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.”