Wednesday, 27 February 2013


A couple of years ago, I found myself on the last train out of London Bridge via Lewisham.  As the carriage rocked along the railway tracks I struggled to sway in its motion.  I needed one hand free to hold myself upright meaning the other fought the thick book I was trying to read.  What this book was I can’t quite remember, but don’t worry it is ultimately immaterial to my anecdote.  The very fact I can remember that it is heavy isn’t irrelevant either, it is but an incidental detail my memory has decided to hold onto.  There will probably be a few like this, so for the sake of those who appreciate the blanks being filled in we shall say it was a copy of Jonathan Littell’s the Kindly Ones.  Something weighty, but not too pretentious.  It wasn’t James Joyce, for example, for Leo Tolstoy.  It probably wasn’t Littell either, but then I was definitely reading it around the same time.  How do I know this for certain?  A novel packed with graphic representations of the holocaust shaped to mirror ancient Greek myths isn’t exactly something to pull out on a first date which I’d done a couple of weeks prior to this tale.  Sorry, I’m getting distracted.  Shall we continue?

It was a little after one in the morning, so obviously I’d been drinking as I made my way up Lewisham Way back towards my little flat on Harefield Road.  As I walked my head was filled, as it often is wont to be after a couple of ales, with a sort of nostalgic lust for the evening just passed.  As with all good nights out, you don’t really want them to end, but then the ones that don’t become good in a way that feels extremely bad at some point the next day.  Anyway that hadn’t happened so I was enjoying feeling full of friendship and being mildly worried about having to get up early in the morning for work, seeing as I as somewhere on the cusp between Wednesday and Thursday, but also looking forward to the date I had lined up the following evening.

It would be date six, of which I can be certain because in the first flushes of romance every date remains clearly distinct from the others and consequently I can remember explaining what was about to happen on my walk home the next evening in a pub by the Thames in front of the Tate Modern, her arm lying across my shoulder. 

My continuity is getting confused here, but just to recap the walking is in the past present, date one was in the past past and date six was in the past future.  For sake of narrative we have what is happening, what has happened and what will happen even though now, in 2013, it all happened some time ago.

There I was happily ambling along, an occasional skip to my feet, up through the pretty old streets of Brockley.  I turned into Breakspears Road, its wide avenue shadowed by three or four story townhouses.  Many broken up into flats back in the sixties and seventies when zone two South East London were the badlands, the picturesque architecture of Brockley penned in by the more problematic New Cross, Peckham, Catford and Deptford.  It still is, of course.  It’s not as though someone has picked it up and moved the area, but as the last vestige of affordable central, more or less, London housing the South East has recently undergone something of a renaissance.  The bad old days, as some mourn, are gone and instead pillocks with too much money have arrived from Clapham and the North West on the restored East London line looking for period housing to buy.  It helps that the surrounding areas have also improved, with the big sink estates largely absent removed during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries’ booms.  Almost surprisingly, since the financial implosion the wider area doesn’t seem to have cataclysmically withdrawn.  A generation back, it was just as pretty, although probably more run down, and families who could afford enormous six or seven bedroomed houses, in the main, wanted to live elsewhere so the houses were ripped into flats.  Those few who fancied a bargain now find themselves sitting on assets worth more than they had ever imagined.

I thought all this as I wandered through the streets and I also thought of my bed and of the evening to follow and wondered what it might bring.  So lost in thought was I as I made my way down the dark of Cranfield Road, that I wasn’t really paying attention to what was around me. 

That end of Cranfield Road can be a bit gloomy, especially as one of the street lights seems to be permanently out of action.  Was the same one, I thought, that had put me off the basement flat down besides the church, when was it?  All the way back in 2002, I think.  Ah, a lifetime ago.  So much has happened in between and, frankly, I’m minded to tell you all about it, but, you may be pleased to hear, our story’s pace doesn’t really allow for such a deviation. 

So it was particularly dark and I was particularly pissed. It’s not as though this sort of thing happens all the time.

‘Excuse me,’ said a man on the other side of the road and he started to cross towards me.  I glanced up and realised that I was perfectly positioned between the houses which fronted onto the road and being out of the sight of the rear windows from those on Wickham Road.   The man looked sunburnt, which seemed a little odd.  Despite the fact we’re getting to the point where something actually happens, I should clearly take this moment to explain that it was the middle of summer and whilst by no means was it a washout it wasn’t a scorcher either.  I was wearing a leather jacket and jeans.  He wore shell suit bottoms and a white, dirty, vest top, his shoulders providing some illumination, and presumably warmth, as their red throb headed towards me. 

He carried a tatty old plastic bag balanced on an upturned palm, his other hand just inside it.  What, I wondered, could be in the bag for him to hold it so strangely?  It was like he was carrying a pizza, but it wasn’t square.  It was a crumpled heap.  And why was his other hand inside?  Was he caring for something or poising himself for some other action?

His face looked both familiar and a touch menacing, yet his tone was friendly.  ‘Excuse me’ is so unusually polite for late night London, so disarmingly inoffensive. He had crew cut blonde hair with small spike up the centre and a big square head to match his biceps, like every stereotype of an eighties football hooligan I’d ever seen.  He reminded me of how I’d once imagined a boy at school would grow up.  As the boy kicked me down the school stairs, I consoled myself, at the final bounce to the floor, that one day he would have the looks to match his thuggish behaviour.  Whilst I, my teenage deflated self-confidence chastised me, would no doubt be alone, ugly and fat.  I saw this boy, now a man, obviously, a couple of years ago at a cash point near where my parents live.  He didn’t look like a thug, he just looked far too old for his thirty years, like an inversion of the Portrait of Dorian Grey, his younger, more beautiful self committed violent sins and his adult body withered in advance.  I meanwhile, well, I’m far too modest to suggest how I might be looking these days.

‘Excuse me.’  What on earth could he want at such a late hour?  Where was he going?  Where was he coming from?  Time conveniently slowed down to give me time to have all these long drawn out conversations with my inner monologue.  I found it increasingly a convenient way to extrapolate a point – and meet a word count – but it wouldn’t last forever.  At some point I was going to have to advance the plot.  Something, God-damn it, was going to have to happen.

‘Excuse me.’

‘Huh,’ I glanced up in his direction and as he crossed the road, I stepped toward the pavement edge furthest from the wall, but he also hugged that side of the pavement as though trying to push me back into the dark.  His hand moved deeper into the bag still balanced on his palm, not rummaging but as though gripping some unseen object tighter.  He passed a parked car and glimpsed over his shoulder at it.  ‘Never mind,’ he said and picked up his pace to march straight past me.

I continued onwards as well and in a step or two realised that the parked car was occupied.  Amongst the dark, two burly men sat, snuggled down in their seats, the windows open the smallest crack and the faintest smell of smoke escape. 

At home I sat in my solitary armchair and felt my heart race.  I played out numerous scenarios, most of them vicious, but you don’t want to hear about those, do you?  Nothing happened and yet, by being on the edge of something, perhaps everything that could have occurred did.

Last week, I went to see Geoff Dyer speak at Goldsmith’s College.  Dyer’s a writer I remain undecided about.  At once wryly amusing and irritating, too beholden to the sixties and his belief in “good vibes” and “bad vibes” to be taken seriously, he produces writing which is both graceful and pertinent and yet utterly meaningless.  The day previously, I’d seen Jim Grace read from his new, and final, novel Harvest.  After which he answered questions, which partly dealt with a different work he’d abandoned.  He’d been writing a novel which, for the first time, tapped into an autobiographic vein, but had given it up, deciding it wasn’t the best way to address his Father’s death.  Asked if he would return to the theme he replied ‘I know writers don’t always write about themselves for narcissistic reasons.’  It’s hard to believe that’s true of Dyer.  There he is, again and again, wandering through his own writings and even when it isn’t him, such as Jeff in Venice, it is.

That evening, he read a piece which will shortly appear in the Observer travel section entitled White Sands* and which made me think of the above anecdote.  He also talked about how publishers don’t quite know what to do with him, how to classify or pitch his work.  Someone asked how much of it was true.  ‘It’s all just writing,’ he said claiming not to draw a distinction between fiction and non-fiction.

That’s something I’ve been guilty of in the past, putting too much of myself into stuff that’s made up.  The main characters have too frequently been a blurred version of me.  The current novel, whatever it ends up being called, is different.  It feels more about life, than about me.  Which is good.  I’m finding myself more interested in people I’m not than the person I am at the moment.  Besides, here is the right place for the narcissistic self-promotion as some sort of flawed artist who can be found meandering around the streets of South East London late at night.

‘How much of the blog is true and how much do you invent?’  I could well have been asked on more than one occasion.  ‘Surely all this stuff doesn’t just conveniently happen to you?’

I enjoyed Dyer’s reading at Goldsmith’s.  I’m on the lookout for a second hand copy of his book about jazz.  I might give him another chance, so if I may borrow his defence from Yoga for People who can’t be Bothered:  “All of these things happened, but some of them only happened in my head.” 


*Curiously, my memory was that Dyer said it had already been published by the Observer, but I couldn’t find it online to link to I changed the above the future tense; however a further search suggests that it was published in Granta and broadcast on Radio 4 in 2007 so maybe he’s just making it all up.  Who knows other than Geoff?

Wednesday, 13 February 2013


I’ve been ranting on about this for weeks to anyone who is within range, so apologies if you’ve heard this before, but when I’m slightly traumatised I’ve a tendency to repeat myself indefinitely. 

This is a story about wine.  I think I’ve covered my appreciation of wine sufficiently in the past, but I haven’t shared when I fell in love with it.  On an inter-railing trip, twenty years old, I decided that beer around the Mediterranean wasn’t worth salivating in anticipation for, but that even the most mediocre wine was superior to the cheap pap I’d been buying, occasionally, from Safeways in Sheffield.  Only occasionally, because I just wasn’t that sort of bloke back then.  I’d baulk at spending £4 on a bottle and so I got what I deserved.  Suddenly, here was something genuinely exciting to drink that didn’t leave me with a hangover.

But that wasn’t when I really fell for it.  Strangely enough it was a guy’s fault.  A guy whose name I think was Paul.  An odd man.  A Johnny Cash obsessive long before Man In Black and the American Recordings gave his wonderful tar gravel voice to my generation, Paul had inherited a pallet business which, as far as I could work out, ran itself leaving him to focus on his obsession: Languedoc wine.  He imported it directly, tying himself up somehow in some sort of failed family.  He had a badly-lit photo of a daughter in his wallet.  She sat on some dusty street, no shoes on her rust brown fudged feet, leaning back against a pale yellow plaster wall.  He’d drive it over from some vineyard yet to be exploited and hawk it around the travelling French markets that, at the time, cropped up on our high streets and in our town squares every Saturday.  Weekdays, drive down to the south of France, weekends, up and down the English motorways.  Bristol, Luton, York, Morley, Huddersfield, Bootle, Sandwich, Salisbury, Redditch, a life on the road and just Johnny’s tales of rebels bleeding their guts out in the gulley and finding God’s love once again on the stereo.

Lewisham, I think I met him at Lewisham market.  I can’t really remember; it was a long time ago.  I did him a couple of favours, as you do, and he paid me in wine.  And, my, what lovely stuff it was too.

That was the moment.  At that point, when I realised there was so much more to it than just buying and uncorking a bottle.  Wine came with its own brand of craziness and history, heritage and heartache.  That was when I fell in love with it.

This was all back when I first moved to London and it was shortly afterwards, on a evening stroll around Brockley looking for somewhere less threatening than the long-gone Alpha Jazz Bar (and that had more than just straight gin with no ice on offer) for a drink that I stumbled across Mr Lawrence’s. 

Mr Lawrence’s wine bar is a pillar of the SE4 community, a bona-fide institution that doesn’t give an arse about current trends.  He just wants to keep selling wonderfully myriad wines that have character and will charm you all the way to the next morning and if you want to join him, then by all means come on in.  I love the bar, but I am also deeply attached to the off licence next door.   After twelve years of visiting I only just feel as though I am getting to grips with its Byzantine mixed up shelves.  People moan about the poor customer service, but I find the occasional bout of being curmudgeons to be justified.  I am just delighted that everything will be wonderful, especially if you’re willing to chance a little more money.  I have never had anything bad for a tenner, which may seem excessive for wine to some (in which case I’ll keep quiet about some of the other bottles I’ve bought), but this is the sort of wine that isn’t to get drunk on.  It’s wine which will tell you a story and slips into your own; every bottle a memory drunk.

The bar is here to stay but, it’s such a shame, the off licence has closed down.

Second date, almost three years ago:  My then not-quite girlfriend and I had been hanging out in Battersea Park.  I’d kept one nervous eye out, as we sat outside the Prince Alfred, for Google Steve given that he lived about three hundred metres away.  It was too early to be interrupted.  I was supping an ale, she half a cider.  It was warm, if slightly overcast.

It was never going to be an ideal afternoon for a date.  England was playing its opening match of the world cup and the pandemonium which follows for drinking establishments was kicking off.  Battersea, for all its lovely red brick mansion blocks, ornate bridges and gentle parkland, is rubbish for restaurants and so we decided to chance inside the pub for something to eat.

‘Shall we get some wine?’ I asked as we perused the menu, by which I meant ‘Let’s get some wine.’

She hesitated.  I’d already learnt, through my internet dating, that not all women are quite as keen on booze as some of those who I’d been entangled with, but, still, I wondered, what’s wrong with a glass of wine?

‘I suppose I could have a glass of rose,’ she offered.

‘Yeah, why not?’ I replied.  ‘I think I’ll have a glass of red,’ I sounded cheerful, but inside I was thinking ‘she doesn’t drink wine?  How’s that going to work?’

England scored the opening goal and the pub went wild.  They went on to draw with the USA and the pub got sweary and moody.  My dinner was nice, my wine was good and the company was excellent so I was able to tune them all out.  Later on, we walked through Battersea Park towards the stations as it closed up, the street lights extinguishing in a rolling wave just a couple of metres ahead of us.

True to form, I missed the last inner loop train to London Bridge via Brockley and found myself on a night bus once again.

So, what was wrong if she didn’t drink wine?  Nothing, I guess. I think I’d still have fallen in love with her, but fortunately it was just a blip; she just didn’t really fancy a glass.  That was all.  So we’ll never know.  I mean, I still don’t quite get it: I always fancy a glass, but it’s better than not having it in common.  Sharing a bottle of wine, the mutual taking, the perfect for two size, it’s a metaphor for everything in a relationship, surely?

Just before Christmas, I was in Sainsbury’s buying a week’s worth of groceries and, quite by accident, found myself amongst the wine.  ‘Hmmm,’ I mulled, ‘what shall we have this week?’  Suddenly, it struck me:  they are always the same and they are boringly functional.  There’s little wrong with most supermarket wines, obvious exceptions aside and that annoying inflating and cutting prices thing they do, but most are fine for a midweek sup.  They are, however, pedestrian and predictable.  There is rarely that excitement in the pop and sniff of opening something wonderfully different.

‘Sod it,’ I muttered and left without. 

The news of Mr Lawrence’s decision to close the off licencehad broken on the local news blog that week and whilst the bar had been home to some of my favourite nights out in SE4, the shop was where all the best nights in began.  Whenever anyone comes around for dinner, or I just fancy making something a little special, off I go to buy a couple of bottles.  I walked out of Sainsbury’s and drove straight there, filling the car up with bottles, spending more money than I really have spare at the moment.

Then I did the same thing in the New Year.

For Christmas my girlfriend got me a wine decanter and I have gleefully, precociously, sloshed bottles to the hilarity of guests, waxing lyrically about the air crashing through the grapes and the width of flavour it creates.  Yes, there is something painfully middle class about the inevitability of migrating away from beer as you get older and beginning to understand how wine works and yet I just can’t help it.

Oh well.

I’m going to miss that shop, even if I am now the proud owner of a wine cellar.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013


I haven’t been writing so much.  At the beginning of October I gave version five of my architectural-murder-jealousy novel to friends from my MA– the sharing of work is something we regularly do – and promptly stopped.  I’ve been busy at real work.  I’ve been trying to whip what will hopefully become a best-of, if I may, DavidMarstonWrites into shape and I’ve muddled around with a short story that has become lost in a cul-de-sac of boredom. 
Last Wednesday, I finally got the judgement on my novel.  Afterwards, we went for food and more drinks.  I sat there feeling somewhat bruised and battered, my confidence smacked down into dark stinking pit.  It was constructive criticism, certainly, and each and every blow was one that I deserved and even expected, but still it stings.  You’d have thought I was used to it by now, but no, I have to crawl away and heal before I can come back for more. 

The most successful member of our little cohort was out the country and so, as the conversation turned to the writing life, the rest of us seemed a little embittered at both its failure to materialise, but also perhaps, we gave acknowledgement that this is what it will always be like.  Writing will be something done in the stolen moments.  It’s never going to take over from the commute, the open plan office, cheap coffee from dirty mugs and tedious processes designed to test your will to live.  I am writing this at nine o’clock on a Sunday morning whilst my girlfriend sleeps.  When I next write it will probably be in an evening when I’ve scheduled myself to be in because she’s out.  Late at night, early in the morning; the moments when I am not supposed to be elsewhere, those are the ones I snatch to write. 
But this lack of time combines with a more recent lack of focus creating a different problem.  I think I am becoming stupid.

A few years ago I felt as though I knew what was going on, that I could turn my attention to any subject and come up with something coherent, relevant and interesting to say.  Now, I increasingly feel isolated from the rest of the world.  I struggle to come up with things I want to discuss let alone finding the words with which I want to explore the world. 
My head feels full.

The feedback I got from my friends is all perfectly valid, not to mention greatly appreciated.  Instead, my bruises come from disappointment in myself to be more than average.  I still, still after all these years, get the basics wrong too frequently.  I can’t spell.  My grammar is poor. My vocabulary limited, and I have a tendency to use words incorrectly.  I feel more and more limited, unable to retain any additional information or convert it into new ideas. Even reading, I find myself scanning, failing to take it truly in.  I find myself wondering whether I can write at all.
So what’s changed?  Okay, I no longer take long, solitary walks around the city ruminating on the world at large.  I sleep more and drink less.  In return I have more happiness sprinkled through every day which seems like a fair swap and nightly intelligent conversation outweighs self-indulgent mulling.

Part of it, I suspect, is bandwidth.  October through to December were ridiculously busy at real work.  We’re trying to buy a house, which is proving intensely frustrating and time-consuming.  Life, as if has a knack of doing, keeps getting in the way.
My immediate response has been to blame my increased habitual sleep – I typically go to bed  a couple of hours earlier during the week and get up later at the weekend, yet still find myself more tired than I used to be.  Nah, it’s not that.  I’m unconvinced that I ever used those extra hours constructively. 

Perhaps they gave me more time to think.  Commuting by bike has certainly reduced the quiet brain space that I found on the train (and the number of amusing, intentionally or otherwise, conversations overheard), but in return my waist size has dropped again and I’m probably less likely to suffer cardiac arrest anytime soon. 
Meh, whatchya going to do?  Can you be physically fit, mentally adroit and, effectively, work two jobs all in one life?

My next target was television.  January has been a time of austerity and so we’ve been watching quite a lot of TV.  Not hours upon hours, but more than is usual.  Lovefilm is partially to blame, but so are all the reviews I read of supposedly amazing television shows – Borgen, Sprial, Broadwalk Empire, Treme, Breaking Bad, the Killing – none of which have I seen.  For me, mildly precociously, I’m interested in seeing the use of that big, widen canvas that the writers get to work.  It strikes me as being close to a novel.  Space for development, rather than a soap opera’s space for repetition, is an interesting tool.  Old TV shows used to work around the assumption that every episode was someone’s first and so the plot could only stray so far; now when programmes aren’t stumbled across and watched as live broadcasts but collected on digibox hard-drives or saved for intense Sunday-Tuesday night viewing the old rules no longer apply.
Yet, when I think about it, I’m not convinced we’re watching significantly more television.  Living alone, and then not just austere but completely and utterly broke, I watched every episode of the Wire when BBC2 showed all five series across a few short months.  My sister is a film fan and when I visited I’d return with up to a dozen classic movies to watch.  Plus I worked my way through all three series of the original House of Cards, Brideshead Revisited and that thing about the Swedish detective staring Kenneth Brannagh; whatever it was called. In the past two and a half years we’ve managed less than five series of the West Wing; we’re hardly gorging every night.

The point, I think, is that I’m just looking for excuses.
Or that, maybe, my belief in my supposed intelligence was misplaced.  Maybe I was fooled by only having myself and a bottle to talk to.

Back in the restaurant, the question moved onto whether the so-called writing life – of being bound up by books and words and working in solitary – was even desirable.  It’s an ideal, spending your whole life with words, but like anything the idea of it is more perfect than the reality.  Wouldn’t it, eventually, just get boring?
A week passes and the bruises heal a little.  We view another five houses and try to buy at least one of them; it doesn’t come off.  I take my irritation out on my bike, riding it too hard up the Old Kent Road, skirting between the traffic and shouting at an old man as he rides across the pavement and then the wrong way up the road.  Afterwards, I feel guilty for taking my annoyance out on a stranger.  His day might have been even worse.

The bruises fade, from red welts down to soft brown earthen shades.  I play around with the structure of my novel and think about the other points people made.  I spread papers all across the dining room table, moving sections around, trying to shift the drama to where it’s needed. 
I sit and look at the inch and a half tall stack of paper.  Two hundred and thirty odd pages.  It’s a start, it may be far from perfect but it’s a start and that is something to drawn confidence from.