Someone stole my notebook. I blame the thief, but I also blame myself, and Michael Jackson. I was dancing to Michael Jackson’s ‘Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough’ – a song I can’t ever not dance to, provided I am either alive or awake at the time – in a pub in Bristol when my notebook was stolen, and this accounts for my temporary neglect of the whereabouts of the rucksack containing my notebook. Of the several bags left at the side of the dancefloor in the pub, my rucksack was probably the oldest and least prepossessing – cheap faded blue and grey canvas, purchased around 17 years previously, and stained with the mud of many recent upland walks – so I can’t imagine why the thief decided it was a choice that might lead to a brighter future. Having located my debit card, £46 in cash, my phone and my phone charger, he would surely have been disappointed with the remainder of what he found: a scented bath bar from Lush, a copy of Lindsay Clarke’s 1989 novel The Chymical Wedding, some keys to a car that was perilously close to death, and a black Moleskine journal containing a stranger’s chaotic thoughts on hens, garlic, secondhand vinyl, the landscape of the Peak District and Dartmoor, haircuts and cattle. The crime led to a fraught 24 hours: a sleepless night, the borrowing of cash from a kind friend, two long and nervous train journeys, immediately followed by a moderately confused two hour walk in blistering heat and a very relieved car journey. But the pain of the loss of the money, card, car keys, bath bomb, novel, phone – including the two years of photos stored solely on it – soon faded. The loss of the notebook, however, still stings nearly two years on, and will no doubt continue to, a little bit, forever.
I don’t think the notebook that was taken in Bristol was my best. If I’m honest, it was probably not even in the top five of the fifteen I’ve filled or part-filled since 2009, and aesthetically it was far from my favourite – I am not a big fan of moleskine and tend to prefer fabric notebooks with floral or kinetic designs, especially the kind Paperchase were making around 2008 – but it was still full of thoughts, many of which I will never get back, almost a year of them, in total, stretching from autumn 2017 to the end of summer 2018. A couple of years prior to the theft of my notebook, I lost a quarter of an actual book in a data disaster on my geriatric laptop: a calamity which many people would assume was the more serious of the two. But it’s the loss of that notebook that has caused the bigger heartache over time. What I lost of my book was arguably tighter and better for the rewriting and regathering that it prompted. That notebook, meanwhile, was a mess of half-completed thoughts, shopping lists, unexplained fortnight long gaps and mud-stained almost-poetry, yet in my mind it attains more alluring mystery for every day since it is gone, like an obscure, rare album that time and rareness is dusting with new magic. In my mind, I see it floating down an especially polluted stretch of the River Avon, where the thief has tossed it. It bumps up against a transparent milk carton, then a hub cap, and for a moment the possibility looks very real that it could drift back to shore, trapped between the two objects, where it will be retrieved, its soggy pages peeled apart behind a warehouse by a delivery driver on a cigarette break, who by chance will see my appeal for its return on social media later that day. But then it is set free, and finally floats out of sight. It is at this moment, where the notebook’s jet black cover merges with the colour of the night and the brackish water, that it begins to become much more interesting than it ever was when it was in my possession.
I have completed and published eleven real books – twelve if you include the strange little one you’re holding in your hand right now – and I could argue to myself that filling the last page of a notebook feels like no less of an achievement. There’s always so much temptation to abandon the notebook you’re currently on for a younger, sexier notebook, in the hope that – no matter what your hard-earned notebook wisdom has told you – it might be The One. Sure, sex is great, but have you ever cracked open a new notebook and written something on the first page with a really nice pen? I’m massively anti wasting paper and massively pro beginning fresh notebooks, and it causes me to lead a very conflicted life. But I’m more disciplined than I once was. After I’d had my notebook stolen in Bristol and replaced my bank card, the first thing I did was go out and purchase a very pretty new notebook (the cover is the classic William Morris design, Strawberry Thief), resolving that I would keep it close to my person at all times and that it would be My Best Notebook Of All Time: a prophecy it went on to fulfil, holding the title jointly with a really psychedelic maroon and pink one I filled between mid-2009 and early 2011. The first entry (“August is the worst of all the months that don’t occur in winter: it’s scruffy, cramped and not quite sure what to do with itself.”) was made on August 20th, 2018, and the final one (“Story title: Impossible Carpet.”) happened on March 30th, 2019. That might not seem very impressive for some speedier note writers, but, for me, it was a sustained, disciplined sprint, and constituted a new personal record.
It is surely no coincidence that the period of my career as an author which has produced my most fulfilling work is also the period when I was a more diligent notebook keeper. What I have realised, more and more, is my notebooks contain the grain in the wood of my writing. Without them, it would probably be just a laminate floor. So many times, there have been sentences I have written on a keyboard I’ve been relatively pleased with, then later violently consigned to the cutting room floor with a shake of the head. Equally often, there have been observations I’ve scrawled in a notebook, sitting on a boulder on a moor, and not really thought much of, then later, as a deadline approaches, been deeply thankful for. All books would be better if they could be written entirely during long walks, and notebooks are the bridge to making that closer to being possible. A lot of the writing in my notebooks ends up in my books, a lot of it doesn’t deserve to end up anywhere outside of those notebooks, and a lot of it could have ended up in my books, but didn’t belong there, for various reasons. It is the third category you will read in my new book, which is simply called Notebook. I don’t assume that everyone, or even most people, reading this has read my other recent books but for those who have I have been as careful as possible to avoid repetition. This makes Notebook a different book to the one it would have been if I hadn’t written those books, especially in terms of location. I have lived in four different parts of the UK in the last decade. There is a very large amount of Devon in my latest few books, a lot of Somerset, quite a lot of Peak District, but not so much Norfolk, yet I’ve spent five of the last eleven years living in Norfolk. Therefore, this book leans on Norfolk a little harder than on the other three regions.
What I see, going through my notebooks, is that I am more sporadic than I want to be but more reliable than I was. There are gaps in time, sometimes as much as a fortnight, which I can see are largely due to periods when I am constantly either asleep or 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. Maybe it is because I couldn’t find a pen? Pens are the objects I lose more than any other, even socks. The notebooks contain some long sustained, soul-searching bursts, usually written in pub gardens after walks, only just legible. Unsuccessful jokes are more prevalent in the earlier notebooks. 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 people I liked, usually even more neatly if the recipient was a girl I happened to be mooning over at the time. The first page of the notebook is always the neatest. Unless it’s in Biro. Biros always make my handwriting ugly, even if I’m at my most meticulous. There are lots of bad drawings of hares. Malcolm Gladwell said that genius is just a matter of practising something for 10,000 hours. My drawings of hares are the exception to this rule. I have been doing them for a long time, and they haven’t got any better.
The very fact I’m putting pen to paper makes me write in a very different way to the way I would if I was making notes on a screen. There’s a more intense honesty and immediacy to it. That’s something common to Notebook: it all very much happened, often on the spur of the moment, frequently with a strong rush of feeling; it’s all redolent of the real mess of life. Some of the thoughts and observations in it are better and deeper than others, but they are all real, and they sum up a moment, in a way a note on a screen never can. Paging through these old journals, I can still see the bit of river mud I smeared on a page in Devon in 2014, to mark the moment I started working on my eighth book; I can still picture the weather that day, the way the pebbles felt under my feet as I waded across to a small island close to the opposite bank to write, the way my legs almost buckled due to the stealthy power of the current, as I got halfway across. Reading some entries from 2009 and 2010, I get a better picture of the spaniel I borrowed for walks during that period: his smell, his lust for life, and death (he really liked rolling on his back on top of roadkill). You look back at notebooks in a way you don’t look back at documents saved on a laptop, just as you look back at real photos in an album in a way you will never look back at the photos you’ve saved on your hard drive.
There’s an overused phrase nowadays which I dislike: “making memories”. So many people claim to be doing it while in fact doing the opposite. In the big rush to make the memories, we lose so much: something special gets expressed in an email or text from a friend, but then digital time moves on, and it is deleted forever, whereas a few decades ago it would have been preserved in ink then found in a box many years later, and pored over, yearned over, swam in. Even though I’ve occasionally cringed in the process, I’ve enjoyed swimming in the older jottings here, and cursed myself for not being a proper notebook keeper earlier in my life.
Many of the notebooks tail off into job lists and arcane unsubtantiated statements – “People’s faces… Wasp” – whose meanings have been lost to the whirlpool of time, before the notebook fades altogether, its final forty or so blank pages revealing the harsh truth: that I have abandoned it, once again, for The Thrill Of The New. Within the pages, I get various reality checks about time. A story idea I thought I had in 2016 is actually two years older than that, which means, with a hard bump back to earth, I must come to terms with the fact it’s even longer than I thought that I’ve been chickening out of writing it. But perhaps that’s part of another lesson about time that notebooks – mine, at least – teach: that it might move forward in a linear, numerical fashion as it’s happening, but when its reappraised, it’s actually all over the place. Some of the observations here from May 2015 quite clearly belong with some others from December 2019, and not with those who share their birthday month. A reminder I scrawled to myself in 2014 is far more relevant to my life now than it was then. A series of trips, or a habit, or hobby, begins in one month, but gets sidetracked, and resumes eight months later.
In my organisation of these thoughts, observations, conversations and microstories, I have kept this scrambling of time in mind. They do not take place in chronological order; they also have a bias towards my more recent notebooks, which are – to be quite frank – less drippy. The entries are dateless. This is not a diary, and it’s certainly not a nature diary. If it was, it would probably be organised into months or seasons of the year, like nearly all other nature diaries. My life is nowhere near that organised. There’s nature here, but it’s only part of the story, depending on what you define “nature” as. This is a notebook, and it’s as chaotic and erratic as a notebook should be. I felt any very clear attempt to organise into subject matter would detract from that. But there is a kind of order to it – albeit a freewheeling one – and a certain amount of editing. I don’t want to bore anyone with the entirety of one of my actual notebooks but I also want to retain, maybe even embolden, the customary rhythm of them. Each section covers a range of subjects but, to me, has a feel, however scrambled, which unites the entries. I have always loved making mixes for music-loving friends, whether it was back in the days when to do so necessitated three hours with your finger hovering over the pause button on an old cassette player, or now, with the spoilsport assistance of modern technology. I have also loved naming these mixes, in a – not always successful – attempt to sum up their character. If I make a mix, it’s rarely just of one genre of music; it encompasses several, but has a certain abstract coherence. After all, what genre doesn’t bleed into another, or cross-fertilise it? And wouldn’t music be so much more boring if it didn’t? That’s the way I think of the sections here: each is themed by nothing as strict as a “genre” or “subject”, and the entries are often conceived in very different places, but they somehow belong together, even if it’s only for the fact that they all come from my brain, and my brain, like most brains, rarely thinks about one thing at a time; it also likes to misbehave. In the end, that’s what this is, as much as me writing an actual book: it’s me having fun making another mixtape, for a slightly wider audience. If nothing else, it’s a surefire way to make my handwriting is as neat as possible.
NOTEBOOK will be published in September, by Unbound. If you’d like to pledge for a first edition hardback, you can do so here. (The closing date for getting your name printed in the back of the book as a supporter is April 20th, although you can still pledge after that.)