Notebook

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.)

4 thoughts on “Notebook

  1. This post has prompted several thoughts from me. The first is that I’m really glad that I’ve pledged what I could afford which was to have my name in the back of the book but most importantly, to receive a digital copy when it’s published.

    The second is a bit of a thrill upon discovering that not only does someone else share my somewhat obsessive love of notebooks but that they’re one of my favourite authors and they’ve written a whole book about them – hurrah!

    The third is that I just love the concept of a book being like mixed tape for your readers (as someone who loves both books and mixed tapes in equal measures).

    The fourth is – if I’m not too late and the book hasn’t already gone to print – please may I make a request/suggestion? As you were talking about your handwriting in the piece above, I thought about how lovely it would be to see a few thoughts in the book here and there printed in your handwriting and not just typed up. Just a thought.

    And finally, if you don’t already have one, please will you consider my offer to be your gratis proofreader? I am such a pedant that the few typos in the above piece made me twitch with actual pedantic pain and I would love to do something to help a favourite author.

    Please don’t feel as if I’m ending my comments on a critical note though – despite the fact that it would cause me the linguistic version of OCD-type nightmares, I’d happily read whatever you wrote (regardless of whether or not it was riddled with typos) because you are one of the few authors whose writing I love enough to make that pain worthwhile 😉

    1. Thank you, Lisa. The lovely Dave Holwill usually looks over the pieces after they’re published on here and sends me any typos he spots, but if you happen to see any others, please feel free to drop me a message.

  2. I’m fascinated with people’s thought processes. They drift from subject to subject, like the best sort of conversations with a friend (sometimes even with a stranger. Bus stops and train journeys can be quite exciting when you start talking to a stranger).
    As I’m 71, people are quite tolerant of my observations, questions, thoughts. I learnt not to be shy years ago, at the same time I met feminism, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, politics (left wing naturally. I was a student at Leeds, mid 60s. My landlady was a Marxist and ran the local CND).
    Considering I grew up in an agricultural village of some 900 people in Northamptonshire, I made quite a journey. My parents found me difficult, but the ructions helped my younger brother who is gay and went into the theatre world. My parents mellowed over time. Or I did, I can’t be sure.
    Notebooks have always appealed to me. From adolescent poetry, never, ever, to see the light of day, to a certain facility with verse, usually intended for someone’s or some organisation’s discomfort, I abandoned directed study and read and write as I choose. Trade Union activity to Extinction Rebellion keeps me out of trouble. Or in it, occasionally. And community action is what I like best.
    So lockdown is an unspeakable nuisance. But Twitter, Zoom, WhatsApp help me along. Online courses (plug for Future Learn, free and wide ranging!), and my book buying obsession are assisting. I might even read all the books I own, if I survive the virus and live to 105. Book sellers are probably praying for my continued health, my bank and credit card company also.
    I am looking forward to your notebooks, thank you for this introduction to them!

  3. Lovely piece, Tom. Very much looking forward to the new book. Speaking of mixtapes, do you have any plans to return to your Message From The Country podcasts?
    P.S. Your hare drawings are still charming x

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