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.