THE INCESSANT TROUBLING SPEED OF EVERYTHING

This summer has raced away like no summer before it. I don’t think it’s just age. Everything has been tumbling relentlessly forward in a cloud of stirred dust, and I can’t quite see through to the centre. I notice events I want to go to but often forget to note them down and suddenly they’re a fortnight in the past, even though it only feels like a day or two later. Yet I have done stuff, been to stuff. I’ve been busy, constantly, even if I can’t always recall the details. There’s too much in my head, including two new novels wrestling one another to find out which one wins by coming first, although – who knows – maybe the real winning in this case will be coming second. A deficit of unreturned catch up messages from far away friends accumulates, and their concomitant deficit of guilt. I forget then remember then forget. I forget things because there are too many things. I know I’m not alone in this. Everyone has to be more firm about deciding what they have time for when every day techno capitalism is more efficient in in its attempts to wreck our brains for its own benefit. Some, maybe even several, people will comment on a photo that I will perhaps use to link to this piece of writing, as if the piece of writing is not even there, and not follow the link, even if a few of them vaguely intend to, at some point. That’s annoying to me, but I totally get it: it’s 2022 and there are more choices to make than ever. A fortnight ago, I awoke at just past 3am and the first thing I saw was an owl perched on the bedroom skylight, staring down at me, massive and dark and portentous, like some cliched frame in a gothic graphic novel. I then forgot the incident had happened, which means I didn’t tell my girlfriend – who’d been asleep at the time – about the owl for three days. What kind of disturbing megaspeed overwhelming idiot age do you have to be living in to forget about a fucking massive owl spying on you in your own bedroom? I will reply to the messages, the ones I can keep in my overwadded head, maybe even tell a couple of friends about the owl, if I haven’t forgotten again by then, but the messages are extra screen time, when I’m trying constantly to get away from screens: they’re so often the extra bit that can wait when some other stuff can’t. I want to send fewer messages and read more books, always, but especially now. I read 83 books in 2006. This year is more than half gone and I’m only up to 11, although, to be less harsh on myself, they are for the most part better books than I read in 2006, and I’m more at peace with being a naturally slow reader than I was then. Plus, I haven’t included audiobooks, of which there have been nine and three quarters. I’ve never been more inspired, never felt more like I’m not doing enough with the inspiration. My longish latest book doesn’t feel like it was enough – I know it’s my best yet, in the same way that I know my leg is a leg, and I know that the people who love it really love it, the reviews have been great, but the “industry” (whatever that is) has made it clear to me that it’s a commercial disappointment and that I’m a commercial disappointment for the way I’ve gone about making it exist – so I want to write more, as soon as possible, but I’d feel like that anyway, because the books that are going to follow that book are already inside me, and there’s quite simply not room for them to just stay there. Thoughts and ideas flash up every day and many get caught and filed but too many of them instantly vanish and even though I squint and try really hard to peer down the hole in my brain that they fell down, I can’t see far enough. Ideally I need to borrow a set of kitchen tongs or large tweezers to grab them and bring them back up into the light. My own tweezers are too small. At this time of year I chiefly use them to pick moorland ticks out of my flesh. Sometimes I leave the head of the tick in by mistake but, despite what I’ve heard, it hasn’t killed me yet. There are six pages of notes about ticks in my notebook from the summer of 2017 but none so far this summer.  I’m not writing in my notebook as regularly as I was. I’m still making notes, just not quite as many, and some of them end up elsewhere: on my phone, on the white space at the bottom of a piece of bureaucracy I have been sent in the mail, on a takeaway menu, envelopes, the back of a failed muddy attempt at an abstract painting. I’ll bring them all together at some point. I get like this sometimes, lose my focus, then reel it back in. It’s part of the pattern, inevitable, crucial. But I notice I need to guard against it more than I did in the past. It’s the incessant, troubling speed of everything. I don’t think social media has a particularly big hold on me right now, so I don’t think it’s especially that – although it’s always that, to an extent, if you’re on social media at all – but I’m in the whirlwind, just by being alive in the third decade of the 21st Century and by not going to huge socially and financially sabotaging lengths to reject technology, by being another person who has to pay for things using his phone and confirm his identity using his phone, and arrange details for gatherings by typing into his phone. As an author, I’m in the whirlwind because I am not one of the few in my profession who are in the elite position of being able to reject technology and still have a full-time career. I’m in the whirlwind because I talk to people who are far more in the whirlwind than I am. I’m in the whirlwind because I like looking up facts, and my local library is four and half miles further away by car than Wikipedia is. I’m in the whirlwind, because my phone – or more specifically the people inside it – is constantly recommending interesting books and films and albums and facts to me. Some days, it feels like a marginally thrilling kind of stress. Other days, it feels like a marginally heartbreaking frittering away of life. It feels like, “Can we just take a moment to stand aside from this please, and focus on one thing? Can we take some time to resist the next onslaught of recommendations, and concentrate, just for a day or two, on one of the ones we got last week?” It’s my own fault, probably, for being interested in lots of things: just in the same way that the fact that my books are “cult” and “misunderstood” and “difficult” is my fault for making them about so many different subjects. Now is a very overwhelming time to be a human, but if you’re interested in lots of things, it’s a much more overwhelming time to be one. In the end, I feel like I’ve done nothing this summer not because I’ve done nothing but because I’m constantly reminded, at high speed, of all of what I could do, what I could see, what I could read, what I could hear, where I could go. And one feature of the high speed tumble is that you forget the moments when you have stepped out of it all, when you have been more focused and centred and still. And there have been many of those too. But it’s still not slow enough. I want to grab a day and hold it in place, wedge a large object in front of it to stop it tumbling. I’m listening to the babble of a small river as I write this and it’s a beautiful soothing sound, but, if I had the power, I’d probably stop it flowing and babbling, just for a while. It’s an August thing, too, undoubtedly. This, increasingly, is the slipping time of year when I am hyper aware of my overriding, elusive goal: not to be “successful”, to be slower. I want to be that way because I want to enjoy what I have and reject the knack that technology and its vast unpaid workforce of people who use it have of reminding me of all the infinite things I don’t have and should want. But I also have this sneaking suspicion that slowness – and the freedom that comes with it – could help me get a hell of a lot of things done.

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My new book is called Villager. It’s available from all good bookshops including Blackwells (who do free worldwide delivery), and direct from my publishers Unbound. I also currently have a few signed copies of the first edition hardback here – plus of the paperbacks of my previous four books – which I can sell to you direct, for cover price plus postage. Please email me via the Contact form on the homepage for more details.

Owl linoprint by my mum, Jo. She sometimes sells her work here.

20 thoughts on “THE INCESSANT TROUBLING SPEED OF EVERYTHING

  1. I think the trick is to be in the whirlwind but not of it—to paraphrase the mystics
    I haven’t figured out how to do that—it does sometimes just happen. When I had access to a babbling ribbon of water that often helped. And the owl I saw while leaving Mohonk (upstate place of great natural beauty) hasn’t left my mind. Nor the raven. But Brooklyn is rampant with riptides of the whirlwind. I salute your swimming from my own……

  2. The unbearable weightiness of being … the daily maelstrom of guff needs filtering for sure. I cope by sporadically hibernating to switch off the ‘noise’ of it all and taking a monastic vow of isolation.

    I have tongues in my kitchen but I also have tongs…

  3. Wow yes I totally feel this. It’s so hard when you are interested in lots of things and there isn’t just the time or headspace to do them all. Ive Just read 4000 weeks by Oliver Burkeman which really sums this up well. It’s a great book and basically says we need to accept that the vast majority of things we want to do we won’t have time to and will never get round to doing. We’ll not see and so far more in life than we will and the real challenge is accepting this.

  4. This is delightful and rings true.

    It’s also the first blog I’ve commented on in forever and the days of blogging (over microblogging on social media) seem in retrospect to have been days where we had time for the depth and slower pace of a more deliberate life.

    Thank you and good fortunes.

  5. My therapist said this week that it’s a good thing that I have interest in so many things, and that I could do this or that, and I told her that I think it’s actually a curse. Right now I wish I was some single-minded person who didn’t care about learning anything new… the anxiety and depression comes from the excess, not out of lack of things to do or see or experience or whatever…

  6. Oh, this resonates! Thank you for putting into words the constant seesaw in my head. I tend to find something physical to do to counter the tech in my life — I sew something, or walk. I agree with other commenters on 1) the usefulness of the periodic tech-free day, and 2) the clarity of the book 4000 Weeks. In all that tech, though, I still look forward to your inter-dimensional portal photos…

  7. This so speaks to me! I often wonder if the continuous overflow of thoughts, intentions, and I meant to’s occur in the minds of people I admire. I’m usually to embarassed to admit that my plans and their lack of execution are often caught in an endless tumbling cycle of my clothes dryer of a mind. Thank you for making me feel a bit less alien in my pursuit of daily life!

  8. Absolutely this. I’ll be honest, I liked the picture and thought I’ll come back to reading the editorial until I stopped myself and thought, NO, READ IT NOW !! So I did, and jolly glad i did to. I might even read it again, just to slow.myself.down.

    It’s all so exhausting. 💜

  9. tom this is sort of making me uneasy, because sometimes it’s hard to be reminded of the ‘issues’ you(by that I mean Me) are dealing with – when someone else puts them on the page they get spicier and more weighty to confront. like when you’re playing hide and seek as a kid and you hear those footsteps in the room around the bed you’re under – you know you’re going to get caught, and you hope you can savor that feeling a little longer while you’re unseen and not confronting the thing making big footsteps. I have had 2 years of chaos and whiplash between ‘it’s getting better!’ or ‘things are finally looking up!’ and then ‘holy shit this is not good’ and ‘well you’ve certainly done it this time…’ – the only way to right the ship is to somehow complete/finish/try all the things i’ve gotten started and see if that foundation is the structure needed to support the shelter, but WOW in the meantime I have learned SO MANY amazing little – or big and complex – facts about so many random things, that I feel pretty entertained even when i’m totally buried by the things i’m supposed to be doing that really don’t involve any learning at all. I dont’ know how to solve it or fix it or change it – but please just keep writing and being yourself and all the rest of us will have to do our own bests to be what we are meant to be. Also to everyone that reads this, keep sharing music and facts and owl stories and cat photos because we need that too.

  10. Tom has a gift for capturing the zeitgeist in such a lyrical fashion. Always thought-provoking. This piece was well worth a revisit and a chuckle (“…. fucking massive owl spying on you…!) …

    Which wise old owl said “Turn on, tune in, drop out” (but without the psychedelics) – we’ve tuned out of life as we knew it and forgotten to appreciate the little things that sustain us – too busy trying to deal with the superfast tsunami most days …

  11. Oh I agree totally! I am retired and thought I would have time for ALL my hobbies but I waste so much time.
    I love all your writing Tom. I have read all your books except your latest which I am saving & looking forward to reading.
    We are not alone & it is very reassuring to see all the comments.

  12. Your thoughts about the ‘commercial disappointment’ of the industry you have to be part of as a writer made a link in my mind to something 87 year old Alan Garner said in an interview this week. ‘Within a month of starting to write, I had come to my senses and thought: forget the audience. Forget readership – you can never know. The only person to write for is yourself.’ Let all those books that are inside you come out, Tom.

  13. I have been one of those people who ‘like’ a social media post of yours with a nice photo and think ‘I’ll read that later’. But now I’m on a delayed train and my headphones have stopped working and I’m pleased because I’ve got round to reading your recent writing and it’s a lovely way to spend my time. So a belated thanks for making me giggle and taking me away from the real world for a bit. Love the boot fairs piece too.

  14. I’m reading this (and a few months worth of your pieces that I keep meaning to get to but….well you clearly get it) while on an enforced pause while I wait for the plumber to come and I can’t really get into anything else. You’ve inspired me to spend the rest of the day doing less – we’ll see if the world conspires against that. Thank you for a thoughtful piece (as always)!

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