Tuesday, 25 November 2008

No aimless exercise

I wake up on Sunday morning to a dusting of snow across the back garden. Not that it’s my back garden, you understand, so perhaps I should say the expanse of occasionally green space that can be seen out of the kitchen window and belongs to the man who lurks downstairs. But that’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? Snow is pretty rare in the urban heat centre – I don’t think we had any at all last winter – but there is was; just a little sprinkling that clung twee-like to the mock Roman plant pots.

“Hmrph,” I thought, switched the coffee machine on and took the four steps back into bed with the Sunday paper I’d confusingly bought on Saturday night.

It wasn’t supposed to be like that. On Sunday morning I should have been waking up in a sleeping bag on a Swansea floor, feeling twinges in the backs of my knees from climbing a mountain the previous day.

Except I never made it because my car broke down. At least the bastard had the good grace to conk out in Chelsea rather than, say, somewhere in the no-man’s land of the M4 in-between Swindon and Bath. So my rescue by the RAC was comparatively straightforward, but I mean, come on! What else can go wrong for me at the moment?

And, as later on, I rang up various people and moaned I suddenly realised that I was dangerously close to becoming a rather pathetic figure of self pity.

“Oh, woe is me. It just isn’t fair.” Etc, etc.

So, I resolved to stop moaning and try to get something constructive done. After checking the car into a garage for futile attempts at resuscitation, I cracked on with writing – after all I can’t moan about not having enough time to write and then reject opportunities when they arise.

In a single seven hour stretch I managed to rework a twelve thousand word chunk of the novel. I trimmed back reams of stuff that didn’t work and tried to push forward the bits that hopefully did what I intended them to do, but it’s getting tricky.
I’ve now been redrafting for longer than the original first two drafts took (although September and most of October were write-offs) and the damn thing still isn’t working and I’ve spent so much time with these words that they’re becoming like the old friends’ whose failings you forgive all too easily. I think I might have to fall out with my words; get to the point where I hate them and can therefore be more merciless.

But anyway, after four-hundred-and-twenty minutes the tips of my fingers throbbed and the skin under my nails stung. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. “If it hurts,” I thought, “it must be good.”

An odd moment of Hemmingway-lite delusion.

I was determined to still find a way of getting some exercise and never being one for the aimless rigours of sit-ups or jogging, I like my excursions to have purpose. So, I decided to walk the seven or so miles into the centre of London whereupon I would meet a mate for a less healthy beer.

I walk briskly so whilst it didn’t exactly have the grandeur of the walking I’d expected to be doing it did get my blood pumping a little faster. I missed the sweeping valleys, the spring of damp grass beneath my feet, the camaraderie of walking with friends. Instead there was just the relentless trudge across concrete as I marched through some of the less salubrious parts of London. In particular I’d never noticed before quite how dark the quarter of a mile or so between Camberwell and Walworth is, nor how it seems to be solely the preserve of the Wyndham Estate. For a few minutes it was as though the city was abandoned for the dead. There were no cars, no-one on the streets, the lights flickered as though the electricity supply was about to be cut. There was just me and the eerie echo of my own rapid steps.

Then a number twenty-one roared round the corner in a mess of steaming pistons, bedraggled diesel and general bendiness.

By Sunday morning, though, my resolve to be productive was being tested. I was struggling to build up the enthusiasm for yet another day at the computer, but thoughts of doing anything else was nipping me with guilt.

I looked back through the work I’d done the day before and despaired. It still wasn’t working. It still wasn’t as good as it should be. I considered writing this blog, originally about Woolworths but David Mitchell beat me to it.

Pouring yet another cup of coffee I glanced out of the window and saw that the snow had evaporated already. It had hung around for about thirty minutes before realising it had better things to do, a place to go where it might be appreciated more. A little later I walked down the road to get some milk and passed the burnt-out wreckage of an old Escort that had mysteriously appeared earlier the week. It’s blackened and charred husk looked like something from twenty years ago displaced to here and now.

And then I thought that things aren’t always what they appear. Maybe the dark last night had only seemed so invasive because it fitted my mood. Maybe it wasn’t snow in the garden that morning, but ash drifting in the breeze. Maybe I should go home and beat some more words out of my brain.

Thursday, 20 November 2008


Breathe in.

I’m surprised by its commonality as it criss-crosses its way throughout time and space; between metaphorical and mythological, from psychological to physical - beating in tune to the rhythm of life.


Twa-lif, a Germanic compound meaning, literally, two is left before one takes away the base ten. A composite number, a sublime number, a semi-perfect number. A-one, a-two, just the gap of language between them.

Every year breaks down into twelve months, each with its own heart. December is warm and fuzzy inside yet ultimately frustrating. May is never quite summer, never quite good enough. Every single day consists of two blocks of twelve hours; each hour comprises six minutes and each minute sixty seconds. Each denomination is divisible by twelve. The same number curling inside itself again and again.

The Earthly Branches, the traditional Chinese calendar, is divided into twelve creatures – Rat, Ox, Panther, Rabbit, Goat, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Chicken, Dog, Hog - each but a manifestation of self.

Once upon a time, many, many moons ago the Earthly Branches trudged together across the dusty plains of what is now Eastern China, but then was just the world. The sun beat relentlessly down on their backs, the dust clogged up their throats and when they spat to drink what sparse water they carried, the salvia glowed clay-red.

The Monkey gambolled and chattered with fear. The Panther prowled determined to preserve her strength. They all prayed for rain, for cooling waters to flood the plain and carry them to the lush green hills at the end of sight. They prayed as hard as they could, but nothing came; the only clouds were of red, red dirt filling their imaginations. Eventually, the Horse, who was the largest and strongest of the Earthly Branches, abandoned his friends. He claimed he was going to seek help, but Goat kept muttering that it was purely to save his own mottled skin. The other Earthly Branches tried to ignore Goat, who was going lame and struggling more than most in the heat, but slowly her old bleating tugged at their collective consciousness.

Meanwhile far, far away in another time the twelve signs of the zodiac were blissfully unaware of the fate that had befallen their Eastern cousins. Here the Ram, the Bull, the Twins (two from one), the Crab, the Lion, the Virgin, the Scale, the Scorpion, the Archer, the Horned-Goat, the Water-Bearer and the Fish happily took it in turns to frolic through the twelve stations of the ecliptic, the passage of the sun as it crept across the Heavens.

But goodness can never last. The sparkle of pleasure will always fade and what had once been magical becomes mundane; there is always something else, something more desirable. The Zodiac, however, couldn’t even agree what the alternative was. And so the Horned-Goat and the Ram squabbled over who had the most majestic antlers; the Crab testily pinched at the Lion’s claws (before scuttling under a rock); the Fish taunted the Water-Bearer; the Scales shook her old tired head which the Virgin mysteriously took personally. In amongst all this pettiness only the Bull and the Archer remained entwined, riding out together into the woods to hunt bears, badgers and beetles. The Archers thighs clung close to the Bull’s sweating flanks as once again she pulled her bow, taunt raised and arrow to the line of her eye and held her breath.

In Shi’a Islam the descendents of the prophet Mohammed are the twelve Imams, the direct and legitimate heirs to the word of God.

Jacob had twelve sons, twelve boys whom did not necessarily love each over as well as their Father would have liked, but never-the-less each became a founder of the twelve tribes of Israel.

After the betrayal and suicide of Judas Iscariot the remaining Apostles elected Matthias to take his place, so as he could share their grief and keep the number as should be.

At twelve a Jewish girl comes of age with her Bat-mitzvah.

King Arthur fought twelve battles against twelve rebellious princes and repelled twelve Saxon invasions.

Not quite so long ago, up amongst the clouds that linger like tired souls in the warm Grecian sky the twelve Olympians of the Pantheon lazed, occasionally munching on grapes or olives or simply fornicated with one another. Zeus stroked his beard with amusement as Aphrodite lived up to her reputation and leaned in close to the sleeping Dionysus.

Aphrodite’s sweet sweat slithered through the wine fog that polluted Dionysus’ brain so as when he awoke and looked into her eyes they shimmered with the freshness of dew heavy spring mornings. Aphrodite opened her mouth a fraction and breath that tasted of honey and rosemary brushed against the weary Dionysus’ lips.

“This area was once known as Illyria,” the man says now as they sit on the rocky outcrop above the crashing waves.

“What?” the woman replies not moving her sleepy head of his shoulder.

He passes her the half-drunk, half-warm bottle of beer. The final droplets of condensation cling to their fingertips like tears.

“That’s what they called this bit of the Adriatic coast. All the way down from Croatia to Albania.” He looks down at her and wonders whether she is even listening. “Sebastian and Viola get shipwrecked here.”

In silence they look up at the Croatian stars that flood the sudden night sky.

The twelfth moon of Jupiter is called Lysithea.

A series of solar eclipses between 2680BC and 1129BC contained twelve separate yet connected arcs. One after another, like generations passing in the wind.

Edgar Mitchell took two lolloping, clumsy steps forward. His breath was hot and damp against the glass as he flung himself up into the air. The ground disappeared far beneath his feet, his back arched with the momentum and as the stars reflected in his visor he felt as though he might never stop.

Everyone has twelve ribs.

Edgar Mitchell turned himself upside down and inside out with the ease of waving, but the grace of an elk. As he finally started to float back down the ground, he stretched himself out into a star and glided like a petal on a morning stream and just for a second his breath stopped. When he silently touched down a flutter of grey, lifeless dust billowed up, sprinkling across his bulky suit and he knew how incredibly unique he was. Edgar Mitchell: one of twelve men to walk the surface of the moon.

“If music be the food of love, play on.” The man helps the woman to her feet, their fingers snake around each other, binding them forever in the moment.

“What are you going on about tonight?” She passes the dregs in the bottle into his free hand. His shirt collar flutters in the breeze; sand stings his cheek.

“So Viola and Sebastian get separated after being shipwrecked. Viola disguises herself as a man for no apparent reason and everyone falls in love with everyone else.”

“Oh, Twelfth Night.”

“And there’s an odd subplot about yellow stockings.”

“It’s set here is it? Illyria?”

Except it isn’t, because it’s a story. It’s all made it all up.

But sometimes stories come true anyway.

Dionysus’ and Aphrodite’s lust affair continued long enough for her to be with child. But these Olympians were Gods and nothing ever ran smooth. There always had to be a thunderbolt or a mysterious creature inside a complex puzzle on an isolated island to mess things up. And sometimes it was as simple as the lithe, sublime, temptress that was the Goddess of Love realising she would never stay forever in the arms of the drunken, rowdy God of Wine.

It was messy. Dionysus threw bottles and got so roaringly drunk that he said hateful, spiteful things that he never meant. Although, Aphrodite did seduce a shepherd just for the sake of it.

The Archer ran through the undergrowth, sweat settled on her brow like the weight of responsibility. The wildcat wasn’t going to escape her. It would fill the growing ache in her belly, or so she thought not knowing that really it was the pain of childlessness. She stumbled, but at the same moment saw something dart just outside of her vision. As she tumbled, she turned and let loose an arrow into the air.
There was a whish as it swooped through the forest, then the satisfying thunk of it striking hard into its target and then, rather than the meowl of a stricken wildcat, the deep mourning howl of the Bull.

The Archer ran across to her friend the Bull and was aghast at what she had done.
She leant in to hold him, but her forearms were instantly soaked in thick, muscular blood. Tears welled as she realised there was no way she could rectify her mistake, no way she could turn back time. The Bull knew he was dying, but there was no anger in his eyes, just the realisation of bitter despair that his murderer would be the one who he had trusted with his life.

Eventually even the Panther could walk no further, but the beast was proud and refused to yield. It kept hauling itself along by its claws through the muck, burning his tar black fur with the red of the sun’s heart. When the Panther finally howled his frustrated rage at the Heavens the response was the first cooling drops of rain beginning to fall.

Most of the animals sedately rejoiced, but the rabbit rolled onto her side, stretched across and gently kissed the dog on the nose. They looked into each others eyes and both thought the same thing: Be careful what you wish for. The rain was coming, but by now it would be a curse rather than a blessing.
In the distance, was that the canter of a dozen horses’ hooves or the thunderous torrent of floodwaters coming to sweep them away?

And breathe out.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Too much awe is a bad thing

So, Obama won. Anyone surprised?

I was a bit.

(Or perhaps relieved would be a better word.

Being black wasn’t the point, rather that American’s are always particularly anti-anyone with a vaguely socially liberal outlook and ever since I heard one batch of rednecks describing him as a Marxist (which he isn’t, that just people’s understanding in a country where there’s no left in the mainstream politics- oh, bugger, I just realised that’s us too now, thanks New Labour) I thought he might struggle.

Thankfully, I was wrong.

What wasn’t so surprising, though, is the pathetic squabbling of our own politicians in the scramble to align themselves next to Obama. Okay, so this is a man who in certain parts of the media hasn’t so much won an election, but been born of the almighty – no wonder both Gordon Brown and “Dave” Cameron are desperate to be his sidekick. The really funny thing is the almost childish strops over who is right.

“No! He’s MY friend! Not yours! When he was in the UK he came to see ME!” Feet have been stomped, hands curled into fists and lips pouted sulkily.

Come on, guys. Nobody is ever going to suggest that either of you two can walk on water and you shouldn’t want them to. That sort of adoration doesn’t last. Just ask Tony. And anyway, can we please concentrate on sorting out more pressing problems rather than bicker over who’s going to get to walk half a pace behind Obama at Camp David soon.

(Oh, and just as an aside. Can ITN, which I’ve started watching over my dinner because I’m getting home surprisingly early at the moment, stop saying things like “the Tories unveiled their plans for new tax cuts today, but will you be better off?” No. The answer is ‘no’, okay? It’s a pointless question because THEY’RE NOT THE GOVERNMENT! Yet.)

Then again, we all do it, don’t we? We all try to get along with the most popular guy in the office, we all go out and listen to the coolest band, we all have an opinion on Gary Glitter. We all want to be a part of any zeitgeist that happens to passing.

Saturday night in the Amersham Arms and my mate passes me a pint of Spitfire before nodding towards the corner:

“She is VERY pretty.”

And indeed she was. So, we strutted, alpha-male-esque, trying to manoeuvre as close as possible to her and her not so pretty friend.


It seemed like a good idea at the time, like the most natural thing in the world, but in hindsight it’s not as though either of us were interested in trying to pull her. He has a girlfriend, I’m, well, let’s not go there at the moment. Besides, by ten-thirty (or whatever time it was) the Amersham was the sixth pub we’d visited and we were well lubricated to say the least.

So we just hovered nearby and sat down next to them and then hovered a bit more, chattering along about stuff and, in probably too loud voices, her pleasant assets. But whilst in our heads we were probably funny and cool and good-looking all we really looked like was two almost middle-aged, fairly drunk, slightly lecherous berks.

And all around us were others doing more or less the same thing. Drifting into position, to be next to the great and the beautiful. We gravitate towards those we most want to be associated with; to those whom we think are most like ourselves and in moments of despicable arrogance we all think we’re Obama-like. We are all wonderful orators, we are all handsome and successful, we all crusade for what’s right and we all want to be in charge of our own destiny.

So we sidle up to others in imagined positions of authority, or those well-placed to help us, or sometimes just those who are wealthy. Even today, in these times where we are constantly told you can be anything it’s more about where you are from and who you know than what you can do. (Look at the shadow cabinet for a case in point!)

I do it sometimes without realising, or I worry that I’ve done it. Was I dismissive of one girl in particular on my course because we had nothing in common, or because I didn’t think her writing was good enough, or simply because I was being a twat?
It’s quite pathetic, really. We should be able to create our own identities instead of trying to position ourselves amongst others a similar ilk.

But it’s hard. I worry that working in a non-creative atmosphere is going to dampen my fledging creativity. A tutor once told Beck that she shouldn’t be bothering going out with a non-artist.

Is this the truth? No. Are they just silly paranoias? Yes. Can we help but think them? Probably not. Can we be someone who we think we might want to be just by basking in their shadow?

No, I’m afraid, we can’t.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

No room for a hobby horse

The Arts Council is a strange organisation. It manages to appear progressive and vibrant whilst simultaneously falling over its own red tape. A bit like the building it lives in which, in a not-quite funky bit of Clerkenwell, is a labyrinth of narrow barebrick corridors and ineffective automatic doors that resulted in a friend and I recently becoming trapped in a stairwell.

Okay, so we weren’t there for any significant period of time - just long enough to feel slightly idiotic and for me to peer through the door’s glass pane at the exact same moment that she found the button to open it.

My nose still throbs a little.

I then ended up not quite doing what I thought I was going there to do – to be precise giving some feedback on my MA in terms of what wannabe professional writers should be doing once they’ve acquired those ultimately relatively useless letters after their name and how the Arts Council can help. Aside from simply showering giving us in money, that is.

I neglected to mention the sheer annoyance of life getting in the way that’s meant I’ve written next to nothing in the past two months and instead talked about having to get a crappy temp job that just about keeps my head above the water (provided the old landlord returns my deposit soon!) but does leave the head, once out of the water, in clean oxygen and with plenty of energy to think about other stuff.
It just so happens that the stuff I’ve been wasting time thinking about recently has more to do with broken hearts than unfinished pages.

Anyway, as usual, I digress.

We discussed, amongst other things, the differences between those who want to write professionally and those who just want a creative hobby and whether the MA genuinely attracted the former rather than the latter – I think in the main it did but at least one woman in the room was doing her utmost to persuade me otherwise.

“I used to think I wanted to be published,” she whined in a way that I found particularly grating, “but now it just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t seem important.” I’m going to be generous and pretend that she added “compared to just creating something”, but (whisper) she didn’t really.

If we take the invented version of her comments then there’s a half valid point somewhere. In many ways it’s quite a nice ideal to just have the urge to create something and for that to be sufficient. It doesn’t matter if no-one else ever reads/sees/listens/experiences it. It is enough for it to just exist, isolated from everything else, in a shoebox under the bed.

I’d disagree, though.

Something arrived in the post the other day. It was a little bit heavy, the ink smelt like freshly felled moss and it gave me a tiny shiver at the base of my spine. It was a book, a collection of short stories available to buy and everything and within its pages was my name. I held its dust-jacket up to my lips and inhaled before brushing it tenderly against my cheek.*


Because there is a point in being published/recorded/displayed/experienced. The only real purpose behind writing something down is to have someone else, anyone else, read it. The words are always more beautifully formed, more harmonious with each other, more hardworking, in our heads. When they’ve been burnt across the page even the greatest have lost some the potency they had when they first burst into life in our minds. So, the only reason for tainting them in such a way is for other people to read them. Virtually everyone who writes gets intense pleasure from reading and we live in hope that one day our own paltry efforts can give a little of that pleasure back to someone else, to people we know and those we never will.

But still...

I finger the book again.

Properly printed. On good quality paper.

I could get addicted to this.

*: Now seems as good an opportunity as ever to remind readers that not everything written on davidmarstonwrites should be taken literally. Not every weird-shit thing I describe myself doing really takes place. A lot of it does, granted, but not all of it.