Midwinter: A Personal Compendium

I’ve not been very excitingly dressed this winter, and nearly everything I am wearing is looking a bit tired, but I’m taking a break from buying new clothes at the moment for ethical reasons. What I really want to do is dress like Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson, which I watched recently, and liked, though more for Redford’s hair and clothes and beard and the 1800s mountain scenery than for the semi-narrative that sustains the film. Even after he has punched several wolves in the face, Redford continues to look immaculate, in a selection of ponchos which he has made ethically from animals he has killed, then taken to be dry cleaned and pressed, and possibly sprayed with an expensive fragrance, in some never-seen snowy 19th Century hideaway. It is now my third favourite Redford hair film, after Three Days Of The Condor and The Candidate. That said, Redford’s hair is only really really great in the first part of The Candidate, so perhaps Jeremiah Johnson is actually my 2.3th favourite Redford hair film.

I like the feeling when a year turns over, and I like New Year’s resolutions. A lot of people are anti-resolutions, because resolutions mean goals, and goals mean pressure and high standards, and high standards mean disappointment. I know that year upon year most of my resolutions come to nothing, but I still like to make them. These days, I tend to make them in a smaller way: they’re often more of a feeling, less anything to be rigidly held to. I made my biggest resolution a few weeks before the year ended, which is about the way I use my time, and I’ve already been putting it into effect. My writing resolutions, meanwhile, are so firmly embedded in my psyche I know they will happen or not happen or turn into entirely something else of their own accord and I don’t feel the need to list them for myself. Here, though, are a few of my other resolutions for 2020:

Get in the sea even more than I already do

Cook more adventurously, and less expensively

Learn the guitar

Talk less

Plant more

Explain less (when there’s no need)

Read more

Message less

Listen more

Waste less

Sing more

I strolled along Gentleman’s Walk in Norwich on a morning just after Christmas, and mostly people were just shopping, and drinking the dark liquid from Starbucks that some folk insist on calling coffee, but when you peeled the big commercial sticker off the surface of street, a fair bit of far more interesting stuff was going on. A teenager busker was, delightfully, attempting to keep enough of an ecstatic grin off his face to enable him to continue to play his saxophone as a man with down syndrome danced to his version of a famous Dave Brubeck song. A few yards further on, a drunk homeless woman told a rubbish collector what amazing skills he had at picking up rubbish. “You have to be!” he replied. “You never know what goodies you’ll find.” Nearby,  I was drawn like a snake charmer’s snake to the irresistible chords of Heart Full Of Soul by the Yardbirds, which was coming out of the portable stereo owned by David Perry, better known as the Norwich Puppet Man. The Puppet Man waggled his not massively clean-looking puppets – puppets that you feel sure have never been subject to the dry cleaning regime of a Jeremiah Johnson poncho – vaguely in time to Jimmy Page’s guitar, waved them in the faces of the occasional pedestrian, and did something which managed to neither quite be singing or miming. The Puppet Man will be 78 in spring, but continues to perform in Norwich or Great Yarmouth almost every day, as he has since the early 1990s. He announced his retirement over ten years ago in the national media, not long after gaining employment as a dancer at a nightclub on Norwich’s Prince Of Wales Road, but was soon back in his main spot, and presumably will continue to sing-mime for as long as he is able to. His puppets include Roy Waller – named after the late, not totally unPartridgelike BBC Norfolk DJ Roy Waller –  and Gary Lemon, who it is said is named after The Puppet Man’s best friend, Gary, who likes lemons.

I could live with almost all of the things that come with writing, but I couldn’t live without writing. If I was told I was never allowed to publish another word, I’d still have to write. Then, if you cut off my electricity, and stole all my paper and pens, I’d still find a way to carry on. I’d write short stories on a lettuce leaf with the sharpened tip of a carrot. I’d live in a cave and scratch stories on the wall by candlelight. I fear that if I didn’t write, my bones would decay and soon crumble to dust. A strong notion I often get these days is that I’d like to give up writing in order to focus more seriously on my writing.

On New Year’s Day I walked at Hardley Flood, not realising that there was another flood, as well as the permanent official flood on the map, and the footpath was closed. I did think the bit where I had to climb through a tree, then negotiate my way across a deep inlet of the river along a thin plank and an even thinner plank, both slick and slimy with a substance not unlike tar, seemed a little extreme. Only when I got back to the village newsagent and saw the headline about the nearby pub currently only accessible by boat did it all fully start to make sense. Out beyond the Flood, the other flood had lifted old litter from the river, spreading it evenly among the water-flattened reeds, uncovering an uncomfortable truth. I’d been moaning a bit a few days before about the tameness of the Norfolk countryside, but the stretch of ground beyond the water got wilder and wilder, and you felt it would just continue to get wilder after that, forever, with no return to civilisation, which some might actually argue to be the truth, depending on how they view Great Yarmouth, which could be found a few miles on in the same direction. I saw a little egret and a big bouncing hare then, beyond that, on the lane, a stray hubcap and red berries that pierced the sombre light and a fat squashed rat in its last stage of ratness before merging forever with the mud. Heavy footsteps thundered towards me out of nowhere from the rear as dusk fell, and I turned, bracing myself for the running stranger who would plough into me, knock me flat to the ground and rob me, only to realise what I’d heard was the strong, sure, portentous wingbeat of a swan, cruising only four or five feet over my head.

Matt is one of my oldest and best friends, although for the last twenty years we have lived more than a hundred miles apart, and often more than two hundred. We first met in September, 1992, on the first day of a slightly ill-defined BTEC National Diploma course for people who weren’t quite sure what they wanted to do with their life but had a vague notion it had something to do with the media. Matt was wearing a Misfits t-shirt, and seemed cooler than pretty much anybody I’d previously met, and, within a year or so, we had formed a band together. We are very different in many ways, but also very similar in other ways that require more intricate description. Unlike me, Matt is married, and a father. Unlike me, Matt has done the same job for many many years and lived in the same house for many many years. Unlike me, Matt eats meat. Unlike me, Matt likes hardcore punk music. I don’t see him anywhere near as often as I’d like to, but every time I do, everything is much the same, and I remember what a warm, lovely soul he is. When Matt and I were in our teens, our favourite TV show was A Bit Of Fry And Laurie, written by and starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. We’d cry ourselves laughing over each new episode, which we rewatched again and again, reciting sketches at one another, often with our friend Surreal Steve, when we should have been studying. So when, to my surprise, over this most recent festive period, I received a message from Stephen Fry to say how much he’d enjoyed my latest book, the first person I told was not a member of my family, or my publishers, or my girlfriend. It was Matt.

I bought a slice of cake at a coffee shop, and a bag of posh coffee that I can’t rightly afford – a coffee that is so far away from Starbucks coffee, Starbucks coffee might as well be pork, or a pen, compared to it. “Call it eight pounds, my dude,” said the laid-back guy who runs the coffee shop. “Aw, thanks!” I said, not really knowing exactly how much he’d knocked off the bill, but grateful for his generosity and that there are such kind, laid-back people running independent businesses. I looked again at the advertised prices of the cake and the posh coffee. They came to precisely eight pounds.

Dorset is the county that has my favourite village names but Norfolk and Suffolk definitely have some of my favourite country signs, and lane names. On a walk on The Marriott’s Way in December I was pleased to see the multinational horse manure sign near Reepham still going strong – if a little faded – a decade after I last saw it. Upper Goat Lane and Lower Goat Lane have always been my top two Norwich lanes, with the vivid images they conjure up of an important forgotten urban goat hierarchy, although neither have the notoreity of Slutshole Lane in the south Norfolk village of Besthorpe. I also like the evocative, recurring Flowpot Lanes and Brick Kiln Lanes in and around the villages between Diss and Norwich, Big Back Lane and Trumpery Lane (discovered on my recent explorations of the southern edge of the Broads), and Judas Lane, which can be found in the Suffolk village of Mellis, not far from the moated farmhouse where the nature writer Roger Deakin lived. I can’t find an official etymological explanation for the latter but I like to think it was once the address of a known local betrayer. “I’m going down Judas Lane,” a village wag might have said, once. Before you knew it, it had caught on throughout Mellis, and the neighbouring villages. This is not unlike Somerset’s Teapot Lane (Worms Lane), close to where I was living until July this year, which was just Worms Lane (it is thought in reference to the large amount of glowworms in the area), until the last century, when locals began to call it Teapot Lane, after the two early 20th Century widows who lived there and were well-known for their habit of collecting used tea from the village and always having a kettle on the hob. All this got me thinking of Ralph’s Wife’s Lane in the Lancashire village of Banks, named for the ghost wife of a drowned fisherman named Ralph who still wanders the lane searching for him, and in turn this put me in mind for the first time in years of a dishevelled woman who during the mid 90s used to repeatedly walk up and down Porchester Road in Gedling in Nottingham, allegedly looking for her husband, who’d been killed on the road in a car crash several years previously. I don’t know who she was or whether she’s still doing her route but I would like to think that one day someone might see fit to rename the road in her honour.

You don’t need music at swimming pools, but I’m not talking about it to strangers any more. The last time I talked about not needing music at swimming pools to a stranger, a few weeks ago, the stranger then proceeded to corner me in the hot tub at the pool where I swim and list his other complaints about modern life, which included men who look like women, women who look like men, and all the environmentalists you get these days, who won’t let you eat a sausage any more. As the man moved up through his gearbox of outrage, covering such other subjects as Why It’s A Shame There Are No Longer Any Comedians Like Benny Hill, I glanced out of the corner of one eye towards the steps leading from the hot tub to freedom and listened for a tiny gap in his monologue, looking for my escape route. What was perhaps even more disturbing than the man’s opinions was his assumption that I, someone he had just met, would naturally share them. He began to tell me about his personal regrets in life, as well his regrets about what all life had become for everyone in the 21st Century, and, even though he was only six years older than me, I felt like I was talking to someone from another epoch, an actual fossil: one that you might find pressed into a remaining section of wall from a terrible nightclub that got bulldozed in 1988 to make way for a health centre. I go to the swimming pool to swim, not for any ancillary lifestyle aspects the pool attempts to provide, and my gut instinct in the past had always told me to avoid the hot tub, that the hot tub might be a place where something excruciating could well happen to you, and the experience confirmed, as so many of my experiences do, that a gut instinct is usually correct. Now, once again, I steer well clear of the tub, just as I steer well clear of the music the pool plays, by hiding from it underwater. My dad has also lost patience with the music being played at his local swimming pool, and recently taped cardboard over the speakers in the changing room, but he said the tape he brought wasn’t strong enough, and the cardboard soon fell off. I don’t even know where the speakers are at my local pool, which is a bigger complex than my dad’s local pool, with an army of bored-looking employees and far more rules, so I wouldn’t bother trying to do the same thing. Instead, I just try to hold my breath through Coldplay and Ed Sheeran and that awful Sting song where he sings about New York and that awful Black-Eyed Peas song about a good night which you know, instinctively, when you hear it, must have actually been a truly hideous night. When the aqua aerobics class takes over, I simmer with quiet envy, wondering why they get the ebullience of The Bee Gees and Chic and Donna Summer and we don’t. Are swimmers not allowed to be upbeat and happy? All the pool music played when aqua aerobics isn’t taking place comes across as joyless soundvertising: songs written not because they need to be written, but cynically constructed with the anodyne mood of a high street clothes shop or a multinational leisure complex in mind. I carry on doing lengths, and fantasise about spring, when I will be back in the sea, and the soundtrack will be only the waves, the shifting stones, the weather, and the countless life forms going about their business under the surface.

This is my latest book.

This is my previous book.

This is the one before that.

17 thoughts on “Midwinter: A Personal Compendium

  1. “… gearbox of outrage” made me snort-laugh out loud and I am determined to incorporate this expression into everyday speech as soon as possible. Thanks for another great read, Tom – and Happy New Year!

  2. I want to commend your anger with regard to hot tubs and the bacteria that inhabit them. I had a not dissimilar experience recently in the steam room. I wonder what it is about hot water and bigotry?

    This chap spent several minutes decrying Greta Thunberg and had so little substance to back
    up his hatred, short of an unacknowledged fear of women and change. I tried as hard as I could to reject his anger and lead him towards a reasoned discussion but he would brook no counterviews.

    Instead I arranged my buttocks in an advanced position which allowed me to fart without a glimmer of noise and left him to steam in it.

    1. “I wonder what it is about hot water and bigotry”, hahaaaaaa that is SO good. And that last bit as well. Farts smell worse in steam (which is why you smell them so well in the shower) so you did good. 😉

  3. Yes, it takes a lot to beat ‘Slutshole Lane’, but a couple of others I love are ‘Muck Lane’ and ‘Swash Lane’ on opposite sides of the Wroxham Road in Rackheath. Also in Rackheath is the delightfully named ‘Slipper’s Bottom’, which is more of an area than a road, and which you may not see on any signs. In a county where most of the rural lanes are simply named after the place to which they are going or, when they get there, are straightforwardly renamed ‘The Street’, these are some of the gems of local history. A more recent name, but still one my husband loves to comment on whenever we pass, is ‘Hemming Way’, near the Mile Cross roundabout in Norwich.

    1. I grew up in Rackheath and always loved the etymology of Slipper’s Bottom being the corner of the field where hare-coursers would ‘let slip’ the dogs – pivoting on their sole and heel as they did – hence the Sole & Heel pub on the opposite corner

  4. Lovely blog, as always. I have just started reading your latest book, been saving it up for January to help pass the hardest part of the winter for me. Just about to head out for a foggy winter walk now. As for the hot tub idiot, they are there in every generation. I used to think it was just older people, but now I’m 49 I have noticed many folk younger than me spouting the same rubbish. There have always been idiots and there always will be idiots, just lying in wait when you least suspect it! Hehe. Keep carrying the light, Tom. Peace.

  5. A favourite road name of mine in Norwich is Rampant Horse Street. I always wonder what happened there! An interesting one in Leicestershire is Flesh Hovel Lane (apparently previously site of an abattoir…)

  6. Ah Tom, so much resonated with me, who having spent most of my life in my native Hertfordshire, moved to Suffolk 6+ years ago. I’ve always loved the East Anglian desire to label every road, with the small ones being “By Road” and “By Way”, while calling those that have names by what they are. The Street, The Bungalows, The Loke, etc., although I have some sympathy for the people who’ve bought houses in The Council Houses. Road numbers, too, which usually have four digits while the only 4-digit number I was accustomed to was the A1000. We lived on the B158, always called the one-five-eight, so it took a while to get used to saying “A 11-20”, rather than “A one, one, two, oh” or “A one thousand, one … oh bother” and no sooner had I cured myself than we used the SatNav which told us to turn onto the “B one thousand, one hundred and sixteen” the first time we went to the Folk afternoon in Laxfield.

    Oh, and by enquiring of the resident of Little Crimbles, I learnt the word is actually ancient, and means a small gap in a wall or fence through which a sheep may pass but not a cow.

  7. ‘Matt is one of my oldest and best friends, although for the last twenty years we have lived more than a hundred miles apart, and often more than two hundred. We first met in September, 1992, on the first day of a slightly ill-defined BTEC National Diploma course for people who weren’t quite sure what they wanted to do with their life but had a vague notion it had something to do with the media.’

    I have a Matt.

    Re-subscribed today Tom. I’ve been a big fan of your writing for years and now studying Creative Writing with Open Uni. You are a writer with a unique style, but I slightly identify with – plus with determination I admire.

  8. So many little laughs to be had in this post. My husband got annoyed with me reading random excerpts aloud to him (probably not unlike the man who accosted you at the hot tubs, with me making the annoying assumption that he’d actually want to hear it). But in my defense, it was very entertaining.

  9. I lived in the East Midlands for many years, and loved the road names. Deadmans Lane in Derby, where our cheques to pay our gas bill were sent, got its name as a result of heavy losses during the 1665 plague. Beastmarket Hill in Nottingham’s centre. Then there were the Norman french influences – Norton Juxta Twycross, Barton in Fabis (in the beans) and the trilingual Breedon on the Hill (Hill hill on the hill).
    These days I live in Snowdonia, where the places are either named after the 19th century industrialist who founded them, or long-vanished holy places (Christian and pagan).
    I’m probably about 8 years older than you, and although I have many of the signs of middle age, rampant opinionated bigotry, and the desire to inflict it on others, is not one of them.

  10. Brilliant piece of writing, as always, Tom. Don’t ever give up writing, I will send you lettuce & carrots at regular intervals if you do!

  11. Happy New Year Tom. Hope 2020 is a good one for you.
    Great recognition from Stephen Fry and Marian Keys. Loved the photo of her husband with his head buried in Ring the Hill… She always makes me laugh when she is on the radio. And hurrah! My husband is chuckling his way through ‘Close Encounters of the Furred Kind’. He only usually reads the Screwfix catalogue so you have succeeded in a barren land where many writers have withered and died .
    Some of the place names in Lincolnshire are great. Muckton. Tetney Hole. My mum was born at Hogsthorpe (interestingly one of the locations for Laura Cumming’s recent memoir, On Chapel Sands). I was born at Belchford. Here in Devon we have Crapstone, which is a lot nicer than it sounds.
    Ah, new year resolutions… Mine is to consume less news. Just got a book- in the form of a manifesto- ‘Stop Reading The News’ by Rolf Dobelli. He argues that too much consumption of news media stifles creativity.

  12. I love your writing. It’s so individual and draws you in. And oh god. I love your Dad. I laugh out loud when I read his latest antics, and am loving his Instagram posts.

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