I was walking along the clifftop footpath last month and there were a few cows blocking my way, eleven or maybe thirteen at most. I gauged the situation – which experience has made me better at doing, where cows are concerned – and concluded they didn’t want any trouble, so pressed on towards them, at which point the cows began to back themselves into a corner, the rear members of their party pressed up against the kissing gate I needed to get through to continue my route. Flanking us in our narrow corridor were foxgloves, brambles and the thick, coconut-scented gorse of midsummer. I stepped aside, my back pressed against the gorse, and waved the cows past me, one by one. They each gradually got the idea, all except one, who preferred to do things the hard way, crashing through the brambles and gorse on the cliffside in a gigantic, amplified panic, which made it seem briefly as if somebody had turned the volume up on the countryside, before she cut back, with no small trouble, to reach the remainder of the herd. “Thank god for that!” I could imagine her saying. “I got a bit scratched up there but it could have been worse: that ten and a quarter stone vegetarian could have done me some serious damage.”
George is back. He’s been away five and three quarter years and, in many ways, it feels like that period of time never happened. We’re both living in south Devon, as we were back then; George still loves climbing trees, as he did back then; the main theme of George’s days is a black and white cat slightly resembling a superhero, as it was back then; and George still appears to love me a huge amount, as he did back then, love me in the certain way that perhaps only a cat that you took in, not from a rescue centre but directly from a scavenging life in the wild, can love you. I first met George in spring 2014, when I became aware that he was living in a bush in my garden. I called him George, because that’s what his meow sounded like under my bedroom window every night, and because time was revealing that he was quite patently a George. After several weeks of leaving food outside for him, I lured him in, at which point, to my surprise, he melted, purring, into my arms. When, a few days later, I got his balls cut off at the local vet’s, he failed to hold a grudge, and for the following few months, became my orange shadow, sometimes attempting to follow me all the way to the post office, over a mile away. The pair of us lived in Woodstockian bliss, lazing on the grass together in the gentle summer evenings, listening to Joni Mitchell and Canned Heat with matching moon daisies in our fur. The full story of those months can be found in the book I wrote the following year, but let it suffice to say that paradise did not lack trouble, mostly in the form of George’s desperate quest to dry hump my (also neutered) female cat Roscoe. I hoped the situation would improve, but, driven on perhaps by the recent shadow memory of his testicles, George continued to give chase, until – realising Roscoe might leave home for good, if he didn’t stop – one day, in late autumn that year, I reluctantly packed him off to live with my mum and dad in Nottinghamshire. This all worked out fine until February 2018, when another stray I took in, Clifton Bridget, who also didn’t get along with Roscoe (can you see a theme emerging here?), went off to live with my parents too. George soon began to harass The Bridget – as she had now been renamed – too, though less in a sex way, and more in a jealous, possessive way. The Bridget would often vanish for a fortnight or more after these acts of aggression, to countryside over a mile away, beyond the busy main road where their previous cat Floyd had been killed. The resulting worry, and attempts to keep George and The Bridget apart, began to dominate my mum and dad’s lives. This month, following The Bridget’s latest, even longer absence, we decided enough was enough and called a family summit, during which it was decided I would take George back to Devon with me. This was sad for my mum, who particularly loved George, and for Casper, their neighbour’s male cat, who had been his catwife for half a decade, but quite lovely for me, as I had always missed George and suspected, despite his life being close to Cat Paradise in the Midlands, he felt not dissimilar (also, Casper and he had kind of cooled off recently, and rarely slept on the same bed). The big question has been Roscoe, my Batman lookalike. Both cats are now in early middle-age, although no less physically fine for it. Would he still be on a mission to dry hump her? Would she still look at him as the feline equivalent of Mick Hucknall? Roscoe certainly isn’t over the moon about George’s presence, but he’s giving her plenty of space and everything is working out just about ok between them so far. Meanwhile, my other cat, Ralph, is about as interested in George as he is the average kettle or lamp, and George and I have picked up just where we left off, with me remembering that – despite his regrettable brushes with the #metoo movement – he’s also the softest, most chirrupy, companionable, healthy, oddly sweet-smelling cat I’ve ever known.
For the last few years, with the occasional year off, my mum has opened up her garden to visitors, baking cakes and giving proceeds from the day to local charities. She decided this would be the final year she’d do it: a plan sadly scuppered by worldwide pandemic. Nonetheless, the garden – this one-time pigsty that she and my dad bought on the eve of the Millennium and have gradually extended, manured and shaped into a psychedelic vegetable wonderland – looks better than ever. I see it differently now I’m something approaching a real gardener, see the masterpiece it’s been made into from virtually nothing. It’s the culmination of a life’s work, informed by difficulties, and lost, loved other gardens. It’s something that could only come from struggle, and learning, and is far more special for it. I noticed that the vegetables were looking especially stonking this year: something that my dad puts down to the trips he has made over to the neighbouring field to scoop up the still-warm manure of Dave, the bull who lives there.
“You’re a bag of wind!” Joyce Johnson – or Joyce Glassman, as she then was – shouted at Jack Kerouac when they split up. “That’s not writing; that’s just typing,” a catty Truman Capote famously said of Kerouac’s most famous book, On The Road. Both quotes go some way to encapsulating my initial feelings about On The Road, a book which had seemed hugely exciting to me right up until the point I actually read it. Doubting myself, I gave it another go more than a decade later, but it felt, at best, like trying to dance with somebody who likes totally different music to you. However, that doesn’t stop me being very interested in the idea of On The Road, its creator, and the cultural events surrounding the book, and me not being a fan of Kerouac’s writing did nothing to quell my recent enjoyment of Minor Characters, Johnson’s 1983 memoir about her time dipping in and out of the very male universe of the Beats. As in On The Road, people in Minor Characters are nearly always restless, taking off somewhere as soon as they’ve arrived, but here that creates a totally different kind of energy, less frothy but no less exciting, and significantly more enlightening. Johnson drank cappuccinos at the time but she’s the real drink, not the stuff on top. Her portrait of Kerouac – his drinking, his relationship with fame and his mother, his seemingly constant borrowing of acquaintance’s typewriters – is powerful and sad and soft and loving. Yet Minor Characters isn’t so much a book about him as a book about art, freedom (in all its forms), and breaking out of the shackles of conventional society as a woman in 50s America. Perhaps this is the true legacy of The Beats: that what was happening around the art was more interesting than the art itself. At all points here, I was at least as interested in the life of Johnson and her tragic friend Elise, as I was in that of Kerouac, or Allen Ginsberg. But that’s no doubt largely because Johnson is such a brilliant writer, kind, wise, even-handed and thoughtful about sexual politics, with a knack for deceptively simple, brain-twanging sentences (“If time were like a passage of music, you could keep going back to it till you got it right”) and a sophisticated understanding of the artistic impulse. “The true artist knows the pitfalls of vanity,” she says. “Dangerous to let go of one’s anxiety. But did you understand? must always be the question. To like and admire is not enough: did you understand? And will you understand the next thing I do – the wet canvas in my studio, the page I left in my typewriter. Unreasonably, the artist would like to know this too. Praise has to do with the past, the finished thing; the unfinished is the artist’s occupation.”
One of the culturally quaint things that struck me while reading Minor Characters is the particular way Kerouac went (the overused “overnight” is literally applicable here) from a problematic unpublished dreamer scrounging drinks and bacon breakfasts to somebody everyone wanted a slice of. Johnson remembers this as being a direct result of one extremely gushy review in the New York Times. Such a change of fortune, spurred by one write up, even in the biggest newspaper, would now be unthinkable. That strikes me as a good and bad thing. Bad, because it’s a reminder that literature was once far more influential and widely consumed than it is now. Good, because it means newspaper reviews – some but not all of which are written by distracted or hurried or ill-chosen people or selected in an arbitrary or nepotistic manner – have less power to make or break an artist. I say this as a former newspaper reviewer of books and films and (more frequently) music who, with hindsight, realised he was often far too harsh or enthusiastic about someone’s work, owing to not having the luxury of having any decent length of time to live with it. The important thing to remember about reviews, no matter where they appear, or who is writing them, even on the occasions they’re more carefully considered, is that they’re just someone saying something about something, to earn a bit of money, and that someone else saying something about the same something might very likely say something very different.
I find, lately, that I’m more tired of opinions than ever. Especially strong ones. There are so many around, nowadays. Yet, despite myself, I still seem to possess a few. It appears to be an unavoidable part of the human condition.
I have been walking until late on many of these long summer nights, making sure I have covered every footpath and small lane near my house. I usually get the timing wrong, and it’s pitch black when I unlock the front door. Bats are flitting about on top of the hill, gobbling up the day’s least fortunate moths. At the bottom of the valley, young owls shout their complaints to the last rechargeable glow of sun as it sinks behind the moor. A powerful, sinewy, medium-sized dog hurtled towards me down one particularly quiet lane – one of those that doesn’t really lead anywhere and has a verdant central reservation of weeds – and I wondered when the dog’s owner would appear, breathlessly bringing up the rear and calling the dog back, and just as I realised the dog was a hare, not a dog, the hare also appeared to realise I was a human, not a shadow or a ghost, both of which would probably both seem more likely on this lane at this time of the evening, and made a sudden, impressive reroute, ninety degrees to its right, as if responding to some internal SatNav, not losing a fraction of pace or finesse in the process.
When you walk a lot in the countryside, you get a crystallised realisation that most animals are united by one factor: their conditioning, over the course of thousands of years of hard, regrettable evidence, to be shit scared of humans.
These Devon lanes were not dug out with any cars in mind, and particularly not the huge fortified people carriers of today. Curiously it’s the people negotiating them in more modestly-sized vehicles who often drive more apologetically. The countryside looks on, bemused at the way it’s been outgrown, bludgeoned, smoothed over, suppressed, raped, waiting for the revenge it will surely enjoy when we are gone. I reverse into my drive in my smaller than medium car, only just squeezing through the small gap in the wall, imagining the Morris Minor or Triumph Dolemite it once more practically housed and the people who probably never conceived that anybody could possibly need anything grander. You can let yourself go into a gentle, cuckoo-soundtracked fantasy about life here in the empty 1950s but it’s worth bearing in mind, as you do, that that’s when we really started getting on the bad road we are on, environmentally-speaking, and when some of the most irreversible damage was already being done.
In Hungary, they don’t say “I don’t want to play devil’s advocate here.” They say “I don’t want to paint the devil on the wall here.” I think I prefer their version.
The more accelerated and poisonous the worst side of social media gets, the more it seems dominated by vainglorious trend-jumping and polarised junk food noise and nauseating buzzspeak and self-aggrandizing kneejerk condemnations, the more books – especially books from the middle of the previous century – come to feel like conversations with sane people. This is one of several reasons I’m enjoying reading from the printed page more than ever right now, and getting through more books than I have for over a decade. But I’m still reading nowhere near as many books as people on Instagram read. If you ever want to feel bad for how little you’re reading, look at Instagram. Right now, I’m reading probably as much as I can ever expect myself to read while still staying healthy and solvent – probably the only two things I’d willingly put ahead of reading – but it’s still not as much as people on Instagram. Maybe that’s just me: I’m a slow reader, even slower if I look at Instagram more than a couple of times a day. I’m never going to read more than a couple of books per week, unless at least one of them is extremely brief. I’m at peace with that. But Instagram makes me feel like I’m falling short. The piles of shiny new novels, the steaming, attractive coffee mugs next to them,the monthly totals. This is not really anyone’s fault, except perhaps Instagram’s, for its habit of making the lives of others look so unrealistically perfect. It’s nice to read a lot, then look with satisfaction at the pile of books you’ve worked your way through, and posting a photo of that pile on the internet is merely an extension of that, usually done innocently, with the good intentions of so much cultural sharing. But it’s probably worth remembering, if you feel intimidated by these photos because you’re not reading twenty books a month, that everyone reads in different ways, and it’s not a race. Or, at least, if it is, it’s not one that anyone is ever going to win.
The loudest and least masculine noise I have made so far this summer occurred when I realised the soft but strangely immovable bit of soil that my trowel kept hitting when I was weeding the bed in my front garden, which looked greyer than the other soil around it, was actually a toad. The most apologetic noise I have made so far this summer was the one that happened directly afterwards, as I followed the toad along the wall, reassuring it I meant no harm, and wondering how I could atone for what I’d done. I couldn’t see any physical damage on the toad, and it remained sanguine as I picked it up and repeatedly asked it if it was ok. It sat on the wall for a while, and I kept coming back and looking into its mesmerising copper eyes, which seemed to brim with watery, hard-won intelligence. If toads could speak, we could do worse than put them in charge of stuff, as I feel sure they would take the time to see all sides of the story, and make some good, calm decisions.
I wonder if, were there a fruit that grew in my garden throughout winter, winters would seem a little less interminable. I watch the apples ripening on the tree out the back right now and it feels like I’m watching an hourglass containing the precious sand of summer. There’s so much to do, all the time, so much I want to do, even in this year of attenuated fun and limited social interaction, and it’s all far, far too brief.
A lady in Scotland bought one of my recent books from me. She told me used to buy my fanzine, in the mid 1990s, and hadn’t realised until now that I still wrote. She paid for the book via Paypal, a very different method to how she used to pay for the fanzine, which was by taping a one pound coin – later, when I expanded the size of the fanzine, accompanied by a fifty pence piece – to a piece of cardboard and posting it to my PO Box number in Eastwood, on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border. It bought back all the anticipation of the eight minute drive from home to that PO Box, behind Safeway, which was always accompanied by the electrifying hope that there might be coins waiting for me there, taped to cardboard, or, even better, promotional CDs sent for review by a record company in London or every so often, mindbogglingly, New York. I remember the amazement of the CDs arriving, at a time when I was signing on or working in minimum wage jobs. “Each of these would cost over £11 in Selectadisc or Virgin Megastore!” I would think, with amazement, probably almost as much amazement as I experience now at the idea anybody could ever have decided an object as ugly and artless as a CD should be so valuable. One day, on the way to the PO Box, I slammed into the back of a white pick up truck, very close to The DH Lawrence Birthplace Museum. I admitted full liability for the accident on the ensuing insurance claim, although did not state the precise reason for the liability, which was “loss of concentration, caused by the prospect of a new Afghan Whigs album”.
You can tell me precisely how the most modern and advanced phone works, describe how you get the most complex planet of information into the tiniest 21st Century gadget, and I’ll nod and totally take your word for it, but you can explain the way that music is transferred to the grooves of a vinyl record a million times and I will not accept that it’s not witchcraft. On some records, the witchcraft seems even more rich and impressive. All that hope and wonder, all those transcendental-at-sunset melodies, on David Crosby’s ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’: how? That particular hard funk energy of Al Green’s ‘I’m A Ram’: how? The way that, on the rare, mispelt Hungarian single version of The Nashville Teens’ cover of ‘Wydicombe Fair’, Arthur Sharp sings precisely like he’s just come out of the dentist and is an hour away from the anaesthetic wearing off the back left side of his mouth: how? How? HOW? Don’t tell me. I won’t believe you. Unless you say it’s witchcraft.
Sometimes people, usually people who mistake me for being a bit younger than I am and aren’t aware of the messy smallprint, express surprise that I’ve written twelve books. It’s definitely nothing special, and I’d be dangerously mistaken by being swayed by their reaction into thinking it was. The first six, at least, were just sort of training books for me, and it’s not like you could even describe any of the later ones, which I am far more fond of, as an immersive, life-swallowing trans-continental historical epic. I’m a year older than DH Lawrence was when he died. I’m not pointing this out because I hold Lawrence up as a personal literary idol, or even especially like much of what he wrote, or because I wish to be even a fraction as well-known as him or remembered when I die, or because I view myself as at all like him, or because tuberculosis is a particularly big worry of mine, but because we grew up in the same place and the specifics of his mortality and his bibliography hit me the other day and put some stuff into perspective. What it mostly put into perspective is this: I enjoy my work more and more, and feel the best of it is in my future, not my past, and I could do worse things right now than getting a fucking move on.
The other thing that I’ve been puzzling about a lot – although not in a morbid, emo way – recently is dead birds. Insects too, and rodents. Actually, dead things in general, in the wild. I mean, obviously we see quite a few of them, while we’re out on walks, and even sometimes in our garden, but think how many are dying all the time, and just what a small percentage it is of those we do see. I mean, I know living wild things will swiftly move in to eat the dead wild things, and decomposition can happen very quickly, especially in summer, but there’s still something to be learned from this, and it’s probably that dead things often do their dying in secret places, known only to them.
I’m sitting up in bed as I write this on my laptop, propped up on pillows. I said I’d stop writing like that, as it’s not good for my back, and in this house I have made the effort of laying out my study with more care than I ever have before. But the word processing application on the 2009 Mac I was trying to use in there isn’t properly opening, and it’s cold – colder than I’ve ever known it to be in Devon, in July. George is at the far end of the bed, asleep, surrounded by the soil and leaves and other assorted lint that he tends to skilfully deposit around the house, in order to keep his fur so pristinely white and sweetly perfumed. He looked in on Roscoe earlier while she was sleeping in the airing cupboard but hastily pissed off outside when she scowled at him through her batmask, and seems generally mildly intimidated by her. His first encounter with the labrador next door also passed without overt drama, which means his most troubling clash over the course of his first week back with me still stands as the moment on Day One when he mistook one of my furry slippers for a kitten and growled at it. He doesn’t growl at all, usually, and is an extremely mellow individual, despite his possessive, cocky streak. I feel like I cleverly manipulated and coaxed him into the living room that time six summers ago, when he melted into my arms, but the truth is more likely that he – far more elaborately and patiently – manipulated me. My parents and I often speculate about his very early life. His instant love of cuddles and contact, his obvious need for human companionship, make it more of an enigma. I tell myself stories about what led him to that bush, in that scratched up, scrawny state, in my old garden. The van he walked into by mistake. The doors closing. His unheard meows, all the way down the left edge of England, from the Wirral, as the signs for the cities flew past: Stoke, Birmingham, Worcester, Bristol, Exeter, until finally the drop-off was made – plus one unexpected extra one – in Deepest Devon. The day not all that long after that he heard ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’ drifting over into the woods from my open windows and decided he could go and look for food and shelter in a less promising place. I never imagine him as Devon native, always as a blow-in, like me. He’s definitely from north of Chester, and a bit cheeky, in the way lads sometimes are in that area: small crimes in his past, nothing that stuck, mostly lookout stuff, playing the stooge, some other scrapes with the police that he just invented when he was boasting outside the pub and the first rush of cheap lager had gone to his head. Might even be a Scouser – the reason, perhaps, that he got on so well with my mum – but, if so, he probably grew up at least a couple of miles outside the city. I wish he could tell me just a bit of the story. Was he ever loved, before me? Or was he just naturally soft, and receptive to love? Why wasn’t he chipped, or castrated? “What made you pick me, George?” I ask. “Was it just the solo debut by Crosby? If that’s all it was, it’s cool. You can tell me. I don’t mind. It’s a bloody amazing record, after all.” But he’s still asleep. Has been for nearly nine hours now. I press him, because the real reason people get cats is that when you press them they make a really cool noise – especially George, who is as cheerily receptive to being pressed as any cat I’ve known. As anticipated, he makes a really cool noise. I think I can detect a bit of an accent still in it, but of course that has faded quite a lot since his original relocation from the north west.
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My next book will be published by Unbound early next year.