Spring 2019: A Personal Compendium

My birthday falls on what is usually the exact part of the year where spring takes its cardigan off, revealing the bright t-shirt underneath made of summer: May 20th. It’s my favourite time of year and this time around it took me by surprise. I woke up, the garden was full of buttercups and forget-me-nots, and it occurred to me that much of my life up until then had predominantly just functioned as preparation for being 44. I had delivered my latest book five days earlier, and getting it done had been such a push – perhaps the biggest book push of all, out of many big book pushes – that I have felt since then slightly like I am rubbing my eyes and gradually coming to the happy realisation that it isn’t February any more. I’ve been outdoors a lot, getting right into the heart of spring as much as possible amidst all the writing, but the realisation remains a shock. Book writing, at its most heightened, is being in an altered state: a zombie state, in the most pleasant sense. I felt, more than ever before, that I was possessed while writing this latest one, channelling something, dancing with it. I learned a lot and made a creative step on from my last couple of books. It felt new, which is the way it always has to feel more me nowadays, or I won’t do it. There’s an extra layer or two in it. Yet… it’s not quite good enough. Books you’ve written never are. Which could be viewed as excellent news, because it means I’m excited about writing better ones in the future, albeit after I’ve had a nice rest.

Blackbirds and wood pigeons have taken over my garden in recent days, elbowing out the pheasants. The females are confident and hang out in gangs of three or four. There’s only one regular male, and he’s much nervier. In all of nature, I don’t think there can be a more perfect and exquisite advert for minimalism than the colour scheme of a male blackbird.

A stranger told me to read a book by a very famous author that lots of other people were reading because if I did so it might give me more chance of finding out how to write books that appeal to a larger section of society and also allow me to conduct myself knowledgeably in conversations about the very famous author’s work, so I would not appear a cultural outcast. I responded politely and vaguely, knowing I wouldn’t read the book. It’s not the very famous author’s very famous status and the book’s great popularity that makes me resistant to reading the book; it’s that the book does not hold any obvious or even unobvious appeal to me and I am permanently very very conscious of how many books exist. At any one point, there are always only two total numbers of books on the planet: eight, or several billion. There are the eight books that mainstream society tells you exist and the several billion books that actually exist. If I was going to read a book as a cultural gesture, which I am not, the cultural gesture would probably be a sympathetic one leaning in the direction of the several billion, and tending to assume the eight were probably doing ok without my help. Sometimes the fact that a lot of people are talking about a book means it’s good; a lot of the time it just means a lot of people are talking about a book. I’m not going to read a book because it’s popular and I’m not going to not read a book because it’s popular. I’m going to read a book because I think I might like it.

I like wasps and think they’re victims to unfair stereotyping but I do think they’re too quick to blame stuff on others, rather than looking within and taking responsibility for their own mistakes.

When you’re a househunter, what you soon start to realise is the language of house listings is one all of its own, off to the side of language used by real humans. Very little means what it says it means, and – as houses get more expensive, and the competition to live in a nice one gets stiffer – meaning gets even more drained from it. “Unique” can become another way of saying “not on an estate, and not utterly identical to all of the houses around it”. “Open plan” is stretched to describe a house that has one internal doorway where there was once a door and now isn’t. Places are sold on the strange basis that it might be appealing to hardly ever be in them, with the use of the soulless phrase “lock up and leave.” No landlord ever says “Pets welcome” even if they welcome pets. It’s always “Pets by negotiation.” This description always leads me to hypothesise about the nature of the negotiations: ”You can bring the smallest dog, but not the cockatiel. They’re all wankers. That third cat of yours looks like a right mouthy prick, so he can live outside, in a tent.” Another phrase that often comes up nowadays is “regret, no pets” which, with its mournful comma, never suggests to me that the regret is about the no pets rule, but something else that lingers in the house: that it is a building centrally characterised by a lack of animals and a strong ambience of regret.

My cat Roscoe came in at 3am one morning in an unusually affectionate mood. I soon realise that the cause for the extra affection was the wet, sticky substance all over the bottom half of her body, which was smellier and saltier than simple mud, and slightly less offensive than excrement. Further investigation revealed the substance to be slurry, probably from the farm across the road from my house. It is now a week later and Roscoe is no longer covered in slurry, but a more than faint whiff of slurry still accompanies her each time she enters a room.

The big lie about talent is that it’s something innately already there, something “natural”, rather than something that comes from doing something so many times, at such a self-punishing and tiring level, that you can’t fail to finally be decent at it.

I recently rewatched Mike Leigh’s 1976 play for TV, Nuts In May, because it’s May, and I’ve been recently doing a lot of walking on the Isle Of Purbeck in Dorset, where Nuts In May is set. But in truth there’s no bad time to rewatch Nuts In May. It’s still, for my money, the greatest thing Leigh has ever done: more subtle and even more clever than his better-known Abigail’s Party from the following year. Alison Steadman stars as Candice-Marie in Nuts In May and as the patronising party host Beverly in Abigail’s Party. The dizzying, impossible fact that these brilliant and entirely different performances could emerge from the mind and body of one human was what, when I was in my early teens, first made me aware that acting was an art form. As Candice-Marie and Keith drive around Dorset, Keith mansplains rural England to her, lectures her about how crucial it is to chew your food 72 times, tells her off for picking stones off the beach because “if everyone did that there wouldn’t be any pebbles left” and reminds her of the importance of his schedule. Down from Croydon, on hiatus from their respective jobs in social services and a toy shop, Keith and Candice-Marie make up naive folk songs together, clash with noisy yobs on bikes and stick to a health-conscious vegetarian diet. Their treat, when they feel like they’ve earned it and really want to kick back and let go, is raw mushrooms. At the time, Nuts In May was part of a growing tide of anti-hippie pisstaking that helped invent the 1980s, but now Candice-Marie and Keith come across as a little ahead of their time with their eco-awareness and simple, sustainable lifestyle, and Candice-Marie’s inventive, knitwear-heavy jumble shop wardrobe seems less goofy, more stylish. A subplot of the play is Candice-Marie’s rebellion against Keith’s despotic governance of their relationship. This could have been conveyed in a much more heavy-handed way, with Candice-Marie yearning to leave Keith for a Hell’s Angel and drop litter in bluebell woodland, but the central genius of the story is that the rebellion is a subtle one: Candice-Marie loves the planet, loves birds and trees and mushrooms and history, but she’d prefer to get away from Keith’s schedule, and not have to worry about getting mud on the floor of his Morris Minor. In the final scene, on a new campsite, Keith heads off into the woods with a toilet roll in his hand and we see her alone with her guitar, singing the play’s one non-twee song: a dark eco ballad about what humans have done to ruin the earth. A vision emerges of her breaking away from Keith to forge a successful songwriting career as a politicised songwriter: Wessex’s answer to Joan Baez.

Ten or fifteen years ago I would never have written the book I’ve just written. For a start, I wasn’t yet me at that point, therefore wouldn’t have possessed the ability to, but also I would have felt the need to ask permission to write it from someone posher and with more of a sense of authority than me – probably somebody in the publishing industry or media but, if they weren’t available, pretty much anybody else would have sufficed – and the permission would almost certainly have been denied. It’s still in there, this need to ask permission to do things that I don’t need permission for and are entirely my business, but at least I recognise it now, and no longer get it mixed up with the stuff in life a person definitely should ask permission for. What you realise in time is that the impulse is not just about you and the way you’ve lived; it’s something ingrained that’s about being from countless uninterrupted generations of working class people from the northern half of England who didn’t partake in higher education, lived with next-to-no money, and were thoroughly trained in not getting ideas above their station in life.

The Glastonbury Tor Mannequin seems to have gone, forever. She was on the road below the Tor a lot in autumn, near the Chalice Well, looking quite smart in her flower headband, blue anorak, flourescent tabard, long hippie skirt and wellies, holding a sign asking drivers to slow down while driving past the town’s ancient sites. Then she blew head first into a hedge, tried her best to recover her dignity, looking a bit more dishevelled, but I think Storm Gareth might have finished her off. I have become more and more fascinated with the Tor, since living just six and a bit miles away from it, and have now walked up it in numerous kinds of weather, including Storm Gareth, whose wind, finding out I don’t weigh much over ten stone and it could take the piss, lifted me off my feet and blew me eight or nine yards up the steepest part of the hill. My mum recently reminded me that when I was a toddler I asked her Irish friend George why we can’t see wind, and I still think it’s an extremely valid question.

I rarely manage to do much proper, sustained reading during the intense final stages of writing a book: my brain isn’t very big and just doesn’t allow space for it. This time I got through a couple of audiobooks, and did plenty of fragmented research reading – mainly topography, folklore and local history – but it’s been a while since I’ve read a novel. As I got towards the end of my book, the two major recurring thoughts I had were “I really hope I don’t die before I finish this!” and “I can’t wait until this is done so I can start reading properly again!”

I relearned to swim this spring. I’m not quite there yet, but I move through the water much more smoothly than I once did, and, after five months of doing an average of 200 lengths a week, feel like my body is made of wire, which is less unpleasant than you might imagine. I’m back in the open air pools and rivers now, with the warmer weather, which is a relief. A couple of weeks ago at one lido a woman in her late 20s or early 30s who’d been swimming a couple of lanes over from me, alone, stopped at the end of the pool and announced to me and the other five or six people in the water, “You know what? STUFF THIS. I’m getting out!” The statement was delivered with such volume and feeling, such a sense of insurrection, that I was briefly swept along with its current. “Yeah!” I wanted to think for a second. “Fuck these lidos, with their water and stuff, making us swim without a roof on tranquil spring evenings beneath beautiful west country sunsets!” But then I remembered that I was quite enjoying myself, had only done 26 lengths and wanted to get my £4.50’s worth, so I carried on doing crawl for another half an hour.

I’m suspicious of success. How can you not be? Success, as popularly defined, is when everything is going well, and that’s when you tend to announce – even if it’s only to yourself – “Everything is going well!” or “I feel great!” which is like pressing a button wired directly to the unlock function on a door, behind which a series of bad events have been sitting patiently, waiting for a reason to happen. Success is a trap. A lot of bands have made a lot of astonishingly bad records at a point in their career when they’re considered very very successful. The trick, I often think, is to stay a comfortable distance beneath success. But even then you’re not infallible. Success will lure you in with some of the stuff it promises, even if you’re not interested in the success itself. I can sometimes get conned into thinking I’ve become interested in achieving success, when what I’ve in fact become interested in is the idea of selling enough books to feel a little bit more stable and secure about my future. And when I take a step back I’m not even sure I’m interested in that. Of all the activities of the modern age that have been proven to help books sell more, the only one I’m truly interested in doing is writing more books. And I am very aware that a lot of the energy of the book I’ve just completed, and loved writing so so much, comes from uncertainty: the increasingly peripatetic nature of my life, the doubt about whether I’m still going to be able to afford to do this in a year or two, the nowness of it. I recently went through the brief delusion that I might be able to buy a house as a way of feeling a moderate extra bit of security and reducing my monthly outgoings, before I looked at my recent earnings and the cold hard facts of what it actually takes to get a mortgage these days and threw the idea out of the window, cackling maniacally at what a fool I had been. Do I live in a chaotic, financially precarious, impulsive way because I write the books I write, or do I write the books I write because I live in a chaotic, financially precarious, impulsive way? It’s become quite hard to tell. This semi-nomadic life I am living, going from place to place and writing about my environment, living quietly with few commitments and no boss, being able to do nothing much more than guess about the future, came about slightly by accident. It can be tiring and impractically expensive, feel – at the bad times – like a gradual haemorrhaging of my future, but so much of it is so very enjoyable, especially in a creative sense, so I’m going to carry on with it for now and see where it takes me next.


There is still a bit of time to order a special edition of Ring The Hill, with extra art and your name in the back,  here.

I don’t write for any mainstream media publications and chose to put my writing on this site instead: around 200,000 words of it so far. It’s all free, but if you feel like donating a small monthly amount to help me keep going, you can do so either by paypal or GoCardless. You’ll also find a subscription link on the home page if you’d like to sign up to be notified when a new piece is published.

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8 thoughts on “Spring 2019: A Personal Compendium

  1. May must be a great time to have a birthday. Cow parsley, bluebells, campion and bright green beech leaves. Starting another year in the depths of winter can’t be as optimistic.
    Congratulations on finishing your book, Tom. I’m looking forward to it. It must seem strange that when everyone else is reading it for the first time, you are thinking about, and may have even started, the next one.
    Book recommendations can be great, but sometimes are not. When I read a book I don’t love and I recommended it to myself, I am never as cross as I am when I haven’t liked a book that everyone else said I should be reading.
    Thanks for the compendium post. 21st Century Yokel pick n’ mix.

  2. Lovely memoir of Spring and the angst of writing, or achieving something or finally finishing something. I’m good at starting things, so I’m in awe of people that can finish something, and a book is the ultimate. Happy Birthday Tom, now enjoy that well earned rest.

    PS: I watched a movie that reminded me of your writing. “Breaking the waves”. Probably because it was set in the 70s and devided into chapters, each announced like a pschadelic double album cover with matching theme song, only I thought you’d choose better songs.

  3. I could identify with so much in this post. I loved Nuts In May when I saw it as a child. I have never forgotten it. My sympathies where definitely with Candice-Marie. I think wasps get a bad rap too. I also don’t like being ‘told’ what to read or watch: I like to discover things for myself. A joy to hear of Roscoe’s doings. I am also breaking free from thinking I need someone’s permission to be creative although I haven’t achieved what you have, yet, but I suppose there is still hope. This was a very enjoyable post – I liked it’s variety, and the fact it was about spring – my favourite season which struggles to exist here in Newfoundland.

  4. A very enjoyable post Tom, “The big lie about talent” is both true and wise and so beautifully phrased. The Somerset levels are special, on a Spring evening with the long shadows you can almost believe all the ley line theories are true.

  5. My birthday’s almost exactly four months after yours, ending the Summer and marking the changeover. This is a really thoughtful, and slightly unbalancing post – I shall have to reread and think about it for a bit.

    I love this time of year too, but this year the pollen’s gone crackers and I’ve been suffering outside from a very odd sort of hayfever. No exercise for ages, which is making me feel very odd. You’ve inspired me to do something about it.

    I hope your duvet wasn’t too mankied-up by the adorable Roscoe!

  6. I feel on the cusp of something similar with the swimming. I had a winter of going a few times a week having never learned as a kid but as with most good habits, a gentle nudge sideways by life knocked me from the tracks. I should like to swim efficiently, as you describe it. It rather feels like my arms are clawing me forward while the legs apply the brakes. That said, I almost always drive home singing Loudon’s song so happy times. Marvellous writing, looking forward to the book

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