The Take Off & Landing Of Almost Everything

After what seems like an age, I have decided to get back to my blog. Whole galaxies of experiences, emotions, and thoughts have passed through me like an existential shuttle weaving a myriad tapestry of the unsexy, the common, the tedious, shot through here and there with something so extraordinary I don’t think I’ll ever find the time to write about it.

I’m thinking big, but staying particular, so as I write this blog, I have my headphones on, listening to Beck’s new album Morning Phase. I’m in love with it. There is something perfect about it, the way any mastery of an art form allows a person to slip free from the mortal coil and enter some place you never thought you ever would.

Today my eldest daughter, Vienna, learnt how to knit. She sat on the couch and the only sound that came from her was the clicking of needles. By the end of the afternoon she had knitted a coaster. I felt a surge of fatherly pride, such a strong feeling I hope will carry me through life’s crush of circumstances and little waves of elation. I loved just watching her, so absorbed, not caring about the coaster’s perfection, just lost in the creating of something. For me, that is the truest sense of art: the sense of being lost to everything but this unending sense of love for what might happen, the unexpected that will bulge over the brim.

Here’s a fantastic quote from the great Ted Hughes: “You spend your life oscillating between fierce relationships that become tunnel traps, and sudden escapes into wide freedom when the whole world seems to be just there for the taking. Nobody’s solved it. You solve it as you get older, when you reach the point where you’ve tasted so much that you can somehow sacrifice certain things more easily, and you have a more tolerant view of things like possessiveness (your own) and a broader acceptance of the pains and the losses.”

Today I dashed around a corner and ran into the writer I’m supposed to be. I came away with two black eyes, broken ribs, and guilt. And that’s the greatest threat to a writer’s life, isn’t it, the guilt. It will do you in. It will stop you writing. And you’ve got to write, whenever you can. That’s the writer’s life in a chestnut, myth, proverb, cliché, epigram, parable; it’s the biological source of every great story. And most of us have to have jobs in the day-to-day trenches of adult experience. Okay, there are some writers who need no day job, but I’m sure they have either inherited money, are supported by a spouse, or are a freelance writer working for a big company. I think it’s almost mission impossible to get to do nothing but write what you really want to write.

Wasn’t it Ted Hughes who said we are all little creatures sitting behind armour, peering through the slits.

The big question for me is always: How do I stop doing everything else and just concentrate on my writing? But because all I want to do is write, I wonder if I will disappear into the blank page. But I always feel so renewed, living boldly with each moment when I’m so deep inside a story, living it as I write it and not knowing what will happen next, just trusting to the inevitable. And even though it’s hard, I try not to play God, because that gives me a complex, and that never helps the writing, ever.

Fuck, actually that is probably good advice to take into my other life: not to try and play God, to start really exercising some control over what I think. That’s my wooden leg, I tend to over-intellectualize everything known thing under the sun, moon, all the planets, including forgotten Pluto, instead of paying attention to what is actually going on in front of me. God knows there are so many more people whose lives are harder, more painful, complex, tedious, and all the other awful crap.

It’s like David Foster Wallace wrote: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

Sometimes I try hard to get back on track to a normal life, you know, and then something kicks up the dirt into my eyes and I see clearly that there is no such thing as a normal life. Well, maybe on TV or in adverts or in some deepest despair. But the TRUTH is normalcy is like an addiction: the more you need it the more fucked up you become and the more the addiction takes hold of you the more you become nothing but the drug. Nobody, not artists, not anyone is normal. We just pretend we need to be in order to spend and get and think happiness this way leads.

I want out of my mind. Is it possible? Because I’m beginning to wonder if I’m not really seeing the prison I’m getting myself locked within. Like that cliché says, the Mind is a really terrible master.

Again I’m turning to Wallace, but I want to see the world “with the same force that makes the stars, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

This is why I have to get back to the writing. I have abandoned it recently as my life has taken on new upheavals and changes. But writing is the only way for me to come to terms with the world. It’s the only way I have to live a real life so that the writing will turn out to be real for someone else.

The screenwriter/playwright, Martin McDonagh wrote something that caught my eye the other day. He basically said that it helps to be a writer in some way if you’re not quite connected, that you see things from a skewed point of view. I think he’s right. In fact, I think that too many of us have become over-educated at the expense of wisdom and art and life and that the rest of us have become pitifully ignorant and simple doppelgangers of the lowest interests and intellect that’s killing the heart and soul of our humanity.

But what do I know? I’m a Welshman who can’t even land a job doing something he would enjoy. What can I say? I’m tart and ruthlessly independent like Little My and have a will that would rather do whatever the hell I want. Who am I kidding? If I was anything like that, I’d be making my writing work for me or else editing or something, so I must not be doing enough to make it happen. Maybe I’m too lazy or not as driven as other writers seem to be. In fact, as much as I strive to be like Moominpapa (easygoing and enviably hopeful), I’m more like Jansson’s Little My, who drowns the ants in kerosene and when Moomintroll is shocked, she replies: “You knew exactly what I was going to do with them! All you hoped was that I shouldn’t tell you about it. You’re awfully good at deceiving yourself.”

And I am so “awfully good and deceiving” myself. I’ve always thought that because I have a spare bit of talent for writing (especially on toast) that someday I would be a writer. But I’m learning that that is an immature outlook. There is always so much more to writing than just writing, especially in this Age of Distractions. A writer, it seems, is expected to create something for absolutely nothing, and lots of it. We are all waiters now, dashing from reader to reader, imploring them to eat our tasty escargot or frogs’ legs when once we sat at the moveable feast and even designed the menu.

“The analogy between the artist and the child is that both live in a world of their own making.” Anais Nin.

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Feud for Thought

With the passing of the Augustan figure and intellectual bruiser Gore Vidal, I’ve had cause to think about literary rivalry.

It’s well known to each and every keyboard hitter about the hostility between Vidal and Norman Mailer(youtube.com/watch?v=C8m9vDRe8fw).  The Titans of Swing really had it in for each other in both the intellectual and literary ring. In some sense, their acerbic brawls overshadowed their literary outpouring — well almost. For me, they both seem marked, I think, by the immortality of posture that Milan Kundera wrote about.

As a young writer even I had my own bouts with writers. And it began with Hemingway. I never got what all the fuss over him was about. Yes, I got his use of economical language (but is writing solely about balancing the books?) and his great macho persona where each of his heavy testicles were raised high on the bookshelf of every poor male writer who seemed to have catkins between his legs in comparison. I never could bring myself to drink at Papa’s Hem’s animalistic trough of masculine greatness. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of a writer like Mervyn Peake, strolling around the Island of Sark in his cape and poet’s hat like he’d just stepped out from a Harry Clarke painting and was infused with the light of a pansexual being.

Oh, the spats I had with dead writers! You should have seen me, hidden away in my room, stomping the floorboards, shaking whatever writer’s book was du jour that day in my hand and railing against his or her departed spirit who I imagined took a break from the great library in the sky and popped down to have an argy-bargy with me. And I always lost the argument, callow writer that I was. Or maybe I made myself lose, cause who really could best the likes of Camus, Henry Miller, DH Lawrence, Tolkien, Peake, Ursula Le Guin, Simone de Beauvoir, Anais Nin, Satre, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Lloyd Alexander, Knut Hamsun, Hesse, Dylan Thomas, Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson, Tove Jansson, Kundera, Joyce, Blake, Byron, Shelley, Arthur Machen, Tennessee Williams, Ted Hughes, Black Adder, Del Boy, Basil Fawlty, Judge Dredd, Fungus the Bogeyman, Morrissey, Ian McCulloch, Mick Jones, Paul Weller… and the list runs ever on, and on, and on.

Writers are always going on about the importance of reading, and, yes, it is important if you want to write. But I would add it’s also important to get into intellectual scraps with the writers you love, even if you never ever meet them. And it’s especially important to rattle the bones of dead ones — if for no other reason than it keeps their work alive.

In fact, I have a secret rivalry of my very own, too. A bit of an Edwardian, gentleman’s feud with a writer that’s all imaginary cricket bats and cravats and smoking rooms and letter openers and spats and tops hats and stuffy libraries and port. But neither of us have ever admitted to the other that there’s anything between us but a book — if even that. It’s more a rivalry that’s all in my head with us two pygmies of the intellectual void wrestling and wrangling in muck like pagan fools both destined for a ritual killing. Writing about it now, the whole thing sounds petty, stupid, and enormously entertaining. Every writer needs distraction and the impulse to create. And god knows what we’d even spat about if we ever squared off with our six-shooter mouths and our saddlebags of favourite writers strapped to our hips. It would probably be over what flavour ice cream we prefer and insults that would probably go something like this:

Me: “Your book’s crap.

Him: “You haven’t even finished yours.”

Me: “I hate your hair. It’s like liver and onions.”

Him: “Shorn boy and sheep shagger!” (*)

Me: “And what’s with those testosterone tanks strapped between your legs? Do they give you a squirt?”

Him: “It’s better than your bottle of dandelion wine.”

Me: “Yeah, well, for all your hot oven of masculinity, why is it you turn out cupcakes.”

Him: “Pigeon breath.”

Me: “Hog anus.”

Him: “You write like a lobotomized squid.”

Me: “Is that the amount of your intellectual fireworks, a pathetic squid? You know what, I don’t even know why I have a rivalry with you. You’re a lousy writer who can only string together sentences that have been around the block so many times they’ve actually built a necropolis. Plus as a person, you register on the humanity scale as a single-celled organism. Go try another phylum or else pack up your DNA and take a holiday by the genetic deficiency gene pool. And one last thing: I just realized you’re not even worth the effort.”

Shit, I maybe on to something here.

*Author’s Note: For the record, I have never shagged a sheep. But I have eaten Sunday mutton.

Back to the Unknowable

The old man of sci-fi has died! A candle has gone out in the house of literature. And, yes, there are more candles getting lit daily, but there are candles, and then there are candles.

Yes, death is a lonely business, Mr. Bradbury, but I know you shall RIP.

With Bradbury’s passing, I feel a disturbance in the force; I feel like the young man I was who read his work has also departed, his particles scattered to dark matter that I can make no sense of. All I am left with is impressions. Not of my life, but my life as a story within Bradbury’s books or his fiction as a narrative within my known reality. I really can’t tell which is which.

He’s out there now, the way I like to see it, adding his indelible atoms to the cosmos, relaxing in the constellation Libra and sipping his dandelion wine in peace. It’s odd, but there’s a part of me that believes that when writers die, the material world is momentarily unbalanced and it will take a while for the creative equilibrium in life to come back. A single death, but especially one of such creative force, needs numerous lives to fill the gap. I wonder if the birth of creativity also needs an equal number of deaths to allow it the life it needs?

It’s a silly notion I have, but sometimes I think about the idea of meeting writers I love, maybe a few of them even reading a novel I will eventually publish. And although there are a slew of fantastic contemporary writers I’d love to chinwag with, I find that when I think about it, all the writers I would really love to confab with are the dead ones: Dylan Thomas, Angela Carter, Mervyn Peake, Rabelais, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Hermann Hesse, Henry Miller, Tove Jansson, Ted Hughes, Fritz Leiber, Bruno Schultz, Keith Roberts, Arthur Rimbaud, Rilke, Arthur Machen, Caradog Prichard, John Kennedy Toole, and more.

I’m not even sure why I entertain such thoughts. It’s not like it’s going to happen. But I can’t let go of the possibility that it might even though I know it to be a fucked-up desire. There is something in the total absurdity of this thought that keeps me sane and keeps me writing.

“If you just present the events to the reader, then the complexity of human motive will spin off that. If you try too hard to determine the way the reader sees character and motivation, you will actually restrict the reader’s interpretive opportunities. By limiting the amount of guidance you give, you automatically get the depth and complexity of interpretation you want. Because that’s what we readers do in real life — we interpret people’s actions and thus assign them ‘motive’ and ‘character.’” M John Harrison

Last of the Gang to Realize

In my twenties, I got this crazy notion. I suppose all of us get those at some time. Mine was that I wanted to be a writer. But I had no idea where to begin — besides reading.

So I read. Anything, anywhere, everywhere, and then some more. I think a lot of people I knew thought I was either crazy or delusional or else depressed.

I was ecstatic — an electric light with no off switch and alone with myself.

At some point I tried writing my own stuff, imitations of the masters and, as is expected, it was lousy crap that now I wince at but at the time I thought was something — the way you think death is something that always happens to others.

Then something odd happened. I stopped writing. But I didn’t stop reading. This wasn’t the odd thing. It was that I started to believe that emulating the crazy lives of the writers I loved (like Henry Miller, Dylan Thomas, DH Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, Ted Hughes, Jack Kerouac, Knut Hamsun, James Joyce, Tolstoy, Dickens, Steinbeck, Joseph Conrad, Blake, Shelley, Byron, Rimbaud, Thomas Hardy, Herman Hesse, Baudelaire, etc, etc) would make me a writer. That adventure was more important than writing. All I needed to do was jot things down in a fancy notebook and recite poetry or shock people with irreverent and diabolical ideas and thoughts all stolen from the writers I loved. It was my homage to them, proof that I was their blood brother in waiting and in writing.

The problem was, I was too timid to be like my heroes. Their lives were such a huge undertaking and too big of a call to life for me. I just didn’t have that kind of spirit in me, at least not physically, although I now realize it was beginning to emerge creatively, even spiritually.

But the biggest problem of all was that I didn’t write!

I just created a fictional me who had aimlessly stepped out from a novel. And still nobody recognized me. Did nobody read Miller or Thomas or Wilde or Hamsun, I kept shouting to the stars? How could they not recognize the writer in me? Blind fools!

It was a sort of mystical time period when I look back at it. I wasn’t writing a damn thing, just jotting ideas and quotes down and living an itinerant sort of life, not keeping a job for long, and reading lots, and trying to create this real, tangible persona of a writer without doing a bit of writing.

I blame the writers I admired. They always seemed to be off having adventures in Paris or London or Laugharne, leading wild lives, and then having a brief moment of frenzied writing that was immediately published to great acclaim and fanfare. They all made it look so damn easy! And I wanted that.

Which is a shame really, since twenty years later, I’m still struggling to free myself from that myth. Although now I look at it with a good dose of humour. Now I know the writing life isn’t anything like that. I only wish someone had told me instead of ridiculing or ignoring or worse telling me to give it up and that only a certain breed of gifted individuals become writers. Or I wish I could have woken up and smelled the book spines. Or do I?

My apprentice years have been longer, I think, because I had to work myself out of two writers: the real and the imagined. Although now I look back fondly on that imagined one. I think without that callow youth who thought he knew what it took to be a writer was simply having joie de vivre and elan and moxie and passion and irreverence and balls and attitude and despair and misery and poverty and magnetism and personality and a reckless heart and a joyful soul, I don’t think I would have found the real writer in me.

And in truth, I was already training my mind to be more imaginative. By seeing myself like a character out of a book,  I was helping the writer along by always reaching for something witty to say or practising some idea out on a stranger to see how they reacted. It was all training, the way I look at it.

In a way, I’m thankful for that young man. Grateful that he made a fool of himself then so I don’t have to make a bigger fool of myself now.

And as the writer Jeanette Winterson has said, what is the “I” but a fiction, or Rimbaud with his “I is someone else.” We tell stories every day to others and ourselves.

The only difference now is that I’m much more serious about jotting those stories down. I’m becoming that writer I always wanted to be. Which is what I set out to do in my twenties, it’s just taken me a bit longer to arrive.

But arrive I will, one way or another.

In the Beginning Was A Storyteller

I keep hearing it said in the grocery aisle, while I wait for my waiter to bring the main course, and on deserted streets in Maine (now that summer is over and the tourists have fled) that the 19th-century novel had more moral complexity and social subtext than contemporary novels and allowed 19th-century readers to make sense of the world they lived in. Now it’s the triumvirate of TV, radio, and the Web that reigns supreme, it seems, when we need to shape our moral landscape and define ourselves as social animals in the 21st century.

My response to that is: “There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more.”

OK, besides the faulty programming system that religion imposed on me as a young boy and the best laid schemes of my parents, school, and the BBC, the social and moral fabric of my being owes much, if not all, to books (music, too — of which I may well write about later).

I read, therefore I am, is my logos — said at the beginning and at the end of the universe.

The countless authors whose work has educated, amused, entertained, challenged, enlightened, broadened, corrected, and enlarged the shallow “I” that I live through are the ones I credit with my life beyond an unimaginative one: the one of facts and figures, the “cold clockwork of the stars and nations” (Ted Hughes), the one of time disciplines, the one of seeping realism that wants to set its cement between my atoms.

Which is not to say I go to books to seek out some better way to live or some better way to think or some better way to act or some better emotional life, what I’m saying is that what I read matters, it sinks in, it coats, it feeds, it breathes. It all goes in, and between my brain and my balls, some magic happens.

And as it happens, invention is always more interesting than reality, anyway.

Nietzsche said: “What is good is easy; everything divine runs on light feet.”

Writer Russell Hoban responded: “Yeah, right. It’s easy for dead guys to talk bollocks.”

That’s Fantastic, Mr. Fox

I’m reading Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox to my four-year-old daughter. She loves it, especially the enjoyable rhyme about the rotten farmers:

“Boggis and Bunce and Bean

One fat, one short, one lean.

These horrible crooks

So different in looks

Were nonetheless equally mean.”

It’s a rhyme worthy of being sung by Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon.

Dahl is a fantastic writer. He knows how to flip the adult world on its soft head and with a big, brash show announce, “Look at our wonderful and absurd antics.”

And Wes Anderson’s film is right on. I think Dahl would have loved it. Anderson likes to portray the dynamics of dysfunctional families and the beauty that lies within those crazy cracks and faults, and Dahl’s Mr. Fox and his family was a perfect choice.

There is something fantastic about a wild and wily fox outsmarting greedy and slothful humans. And the simple as well as annoying act of stealing chickens reminds me of the myth of Prometheus, stealing back fire from Zeus.

And it feels so right that Ted Hughes, sickened by the strictures of his English degree, encountered a figure with the body of a man and the head of a fox who put a bloody paw on his papers and said, “You’re killing us.”

And if ever there was a trickster, it had to be Roald Dahl.

I remember when I first read James and the Giant Peach, I pestered my parents to buy a peach tree for our back garden in Wales. I must have been desperate to have talking insect friends and to sail away over Carmarthen Bay, heading toward the Emerald Isles or farther, maybe, into the land of Tir Na n’Og.

My parents ended up getting pear trees. Which I now see as a fantastic adult prank.

READING:

The Phantom Tollbooth. This has been called a contemporary Alice in Wonderland. And it is. Norton Juster writes like a madman who can’t get enough of the shape, the sounds, the taste, the meaning, the history, the wonder of words. And he does so much with so little: A bored young boy.

LISTENING TO:

Love Hysteria by Peter Murphy. The Lord of Goth’s finest solo album. Murphy moves through each song like a snake shedding its skin. It’s a hypnotic album for late-night listening when the house has that deep-set silence that seems inexhaustible, but isn’t.

Go Away White by Bauhaus. Yes, I’m having a Goth relapse. But Bauhaus, along with the Smiths, Japan, and Echo and the Bunnymen, and Joy Division, put the “kick” in my teenage self. This album is on par with The Sky’s Gone Out and In The Flat Field.  And as is to be expected, it mixes elements of Murhpy’s solo work with Love and Rockets. I want to go and unearth my Anne Rice and drink from the cup of solitude. Or listen to Bowie’s Scary Monsters.

Of Beards and Men

I’ve got some raffishly trimmed whiskers. No more scrubbed and shaved. No more little boy in a grown man’s corpus.

Actually, I’ve sported a beard for a while now. It helps to withstand the harsh Maine winters, springs, summers, and falls. And since I’m an idle idler, it saves me having to lather up and sharpen the blade on my leather briefcase.

And now I keep reading the scruff is back. Famous shaggy noggins now include Sting, David Beckham, Michael Stipe, 007 Craig, Daniel Day-Lewis, and this testy schnauzer that lives in my neighborhood.

And why the new trend in whiskers? There’s a backlash, Daddy O, against the grooming wonders that were unleashed with the rise of metrosexuality. We — that is some men — want our beards back where they belong.

I chose my beard based on a viewpoint and not for aesthetic reasons. I’m no sandal-wearing hippie with a hairy chin. I simply needed a liberation from the blade. One reason is the casual nature of my workplace: my dress-down office allows me to wear facial hair without getting a monk’s tonsure. (I work in publishing, bit like a monk who worked with illuminated manuscripts).

So now it’s time for contemporary society to get used to hirsute and slackers in facial hair.

And I didn’t grow a beard for the macho appeal. I decided on it so that I could once more connect with my Ted Hughes, animal, instinctive, pre-verbal self. (Although it is well known that Hughes never had a beard, he was still England’s most scandalous poet since Byron — who also went without facial hair.)

I shall end on an ironic note. It’s common knowledge in scientific circles that the same hormone that triggers beard growth also triggers baldness.

Maybe that is why I have a beard. If I keep triggering hair growth, maybe that bald spot I notice on the top of my head will vanish in a puff of hair.