Thursday, 12 January 2017

So what now?


I mean, really, what the fuck do we do now?

I called two election results early and correctly in 2016.  By mid-May, despite Sadiq Khan beating the odiously racist campaign of Zac Goldsmith to be London Mayor earlier in the month, it was becoming increasingly apparent to me that Leave was going to triumph in the referendum.  I hoped for a Remain vote, but the surprisingly range of people I encountered either considering or definitely voting for us to abscond from the European Union was suggesting disaster. 

Secondly, although arguably in a midst of post-Brexit depression, I said as early as August that I thought Trump would take the American Presidency.  A trip to the States in September didn’t yield much evidence to support that, but then we went to New York and Seattle, Democrat strongholds.  It may have seemed madness, and different to the EU-referendum, but the populist message he was chanting was the same as that Farage, Johnson and Gove had sallied around the country blithely lying earlier in the year.  Sure, it may be complete bullshit, but the best stories never turn out to be true anyway.

I wish to hell I had been wrong.

There was satisfaction in seeing Goldsmith also take a kicking in a by-election he assumed would be a waltz to victory, another defeat this time brought about by his own vanity and a justice of sorts for the racism and xenophobia he has displayed over the previous twelve months.  However, that small triumph doesn’t anywhere near make up for the fact that we have, as a country, blundered towards the edge of the abyss and drunkenly stumbled into it.  We have found ourselves transposed to a world where a politician with perfectly mainstream views like Jo Cox can be murdered in the streets of the sleepy town at the heart of her community.  Even in the bitterly fought and stark divides of the eighties, that would have seemed a distant possibility.  Something that, maybe, happened in other countries, but never here.

I have written many versions of this article.  Immediately after the referendum.  As Labour tore itself apart and failed to generate any sense of being a credible opposition even at the point where Tory civil war threatened to implode the whole notion of government.  During a summer when UK politics felt like it was being written by a the same people who write adrenaline punctuated TV shows like 24 or Game of Thrones, locked in a sweaty, darkened room,  with just cocaine and whisky for sustenance, each producing ever elaborate narrative swerves: “call that a twist?  I’ll show you a twist.”

Unable to write fast enough, the world ran away from me, but in every single version I failed to answer the question, so what do we do about it?

Part of the difficulty is that it is not just us, not just the UK.  A dangerous nationalist tide is sweeping the world and with it comes, almost inevitably history suggests, violence and tragedy.  I first wrote about the threat Putin poses eight and half years ago and rather than learning from the escapades in Georgia that prompted that piece, the world seems to be scampering to fall over itself in admiration for the man.  Trump, Brexit, Marine Le Pen looking like the candidate to beat in France, moderate reforms brushed aside in Italy, right wing governments in Hungary and Poland, a near run thing in Austria, trouble in Greece.  These are no longer blips, anomalies; this is a full blown global political swing away from the centre left and social liberalism that dominated for a decade and a half from the mid-nineties and back towards the politics of the great powers of the nineteenth century.

‘Are you trying to cheer me up?‘ my wife asked me shortly after Trump’s victory when we were wondering how long until Armageddon.

‘Not really, no,’ just pontificating, but to extent, maybe, these things go in cycles and we are currently just on the outer edges of the political elastic band’s stretch. It’s a particularly nasty place, sure, but we’ll bounce back.  Won’t we?


The problem is what happens while we’re here.  It’s going to be a while.  Trump is good until 2020.  It’s unlikely that May will call an early election unless she ends up with a minority government due to defections and resignations so that gives her the same time frame.  (Even if she did, the opposition are so fragmented at the moment who knows what the outcome would be.)

People across the social, political and creative spheres have been talking about the fight-back and how it starts now.  While I agree that there is a need, an obligation even, to challenge and fight every erosion of liberty, of rights, every step backwards from the progressive, tolerant world we have spent fifty years trying to create, at the moment it can be little more than a valiant covering retreat.  This is going to be the political re-enactment of Dunkirk, to steal a Brexiter’s favourite period of analogy.  We’re out numbered, out gunned, don’t have a fucking clue how we’re not even going to win, but how we simply save what we can of society.  All we know is that we can’t simply roll over and die or run away.  Our defeats must be disguised as victories, somehow.

The reason this is the best we can hope for is that we’re still not getting to the root of the problem.  The successful vote to leave the European Union and the shambles of an attempt to defend staying in shows that the twentieth century’s political battle lines of left and right are, effectively, dissolving.  This rise of nationalism both here, in mainland Europe and across in the USA is a knee jerk reaction against globalisation.  In Russia it is a tool to keep Putin in power, but it only works because of the cynicism of Russians and a, surprising, pining for the more straightforward world under Communism. 

Rich, poor, old and young, people can see their national identity being eroded by immigration.  The fact that this could be an evolution of identity, that what we had can become something better, as it has done throughout history, seems to pass many people by. 

In barely a generation we have seen the fundamental pillars of industry and the economy change, and people are fearful of that.  Many don’t understand the world we’re heading into, many can’t access its benefits.  The fight against being marginalised in the face of global capitalism is not to make yourself a smaller unit, it is to join forces with those in similar situations, to be a part of the whole not an isolated island.

Oh well, too late now. Brexit means Brexit, even if no-one can quite explain what that actually means in itself.

Unfortunately those in the American mid-west, in Philadelphia, in South Wales, in Boston, Lincolnshire who believe they have voted to bring jobs and industry home have been hoodwinked.  In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum I saw a video of a man being interviewed in Hull who said he expected the factories to be reopening and the jobs to be appearing within the year, as though membership of the EU was somehow preventing those things from happening, as though some magic curse upon the land put in place by “bureaucrats” would be lifted.  It’s bollocks, obviously.  Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump for God’s sake, these are not people who believe in work and industry as a cornerstone of the community.  They’re not Joseph Rowntree.  They believe in profit for themselves, in looking down on everyone else from the safety of their gilded parapet.

There’s an argument that we’re actually in the death-throes of capitalism.  That these things continue to move and evolve, that we went from the ancient empires, to feudalism, to industrialisation and then to free market capitalism and from here to who knows what?  Maybe the blessed holy market can’t keep growing indefinitely, maybe we will hit a peak when civil and social unrest overwhelms share-prices and the whole edifice comes tumbling down.  The past seventy years have been a period of relative peace and prosperity, but maybe that’s coming to an end.  The future is, as always unknown, and it probably won’t be quick.  It is only with hindsight that historians are able to say that the deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor in 476 and an Ostrogoth declaring himself King of Italy marked the end of the Empire.  No-one at the time realised that, just as for the century before that from the death of Constantine no-one realised they were trapped in a period of terminal decline and fall.  No-one recognised that the adaptation of Christianity as the Empire’s official religion was going to kick-start the transition to feudal states.  Of course they didn’t, just as in three hundred years, or less, people may look at back at 2016 and decide it has significance of the sort we can’t comprehend stuck in the middle of the maelstrom as we are.

Of course all of this depends on the planet not giving out first.  You can read all sorts of forecasts: that the icecaps are warmer than they have ever been, that water scarcity is coming, that changing weather patterns are going to thrash our communities on an annual basis, that there is barely a generation’s worth of arable soil left, all of which will make the monetary system we’re using seem inconsequential.  The politics of now shouldn’t be about isolationism, about selfishness, about nations: it should be about technology, about societal change, about rescuing the world. 

It isn’t though, and that’s the real problem.

I know I still haven’t answered my own question.  So, what now? 

Fight back is the obvious answer.  In 2009 I started writing a novel set round about now, in a post-financial apocalypse society that had slumped towards dystopia.  It was a bleak world, but the fundamental corners of what we understood about ourselves remained.  I worry that they don’t anymore.  That what comes next is much worse than I can imagine, will be inherently more complicated than fiction and so the fight back has to answer those complexities.  It can’t be fiction.  Fiction, it seems to my despair, has been co-opted by the alt-right.  Post-truth means invented, so not only do we need to reclaim reality but the imaginary world too.  It will take time to fully understand how we meet that challenge, so as much as it pains me, we must wait for the battle to be clearer.

In the meantime, the best I can come up with is:  Fuck knows.  I guess we try to be kind, try to do the right thing, shout, protest, argue and hope for the god-damn best, hope that things get bad enough for everyone to recognise the terrible mistakes that have been made and try to turn things around before a real dystopia is declared.    

That’s not much hope, but it is probably all we’ve got.

Good luck.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Lost by music


A year later, I still can’t quite believe that David Bowie is dead.

When the news came through back at the beginning of the year I hadn’t even gotten around to listening to Black Star, his final album.  I was still lost in the first few weeks of being a parent, the days and nights were interchangeable, life was about trying to make it through the next few hours.  I saw it on the Guardian, having hauled myself into work.  I felt like going home again.  It was a bolt through my heart.

Mere days before I had been swaying around the living room, the winter sun streaming through the bay windows, my son wrapped tight in my arms, his gurgles of half sleep being smothered by the sound of Absolute Beginners through the stereo.  The ba-ba-baoo chorus felt like a comfort blanket being draped over me; it was going to be all right.  Whatever else happened there would be David Bowie.

And then there wasn’t; and then there was again.

My son, at the time, had an odd looking star shaped man with dangling legs, a mirror in his stomach and various squeaking appendages. It looked like a late sixties comic book inter-dimensional creature, the sort that would get lost in New York and accidentally demolish a couple of blocks before being calmed with acid tabs. 

‘Look,’ my wife says to the boy, ‘it’s your star man.’

‘It’s David Bowie,’ I exclaim and launch into Starman.  Over the next few weeks the spirit of David Bowie, trapped in a suckled child’s toy, waggled about while I tunelessly sang my son his hit singles up until Ashes to Ashes.  It was an odd way to pay tribute to the man who so singularly sound tracked my teenage life.  No, more than that: Bowie’s music showed me what was possible and how it was perfectly acceptable to stretch and cajole an art-form into something that fitted your unique vision, provided you had absolute mastery of in the first place.  It has been something I have been failing to do ever since, but at least he gave me the inspiration needed to try.

I am trying to ensure my son understands this too.  I am trying to live out my failed musical fantasies through him. 

For Christmas, my wife gave me a Stephen Collins print where a baby is being cared for by its Dad.  Dad decides to put some music on, but rather than something age appropriate he thinks the Fall would be more fun.  The baby has to be talked down from a crying fit by the stuffed penguin it is cuddling, left to wistfully dream of a future where modern music will terrify and annoy the older generation.  Every time I read it, I chuckle, not only because Collins’ art if fantastic, but because I recognise myself so clearly in the strip.

‘Listen to this, it’s brilliant, if a little heavy!’

My son whacks his drum over and over and I think he’s a genius, the next John Bonham.  And then he thumps a wooden car against the glass coffee table repeatedly.  He just likes smashing things.

Still, I look forward to the days in the future when we will sit down together and I will say, ‘listen to this, it’s important.’  And he will, no doubt, roll his eyes disparagingly, wondering what all the fuss is about. 

I bought a copy of Songs of Leonard Cohen in my early twenties, on the strength of its reputation, and then, a few years later, acquired a copy of Death of a Ladies Man.  The former I found lyrically interesting, but frequently a little dull; the latter felt a muddy, over-produced mess with occasional glimpses of fizz.  I struggled to understand what all the fuss was about.  I guess, in the end, I was simply too young to appreciate his brilliance and uniqueness.

A friend of mine and I bonded over just the mention of Leonard Cohen’s name.  This was back when I was making a point of not really having friends at work because it was easier to separate my real, often drunken, frequently miserable, always pretentious self and the artifice of normality I presented in the workplace.  She was moved to sit opposite me and it was immediately clear we had lots in common, but it wasn’t prepared to drop my guard until I overheard her talking enthusiastically about the National, and comparing the lead singer’s vocal style to Cohen, before adding: ‘Of course no-one is really like Leonard Cohen, he’s just otherworldly.’

By this time I was immersing myself in Cohen’s back catalogue and was coming to the same decision myself; the reason I’d struggled to really connect to him when younger is because there aren’t really any reference points.  Sure, he’s singing complex lyrics, but then so does Bob Dylan.  Yes, he’s essentially an acoustic troubadour who occasionally borrows a bigger band set-up, but so are countless others.  Underneath that, the lyrical eye, the meticulousness of the song messages, the bleak, over-looked humour, are all so much more than anyone else. 

Although, in fairness, aside from Songs of... it wasn’t until Old Ideas in 2011 that he finally managed to get the production of a record right, striking just the right notes between acoustic and band, perfectly underplayed without being overly simplistic.

Unlike Bowie, Cohen’s complexity means he is unlikely to have been the theme tune to many teenagers’ lives, but that doesn’t mean it fails to inspire passions.  Years ago, my then girlfriend and I had been at a festival in Kent watching Neil Young.  It was only a one day thing, so it was midnight and was were sat in the car waiting for the traffic to begin to move.  As one of the first people to have arrived, we were going to be one of the last out, that was clear.  It was a hot evening, and we sat with the windows down, trying not to fall asleep. 

The car next to us was playing Cohen.  Eventually, Hallelujah came on and the volume was cranked up to the max.  The windows were rolled up, but you could still hear the music, that stretched vocal, cracking the tinny speakers.  A joyous baritone of regret subverted by static.

The couple began to kiss to the rhythm of the song.  Their embrace became increasingly passionate until the seats were reclined and, after a moment’s pause, long enough for a tugged fumble, the car back to gently rock on its wheels.  As the song reached its climax I expected a hand to slap against the steam forming on the window glass.  It didn’t.  Slowly the car came to a rest, but the couple didn’t reappear.

Against the slew of celebrity deaths throughout 2016 these are the two which struck me the hardest.  It wasn’t just the surprise of Bowie’s or the inevitability of Cohen’s, but the beauty in their deaths which caused a tightening of the chest, a welling at the eyes.  Both were able to release last testaments, final pieces of music mere days before they died.  Bowie’s Black Star was one his most challenging and original albums.  Cohen’s You Want it Darker offered the final bites of wisdom from a life well lived, the last words were had.  Both of them had found a creative patch that was almost the strongest they had ever had.  

Not many people have the privilege, to know the end is approaching and to be able to say something final about life.  That usually only happens in bad fiction, as the family gathers around the deathbed, the child leans in to half-hear the gasped final testament, misunderstood and lied about to the grandchildren for ever more.  Real life is almost always crueller, snatching people away unexpectedly or in agony.  Prince didn’t beat real life.  Nor did Victoria Wood, or George Michael, or Steve Dillon, or Ronnie Barker, or Alan Rickman, or Carrie Fisher, or Jimmy Perry, or Robert Vaughan, or Gene Wilder, or Muhammed Ali, or Harper Lee or god knows how many others.  Bowie and Cohen cheated real life and they cheated bad fiction.  They were able to create something that lasts, that can be slowly unpeeled and, when the grief alleviates, can be finally understood.  Well, that is a thing of wonder to be treasured indeed. 

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Writing about not writing

I find it staggering that my son is a year old.

Since his birth my writing productivity has dried up.  I always knew it would drop off, but even in my most despondent moments about becoming a parent, I didn’t think it would be quite this bad.  Babies sleep a lot, I reasoned.  Things haven’t quite worked out as expected.

There are various reasons for this.  Most obviously there is a lack of time, compounded by a lack of sleep which creates a fuddled mess of an imagination no longer able to hold a thought through to conclusion.  Surprisingly the lack of a routine has created a lack of momentum.  Previously I would normally complete a first draft of a scene or of a whole piece in a matter of days.  Now it takes weeks, or longer, until the end of it is an abstract thing so disconnected from its start as to no longer be coherent or even relevant.  Another human in the house causes a lack of space.  And there is a lack of urge. 

Time is stolen away from me.  There’s no real shock revelation there, but prior to Dadness I hadn’t appreciated that as well as baby supervision the amount of domestic and administrative chores increase exponentially and not just by an extra third.  Furthermore the time to complete those is shoved into the unlikely hours of the day where previously writing would take place.  Washing clothes happens late at night.  Researching imagined medical conditions or some gizmo I had hitherto not realised existed let alone grasped its essentialness occurs while he naps.  The inevitable aching for those four in the morning moments spent feeding or comforting to be given back takes place when the alarm goes off first thing. 

If this is all true for me, it is one hundred times more acute for my wife, especially in the early months where her very movements were limited by the lips clamped to her chest.  As he has got larger and more active, the headspace where it is possible to do one thing and to think about something else disappears.  It takes a surprising amount of mental agility to stack plastic beakers or pretend a cuddly lion is eating his stomach.  Similarly, the commute becomes a manic dash where all thoughts are focussed on returning as quickly as possible or trying to overtake on the way in those minutes lost by playing with him.  Paid working hours need to become infinitely more effective so that, where previously, time had paused to allow some notes to be scribbled, anything that adds even five minutes onto my departure time is vehemently resented.

It is only in recent weeks that the constant throb of tiredness has begun to abate.  It is still there, I still pine for bed, but I have stopped falling asleep in meetings, on trains, on the sofa.  I no longer yawn through entire conversations and my caffeine intake has fallen below levels which would kill many people.  Yet still I crave sleep like, in the past, I have craved whisky, an all encompassing urge for the pillows’ soft depth that would be succumbed to, were there not so much to do. 

Every now successful writer has a story about the time they created in the day to put words on paper.  Like many, a friend of mine advocates the early morning, enjoying that time where your brain is not quite clear and the words can slip through the gaps in perception.  Previously I would happily settle down to write when others were ending their day.  Now, I already get up a six to get to work for seven-thirty.  I could get up even earlier, although the idea of disturbing my wife with an alarm at a time she considers the middle of the night fills me with guilt.  Besides, where once I sprang out of bed no matter the time, now I sometimes find it physically impossible to lift my head when the alarm trings.  Instead, I hit snooze and immediately regret the panic of the minutes to be made up – and then he wakes anyway.  My evenings are now occupied with stuff that needs doing.  And after ten?  I am too tired.  I don’t go to bed, but that is only because a day that races full tilt from six in the morning until ten at night needs an hour to unwind, time to read or to think (but not to write).  Despite the weariness in my gut, if I went straight to bed from sixty miles an hour I know I would lie in the gloom, staring at the ceiling, waiting for who knows what?

For me writing has always been a pressurised activity.  I have to splurge.  It has always been a clattering rush to catch the idea before the moment is lost and it drifts away in memory as though never having been there in the first place.  Inspiration is ethereal and fleeting.  The refinement through editing can take years, but, for me, there needs to be something down to play with. 

My hard drive is littered with short stories and fragments of what may have become something bigger where the momentum was lost, the all precious voice reduced to a faint comedy accent, a stereotype so obvious the whole foundation is sliding sand.  These are pieces where I wasn’t quick enough, where some bit of real life got itself miserably in my way, and the words just evaporated. 

Regular readers will have seen evidence of this over the years.  The best posts on here are those captured in a few hours, tweaked and spruced up over a couple of days and set free.  The ones which struggle the hardest are often those I laboured over the most.  That works fine as a model for blogs and short stories, but, obviously, one cannot write a novel in such a way.  Of the two unpublished novels I like best, one was written in an almost feverish six months where I had no other life.  The draft which emerged at the end of that time was short and unpolished, but it was a good base I spent the following year building upon.  The other was written with more care over the course of a year with interruptions for life events, such as moving in with my now-wife.  The fever was abated, but I kept the voice loud in my head at all times, teaching myself to almost think like the narrator.  The finished draft was less patchy, although I was to spend another three years trying to polish the imperfections out.  These revisions would take place over a concentrated period of time, a few months or so where I would find the voice again and in-between I would work on other stuff.

Since my son’s birth I have not opened the file containing the earliest sketches of the new novel I had been working on.  The voice I had is lost, as alien to me now as a sonar bleep across the stars.  I thought that might happen.  Hopefully I’ll come back to it.  For this first year I had more modest plans around short stories and blog posts, all of which were dutifully started, all are unfinished, and arguably unfinishable.      

Space too is important.  I used to want writing to feel a part of the everyday.  I didn’t want to have to make the effort to begin, just to slip into the role.  Living alone my whole flat became an extended desk; when my now-wife and I first moved in together I carved out a space behind the kitchen door, which was more pleasant than it sounds.  It was isolated and focussed.  In our house, I shared an office space with my wife who often worked from home, allowing me to take over the desk in the evenings.  In the summer, I found my thoughts distracted by the views over Lewisham and to Oxleas Wood in the distance, but at least it was a room I could spread my imagination out in. 

That room is now my son’s bedroom.  The desk that was in there is now in the spare room, the chair bumps into the bed when I lean back in it.  The two rooms are next to each other and so in reality I find myself on the dining room table, amongst the fruit and newspapers, the fragments of ordinary life.  It may be uncomfortable, but is better than worrying that every key stroke will wake him from his slumber (even though, logically, I know it won’t).  Except downstairs, life is more prevalent.  The washing up needs doing, the gas bill needs paying, the washing machine roars in a way that can’t be good for it.  I am distracted by a thousand different bits of normal life that need finishing.

But none of this matters.

The poet Jackie Kay once said that we write to understand what’s missing in our lives.  Maybe.  The second unpublished novel, the one  I wrote in a frenzy, sweating in summer sun, cramped in the box sized flat, fuelled by whisky and coffee was about heartbreak, loneliness, rock n roll, no-one listening to you and never growing up.  I stopped refining it and trying to sell it shortly before my wife and I moved in together.

The third unpublished novel was about murder, envy, unrequited impossible love, buildings and never realising what’s important.  In the years it took me write it I doubled my paid-work salary, got married and became the minor shareholder in a house.

Before my son was born I was starting to work on something about politics, about the death of liberalism, about hope, a single history of a family intertwined with the soul of the country.  The scenes I’d written were mainly about fatherhood.

All a coincidence?  Maybe.  Probably not.

The other evening, when I was getting my son ready for bed, I lifted him up in order to tug his top down and he reached his arms around my neck, burying his head into my shoulder, gurgling happily.  There’s that, and there’s the way he babbles along “Dada, dada,” and greets every return with a smile of joy wider than my heart.  There’s the game we have where he chases me around the downstairs of the house, trying to find me in one of the two places I can hide.  The way he looks at me a moment before diving off the bed, or under the bathwater, that glance that says “I know I can do this because you’ll save me.”  All those and a million other reasons.  That’s why writing no longer matters.




Well, except it does a little bit.

As I type I am sitting in a metal storage container in the car park of an old police station, a space I am subletting to escape the chores.  It’s early Sunday morning, barely nine, and there’s a biting chill to the air that cools the coffee next to the computer faster than I can drink it.  My son has been awake, fed and played with and gone down for his nap already and so I am excused to come here.  One eye remains on the clock in the bottom right corner of the screen, watching the two hours disappear faster than the words can appear.

If I don’t write I feel like I am going mad.  If I don’t write there is nowhere for all the stuff, all the emotions, the ideas, the fear to dissipate to.  If I don’t write I only feel half alive.

No, that’s not fair.  It’s not that melodramatic, but it does feel like something is missing.

Maybe Jackie Kay is right.   Maybe I just need to work out, as my life becomes ever better, what it is I am missing.  At the moment it feels as though the things I have lost are space and time to think, to create and maybe understanding that will be one of the hardest parts of becoming a Dad.

So for the time being I am writing about not writing, and that’s better than nothing.