Tuesday, 17 November 2009


‘I’m a bit worried that it all goes a bit sentimental towards the end,’ mused Amy at some point back in the summer when we were, as per usual, discussing books.

‘Would that be such a bad thing?’ I asked and, strangely enough, I can’t remember her answer.

Here’s how a completely different story doesn’t end:

My ex and I meet for a drink somewhere neutral. We chat and it’s easy because it always was. We have a couple of beers and we laugh like we used to. We laugh so hard that we forget all the spiteful words, all the closed doors and all the mistaken dreams. And after the bar closes we walk together to the bus stop and continue random scattergun chatter of times passed and badgers and the people we lost along the way. For a moment it’s like a million things never happened and when I lean closer she doesn’t resist.

That isn’t what happens. Why would it? That particular ending is consigned to the bin of unworkable ideas. The world turned a while ago. That was then and this is now.

Nor is there a moment of falling headlong in love beneath the streaming downpours of rain with someone else, neither someone unknown or someone who’s always been there in the background. There is no firework backdropped kiss. There is no last minute rush to save the world. There is no triumphant book deal. There is no booker prize nomination. There are no tears mixing with saliva and the dust of tomorrow. There is no blood spilled in the dank alley behind the snooker club. There is no moral to this story. It doesn’t end with an explosion, with a slumped body crying, with a birth or a death or even with a paltry bang. There is no grand finale. There is no happy ending.

Not yet.

Because none of those things can happen. They are, after all, just imaginary stories.

“Writers get to choose their own endings,” wrote Rose Tremain. It’s a nicely apt idea, but since she was writing a fictional account of Leo Tolstoy’s death perhaps it is flawed from the outset. Still, self-mythologising vain bastards we are – we probably wish we could.

‘I hate those books where at the end everything is tidied up neatly,’ said Justin. ‘Real life just doesn’t work like that. Things don’t conveniently resolve themselves all at the same time.’

‘Yes,’ said Alison tapping the papers on the table between us, ‘but this isn’t actually real life, is it? We’re just making it all up as we go along.’
Saturday evening and I was unsteadily walking down the steps of the newly ostentatious Brockley station still wearing the clothes I’d woken up in all the way over in Sudbury Town and things just don’t feel right. Swirling storm clouds mustered in the spitefully grey sky. The winds unfurled all around making the air thick with the flicker of browned leaves, dirty chicken boxes, coke cans, cigarette butts and granules of grit that stung my cheek.

‘Huh,’ I muttered for I’d been writing this blog in my head on the train. ‘Bloody well does feel a bit apocalyptic and all.’

For the writer this is the dilemma: We spend months (years sometimes) with our characters and we probably know everything about them from how they’re born to the day they die. We start to live their lives for them. They inhabit us and vice-versa. But if death’s visitation isn’t necessarily the conclusion of the story how do we know when to end other than we’ve gone past the ninety-thousand words mark? Does it just stumble to a sudden finish, an unexpected blank page, or does it draw to a conclusion? Drama or realism?

There are stories that end with the future direction of the characters being signposted but never explored. “There’s a brand new life beginning on the other side of this door, all I have to do is open it.” That type of thing. Or maybe we flash forward to the narrator reflecting on their life and summing up what happened next. Suddenly, hindsight tells us what fate befell everyone. Is this sentimentality or just audience consideration?

Justin aside, many readers, I suspect, in the main like a neat ending. It gives a sense of conclusion, a feeling that the time invested in reading the novel has been worthwhile. And if it is sentimental, as I asked before: ‘Would that be such a bad thing?’

Maybe. Maybe it would. Maybe it’s more important for the author to satisfied with the answer to the starting question: What if?

The three of us strode across the open concrete forum surrounded by sun shimmering glass, confused international students getting to grips with the city and fake pots of plastic plants.

‘That’s what they’ll put on your tombstone, dude,’ laughed the man to my left. ‘David Marston: Immune to alcohol.’

‘Until his liver gave up,’ chimed the woman on my right.

‘Yeah all right,’ I grumped. ‘Everyone’s a fucking comedian.’ That would be one way to end, but it won’t happen. Here’s a secret: It’s just a myth. A story. I made it up. I invent things. There is fiction everywhere.

Or maybe I didn’t.

‘So are you over her?’ people seem to keep asking me, but this particular occasion was back in July.

‘What does that even mean? Am I supposed to discard twelve years of my life?’

‘I guess not,’ she said. ‘Let me put it another way: Do you want to get back together with her?’

‘You know what?’ I said after a moment and for the first time. ‘I don’t think I do.’

‘How are you finding being single?’ a different girl asked me in a pub in Putney one Sunday evening just as it was beginning to turn cold. That was what she asked as she twizzled her hair around her finger, but I think she really wanted to ask the other question.

‘I’ve found out a lot about myself.’ I smiled. ‘And it’s given me a lot of time to write.’

I am nearing the end of my book; getting close to the end of my story. I finished the narrative arc back in August. I’ve redrafted and restructured. I’ve been back through it and forced the words to work harder. It’s nearly there. It isn’t finished, but it’s within breathing distance.

And I am afraid.

I will be sending it out to people, to people whose opinions matter, and I am scared. Not of rejection. (Well, okay, just a little bit of that – what if all this has been utterly futile? What if I cannot really write?) No, the real spine biting fear is over what I will do once it’s gone.

I have been intensely writing this book in every spare moment since late March. When it is finished I will be bereft. A void will open up inside me and threaten to swallow my world. I am almost tempted to deliberately never finish it, to keep picking at little holes here and there, changing the words back to three drafts previous and then cutting them out again. Round and round, again and again.

What will I do with myself?

‘So, babes,’ I imagine the girl with dyed red hair who may or may not exist saying, ‘does that mean you’ll be around more?’ I know I have invented her words in my head but I still roll my eyes.

I am almost at the end of my tale, an end which is, in fact, also the beginning. We come back to the start. I stand in the bathroom one evening after possibly or possibly not one drink too many and look at myself in the toothpaste splattered shaving mirror. Back in the flat the black text on the white screen waits impatiently. It is dark in my fictional place. The rain is torrential. I know there will be epilogues to come after this, moments with the other main characters where I will tread the line of sentimentality closely. But for the moment this is the man’s end. There is a gun. The gun is loaded with a single bullet and held in a shivering hand.

Do I?

Can I?

My fingers hover nervously above the keyboard.

And then I begin to write.

Of course I do. It’s only words. Isn’t it?

But then there’s another end I have to tell and I’ve no idea what this one is. It’s the conclusion to an imaginary story. Heh, an imaginary story? Aren’t they all?

I’ve written dozens of endings and perhaps one of these is the way it finishes. Is it, the two men who run at the cliff edge hand in hand unsure when their feet leave the ground if they’ll fly or fall? Is it, the solitary figure slumped on the bench in the torrential rain as his lover walks away for the umpteenth time? Is it, waking up in bed next to someone and realising that you will love them forever and a day? Or the same and not knowing who she is and loathing yourself for it? Is it, driving until there is no road in your mind left? Is it, a Mexican stand-off in a busy airport and a mobile phone ringing the truth through, but no-one dares answer it? Is it discovering she was never who you thought she was, that she was never quite real? Is it staring into the eyes of a scraggily coyote and seeing the ghosts of your fathers? Is it lying back in the freezing waters and letting them inside you, letting that blissful release overlaps your mind? Is it with a wink, a witty quip and a turn away into the setting sun?

Or does it just stop?

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


I flung the bathroom door open sharply and stepped into the bedroom. I kept my pistol raised, even though the source of the terrible scritching was nowhere to be seen. But then, I hadn’t been playing the international jet set spy for very long and from who knows where a stiff blow struck me on the back of the neck and the world went first stark white and then tar black.

After what felt like an instant, but could have been a lifetime, my eyes damply opened. I looked around as much as I was able. I appeared to be trussed up to some sort of rack device, my hands bound tightly above my head. My field of vision was severely restricted, but I could just about make out a man’s body. He was sat prissily in a stiff backed chair, wearing a light brown suit and his hands rhythmically groomed a white, long-haired cat.

‘Ah, Mister Marston,’ a voice that sounded hauntingly familiar said, ‘welcome to my liar.’

All of which, is of course, completely invented. I have, however, recently been tied… No-no-no. Let’s not go there.

Villains. Adversaries. Nemesis.

The Baddies.

If there is an innate requirement for a fictional hero, as discussed last week, then do we naturally have the same need for its mirror image?

Going back to all those old films I watched as a child, back to when the bad guys were mainly hordes of unnamed characters, extras got in dressed up and told to fall over at the right time. They were the Germans or the Japanese. They were hordes of unspecified Asians strangely working for a white eastern European. They were Red Indians (or, I should really say, Native Americans) or they were the unidentifiable members of the posse – except the ugly one who spat chewed tobacco every ten minutes.

Yet there was always someone who was the lead villain; the one so dastardly that even his henchmen flinched away from his rage. The German Major who’s glasses steamed up with excitement whilst he gunned down refugees. The unpredictably raging cowboy with the low slung bullet belt and the glint of glass in his eye. The genius corporate magnate with the burning urge to suppress boredom by developing a super yacht and hijacking oil tankers to ransom back to the world just to make money to fuel the hog roast because it might raise a giggle.

If the hero was a cipher, a disguised melee of ideas, then the villain was little more than dots on the screen. He didn’t even get time to have conflicts about his motivation, to give any sort of insight into his troubled childhood that led him down this path of destruction.

‘I think you would say absolutely anything to make sure you got your own way,’ the curly blonde said through clenched teeth in the corridor of a club underneath central London. ‘Did you think it could just go on forever? That this would be enough? Getting drunk together and occasionally snogging? Is that all you want?’

I couldn’t think what to say; words literally failed me, but the voice in the back of my head: ‘It’d been working okay for me.’

As I got older the psychos, the deeply detached lunatics, came out to play more often. They would be allowed more screen time; their own voices in the books. They were malicious and broken and sometimes on our side, but they had motivation. They were characters. When I drifted through puberty dark thoughts of rebellion and subversion were much more attractive. It was a blessing to revel in their complexness.

But that’s the fictional rhythm of good versus evil. At the very start the hero will appear to be on top of it, to have a plan. Then it’ll all go more and more wrong until there doesn’t appear to be a way out. It’ll reach the point where the villain is so supremely confident in the inevitability of his cunning trap that he will, only for a moment, take his eye off the game.

Isn’t that how it works? Isn’t it always the way and then at the last moment, the hero will succeed? In the end? The villain helps us reach the end, helps us get to the point.

It’s often been said that all writing is driven by conflict. It helps enormously to get the audience on side if the hero has something, if not actually someone, to strive against. Their story must be a struggle.

I used to know someone who disputed this vehemently usually citing Jane Austen as an example, but there are huge amounts of sexual tension in Austen’s writing. There are parties to be endured and men to find. This is conflict. Just not conflict in the guns and explosions mode.

There are, I am sure, books (or possibly even films) without conflict. And I am sure that these books have something to justify their publication. Sumptuous prose, for example. Gorgeously constructed sentences which may appeal to the extremely literary minded (and I can think of at least one person who never remembers plots, as in what happens in a novel, but has total recall on literary trickery), but for the vast majority they will be an indecipherable, time wasting snoozefest.

So, it helps to have conflict and the easiest way to this is to create an identifiable bad guy; the enemy, someone the crowd can throw rotten tomatoes.
The opposition can be a love rival, it can be an insane murderer stalking the streets, it can be an institution, a company or even the government, or it can be a mysterious international terrorist organisation. It could be the weather. It could be vague unidentified apocalyptic fall out. It can be used to create fear, hatred, anxiety, unfulfilled lust, desperation, pity, anguish or relief, but whatever it does, it must thrust the narrative and therefore characters forwards.

It should also have resolution.

I lay back on the obviously dyed redhead’s bed and looked at the coving on the ceiling wondering exactly what I was doing there and how was I going to get out.

She looked across at me. She had a cute smile if nothing else.

Then, for some reason, she asked: ‘What’s the biggest lie you’ve ever told?’
Again, I couldn’t think what to say. The question took my by surprise. The voice in my head, ever helpful, suggested: “Same as everyone else: I love you, too.” But I couldn’t make my tongue form the words.

In the probably-a-novel I’m trying to finish, my central male character has plenty of potential adversaries. There’s his ex-wife, the police as a whole, one policewoman in particular, the mysterious American teenager stirring up trouble at right-wing rallies, the cracks in the relationship with his best friend, his manager at work, or even his manager’s manager. Then there’s the shadowy figure of the Boss, the man in charge of everything who lurks on the edges of everyday life roaring above London in a Chinook helicopter. It might even be the city itself.

Or it could be something a lot simpler, something significantly closer and easier to define.

After all, in real life, does anyone have an out-and-out enemy?

Whilst my ex was breaking us up, she said something. At the time just another verbal stab to the eyes, but it went something like: ‘You can’t keep blaming others for everything that’s gone wrong in your life.’

Which was slightly odd. I wouldn’t have said I did and anyway, up until that point, not much had gone wrong. However, she had a vitally truthful point: The ultimate adversary always comes from within.

The eerie voice kept on talking to the rhythm of the hairs being plucked from the cat. It was something about death-rays hooked into weather satellites manoeuvring into position over the world’s capitals. I wasn’t really listening. I was busy using my special cuff links that handily doubled as lock picks.

The chains gave a satisfying ping and I rolled over the rack just before the buzz saw ripped open my genitals.

‘Looks like you’ll need to take a rain check on those plans,’ I quipped (and then worried about whether that had actually worked, whether there could have been something actually funny to have said), but when I finally saw his face it froze my blood.

No wonder the voice was familiar. It’s owner was me.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009


The air was thick with dust and the sun sneered down on the broken desert, as my horse idly shook its aching neck to swat the flies away. My body rolled to the slow rocking rhythm of the nag’s steps as we approached the half-burnt out town. The buildings were a mixture of white plastered stone, flaking at the rims and stained a little red in the wrong places and cheap, wooden slats thrown up overnight.

The streets were devoid of life. Behind the doors of the buildings lurked only the fear of death. Shadows of loneliness burnt along the main street, at the end of which the church’s solitary brass bell tinged out twelve times.

I tethered my horse outside the saloon and walked across the boards, the chinkle from my spurs announced my arrival before even the creak of the swing doors. The motley crew of late-morning drinkers turned to look at me, but whether they liked or disliked what they saw was masked by the blood tints to the whites of their eyes.

I sat at the bar and tilted my black and dirty stetson back.

‘Whisky,’ I growled.

The barman obliged. ‘New in town?’ he asked.

I shrugged a little to let my waistcoat fall open enough for the pocket of my shirt to be visible. The checked pocket of my shirt and the silver star of a sheriff.

All of which is completely invented, of course. I am not in a small town in the middle of Arizona. I don’t really do horses. I am not a sheriff. I have, instead, been sitting at my desk with my chair turned around, typing one handed as the other gripped the neck of the sea like a pair of reins. I have gotten up, walked to the kitchen table and poured myself a scotch. I am wearing a cowboy hat.

And I am thinking about heroes.

I was bought up on good versus evil. On wild west and world war two films. On Sean Connery and Roger Moore and John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen in the Great Escape clearing the barbed wires on a stolen motorcycle. I read comics which had a moral black and white, Spiderman and Superman and Charley’s War and Johnny Red and Lofty’s One Man Luftwaffe.

These were heroes in that they were the central characters, the lead role and they were also the goodies. And the goodies would always win out in the end against the baddies.

That was how the world fitted together.

Then I got a little bit older, a little more aware and I realised that actually things don’t work like that. I began to notice that James Bond might have had issues with women and maybe Dirty Harry wasn’t strictly following the rule book. That Batman was ultimately more interesting than Superman because he wouldn’t always do the absolute right thing. He was, to an extent, selfish.

The older we get, the more cynical we become, the more flawed our heroes are.

As a writer I often find myself in a love-hate relationship with my own heroes, as in my own creations. They are, as the focal point of the story, the conveyance of the point, of a world-view or of one of my opinions; or they are a conduit for a badly expressed emotion. From that point of view I love them. But then I must also hate them, for I have a tendency to put them through all sorts of horrific events.

In my abandoned novel I took Dan/Gene, a previously relatively happy albeit slightly dull person, and give him insomnia and soul-wrenching nightmares in the brief hours he did sleep, put an ocean between him and his girlfriend who may or may not have been pregnant and then promptly had her disappear. I killed his grandfather. Time and again his friends lined up to stab in the back (or occasionally in the front). He no longer believed anything anyone told him as his world fell apart. I consciously broke him into fragments.

I do it again and again. In short stories I’ve maliciously destroyed relationships, I’ve turned people into alcoholics, lunatics, manic-depressives, failures in every facet of life. I build them up and then pull them apart and I do this in the name of entertainment.

What have they ever done to me?

Of course in a world beyond action movies and fantasy adventures there is not necessarily a need for a hero, in the classical uber-human mould. In a work that is realistic, where John Wayne isn’t just expected to portray a variation of John Wayne, when it is supposed to be a literal representation of real life rather than a adrenalin and idolised version of the world then real people are not fictional heroes.

I’m not sure I entirely agree with this.

Sure, I have no interest in reading, writing, watching Bruce Willis leap off exploding buildings; I am interested in real life I don’t need a hero, necessarily, who will land the plane full of maimed zebras in the centre of New Delhi, despite being blinded by ex-KGB assassins, but I do think we need a lynchpin. There is an argument that the hero is a representation of self – a manifestation of the reader, the watcher of the entertainment. We are not completely satisfied with being on the outside. We need a way in. We want to become a part of the storuy (and this is why the heroes are often son unfeasibly glamorous because then we feel good about ourselves – it’s just clever marketing) and that is one of the hero’s functions.
They are required to have entry points, they are a way for us to experience and understand the fictional worlds being displayed. The danger is that by trying to make them appeal to a broad as spectrum as possible they become little more than ciphers, a collation of symbols and ideas without substance. Making a hero well, means holding he/she together. Making them whole.

This still doesn’t mean they have to be likable though.

Indeed, I think the heroes of my current piece of work are anything but likable. I can barely stand their self-absorbed, hypocritical, whinging uselessness. They are, however (I hope), understandable. Readers, I think, will find them believable; and maybe somewhere under all the ugliness they might recognise a glimmer of themselves.

At some point I began to think of myself as the hero in my own life. I began to think of my life in terms of narrative arcs and dramatic twists and turns. I began to write myself in my head.

(This started long before this blog – although David Marston Writes is the ultimate expression of self-portrayed fictional-esque heroism. Especially in its current format, where I, essentially, regurgitate fragments of my life mildly dramatised for brevity, effect and convenience and drop these adventures into the public domain and my friends email.)

For years now I’ve had an internal narrative that suggested it was me against the world. Be it driving up the M1 at four thirty in the morning on some pointless round trip to pretend to be interested in pre-fabricated walls, or forcing my eyes to stay open through the booze fug on the half-one bus back from the arse end of nowhere, or standing on the top of a blizzard flooded mountain in outdoor kit well past its final adventure, to forcing myself to write for twelve-fourteens hours on a Saturday powered on by endless black coffees. It’s all self-delusional. I talk to myself in mirrors. I expect good luck. I demand neat resolutions as though someone was actually plotting this out. I tend to think that someone is me, but it also presupposes that I’m a hero in my own drama and not a supporting character in someone else’s.

Why do I think like this? Because I am painfully vain. Because I am obsessed by narrative. Because secretly I hope for a happy ending to everything. Because I optimistically believe that no matter how bad things have got, when I am standing at the end of the pier in the storming rain, with wicked waves crashing all around, my clothes torn, my skins bruised and bloodied, at the penultimate point when there seems no way back, then all it will take is a smile, a quip and a final desperate roll of the dice.

Because the hero always wins.

Or, at the very least, survives.

Doesn’t he?

But something is missing. Something doesn’t quite fit.

I stood in the black marble tiled bathroom of my Geneva hotel room and buttoned the perfect silver cufflinks into place. A quick flourish and I’d arranged my bow tie. The cut of the dinner jacket made me appear more than human; it made me make-believe.

I checked the time on my gold rolex. Three minutes before I needed to go downstairs to the blackjack table. The watch may or may not have contained a razor garrotte wire, or a small semtex package, or a pin pointed laser lockpick. It may have just been a watch.

I sipped champagne from a crystal flute. Everything around me was the finest imaginable. I was at the luxurious end of the life’s scale, for once, but something was wrong. I felt pointless.

A noise in the bedroom like teeth being sharpened on aluminium made me turn. I didn’t flinch. I was not shocked or concerned. I was just aware of the noise and that it had no place in the bedroom.

I reached inside my jacket and took out the walther ppk. The snub nosed pistol felt cold and brutal in my hand. I paused, the weapon raised, my hand on the doorknob and I realised that I was alive again. I had purpose.

A hero needs an adversary.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009


“ToNIght on this programme, you will heah gaspal! And rhythm! And blaues! And jayzz! But ahl these are jahst laybals! For we know that Music IS Music!” Primal Scream, Come Together.

‘What shall we listen to?’ Clare asked one time I popped in for a meal on my way back from Birmingham to South London.

‘We always listen to Station to Station when Dave comes round,’ joked Stu, flicking through his vinyl.

‘Or London Calling.’

Despite being woefully talentless and possessing a sense of rhythm and melody that brings new depths to the term minimal I find that music penetrates every aspect of my life. And not just pop or rock music, but everything from bluenote jazz to Creole blues, from Irish folk to African funk, from Sinatra swinging to drum and bass beats. It plays nearly constantly in the background at home, when I’m writing, in the car. Even when I am far away from speakers, be it in the office or on foot somewhere, the jukebox inside my head will almost inevitably pick a tune to play that either fits the mood and moment neatly or offers an intriguing contrast.

My friend and I half fell through the front door of her west London flat and stumbled into the lounge. We placed the bags down on the tiny window-side table.

‘Now,’ she said, ‘we have food and more wine and cigarettes and what else do we
need? Ah, music.’

She picked up a remote control and pointed it at the large screen on the wall. A series of menus opened and closed as the cursor whizzed around the screen.

‘Something folkly and acousticy I think.’ The cursor moved more frantically. ‘I know there’s a playlist in here somewhere. Gah! Sometimes I just want a CD player again like normal people.’

This obsession is not a private thing. It is at the core of several friendships. It is part of how I interact with others and the world in general. Consequently, like alcohol, it tends to frequent my fiction writing. Music plays in the background to characters, the lyrics or the tunes pierce conversations, it acts as a counterpoint or a subtle red herring to the fiction at large.

What feels like a lifetime ago, we lay on the old stone steps under the Italian sky, the remains of a bottle of cheap red local wine and two paper cups nestled between us as the opera reached its climax. I reached across, in the silence behind the volume, and squeezed her hand.

Unlike booze, though, I do write to music. I spend time carefully choosing a record that reflects the tone or pace of what I’m trying to write. I find it helps the words to form on the page if a rhythm already exists. If I pick the wrong record and don’t realise then it can result in forty minutes wasted wondering why everything coming out is so rubbish. It’s almost a sub-conscious thing. If I try to force it to work, it won’t. I just have to go with the flow.

I’ve taken to listening to music in bed. Or rather, given that going to bed no longer involves a room change, leaving the music playing. Especially if it’s something sleep inducing, something gently harmonious. Richard Hawley or Sigur Ros or Kenny Burrell. But in these circumstances I miss having classical music. My knowledge of classical music is appalling. I would struggle to name anyone, but I used to have access to some wonderful stuff that I think would carry me blissfully into the night. All I have left is a Rachmaninoff record; beautiful but not for sleeping to.

Regular readers of DavidMarstonWrites will be aware of not only the ‘Listens to’ box on your right, but the regular references. The crackling vocal from a sand ravaged throat played in the background and sang songs about heartbreak and despair or the thrashing angular guitars sounded like steel against an anvil as the landscape blurred with anger. That sort of thing. And frequently those references are linked to other websites which will play the song, giving you and the piece a mini soundtrack and the words a particular emotive backdrop.

But isn’t that cheating?

Or if not cheating then at least being lazy, getting someone else to write the hard bits for me?

Well, okay, so maybe it is a little bit, but the idea of a fictional world where music isn’t present seems so weird that I can’t bring myself to create one.

‘You’re looking rather trendy,’ said Stu back when the Intrepid Fox was still in Soho. He didn’t mean it as a compliment. I was wearing overly baggy jeans and a loose shirt. Without really being aware of it I’d drifted into a bit of a hip-hop phase. I was new to the big city and all around were the beats of garage crews and Jay-Z and Emimen and dropped lines over crashing remixed bass beats.

Infusing music into my writing it is fraught with danger for two reasons. Firstly, it presupposes the audience’s knowledge of the music in question and that whilst even if the lyrics are provided, they can fill in the blanks of melody themselves. Secondly, it presumes that the reader’s association of the music is the same as mine. And that probably isn’t the case. Even with something as stereotypical as, say, the Beach Boys, not everyone is immediately going to think of sun-splashed twinkling oceans and sexually charged teenagers. For some, Help Me Rhonda might be the sound of carpet burns being scarred across their elbows as the elder brother drags them roughly around the house by the ankles.

A decade ago and pulsing electric cords swirling neon lights and sweaty smoke drifted around as Michael and I danced (well, tried to dance, in my case) to trance beats in northern clubs.

I have plenty of unusual musical associations. For example, the Thrills doesn’t give me images of hot California dust bowls and vagrant motorcycles idly drifting down highway one. No, the Thrills always remind me of playing pool in a Danish summer house on a holiday where the most common sound was actually endless cackling laughter. The Libertines don’t suggest grotty Hackney canals and gas cylinders and run-down housing estates populated by idyllically romantic drug fiends. The Libertines first record brings forth images of a pitch black Texas night, the stars hidden by evil cloud, the desert cold and sparse, my girlfriend of the time fast asleep in the passenger seat, my eyelids desperately trying to close as I failed to change the CD in the blackness. The Rumble Strip’s raucous ska-pop-punk for some reason makes me think of a lazy Sunday morning; Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks not anguished heartbreak, but closeted relationship comforts of jigsaws and whisky and snugly warm winter’s evenings in the gap between Christmas and New Year; The Clash’s Ruddie Can’t Fail with the line about drinking booze for breakfast, a Sheffield roundabout; similarly Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing a different Sheffield roundabout. With a Little Help from my Friend, not comrades in arms at the end of some drunken night of revelry, but sitting alone stuck in traffic in Alfreton; Bob Marley, Derbyshire and plastic door frames; 1 Giant Leap’s multicultural soundtrack to world harmony, Chelsea Bridge; again and again odd associations because I haven’t control over how and when the song will affect me, over where I will be when that spine tingling, chest warming, epiphany chooses to overcome me.

Three years ago at a party to celebrate our new home and the onset of January I tried to disc jockey putting on northern soul records and Dexy’s Midnight Runners and the all the sounds I normally can’t help but dance to. No-one moved until my girlfriend took over and everything went a bit Blondie and Pulp; indie guitar pop bounce and we flounced our way through the night with heavy shoes slamming down on the wooden floors for hours and not a care whether the neighbours wondered who’d invaded the road.

So, perhaps I should try to account for the fact that everyone will associate certain songs in certain ways and not stop doing it? For surely it’s only undermining my own writing if I include lyrics from a song that for me suggests aching loss, when for someone else if could be the soundtrack to falling in flounderingly in love, to watching the sun dip over the Tuscan skyline, to riding a bike around Sydney, to Christmas morning woken in a tent in the jungles of Columbia?

It is, however, worth remembering that I cannot write for, nor anticipate, everyone.

Like fiction itself, there is music for every moment in time, for every mood. Drunk music, hung-over music, fight music, night music, sunny afternoon music, Sunday morning music, driving music, sleeping music, loving music, dirty fucking music, angry young man music, friends forever music, shiny happy people music, crying music, dancing-dancing-dancing music, music for every single moment every single facet of life.

(I wonder what happened to all those themed compilation tapes I used to make?)

‘Listening to this album,’ said Clare the other evening as Muse crashed through whatever song it was squealing guitars and falsetto vocals about alien presidents and twirling galaxies inside time warps, ‘makes me feel happy to be alive.’

Which says it all, really.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009


A couple of Sunday mornings ago my eyes wrenched themselves open to the sound of frantically raised voices in the street outside. With a jerk my body flung itself upright, possibly leaving my brain stuck to the leather sofa behind it.

‘Urgh,’ I groaned and for a moment wondered where the hell I was this time.

I got to my feet, swayed slightly, picked my jeans up from the floor and pulled them on. I slipped a shirt across my shoulders but left it unbuttoned – for some reason that felt too much like hard work. I opened the blind and mid-morning sunshine streamed in soaking the chaos and disarray in a warm light. The glow twinkled off the ten (‘Ten, Christ,’ I counted) empty bottles of wine and scattered glasses. On the table were half-scrapped plates congealed with the ends of dinner. Next to my makeshift bed there were two goblets, each with a mouthful and a half of white wine left in the bottom. All around the pervading fug of smoke clung to the air.

‘It’s really late,’ my friend said appearing suddenly and making me jump as though she’d bellowed right into my ear. She wore jeans and a t-shirt rather than a dress, but the make-up was still the remnants of the night before.

‘Yeah,’ I replied, buttoning my shirt suddenly overcome by mild embarrassment and a loss of memory. 'What happened to everyone else?'

‘They managed to go home. Shall we get some breakfast?’ she asked.

‘Yeah,’ I managed just about.

‘Are you okay?’

‘Not really.’

‘No. Me neither.’

Out we set into the streets of west London. I felt ever-so-slightly elegantly wasted, as though I was temporarily some kind of bohemian refugee from nineteenth century Paris. But I probably just looked pathetic; a too-old, over-weight, drunken fool struggling to shake off the inadvertent giddy highs of the night before.

We sat outside the bistro and ordered eggs benedict (well, it was west London) glad in the fresh air not only because the claustrophobia of being inside, with all the smells and sounds of cooking, would have overwhelmed us both, but because it still felt like the death throes of summer were there to be taken advantage of.

‘Crap,’ I said once someone had furnished us with coffee. ‘I’ve got to go soon. I need to get all the way home, get changed, get cleaned up and then back up to north London to meet a girl.’

My companion lit an early morning cigarette.

‘This isn’t going to be good,’ I continued wallowing in the self-pity of my churning head. ‘She’s already said she doesn’t drink much and I’ve kind of indicated I don’t either, so to roll up for a second date reeking of wine and fags with two deep black rings around my eyes probably won’t impress.’

She exhaled. ‘Neev-ah gonna work,’ she said.

‘Hey,’ I was momentarily indignant and then my body reminded me of all the other times I’d woken up after a night out with her and how often I’d shoved it through the alcoholic grinder of dehydration and nausea and I had to concede that she might have had a point.

‘Look at that,’ the girl I used to share an office with said earlier in the summer as I returned to my desk, coffee in hand. ‘It’s no wonder you can’t sleep. What number coffee is that?’

‘Only my second,’ I replied defensively.

‘It’s twenty past nine,’ she continued regardless. ‘Just think of the roller coaster you’re putting your body through. You drink seven or eight of those rocket fuel coffees a day and then go out and get drunk. Up and down your metabolism goes; from one extreme to the other every day.’

‘I don’t go out that much.’ We both looked down into the corner of the room where the pile of dirty shirts I’d screwed up and discarded looked bigger than usual. ‘Besides, it’s not seven or eight coffees. I drink tea in the afternoons.’

But it was true. I wasn’t sleeping and so was ploughing my system with caffeine to make it through the day and I was drinking every single night one way or another. Not drinking to excess every night, just a couple of beers after finishing writing. It was no different to what I’ve always done, wasn’t it?

I’ve always liked a drink.

I realised recently that I navigate around London almost entirely by the location of pubs. If I can’t name a decent boozer, then I don’t know the area at all and tend to feel a bit uncomfortable going there. All the directions I give are along the lines of “Turn right at the Princess Louise, cross the road near the Wheatsheaf, go down the alley past the Ship and cross the square towards to Rose and Crown.”

‘Oh yeah, I know. Just past the Lamb and Flag.’

When Oliver Reed appeared on Wogan, back in the eighties drunk out of his face, he was asked why he wasted his life with drink.

‘I’ll tell you why,’ slur-growled Ollie, ‘because some of the most fascinatingly, wonderful people I’ve ever met have been in pubs.’

‘Lived round here long, then?’ asked sun-glasses Dave in the Brockley Jack as I tended bar for the afternoon last year.

‘Few years,’ I replied. ‘You?’

‘All me life.’ He rocked, a little unstable, on the heels of his feet. ‘Know everyone and everywhere. Know the best pubs and the worst. Know the best place to get a pint at seven o’clock in the morning – that’s the Carpenters Arms in Catford, by the way.’

‘Thanks,’ I nodded and then wondered why I earth I’d ever find that useful, but still my brain filed it away for the future.

I’ve never been.

A few years ago I fell out of the back of the Lord Nelson off the Holloway Road, which used to be the sort of pub that stayed open after hours before it was legal. It was a craphole of a pub. It was full of scum and the beer was so rank only the Guinness was just about passable. It played appalling music and had all the ambience of a vandalised public convenience. Yet you met the most amazingly mad people in there – and besides it was the only place open at two in the morning.

‘Thing is, drinking doesn’t make me sleepy,’ explained my then boss. ‘No matter how much, so I just keep going until I get bored. And I don’t find pubs or people boring.’

‘I better be going. It’s a long way back to Brockley.’ I stuffed my hands into my pockets and lowered my head slightly. ‘See you in the morning.’

And I would. I’d be there around eight o’clock, coffee to hand, booze sweats on the go and a shuddering electric bolt through my face. But I was there.

The other day, as I headed to work feeling fine and dandy for once, I noticed a guy sitting on the newly ornate steps to Brockley station. His one hand held his head reluctantly upright, the other gripped a can of red bull and a cigarette dangled off his lower lip. He was wearing the sort of shirt that had definitely come from the night before.

‘Hey pal,’ he said as I got closer. ‘Where the hell am I?’

‘I think the problem is,’ she said pushing her plate away, the eggs benedict devoured in a way only the hung-over can manage, and lighting up, ‘that I – and you’re the same – don’t have a stop switch. Other people get to a point when they’ve had enough, but we just keep on going.’

‘Maybe,’ I nodded and squinted in the bright sunlight.

‘The thing I love about London,’ said the gaunt bespectacled manager way back when I first headed south, who was teaching me that Friday afternoons in the office appeared to be optional, ‘is that there’s always someone, somewhere up for a big night out.’

True, but sometimes I like to stay in alone, read and enjoy a few drinks – just me and the voices in my head.

‘You’re not an alcoholic,’ shouted my ex during one particular argument about whatever I can’t remember, ‘you just like to think you are to make yourself sound more interesting.’


She was right, though, I am not an alcoholic. Of course, I’m not. Not in the sense of the guy who died from liver failure at the age of twenty-two and drank several bottles of vodka a day. Not in the sense that I’d drink anything, or that I’d turn to something like White Lightning Cider or Sherry (apparently, a “drinker’s drink.”) or take a hip flask into work. I rarely drink during the day. I can take weeks off from drinking without any problem, but it could be argued that I have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

It’s hard to explain. It’s not to do, necessarily, with moderation, but it’s about feelings and association of feelings.

I might not be addicted to booze, but I probably do have a problem with caffeine. The vicious circle of insomnia and a guerrilla combat against daytime exhaustion is hard to break. I sit behind one computer or another aware of the growing black-grey-and-red shadows under my eyes and the increasingly haggard look to my face and all I can think of is waking at two o'clock as though powered by lightning and the hours of staring at the ceiling in the dull city glow peeking through the gaps in the blinds.

Then someone says, 'Cup of tea?'

'Love one.'

A new editor or copy reader or something (I can’t remember the story and now can’t find where I read it, so none of this may be true) of Kingsley Amis questioned the realism of a character, upset or angry or just alive, going into a pub alone and drinking pints of beer into double figures.

The response of a more seasoned editor or whatever simply replied, “Ah, but then you don’t know Kingsley.”

I frequently find myself writing about drinking. My characters meet in pubs, they enjoy a drink, the way they drink and interact socially and within the dynamics of their relationships, the way those interactions change if they become drunk, interests me. I might not be an alcoholic, but the lead male character in what I am currently writing certainly is. Whilst we rarely see Harry actually drunk, although often he is glimpsed drinking, I have written several hang-over scenes often including the remains of the night before. Occasionally the quantities involved have been questioned and I have to think, “ah, but you don’t know Kingsley.”

I arrived early to meet my friend Ben in the White Hart back at the end of May. The summer was just kicking off that Sunday evening so I wandered over the grassy patches under the shadow of the London Eye to finish my book. As I sat, crossed legged, in the sunshine I became aware of the activity around me. Everyone was drinking. From the couple with the bottle of white wine perched between their thighs as their lips clawed at each other, to the gaggle of kids on skateboards with two litre bottles of Strongbow; from the guy lying with the News of the World spread over his face and crushed cans of Stella Artois at his feet, to the group of Polish guys mixing a near empty bottle of vodka with fruit juice. Everyone was at it, but in the early evening calm and soft stroking light it was somehow rather lovely.

I have always had a tendency to see alcohol as more glamorous than it really is. I’ve always cherished that midnight blur where everyone feels like they could be Shane Macgowan for life. That life is just better, easier, more enjoyable when we’ve had a few drinks.

We’ve all done it in the evening when everyone’s your best friend and the world is full of love and the music sounds like it’s whispering the secrets of the universe to you and then you have to stagger off to throw up.

And in the morning after too, provided you’re not too broken. There’s something beautiful, for example, in too many people piling into a car in a village just outside Leamington Spa, the Fratellis thrashing out the tales of drunken misbehaviour you lived the night before, and gingerly driving off to try and remember where the other vehicles were abandoned the night before.

We all find camaraderie at the bottom of a bottle, but perhaps so of us search for it more enthusiastically than others.

Although I tend to drink beer, my tastes spread far and wide. I love wine, particularly red wine. I’m rather partial to an ice cold decent vodka every so often. Strangely, I’m even beginning to like a proper cider in the summer. I adore good whisky. And brandy. Jesus, I love brandy, but I think we’ve all heard that story once too many times, don’t you?

‘I think I’m getting bored of drinking,’ she said, not for the first time since I’ve known her, as we walked back to her flat before I began my mad dash across London.

‘Are you?’ I asked, not entirely believing her. ‘Or are you just getting bored of days written off feeling terrible?’

‘Actually, that could be it.’

‘I don’t have that problem. I almost always struggle on through. Get stuff done anyway. So it doesn’t really get in the way.’

‘Well aren’t you lucky,’ she said sarcastically.

I guess I am, but luck, in the end, always runs out and what then?

Ah, I’ll worry about that when it happens. Cheers.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009


“Fashion,” quipped Oscar Wilde no doubt in some typically depraved opium laced cigarette smoke tainted, oak panelled gentleman’s drinking den, or possibly even just at the kitchen table one morning, “is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”

‘Hey, I like your jacket,’ the girl I used to share an office with said when I returned from getting changed in the toilets once again.

‘What? This old thing?’ I looked at my tattered old leather jacket, with its scratched scuffs across the back, its patches of faded greyness, and the hole along the rim where the stuffing is quietly escaping. ‘Christ, this is over ten years old. It’s been dumped on the floor of a thousand pubs, been soaked in a hundred rainstorms and I’ve sleep both in and on it more than once. It’s absolutely knackered.’

‘Yeah, but people pay a lot of money to get a new leather jacket that looks just like that.’

Style, as someone possibly once said, some of us have it, some of us don’t and some of us couldn’t give a monkey’s either way.

Fashion and one’s general appearance are, unfortunately, not things I find myself able to devote significant amounts of mental or physical activity to. It’s not just the whole process of having to keep up with whatever’s cool, with having to personally trudge up and down the busier end of the shopping streets in over-heated monstrosities of shops playing dire plastic pop music whilst trying to comprehend mystical sizing systems and whatever the difference is between drain-pipe and comfort fit. No, none of those things help, but at the end of the day it’s because, basically, it’s boring.

‘I really like these trousers because they’re so practical,’ said Stu not so long ago sitting in a field in Derbyshire. ‘They dry easily, the pockets are the right depth and in handy places. If I could, I’d just buy multiple pairs of the same.’

Ah, if only it could be so easy.

Men’s fashion: Dull as shit-water. Here, I’ll sum it up: Suit or Casual? If suit what colour, what colour shirt, tie or no tie? Right, that’s smart covered. Casual: Trainers or leather shoes (possibly ankle height boots)? Jeans or combats or cords or chino-type other non-descript trousers? In summer cotton slacks or shorts? Top half – t-shirt or shirt? If the latter, long or short sleeved? That is essentially it. We don’t get skirts, dresses, shorts with tights, any imaginable combination of fabric and/or lengthed tops, all in one romper suits, even, stilettos, mid-way heels or knee high boots or any other the other of the trends and products on offer to women. The above are our only choices and when there’s such a limited number of decisions to be taken, what is the point in getting excited by it all?

Okay, so I concede men can wear something more daring than the relatively bland list above – for an example, perhaps pop down Hoxton Square on a Friday night or a sunny Sunday morning and you will, at least, see some examples of hats – but nine times out of ten once you’re passed the age of twenty-one you will look like a complete and utter tit.

‘There comes a point,’ said some random bloke I was chatting to in a bar just off Old Street, ‘when you are just too old to wear jeans. It’s probably the same moment when you have to stop listening to punk.’

A couple of months ago, my old friend Ben and I were busy drinking outside the Market Porter underneath the bundling railway arches of London Bridge. I can’t remember how we got onto the topic, but it was late and we’d both had a few.

‘Apparently,’ he said rather indiscreetly, ‘that jacket had a lot to do with it.’
I looked down at my leather jacket not entirely surprised. ‘Really?’

‘Yeah, she couldn’t stand it.’

‘Huh,’ I snorted and took a slug of ale, ‘well, at least it was over something important, then.’

A couple of Saturdays back, I’d been running an exhibition stand dressed in the regulation all-black of a modern waiter. It was the last day of the show and only a couple of us were prepared to hang around to tear the stand apart at the end. We packed it up ferociously, rapidly, desperate to get out of the hall, and after an hour of wheeling boxes of branded tat around I was feeling a little sweaty. Afterwards, we popped for a well-deserved pint. I couldn’t stay as was heading to a friend’s for dinner but I was conscious that I looked like a sweltering mush of a man.

Fortunately, I’d come prepared.

Standing in the toilets of the Steam Passage on Upper Street I took my dirty shirt off and, using damp paper tissues, washed my torso.

‘All right?’ I nodded to the bloke who came in for a pee.

I dried myself off with the black shirt, sprayed some deodorant on and put on a clean shirt I’d been carrying around with me all day. Feeling rather smug with myself I went back to finish my pint.

‘Oh look at you,’ scowled Nicola as I sat down, ‘you can’t even dress yourself.’ And she lent across and rearranged my collar for me.

Once upon a time, it has to be conceded, I was a bit more bothered. In the right circumstances, anyway. When I used to be a sales rep we rarely wore suits to the office – after all, for most of the time I worked there, it was just the three of us – but going out to see clients, impressions were vital. I wore sharp suits with neatly polished shoes and chose the shirt-tie combination around who I was going to see, especially if I knew the colours of their football team. I shaved meticulously, I kept my hair tidy with regular trips to the barbers, the devil of the sale could be in the detail and I didn’t want to let myself down.

These days, it is often noted at work that I rarely bother to iron my shirts or wear a tie. I often haven’t shaved, letting my stubble grow out for a few days and a quarterly hair cut is about as frequent as it gets. As I type this piece it has been almost four months since I last went and visited the friendly Turkish guys who run my barbers. My hair is getting rather bouffant and I sculpted the front into a bit of fifties quiff this morning.

A group of us sat out on the balcony of the Cut towards the beginning of the summer enjoying a beer or two. Somehow we’d gotten to talking about clothes.

‘So, I’m supposed to be going out on dates and I just don’t know what to wear.’ I moaned, sounding a bit pathetic in retrospect. ‘All my clothes just seem so bland and scuzzy and tired.’

‘You’ve got that jacket,’ Amy said, pointing.

‘Are you taking the piss?’ I replied.

‘I think it’s nice. It suits you.’

‘As in: it’s falling apart?’

But there are other sorts of style as well. And there can be times when the style of something overshadows the sum of its component parts. Style over substance.

‘The thing is, David,’ said Justin, ‘I’m just not sure I understand what you’re trying to do here. Is it serving a point, or is it just a stylistic thing?’

He was referring to something I’m experimenting with in my writing, where I am breaking paragraphs apart and using white space on the page to mark a detachment from reality and a drifting passing of time in the lead male’s head, or the compressed franticness in the lead woman’s internal monologue.

‘You’ll be a typesetter’s nightmare, if you keep it,’ said Amy.

Which is fair point and I have just realised this moment that, seeing as I can’t find a way to demonstrate it on this blog since it doesn’t have page breaks or borders, it won’t work on a fucking kindle either.

This is not something unique by any stretch. Nicola Krauss did it a bit in A History of Love, sometimes resorting to a single line on a page. Carol Shield’s The Stone Diaries seems to very deliberately replicate a kind of diary layout with personal letters pasted in. Irvine Welsh’s Filth included a sub-narration from the lead character’s tape worm which at times overlaid itself across the main story rendering the text unreadable. Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter is paced to represent talking heads in a documentary. Jose Saramago’s refusal to use paragraphs (and occasionally punctuation) creates an oddly intense reading experience. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (thanks, Michael) not only layers narratives within one another but then completely mucks around with the format creating upside down or sharply angled lines, holes within the page revealing non-existent pages behind, flipping from transcribed dialogue to a story within footnotes. Utterly bonkers stuff.

So, the question isn’t “am I allowed to do it?” but “is it doing what it’s supposed to and is it doing it well?”

Which was the question Justin was really asking.


I’m not sure just yet. It’s a dangerous one. Style for style’s sake is not a good thing. There needs to be a reason, a point. It needs something solid backing it up. I feel brave, confident, as though I can carry off taking some risks, but then again: sometimes the classic look really is the best. Lines on a page, broken into regular paragraphs.

‘Oh my God! Dave!’ exclaimed Tim as we headed out into the chilly Sheffield January evening a lifetime ago. Our eyes sparkled and our cheeks were already slightly flushed from the pints of gin and tonic or whatever our pre-night out tipple had been at that point. ‘Are we wearing the same jacket?’

I looked at myself and then I looked at Tim. We were indeed wearing identical crisply shining new leather jackets. ‘Huh, how about that,’ I said. ‘Guess we’re the leather brothers.’

‘That’s what they’ll call us!’ Tim squealed, because back then even under-twenty-one Geordies talked vaguely like characters from Friends.

Having finished our cups of tea, we stood up from the benches down by the water inside the core of the Barbican. A chill seemed to be creeping in and so I scrambled into my jacket.

‘Hey,’ she said with a smile, ‘I like your jacket. It’s got red buttons. What? What’s so funny?’

Tuesday, 6 October 2009


“We are the desperate Dan appreciation society,” sang the Kinks way back in sixty-eight, “God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties.”

Ray Davis chirruped that song in his half-falsetto, a hymn to what, even back then, was a dying land of mythical village greens and snoozing gentleman in cricket whites, of not-too-sweaty summer afternoons and toasted crumpets. It was a land being overtaken by the white heat of modernity and whilst the Kinks, as one of those new fangled musical beat combos called pop groups, were clearly part of that particular glimpse of the never-ending shift forwards, they were still mourning a life escaping them; a life that’s now encapsulated in the Sunday tea-time TV of Heartbeat and Midsommer Murders and Doc Martin and whatever that thing with Stephen Fry swaning around Norfolk was called. Or so I expect, I haven’t actually seen any of them, but I expect that they’re desert for people still swollen with meat and veg from lunch, those desperate for cosy, harmless, clotted cream, simplistically ideal distractions to flood their minds.

“We are the draught beer preservation society, God save Mrs Mopp and good old mother riley, we are the custard pie appreciation consortium.”

And so on.

About two and a half years ago, before I’d decided to embark on his arguably insane idea to convert myself from salesman to writer, before I’d applied for a creative writing masters, but after I’d realised in the drunken dead of the night that if I had to spend much longer talking about housebuilding and exhibitions and visitor numbers and pretending to be impressed by toilet mechanisms or pre-built brick walls I was going to lose my mind… After that point, I was wondering what I was going to do. It had to be, I decided, something I cared about; something I was passionate for, but what?

‘All the things you really like are quintessentially English,’ my girlfriend of the time possibly said without looking up.

And she probably had a point.

Somewhere in the back of my imagination there’s a lost world of England (and the rest of Britain too). A world of thatched roofs atop tumble-down cottages, of irregular dry-stone walls, of aching rolling country side sweeping up to herds of blue-grey sheep, of ruby red dry warm beer, of heather and ginger beer and lost islands and gorse covered entrances to secret caves and every other Enid Blyton cliché you want to find, of wind battered coasts with freezing waves cascading across scattered pebbles and underneath flimsy piers with their multi-colour lights flickering in the early evening to sound of an ukulele, of sheer drops through scree down to the tarns huddling in the napes of mountains, of Cotswold stone villages, of befuddled second hand bookshops, of low beamed grouchily offensive charmingly dilapidated pubs, of castles and forts and magnificently ostentatious stately homes hidden under canopies of forest land or aggressively striking out at the summits, of endless cups of tea, of crap ice-cream, of bacon sandwiches, of Sunday roasts, of faggots, of gravy, of steak and kidney pie, liver and onions and mashed potato, of Beatles, of Kinks, of Small Faces, of Edgar, of tumbling streams over looked by narrowly crumbling bridges, of pick-your-own-strawberry-farms, of fairplay, of picnickers braving the drizzle, of spitfire pilot whiskers on retired gentlemen dreamily watching the clouds drift on past, of whisky from rocks, and cider of dropped apples, of gently creasing hills rolling as far as the eye can see. England my Britain, my home - the place that makes me.

All this is outside of the London I love; all this is the backdrop to the urban dirty wink.

“Oh gin in teacups and leaves on the line,” sang Pete Docherty in the only Babyshambles song to be worth a second hearing, “violence in bustops and a pale thin girl with eyes forlorn behind the check-out.”

There is a soulful melancholy beauty in the cities, but this is the romance of the country’s notion of itself.

Except, it might just be a load of old crap; nothing more than a lingering doubt in my memory or that of a cracked vocal at the end of an old vinyl record.

The thing I most liked about being a salesman was the travelling up and down the country visiting clients and potential clients and ex-clients who were trying to avoid me. Despite the long slogs up and down the Ms 1, 6, 40, 4 and all the others, my excursions took me to virtually every corner of the country. There used be a three-dimensional road map wrapping itself around my mind; I could see how the network fitted together. It’s not there now, or it is, it is deeply down in the archive. I don’t miss it, but I do miss rolling into towns I would never have any other reason to visit just as the sun sneaked over the horizon.

Of course, because it was the construction trade I actually spent a lot of time on light and heavy industry estates giving everywhere a fairly grey, metallic, smokey tinge so that places like Worthing and Sandy and Hull and Morley which I’m sure are actually lovely, are synominous in my mind with belching fire stacks from a hundred years ago and smouldering resentment and portacabins and crap coffee.

Well, okay, maybe Hull isn’t really lovely.

But aside from everything else, doesn’t being fiercely in love with your country lend one to a slight inadvertent association with the wrong sorts of ideas? There is, I feel, a little bit of xenophobia around thinking your country is the most amazing, because, of course, the implication is that everywhere else is rubbish.
Because from French wine and cheese and hearty Burgundy stews, the whole of Paris and the foothills of the Pyrenees, German Pilsners and the madness of Berlin, American sunsets and Turkish dawns, Italian smiles and Danish shifting beaches, Polish vodka and Croatia stars above the clear dark sea, everywhere I have been I have fallen in love with something.

Except Hull, of course.

“I don’t know, though,” I say to the empty night air. “It’s like we’re this little bastard, arrogant, mongrel race jammed into a tiny island in the top corner of the globe and we sauntered out across continents laying waste to everyone who got in our way.”

Which, of course, is a hugely simplistic view of Imperialism. Maybe it did a little good, maybe it ruined the world for a couple of centuries. Maybe it helped more than it harmed. Maybe, maybe, maybe, but for everyone who dares to start a sentence with “bloody foreigners” or for every time Nick Griffin shows his fat, feeble-minded face, the one that looks like it’s been used a dumping bucket for both snot and seamen, well, they need to remind themselves where we all came from and what we’d be left without, should we be cast from the global village. For even when the last gunsmoke from the Enfield 303s and the Webley Colts has finally cleared we have to stand up and take responsibility for the sins of the past.

Even the Royal Family.

Ttt. The Royal blooming Family. What to do, what to do…

I find my natural urges want to see them stripped of rank and cast out, the wealth and luxury diluted and redistributed, but then I think of all the old heroes and myths and the decades I studied of English, of British history, and I can’t help but feel that they make up a part of us all. I may, at last, be too old to be a punk-communist-rebel. Not that I’d ever quite gotten around to starting aside from in the falsified idyllic image of self I once carried around in my head, a vision of long grey mac and half drunk scotch and billowing unkempt hair.

For there are elements that we all can admire in the King Arthurs and Merlins and giants sleeping underneath the ground, and of knights galloping off down trenches to slaughter dragons and the Richard Is, the Henry Vs, the Elizabeths, the Shakespeares and Marlowes and Ben Jonsons, the Shelleys and Keats and the Byrons and the Rabbie Burns and the Dylan Thomases and the Graham Greenes, the Elveyn Waughs and PG Wodeshouses, the George Bernard Shaws, even the Osar Wildes and once and again the George Orwells. The people who wrote and fought out the lands into existence through words and description of sights and sounds and tastes.

But that was the past and the future is, as a man who never stopped being a punk once said, unwritten.

I no longer want to tear down my society. Not anymore, not for a long time. I want to help it be better. Even better than it is now.

“Where were you in seventy-six? The looooong hot suuuuummmer, want to be a rebel, turn the hosepipes on,” sang Badly Drawn Boy not so long ago.

“Mmmm-hmmm,” I tunelessly hum, joining in and missing the point for my own convenience as I tap out these words furiously because the deadline is looming, but maybe I’ll get away with it because, amongst everything else, “ah was born in t’UK.”

Tuesday, 29 September 2009


Some time ago I had a conversation. It was one of those slurry, blurry, almost pointlessly argumentative conversations and it went a little like this:

“You see, I believe there’s such a thing as the Midlands,” the other bloke began. I looked at the person I was supposed to be talking to, but he just shrugged apologetically. I was well and truly stuck. “It’s just north and south, when you come down to it. There’s no such thing as a Midlands mentality. People identify themselves as northern or southern, as hard manual labourers or softy cultural divas. I’ve never heard anyone proudly say they’re a Midlander.”

“Oh, fuck off bollockface,” I may have less than eloquently retorted – after all, it was that sort of conversation.

“So, you’re from Birmingham, right?” a girl asked more recently as we sat down into the sofa on the bar’s mezzanine with our white wines. ‘And that’s in the…north?
Oh, no, I can tell by the look on your face that’s not right.”

I am quite proud of my roots. Coming from the Midlands is an important part of my self-identity; the very fact that it can transcend a northern-southern divide by taking the better bits of both suits my purposes ideally. It is where my family is anchored (with a couple of dollops of Northern Irish and West-Coast Scotland thrown in for good measure). My surname is liberally scattered around the country’s heartlands. Long Marston. Marston Green. Marston, Sutton Coldfield. Marston brewers in Burton.

“Are you from Birmingham, young David?” a prospective yet patronising client once asked me.

“I am indeed,” I replied wondering what that had to do with anything we were talking

“I like Birmingham,” he continued, “it’s pleasant along by the canal these days. I went for a walk down there when I was last in town and I came across a guy fishing. I asked him if he’d caught anything and he replied ‘a whale.’ Well, I was somewhat surprised so, ‘a whale?’ I asked. ‘Yeah,’ he continued, ‘a bicycle whale.’”


I’ve never had a terribly thick accent, but it is something I resolutely hold onto – even though it makes me sound like an idiot, especially “Dooiive”. “Dooiive”, sounds like possibly the stupidest trick in the box. Whoever he may be he sounds like a bit of a berk, but that’s my name and that’s how I could say it. If I was ever to try hard enough.

Why I’ve struggled to retain these tones, I’m not sure. I guess it just says something about who I am, despite it giving me a bit of trouble abroad.

Snorkelling off Sardinia, the Italian lady guiding us seemed to struggle with interpreting my pronunciation and decided it was simplest to call me ‘Dive.’ Which, as I kept drifting off and being called back caused confusion for the other swimmers.

“Dive! Dive!” indeed.

Or in the Yosemite Valley having to ask someone to interpret for me that I didn’t want tomato or tumartoh or tamaito or however you want to sound it on my sandwich.

Or in New Orleans airport where the after a lengthy explanation as to why I just needed to take my bag back for two seconds the big dude behind the counter turned to his colleague and said, “hey is this guy even speakin’ English or what?’”
I’d have retorted with ‘well, let’s drop you in Wolverhampton and see how you get on, you redneck hick,’ but as he wouldn’t have understood me there didn’t seem much point.

“You’re accent gets stronger the drunker you get,” another girl pointed out recently.

“Sorry,” I shrugged.

“No, I think it’s cute,” she giggled.

‘Ah crap,’ I thought.

“The problem is, David,” said Justin in his decidedly non-West Midlands accent at yet another recently, “I’m just not sure about the voice. I don’t think it’s convincing or consistent enough.” But, of course, he was talking about a completely different sort of voice. This is the narrative voice, the way a story is conveyed so it sounds like the word of truth, of authenticity. It’s a crucial part to get right and probably the element to writing I struggle with the most (aside from metaphors, but that’s for another time).

Raymond Chandler, for example, is not a great writer, but the Philip Marlowe books are simply brilliant because of the voice Chandler employs. The books are riddled with a sarcastic, down-beat, seen-it-all, pissed off, vaguely romantic, doom laden voice that shudders at the spine. Without it, no-one would have given them a second look, for they have few other merits.

Other writers do it in different ways (and usually not just as the only point of the book). Irivne Welsh does it partially though the Scots dialect, partly through the desperate sneer. Martin Amis’ early, good novels have it in the misogamic fury and intellectual wordsmithery. W.G Sebald did it through the calming meadering confused storytelling. Joseph O’Neil did it with Netherland and it’s grasping, failing despair of isolation. Graham Greene did it time and again just by being himself.

I think I’m nearly there with this piece. I think it just needs a little tightening and it’ll work. Perhaps, the final trick of concocting another genuinely believable authentic written voice is to be entirely comfortable in my own spoken words.

“You can definitely tell this is a David piece,” said Jonathan at another session, although he didn’t clarify whether that was a good thing or not.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009


Ronnie O’Sullivan was, allegedly, once asked if he ever got bored playing snooker.

“You see,” Ronnie in this particular anecdote replied, “I make a big mess at the break and then it’s just tidying up. I love tidying up.”

If, as I recently suggested, that the majority of writers have some sort of control freakery element to them, is that why they write? Is the part of their mind that demands order also compelling them to sit for hours at a keyboard purging their souls?

(If, indeed, that is what a writer could be said to do.)

I find this something of a myth. Most of the writers I know will do anything other than sit at the keyboard or empty page and put words down. They procrastinate to hideous lengths. It’s not that they don’t want to write. It’s not that they don’t have any ideas. It’s just that there’s often a more fun, far more sociable activity to do than shackling yourself to the desk and looking inside your heart for universal truths.

I am, perhaps, a bit of an exception. I, typically, write for between two and three hours an evening, three or four nights a week and six or seven hours Saturdays and Sundays, most weekends. Of course there are reasons for this. a) I don’t tend to write in my head. I have start putting words down before I can grapple them into some sort of shape and I spend far more time looking at a blank page than many of my contemporaries who it would seem sit down and rattle off a thousand words straight from their imagination. b) If you wanted to, you could easily accuse me of being a bit of a hack writer, only without the financial rewards. So, a bad hack. I can live with that. Just. c) I don’t, actually, have a huge amount else to do at the moment.

I listened to AS Byatt in conversation with Adam Thirwell recently and she said that an old boyfriend had once told her that writing is about power. It is the writer exerting their will over a whole universe that they are fashioning out of nothing. The writer gives birth to everything and therefore we are the masters of the world.

I think I agree with this. These people, these characters I construct, they are mine to do with what I please.

Balzac, allegedly, once looked upon a painting of a house on a hillside with a wisp of smoke escaping from the chimney. He turned to the artist and he asked, ‘how many rooms does the house have?’

‘How many rooms?’ the artist exclaimed, ‘why, I have no idea.’
‘What are they cooking for dinner?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous.’

‘What is the daughter’s dowry? Was the harvest successful? How many chickens do they keep? What is the son’s favourite food? What does the mother do every midsummer’s eve? Where did the father lose his virginity?’

‘How you can expect me to know all these things?’ The artist was indignant.

Balzac was more so: ‘If you do not know them, if you do not truly understand your subject, what right do you have to paint them?’

The act of writing is more than the words that appear on the page. The writer knows more than they are giving away, but they control the way the information is given to the reader. They create drama.

Control. Creation. Intrinsically linked.


I have, in the past, been accused of being so much a control freak as to be a bully. As someone so determined to get their own way, to have the world bend to their desires so that I coerce people into doing what I want irregardless. I used to live an ordered life. I liked tidy. I liked my dinner not too late in the evening. I liked to drink coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon; three cups of coffee, five of tea. Every day. I liked to get a Guardian early on a Saturday Morning with my breakfast and work my way methodically through it, starting with the sport and finishing with the review. I was never late. I never missed a train. I never overslept. I went to bed at about the same time every weekday evening. I ate cereal for breakfast during the week and toast at the weekend. I kept my CDs and books in alphabetical order. The grocery lists I wrote would be in the layout of the supermarket to avoid doubling back. I didn’t lose things. If I did ever lose something, then it must have been because someone else moved it. I showered Monday to Saturday and took a bath on a Sunday.

All that has changed. My flat is a dirty tip, subjected to irregular half-arsed cleans. I’m perpetually late. I don’t know where anything is or often where I’m supposed to be. I fail to recognise people in the street. I have to rely on alarms in my mobile to remind me to, well, pretty much anything. I rarely sleep the night through anymore and so consequently oversleep with alarming regularity. Do I care? Actually, I don’t give a monkey toss. The only pattern that exists is that I will spend time at my desk with the word processor open and my fingers anxiously, nervously battering their way around the keyboard.

It is common for authors to suggest that a certain character came alive, took control of the story and demanded that it progress in a certain direction. I don’t believe them. Characters are our creations. We made them. They can do anything we want them to do. If it does not seem believable that they would act in such a way then the fault lies with us. We have made them with an error. We must start again. We are, for all intents and purposes, their God.

Has my need for control has been transplanted out of reality and into the world of my own making or was I just being a bit of a twat before?

This transformation into a shambolic unreliable dishevelled figure is not the only change. I feel as though I am between phases of self. It is arguable that certain authors write to expose the human frailties behind us all, so that society can look upon itself and reflect. Is it, I wonder, also arguable that certain authors write to try and shine that revelatory light upon themselves, that in the invention of others they will discover their own identity?

I have been, am capable of being, many people. I can be the sarcastic git running up the side of a mountain cracking bad jokes the whole way. I can be the besuited businessman capable of selling the right thing to the right person by a stretch of empathy that makes them like me. I can be shy. I can be outgoing. I can banter about football or cricket or anything else I’ve read in a newspaper recently. I can talk about the merits of an artform. I can make people laugh at my self-deprecating wit. I can make people scowl at my squirming arrogance. It feels as though, sometimes, I will say anything to anyone. I can go and listen to a writers’ conversation panel and then go to a wine bar, drink a solitary glass of wine and spend an hour discussing the unknowable point of literature, the nature of the novel and a little over twenty-four hours later I can be largered up in a pub off Old Street offering back up to the guy I just met who’s about to start a fight.

Who am I?

Tuesday, 15 September 2009


How long does it take to write a novel? How long does it take to construct a book? How long does it take to turn a single idea into a collection of themes and characters? The book I’m currently grappling with was started in late March and whilst it’s very nearly there, it’s not quite made it over the finish line as yet.

For some, however, it would appear the effort is significantly less.

The popular American thriller writer (can you tell how restrained I’m being here?) James Patterson writes up to eight books a year. Or roughly one every six and a half weeks, presupposing he writes all the time and never takes a holiday. Which is unlikely for a millionaire. Not only is that an incredible feat to come up with all of those words, but it seems an impossible number of ideas to conjure up.

Doesn’t it?

Of course Patterson has help. Quite blatant help, to be fair.

He has an extensive team of co-writers or assistants who receive a (very small) cover credit, but as they all sign confidentially agreements there is no way of knowing how much involvement Patterson really has. I’ve never read a Patterson book, let alone several, so I have no way of knowing whether they have a consistent sense of voice that tells the reader that they are reading a James Patterson novel. Or, I suppose, if they do have a consistent voice – how easy that voice would be to imitate?

(Mind you taking your time over a novel isn’t necessarily an indication of quality. Dan Brown has spent six years crafting The Da-Vinci Code’s sequel. It finally comes out today and is called, God I can’t remember – The Populalist Riddle Behind Some Not-that-Obscure Society I Once Read About In Another Book Written By A Less Well Marketed Writer. Or something like that anyway. Hopefully, six years will have enabled Brown to raise the quality of his prose above the magnificently emotionally wrought “The famous man starred at the red cup.”)

I find the idea of collaborative writing unusual. Aside from the arguable lack of credit for probably doing the majority of the work on the co-writer’s side, I am surprised at Patterson’s willingness to release control of his words. It’s his name at the top; doesn’t he want everything between the covers to be his too?

I think the closest I’ve ever gotten to this collaborative writing is having my work analysed by other writers – the workshopping process – which can become addictive. It can reinforce that you’re doing the right thing, that somebody out there likes your writing, but it’s taken me a little while to be comfortable with not being able to please everyone. Some people, will most definitely not like my writing. Okay, so if everyone has the same problem with the same part, then it probably needs looking at, but otherwise - if someone’s questioning a phrase, or style, or the believability of a character and I, the writer, am totally committed to that section, then I should probably stick with it until it rights itself. We are not, surprisingly enough, writing by committee.

You see, the thing about most writers is we’re normally complete control freaks. We tend to be a bit, at the very least, obsessive.

True collaborative processes are exciting and interesting – the communication between director and actor; the symphony of the band; even the near factory approach to some forms of visual art. Andy Warhol, Damian Hirst, Jeff Koons have all employed legions of assistants to actually produce the art from their ideas. In many ways I can kind of see the sense in devolving the actual task of painting dozens of brightly colour dots on the side any given immovable object as it must quickly become pretty damn dull once you’ve had the idea in the first place. There’d be that brief eureka moment of “yes, a boat/horse/barn/tank/bank/etc, etc” but then after you’d painted thirty-six identical splodges, surely you’d be distracted, bored and thinking about what to have for tea. The glamour’s kind of gone before you’re halfway through.

There is, admittedly, an argument for the actual creative process of doing; of constructing something out of nothing; of the physical weary joy of labour intensive work that must be lost when you delegate downwards, but it would be laughable to assume that Philippe Ramette could ever produce his work alone.

But anyway, back to writers. I think in many ways writing, as in fiction prose writing, is often seen as the most direct form creative communication. It isn’t performed by an actor. It hasn’t been bent into the right shape and contextualised by its surrounding environment. It is just words on a page. Words straight out of the mind, through the fingers and onto the page and nothing else.

Probably, extensively redrafted, ripped apart and put back together before anyone’s seen it, but still – I said a perception, not necessarily an actuality (and I’d be prepared to argue several dozens exceptions from all manner of other creative mediums which prove the above statement to be complete and utter rubbish, but I’m rambling now).

So, yeah, virtually everyone I know who writes admits to being very controlling.
One of the most perfect examples of this would be Nabokov (not that I knew him, obviously).

Upon granting an interview for the Paris Review, he asked for the questions to be sent out in advance. When the interviewer arrived he found a package waiting for him containing not only the completed answers to the questions, but also the bits of banter between interviewer and interviewee. Nabokov had written the whole damn thing. He claimed that this was because of concerns that, as English wasn’t his first language, he might misrepresent himself.

That, in itself, sounds controlling enough, but then when you consider that Nabokov was arguably one of the finest manipulators and impressional stylists of the English language ever it’s starting to drift into the realms of mentally unstable. Go read the first page of Lolita if you don’t believe me. That whole opening passage is, essentially, the deconstruction of the word Lolita until it becomes a pure force of repressed forbidden repulsed sexual desire. The ability to manipulate language (even if not your mother tongue) to such a degree cannot mean that the author is worried about a slip in an interview. Can you imagine James Patterson trying to explain that level of linguistic trickery to one of his assistants?

“So when the butch maverick cop hero finds the dame’s body,” (I’m just guessing here, but I suspect they’re the sort of books that include butch maverick cops and dames being murdered) “I want him to stare into her glassy tear torn eyes, lose himself in that swirl of loss, reciting her name again and again until it becomes a whisper of the murder’s hidden past.”

“Sure thing, boss, but what is the dame’s name?”

“Details, details. I come up with the ideas. You’re supposed to handle the details.”

You see, control?

Some of us embrace the self-control side, some of us try to rebel against the instinct.

‘But I think everyone’s got to be on something when they’re creating,’ a friend of mine recently half-joked over a glass of wine.

I don’t know about that. It may surprise you to know that I, certainly, can’t be.

Now, I realise I may have a reputation for liking a drink every so often, but I can’t write after a drink. Oh, sure, I sit with a notebook and do broad scope stuff; think about themes and character’s histories and ideas and narrative arcs and sometimes I scribble down random lines of dialogue which feel great, but the morning look rubbish. So, when I’m actually trying to get the text to say something, for it to operate on more than a linear level, for it (hopefully) make the reader think beyond the immediate – then I have to be stone cold sober. I have to be in complete control.

But does this leading to levels of obsessive compulsiveness in the rest of my life?
Sure, but you’ll have to come back to find out what. I have some egg cups to arrange.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Writing is killing me.

Or at the very least causing some considerable discomfort.

This week I have placed myself on a self-imposed clampdown, a lockdown; I am, as they say in the military, confined to quarters. I am not having any physical contact with the outside world beyond the owner of the local off licence.

I am redrafting.

This blog therefore forms a single communiqué; a warning sign that I’m still alive. It is my only message to the outside world. For the rest of the week it’s just me and the words.

Having written the first draft of a novel in two-three hour chunks across just under six months it correspondingly reads exactly like that. It’s formed of short, punchy, castrated chapters; it has a narrative that skids from side to side and occasionally lurches out of control; the characterisation is inconsistent in places; one character never gets to finish her story, another disappears halfway and returns and the end simply because I forgot to write the bits of his journey in-between.

It is, however, I think rather good.

So in order to be able to put all the above right I need to fully immerse myself in this screwed-up dystopia I’ve clawed out from the poisoned shallows of my imagination and batter the bastard thing until it makes sense.

A week, then, off from paid work with robot babies and nine days running through another London of tomorrow.

It would have helped, though, if I’d made some of these people a bit more likable.

Aside from the inevitable mental problems of spending twelve hours upwards a day in a fictional dreamscape, this is also taking its physical toll. I’m trying to look after the body. I have stocked up on beer and whisky and vodka and wine and some food and plenty of coffee, but still my fingertips blister from thracking their way across plastic keys, their nails splintering and falling loose. My eyes are getting screen burn so as starry lights flicker through my vision. My left arm, already suffering from rsi, squeals with every four hundreth click of the mouse until the point where I am lying fully clothed on the bed at four in the morning seriously contemplating drilling a metal spike through the shoulder joint to strengthen it. Deep vein thrombosis is causing clots and violent bouts of pins and needles through my left calf. My kidneys sting.

My flat is starting to resemble the home of serial killer. It’s like the moment in A Beautiful Mind when the audience realises just quite how bonkers Russell Crowe is, as the camera pans through his shed showing walls amassed with random newspaper clippings, yellowed and frayed, flickering in the artificial breeze. Every centimetre of my walls not blocked off by bookcases has sheets of paper blue tacked to it. Reams and reams showing lyrics from punk and sixties girl group pop songs stolen from karaoke websites and printed out in an attempt to help me understand their structure and format. Random quotes read in books late at night and illegibly scrawled down in notebooks torn out and plastered to the walls. Ripped extracts from literary newspaper supplements across the windows the autumnal sunlight dappling through the thin paper making the type translucent. Photocopied pages from a stolen bible; the word of the lord pasted up and then torn apart to be reinterpreted as lyrics of disturbance.

I am drowning in words.

“This machine is a kind of devil, feeding my pride by giving my words substance. It promises to order my thoughts, declare their rationality and significance, promises value and weight, mercury hardened by iron and hammered onto paper. Even that impact is a promise: that my words will strike like a fist. It lies.” – Jason Lutes, Berlin: City of Smoke

Recently, in the context of a conversation about Nabokov, somebody asked whether I thought writers had a tendency to self-mythologise.

‘Of course they do,’ I replied, ‘aren’t we doing it right now?’

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Love Life.

My old friend cupped his hand around the lighter’s flame and inhaled sharply on the cigarette. The silhouette it cast cut across the shadows of the early evening. Down amongst the closed up market stalls, the scent of smouldering tobacco intermixed with the remains of vegetables strewn to the night.

‘Pint of watery, mass produced piss for you,’ I said handing him a pint of Fosters, ‘pint of something cringe worthily named, from an obscure corner of Yorkshire for me.’

We chinked glasses and took a long draught each.



‘Uh-huh,’ I nodded. ‘You all packed up? Ready to fly away to the other side of the world?’

‘Shipping company comes round Wednesday morning. Flight boards later in the day.’

I took another sip. ‘Excited?’

‘You know, it’s weird? I’m not nervous, but… When it was further away it was just… I dunno, something intangible. But this close… I can taste it. I just can’t wait to see her again.’

‘I didn’t need to know that you had the horn.’

‘No,’ he laughed. ‘That’s not what I meant. It’s just… It’s just that I love her.’

‘Yeah,’ I chinked his glass again. ‘I know what you mean.’


A long time before, I sat in a window seat in a Devonshire cottage the exterior walls of which were stained pink. I was surrounded by cushions of lace in a style now lost. Aged eight or nine or ten, when the rain tumbled down, whilst my Mum prepared our holiday teas I would sit in that seat and read old copies of the Funday Times archived in the cupboards. In particular, I remember reading again and again the two panel gags of ‘Love is…’. The sexless, naked caricatures of man and woman bumbling through life with regular explosions of fluffy red hearts around their heads for the simplest things, the things that seemed so natural to a relationship – this was the time, I think, that I first fell in love with the idea of being in love.


‘I know it appears we have nothing in common,’ the curly blonde told me over a sun soaked beer down by the canals, ‘but he makes me feel secure. He makes everything seem okay and I just… I just love him. That’s all there is to it sometimes. You can’t always rationalise emotions.’


‘I think I love you,’ I told my first girlfriend aged sixteen far too soon and for all the wrong reasons.

‘No you don’t.’ she broke our cumbersome embrace, her lips still glistening slightly with saliva. ‘How could you? You don’t even know me.’


‘I’ve always had a soft spot for you, David,’ whispered the shortly cropped dark-haired girl, into my ear.


‘Want her, have her,’ growled Alex Turner in my head, rather charmlessly.


‘I just don’t fancy anyone at the moment,’ lamented the brunette on a rooftop bar as threatening clouds sidled over the horizon. ‘It’s like I’ve been neutered.’


‘I don’t know how to talk to girls,’ I moaned to whoever was in the bar at the time. ‘I’ve never had to do it before. Or not in that way, at least.’


I sat on the floor of my childhood bedroom last weekend, surrounded by stacks of boxes. Each was full of packaged up books and a life that seemed initially simply on hold and then, perhaps, discarded. Forgotten about. More or less.

I peered into the draw of a bedside cabinet that never used to be there and took out a manila card envelope.

Inside I found reams of scrappy, yellowing paper, frayed at the edges. Each sheet was marked either with the type of a dot matrix printer, or the physical metallic indent of a typewriter, or my own illegible scrawl.


The stories I wrote as a teenager. Stories and scenes and snippets of plot ideas.
Precocious and pretentious trying to tell everyone about life, before I’d even had one of my own. Poorly executed, trite ideas. Overwrought, heart wincing cries of deluded, failing, youth exhilarating romance. Again and again, the same variations on a theme.


‘How’s the writing going?’ my old friend asked.

‘Not bad.’ I took a sip on the fresh pint and grin. ‘I’ve pretty much finished the
first draft.’

‘Of the new novel?’


‘So,’ he paused: ‘Are you finally going to tell me what it’s about?’

I was reminded of a Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros song:

“So anyway, I told him I was in a band, he said oh yeah? Oh yeah? What’s your music like? I said it’s errm… Errmm… Well it’s kinda like… You know…It’s got a bit of… Um… y’know?”

How could I sum it up before I’d got it clear on paper? It’s about punk versus motown, about the corruption of authority, it’s about the frustration of believing you know the answers and no-one listening (and the pit-falls when it transpires you don’t), it’s about the anarchy of tomorrow and the God in the machine and drinking and smoking too much and the spatial lapses in your own thoughts.

‘Meh,’ I conceded, ‘it’s a love story. Aren’t they all, in the end?’


Late at night I rummaged through the cupboards in my flat for something useless. It was dark outside, the windows were wide open as a hot breeze drifted past, the lights were down low and Laura Marling sang sweetly in the background. As I looked, I took sips from a glass of iced water with a tot or two of whisky in it.

I pulled out from under the bed my leather briefcase. A birthday present from my ex a few years back that I no longer used and couldn’t remember why not. Inside, it was stuffed with random sheets of paper, damaged fragments scooped up in the frantic evacuation of my last home. I finally sorted through them, binning anything pointless, until I came to a homemade birthday card.

The front showed a photomontage of castle battlements torn asunder into ruins by the years. In the centre I perched atop a Croatian tower, uninhabited for centuries. I was fooling about on the precipice with no regard for safety, just the funny photo.
Underneath it read ‘You’re the King of my Castle.’ Inside it said ‘with all my love,’ and runs of little ‘x’s. I counted them.


Fifty-three kisses.

‘These are the ghosts that broke my heart before I met you,’ Laura sang.

I sat and looked at the card. I wanted to throw it away. I wanted to keep it.
After a minute or so I took a sip of watery scotch and slid the card into the back of a draw, buried underneath utility bills and cheque stubs.

Four months after she’d written it, she was gone.


‘The thing is,’ dark hair said and sat back to make her point: ‘I won’t be hurt again. I can’t allow that.’

‘I’m not the hurting kind,’ I lied before I could even stop myself – a lie because that sort of decision wasn’t, strictly speaking, mine to make.


‘You shouldn’t have hope,’ she interrupted me in the lonesome dark of winter and slowly turned away.

The thing was, without hope all that was left was despair and a shredding emptiness of fear.

But in the end that became anger.

And eventually, quite unexpectedly, sometime around Easter, it was gone leaving a serene calm, a quiet elation of freedom from self-pity, a renewed belief in… well, everything.


‘You know,’ said the brunette, ‘the cynical grouchy routine doesn’t fool anyone.’


If you could read my mind love,’ the dying voice of Johnny Cash croaked, ‘what a tale my thoughts would tell.’


‘You could always stay the night,’ curly blonde said with a smile when it was far too late and we had drunk far too much wine.

‘I think that would be a really, really bad idea, don’t you?’ I said although I really didn’t believe myself.


My old friend tossed the butt of his last cigarette across the empty market. The final embers bounced across the concrete and disappeared into the gloom.

‘I’m done,’ he said.

We walked away from the pub and back towards the light of night. At the top of the stairs to the underground, we took an awkward masculine embrace and began to go our separate ways for the final time.

Suddenly, I jumped up onto the railings caging the steps down to the Northern Line.

‘Hey,’ I shouted and he looked up. ‘It’ll be amazing, you’ll see.’

‘Of course it will,’ he shrugged. ‘It’s only life.’