North Sea had hacked and chiselled its way into my bones. A terrier stood and appeared to think deep existential thoughts in a vast nearby puddle, all but a centimetre or two of its legs covered by the cold, wind-swirled water. I walked on, up to Catton Park and the beautiful church behind it, in the old village, near the Cat And Barrel village sign. The sign was erected in 1936 to commemorate the Coronation of King George VI, but the symbolism goes back to Tudor times, when Old Catton was known for its population of wild cats. During the mid-20th Century, the sign was stolen several times, but always retrieved, once from nearby farmland, and once from Stockton-On-Tees, 224 miles away.
Sometimes you think, as an older person, you are developing a bad memory, but the truth is just that time is moving more quickly, and incidents are further in the past than you think. Your memory stretches as far back as it ever did, in terms of accuracy.
I woke up by the sea in Devon, in the same bunk bed as the reggae legend Lee Scratch Perry. He wasn’t in it at the time. He’d used it last year when he played a gig in the village where my friend lives. Apparently, like me, he was suffering from a heavy cold.
There was so much birdsong in Devon when I woke up by the sea, even though it was winter. Birdsong is something that can be a vital part of your wellbeing for years without you noticing or appreciating it, like having intact internal organs.
A green woodpecker came to visit my lawn, here, on the edge of the city. It didn’t see me. It was looking around, very cautiously, like somebody with very expensive clothes who knows everyone wants to speak to them.
Of all the wildlife around the loveliest house I have ever lived in, what I possibly miss most is the woodpecker who used to rap on the oak tree behind my garden with his beak. Winter was hard, as it is everywhere, but that rapping began to sound like a drum roll for spring: a heralding of happy times ahead.
I phoned a stranger – elderly, was my assumption – and he picked up his phone not by saying “Hello” but by saying the number of his phone and it felt like just about the quaintest and most genuinely old-fashioned thing you could experience in the current era. His voice sounded like a tunnel leading to a kitchen in the middle of the 20th Century.
The big lie that corporations flourish on is that we need more convenience, that we deserve it, whatever the cost to the planet. But why? Why should trains be quicker? Why should technology be quicker? When will this state of nirvana that it’s all leading to occur, where each person will operate at peak speed and be perfectly happy and undelayed and no longer have to walk or use their mind?
The M5, southbound. The service stations zip by: Sedgemoor, where one summer they had to open a second car park, due to its popularity. Taunton Deane, where I once burned my mouth on a pasty then, seconds later, due to extreme hunger, forgot, and burned my mouth on the pasty again. There are some people you see at service stations that you don’t see in any other part of British life. Perhaps they live there? This stretch of tarmac going down the south western margin of England gives me the nearest to what I would ever describe as warm feelings for a motorway. I yearn for the county at the end of it, Devon, every time I leave. I have yearned for it harder than ever this winter. I am sure I will end up living back there again: maybe very soon, maybe after I’ve lived somewhere else. When I returned to Devon in March, 2018, after living in a harsh snowed in place in the Peak District, I saw the ‘Welcome To Devon’ sign then tasted a tear on my lip, before I’d even realised the tear had fallen from my eye. Moments before, I’d seen the Wellington Monument on the left side of my car, which always seemed to be surrounded by mist, and always made me feel better when it was on the left side of my car, rather than the right. As I passed the monument again, last month, I mentally went over the stuff I might attach to the wall of my next house. There was scaffolding on the monument which through the mist made it look like a giant rawl plug, up there on the hill.
Where is this place that is the centre of everywhere, that people are talking about, when people say stuff is far away? I don’t think it’s London, although London obviously has an influence on those conversations. People were always saying “Ooh, that’s FAR” when I used to tell them I lived in Devon. But that was just an opinion. Devon wasn’t far from Devon.
“Milly, don’t go over there,” I heard a woman say to her daughter in the graveyard next to the shopping mall. “You’re standing on dead people.”
The general thinking in Devon was that if you had toothache the best way to cure it was to bite a tooth out of a skull and carry it around in your pocket for a while. In 1833, Miss Elizabeth Greco, of an undisclosed village near Tavistock, remembered seeing several women and men in the local churchyard, earth, bones and soil all around them, tugging with their mouths at every tooth they could find. Toothache, it was said, was very common around Tavistock, due to the cider in the area being particularly acid.
Before the turnpike on the old road into the west, it would take four days for people to get from London to Exeter. Afterwards it took just sixteen and a half hours. I imagine it probably would have been even quicker than that, if everyone didn’t always slow down to gawp at Stonehenge.
My recent dreams have been characterised by a series of baffling literary feuds between me and various entirely undeserving targets, mostly deceased. I knew the situation had got bad when I woke up one morning in the middle of telling AA Milne to get fucked.
You’d think garden centres might be a celebration of life but vast parts of the ones near me are devoted to death: aisles and aisles of weedkillers and pesticides. Then there’s the gravel. So much gravel, of every different grade and shade any gravel enthusiasts could possibly wish for. We have become a nation obsessed with gravel. It’s so prevalent that seeing a green driveway feels utterly evocative, an anachronistic shock. I love these unkempt emerald carports, the sprinkle of wildflowers you often find on them in spring, the way the grass will make its creeping escape from them and lick up the side of a nearby building.
For a long time during his childhood, my dad believed that leopards didn’t have bones, because that’s what his dad told him. They were at the zoo at the time, in Blackpool, which was also the town where my dad’s uncle Ken got his alsatian, Bruce, who my dad often believed was intent on killing him. “NOBODY WALKED THEIR DOG BACK THEN. YOU JUST LET YOUR DOG OUT TO WANDER ON ITS OWN,” my dad recalled. “THERE WAS DOGSHIT EVERYWHERE. JENNIFER WOODBURN SLIPPED ON BRUCE’S AND BROKE HER LEG.” Ken went to Blackpool often, and stayed with a landlady, which to my dad sounded very exotic, and made him hope that he too at some point in his life would get to meet a landlady. During his trip back to Blackpool, Bruce was, in Ken’s words, “good as gold”, but would later confess that this was the last time Bruce ever came close to behaving himself.
What I see, looking at the notebooks I have kept over the last decade of my life, is that I am more sporadic than I want to be but better than I was. There are long gaps, which I can see are largely due to periods when I am constantly in motion: days on end when I am always either driving, walking, swimming, talking, cooking, or typing the sentences of an actual book, and simply do not give myself chance to sit down for ten minutes with a pen. Then there are long sustained, soul-searching bursts, usually written in pub gardens after walks, only just legible. My handwriting is often bad, but can be good when I want it to be, especially when I am writing in longhand regularly – but this has always been the case, going right back to when I was a teen, and meticulously wrote the tracklistings to mixtapes I’d made for girls. The first page of the notebooks is always the neatest. Many of them tail off into job lists and arcane unsubtantiated statements – “People’s faces” – whose meanings have been lost to the whirlpool of time before fading to nothing, their final 40 or so blank pages revealing the harsh truth: that I have abandoned them for a younger, sexier notebook that seemed to promise a better life. Within the pages, I get reality checks about time. A story idea I thought I had in 2016 is actually two years older than that, which means it’s even longer than I realised that I’ve been putting off writing it.
This is my latest book.
This is my previous book.
This is the one before that.
This is the one I’m funding at the moment, which you can pre-order if you’d like to.
11 thoughts on “Late Winter, 2020: A Personal Compendium”
Your post inspired me to search online for a picture of the Cat and Barrel village sign – in vain, sadly. Got a Cat and Custard Pot pub sign instead which was quite fun.
It is so true what your dad says about dogs walking themselves when we were growing up in the 1970s. We had a labrador that used to wander off by itself down our road and inadvertently walk into parked cars. People just didn’t do dog walking in an organised way back then.
An amusing read as ever. Thanks, Tom.
Lovely read as always. And as today is my birthday I claim it as my present
I hope Surreal Steve and his dog will have a real dog one day.
A lovely read – thank you.
This has cheered me up no end. I am glad I am not the only person with an imaginary dog. Yes, back in olden days, dogs were more like cats in terms of being able to go out on their own. Hope your pasty trauma is healing now.
Thanks so much for the Instagram picture of the Cat and Barrel village sign! It is even better than I imagined.
As always, spending a bit of time in your head and your world is an absolute joy! Even though I don’t always comment, I always get excited when you share some new work and I’m never disappointed. Also makes me realise that I need a Surreal Steve in my life.
I just found this on your website and loved it! Thank you. Paypal and I send you a little something each month and I used to get these pieces straight into my own email – do you not do that any more?
Hi Judy. Thank you. I do! But I sent out a message in late 2018 about the original email list being lost when the site was updated, so it meant people had to resubscribe. All the best.
I can remember back to my childhood in the 1930s! Mum used to just open the door to let the dog out – he used to wander for miles, and chased bikes! Sometimes he would find me and my pals in the local park and come up, tail wagging, and I’d take him home or he would get in the way of our games. All the local dogs gathered in the next road to us and, um, misbehaved! A different world, my friends!
A delight as usual.
“Birdsong is something that can be a vital part of your wellbeing for years without you noticing or appreciating it, like having intact internal organs.”
That was a delightful read! My first, as a young friend brought you to my attention.
You have a wonderful mind in my humble opinion and I will return for more. Thanks