A Writer’s Diary (my new book) has now been running on Substack for a month.
If you’d like to read about it, here’s an intro.
If you’d like to read everything in one go, here it is:
Samstag 1 Januar
Entered the year in Leigh’s arms, as it should be. Mum, exhausted, had gone to bed around half past eight. Dad stayed up until midnight. Big Ben on the TV. Brother texted.
‘Who knows what this New Year will bring?’ Dad said, five minutes after the chimes – and then started sobbing. He was sitting on the blue sofa. ‘Happy things, perhaps,’ he added. We gave him another hug. He went to bed soon after. We didn’t stay up much longer.
Late up. Quiet day. Muggy warm. Went for a walk, or tried to. Mum turned back halfway to the War Memorial.
Sonntag 2 Januar
Drove home. Unpacked. Sitting at my desk, writing in my diary. When Leigh went to that conference in Munich, on logical languages (Esperanto, Simplified English), she bought this diary, this Tagebuch. She said when she saw it, she was thinking of it as one of my Christmas presents. But then she remembered Mum always buys me a diary, so she better have it for herself (although Leigh doesn’t usually keep a diary – apart from her academic one). On Christmas Day, Mum said she had been intending to get me the usual diary – to order it online – but that she’d forgotten. She was embarrassed but also, I could tell, exhausted. All this keeping up with the usual rituals is becoming difficult for her. I tried to make as little of it as possible, although her forgetting upset me – not because she’d forgotten my present, but because if she were her healthy self, she’d never forget something like that. I realized the chemotherapy was making her iller than she’d let on. Of course, I said it was fine, I could easily get the diary myself; and then Leigh mentioned she had this spare one which she wasn’t going to use. ‘I’ll give it to him when we get home,’ she said, ‘as if it’s from you.’ Mum wanted to give her some money for it, Leigh tried to refuse, but Mum insisted – so this Tagebuch is from both of them. I don’t know if I’ll get used to the days of the week, although I love Mittwoch for Wednesday. Midweek. It’s very practical, like Mandarin days of the week (Oneday, Twoday…) but makes me wonder where they put Woden. Was he too Norse for them? A couple of the summer months are lazily shared – August, September (but November, too) – and for some, English just finesses a letter: Dezember, Oktober. März is heavy-metal-umlaut month. Januar and Februar save energy, just like Mum, by forgetting the y’s. Mai is kin to Czech Maj. But Juni and Juli are like skipping rhymes. Oh, April’s lazy, too. English months came from Northern Europe, didn’t they? We started to export our language and time later. The paper of the Tagebuch is good for writing; the edges of the letters don’t go spidery, and the ink is sucked in without me having to leave the page open for five minutes. As usual, I feel the thickness of pages, between me and the desktop, and wonder what will happen to be written on them. I don’t think Mum will buy me another diary.
Montag 3 Januar
So far, slack-writing. I’m in a lull; when I was younger, I went through periods – of of of writer-crazes, of under-the-influence. I suppose it has to be (disappointingly for all concerned) that I’m more myself and so less swayable. But I still attempt to seek out books that will change me, and occasionally one once again does. (Clarice Lispector, Agùa Viva.)
I go back into the forest and am lost between thickly growing trunks.
What concerns me is that more stable writing lacks something because it lacks periodicity. Blue. Rose. Early. Middle. But sometimes there has to be, and so we have to endure, a season of walking in ice (Schubert, D.960) – Nature must come to seem not like nature at all, just like an element in one of its states; and then it needs to prove (Spring, torrential or not) that it can’t be killed by a sub-zero lull.
But the forest isn’t always available. Too often I stay in the glib city; it’s only when there are free animals around that there’s potential for metamorphosis. Pigeons and rats, green parrots and foxes – they won’t do; they’ve already changed into human-adjuncts, metropolites.
No, that’s wrong. I’m just bored of seeing them in Brockwell Park. A person only feels vivid when they feel hunted. Am I – are you? – capable of feeling prey? Who or what would eat me?
I see death as a perfectly circular lake, dark silver, almost perfectly smooth – because ripples of light sometimes travel back and forth across it (perhaps only to prove to me they are within my eyes, and are merely hopeful, because death is unreflective). Situated high up in the mountains, this lake is expensive to visit but far from exclusive. Entering the waters there is the most stylish thing most people do. They are being escorted into the back of a black Bentley – and driven on soft springs to the semi-circular beach of their oblivion.
Dienstag 4 Januar
Warm, showery day. Walk in the park with Leigh; very aware of pregnant women, of couples with babies in buggies. Held her hand. Green parrots unhappy with the wind.
My image for life is flour on a fork – plain white flour. Although I can’t see the particles, I know they are there. They have more friction than chalk powder, and seem happy to ascend into toppleable towers. Spooning flour into a bowl brings a sequence of unrepeatable icebergs. I’m sorry to lose each one. Bread follows. (But, if it’s bright white, this is processed flour.)
Mouse was fine while we were away, Polly says, round for coffee. She went in to see him twice. Like Christmas. Only one night with our bed all to himself. He’s grown a little, still growing. He lies on the carpet behind me like tabby roadkill. Legs all over – at least seven of them. Not a normal kitten, this one. Hardly a kitten any more.
Looked back at last month in here. What I wrote on December 17th about finishing the last book is wrong – just entirely wrong. I will try again when I can be bothered.
Mittwoch 5 JanuarQuiet.
I can be bothered. Ends of years feel like conclusions but beginnings feel like continuations. December devolves to January, and I’m in the same shit, writing the same thing. Project remains Project. Ends of books are staggered: first reader, other readers, agent, publishers or publisher, editor, redraft, final edit, flat proofs, bound proofs, final panicked changes, author’s copies, oh look a typo on page 3. When I finished scribbling the last paragraph of my last book, first time through, I stood up and took a curtain call. I haven’t confessed that to anyone, not even in here. I bowed left, right, front. That’s the only time I’ve ever done something so public, in my room, on my own. But I knew that someone someday would applaud what I’d done – I felt the tickle-touch of future eyes – there were admirers, a thousand, ten thousand – I could almost hear them cheering – but the standing ovation, the love, was interrupted by rumours of a bomb, and then by a bomb – people fled the smoky theatre – Messerschmidts and Spitfires, coming out of the sun, strafed the screaming crowds – I sat down again, and was pleased at the beginnings of shame at my vanity. Such vanity. This took place one day in the middle of March or June, not on 31st December. Yet it was my own personal midnight of the year. I may have told Leigh that evening (about finishing the book), I suspect I didn’t. It was an entirely private Hogmanay. Usually, I’ll write a little in here, and I always try to remember to date final pages. Maybe someone who was in the auditorium will be enthused enough to take an interest, after they recover from their pride-induced burns – although that particular theatre will have to be rebuilt from ashy ruins. These are the foundations.
In Juni or März – privately – at the desk – ashamed – scribbling – I will try to rebuild from ashy ruins. I think it will be harder this time, because I dared to take that curtain call. Because of that, I am a worse person, a worse writer.
Donnerstag 6 Januar
Cocooning. Marbled endpapers enclose me – I am intended to be read on a table of oak, by sunlight falling through ash trees. From a room two rooms away, someone I love plays Schubert – the accompaniment, but no-one is singing. When it is dark, owls will report on one another like agents for the Stasi. Herons find the lake, as their great-grandmothers did. No newts in the rain barrel. (I was in parts of this past – I travelled blithely through 1978, as if it were 1938.) Put your ear closer to the collapse: I can hear the ants in the compost. A spider isn’t even patient as it repairs its web. The house martins in the eaves of the Cheshire Home have something to do with me. (Without shadows, no poetry; without mulch, no trees.) Although the ink is black, it features as torch beam. Human beings are mostly wrong. Crumbs of gathered pollen fall on me from the ivy, and I emerge boyish and cobwebbed. (A spider isn’t even an emblem of concern for death as it restrings its web.) There’s a reek of fox close to the lake wall. If you were patient enough, you’d see something beneath the surface. You wait. No word but susurrus for the reedbed whisperings. He knew something about him – germane to him – was being passed, stem to stem, in the twilight, on the Sunday evening.
Freitag 7 Januar
Wrote some novel.
Also, did some preparation for teaching. Emailing all the students in this term’s workshop. Making sure they know which room we’re in, etc. Already anxious about what they’ll expect.
Then wrote a bit more novel.
Only this term to go before I am on study leave.
Samstag 8 Januar
Sonntag 9 Januar
10:09. Leigh did a pregnancy test, which was positive! (She bought it at the Streatham chemist as soon as they opened.) Clearblue: a small cross in a clear plastic circle.
Neither of us quite able to believe it – although I had thought Leigh might soon be pregnant, again. Her period is days late. So, she was pregnant when we went for that sad walk in the park; also at New Year, at my parents’.
We have been a little subdued in our reaction. I feel very happy but also terrified. Leigh wanted to do another test immediately; I said the cross was very clear. More hugs. We’ve decided not to tell anyone for three months – assuming all goes well.
11:01. I am nervous every time Leigh goes out of the room; she, whenever she goes to the loo. She has immediately started taking aspirin, and will try to make an appointment at St Mary’s for Tuesday.
Montag 10 Januar
Imagining the tiny blob of growing cells; trying not to. I saw Hubert Selby Jnr once, at a big public event. He was asked about self-censorship, given how extreme his novels were. He said, and immediately became a saint of mine: ‘If-it-comes-in-the-brain-it-goes-on-the-page.’ No question, no hesitation. Have I lived up to Hubert? What don’t I normally write? What don’t I put down because I imagine someday it’ll destroy whatever reputation I have? (The idea there will be literary reputations when people are knifing one another for half a mouldy turnip…) (It’s always turnips for dinner in my climate collapse dystopia.) I suppose I don’t write unfaithfulness. Unfaithfulness of mind. When I betray myself, and Leigh, by thinking of other women. And also hate – hatefulness. I try not to record my flashes of disgust at other people. (The annals of my self-disgust are multi-volume.) I don’t know why it is, but my first reaction – person! – is often fear and loathing before I coach myself to peace, love and understanding. Where I was brought up, people didn’t look like the people I see in London. The mathematician Paul Erdös referred to TIF – The Inner Fascist. He recognized that he had one (despite being Jewish), that we all have one. And so, I suppose, I don’t put down – and I still won’t put down – what my Inner Fascist thinks and feels and shouts and screams. It’s not necessary for me to write it because you too, whoever you are, you think it (Dear Literary Executor) when you are impatient, tired, exhausted, angry. And I can’t argue that this isn’t the real me – perhaps the inner of inner is the cave: tribal mistrust. I’d prefer to think that it’s the Outer Fascist, and that when you go beneath the crust, we’re all less crusty. If we were accepted and loved as we should have been, by good enough mothers, surely there’s acceptance and love beneath surprise that someone looks or behaves or smells as they do.
Dienstag 11 Januar
What is your territory – as a writer, as an ahrhrtist? I suppose (trying not to be dishonest) mine is people who have enough free time to think about themselves as people. You might say it’s identity, but it seems to me that everybody making any kind of art is concerned with identity. Better to say (at least recently, post-Ghost Story) it’s consciousness and time – boom, I said it. Being and Time. Sein und Zeit. Or that’s the way it goes when I’m concerned with it, rather than being pulled along by a story or formed by a form. This could be reduced to, ‘How people get through the day.’ Overall, it’s less about consciousness than the escape from consciousness, consciousness overcoming consciousness to become… I don’t like continuation dots. I don’t like how they look on the page. For me, it’s hard to read writers (Céline, Miller) who use a lot of them. And I particularly disliked those three dots just then. My territory is – like all writers – the page. I try to get readers from the top of one page to the top of the next page: with something happening in between – happening to the language, the characters, but also the reader. I called it ‘headfuck fiction’ once. (Wishing that wasn’t offputtingly sweary.) Under the headline EVERYTHING COULD BE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT, and American sub-head, ‘Reader realizes, their consciousness is neither unique nor definitive.’ And the follow-up story, NOTHING IS INEVITABLE JUST BECAUSE IT EXISTS IN ITS CURRENT FORM. ‘You are not inevitable, neither are your clothes. Neither is your God, nor the way you see the colour green.’ If I wanted a description of what I have always wanted from books, it would be TO NOT BE ME. To be anything other than me, to be anywhere other than where I am. (The further the better – hence sci-fi and fantasy, Emily Brontë and Keats.) And that’s what I’ve tried to write. In that way, my territory is what is not my territory. I try to write what I shouldn’t have written, what I shouldn’t be able to write. Because the voice comes from away from me – away from the desk. Yet the desk is where it happens. ‘Morning,’ to Leigh – I got up early to write this before I was too conscious or self-conscious to write it. I slept badly, thinking thinky thoughts – that’s no excuse.
Mittwoch 12 Januar – Workshop 1
Write what you know plus Stay in your lane equals Keep a diary. Where else am I allowed to go? I have already invaded and subdued so many lives. Joseph and Elliott. What if what I know – what if all I know – what if all I can legitimately claim is, is being a white man writing about writing at a desk that is actually a table? What if my territory is 76¼” by 31½” (194cm x 80cm) of horizontal hardboard? Bigger than Jane Austen’s ‘little bit two Inches wide of Ivory’ – but why Ivory, Jane? Why not a native hardwood? Why did an elephant have to be tusked to bring you the whitely neutral surface you must work upon?
This evening’s first workshop went well. Class comprises: Ola, Lola, Andy, Anja, Rudy, Katherine, Felix – can I remember them all? Grace, Rebekah, Jess. Who’ve I forgotten? Agh. Have to look them up. Michael. The Archangel Michael. One of the things I’ve learned as a teacher is to do as little comparison as possible – don’t forestall the class’s experience for them. I know that I could say, “Look, some of you will have a breakthrough this term, and you won’t recover from it for a couple of months. You’ll suddenly find yourself writing something much better than you’ve ever done before, but you won’t know how you’ve done it. And the others in the group will recognize that you’ve achieved something special – and that I (tutor) have seen and reacted to that. And they’ll become disheartened and jealous and wonder why it isn’t them? For some, this will mean they work harder, and produce something better just in time for assessment, for others it’ll make them aggressive and slapdash, resentful and pointlessly competitive. (This was how I was, in my writing class, on my MA.) Even though it’s only Week One, I think I can identify who among you is ready to pop and who is heading for a sulk. That’s why, in your tutorials, I’ll speak to you as I do.”
Leigh annoyed at me for getting in late. I went for a drink with the students, which often settles some of them – I mean, seeing me in a less formal setting, not the booze itself. Maybe the booze itself.
Donnerstag 13 Januar
An English writer is post-Imperial, whereas a Chinese writer is in the pomp of Empire, and an American one is in the plop. Maybe that’s not the way to start, though I like using pomp next to Empire soon after Imp. ‘Minimalism is inimical to the idioms of dominion.’ Now I’m just playing – which puritan minimalism dispermits. Keep it simple, stupid only applies if you’re stupid, or wish to become so. Hemingway hems me in, Carver carves me up, but grandmother Stein is fine most of the time. (Lish did it to Carver, leaving him flayed. True minimalism takes two. Minimalism is S/M.) The cult of the cut leads to writing that represents butchery, not animality – living-inquisitive-responding creatures, often dangerous, poised on paw-hoof-wing, who can fucking surprise you/me. ‘Here’s your meaning, sire, half a pound of chopped liver – or chump steak.’ What that really means is, ‘You’re alive, I’m alive, but what I’m giving you is dead.’ Yes, I’m European – a posthumous place; Europeans are born with a death in the family, a stillborn twin. Yet what we notice most in the graveyard is fox, rat, crow. Our sentences can be epitaphs, or the genius-words of schoolgirls from beyond the elm – about a teacher they fancy, or a teacher they hate, or about the fox, or about how much they love graveyards. Cuts bleed (blood is good; we need the bed of prose to be a killing floor). In the past, I self-amputated – ‘I feel the need, the need to bleed’ – but now it’s about not mutilating time. As a person, there are hesitations in my hesitations. Englishmen don’t have declarative souls; they have – he generalizes – This wasn’t where I meant this to go. (Which is good. No route march.) All I needed was a reminder, before I started work, that I’ve been through the meat-grinder before. I’ve been mincemeat. Sam R. Delaney says it best – that minim. stuff is ‘good writing’, not (forgive me) ‘talented writing’. Boilerplate is life-hate; route one is No Fun; it may be, Toby, that the curlicue is you. I suppose I prefer bad writing to dead writing. We live in the provinces of the decline of the American Empire – the suburbs of Google and the exurbs of Windows, and the brownfields of MS-DOS, and the necropolis of IBM. We live within sight of the rise of the Chinese dominion, the high metropolis of Huawei and brands I haven’t even heard of.
Freitag 14 Januar
What people really like in diaries, I know, aren’t the mini-essays, generalizations about Art & Life. They like the bit about the pig escaping into the walled garden. They like the weather, landscapes, animals, gossip – the subplot about the milkmaid, the aside about the price of herrings. (This is a mini-essay, generalized.) The shaker of athlete’s foot powder forgotten on top of the bathroom cabinet. They like a little bit of health business but not too much. (Journal of an Invalid.) When an observation comes, and it’s true, it’s got to be in the midst of plumbers and banging. The kitten chewing the curtains and baby’s whooping cough. That’s why Virginia Woolf is so good. (She’s Queen.) (Minus the baby.) (And the kitten, come to think of it.) We need our bathroom replaced – this is us – because the shower leaks down through the kitchen ceiling. ‘Pissholes,’ says the builder on next door’s scaffold. The shower has leaked for about a year and a half. I don’t visit my parents often enough. I want to go full-time at work and I don’t want to go full-time at work. Virginia Woolf never had a kitten, did she? She wrote about Vita Sackville-West’s dog. Dorothy Wordsworth wrote about her brother’s writing – whether it was going well or (as usual) badly; whether he was furious or merely gloomy. In one or two lines, she did delicious watercolours. And she didn’t bother with transition or construction. (Not patronizing. Her construction was happenstance.) The sonnet and the milkmaid right next to one another, because the milk spills on the page and the sonnet pays the dairy (eventually) – the fact of there being sonnets allows some small amount of money to come into the cottage. The milk. There’s quite a bit about the milk. I have lived in this house five years, and when my back is to the window – as it is when I’m at my desk – I still can’t tell whether a train on the track beyond the garden centre is approaching from the north or the south. You’d think the sound over the railway bridge (north) or through the trees (south) would make it somewhat different, distinctive. But my ears can’t hear. (Who are ‘people’ anyway? ‘..people really like.’ Most people? Posh people? People who read, who are the only people who really count as people to writers who don’t have enough readers? Stop with your peopling.)
Samstag 15 Januar
How about a desk diary? What if I keep this really close? It’s going that way anyway. A diary of the desk. In this place, a coffee spill is a major event. If we moved house, I would take a photo – many photos – and put the objects back where they were, here, at a new location, in a different workroom. (That’s unlikely to happen for years; we can’t afford it.) Why a photo? It’s not like I don’t know where they go: the rhinoceros, the Mercedes; the pen pot (white ceramic F H FAULDING & CO LTD GOLDEN EYE OINTMENT), the pencil pot (shining stainless steel). Overall, the Anglepoise. Uncle Anglepoise, PAT IN UK AND ABROAD. Never thought of it as Uncle before. I will stop, because these things are of no interest to anyone but me.) (I will continue, because what is this diary for if not things of no interest to anyone but me?) I went through a period of acquiring metal objects – along with the lamp, the brushed metal filing cabinet over my right shoulder, the metal mug in which I have my coffee. My good-as-I-can-make-it coffee – which I sometimes spill. If my desk-objects weren’t metal, then they were black plastic. But it’s wooden things I want around me most of all. Woodface was probably the first. The Green Man – French. I was fourteen- or fifteen-years-old, and with my father in a Brocante in the Dordogne. I remember hundreds of chairs piled up to a ceiling as high as the rafters in a village church. Dad was doing a deal; the antiquer gave me the carved-leafy face for free. A gift – originally from a dresser or a seat-stall in a chapel. They have a name, ornaments that surmount pillars within antique furniture – my father would know it, unless he’s forgotten it. I could phone him to find out, but I don’t want to hear his voice as he speaks about Mum. Not right now. Of course, she might still answer – as she won’t in future. (I will phone when I’m finished.) The Green Man has been with me for over thirty years, and is important, colossal, always calling me back to him. He’s made of dense chocolatey wood. I would like a desk made of the same wood, not too heavy, but with lots of drawers.
Sonntag 16 Januar
My tea is beside me, to my left (as I’m right-handed and the pen goes in that hand) – tea the colour of the Thames at its muddiest. When I brought it up, and Leigh’s at the same time, I managed not to spill any on the stair or landing carpets. If I’d done this (our current carpet is tea-coloured anyway) it would be a matter of deciding whether it was serious enough for me to absolutely have to fetch a kitchen cloth, and scrub it with washing-up liquid, or whether I could do a one-foot sand-dance, and trust it not to stain. (My parents remembered seeing the famous sand-dance troupe, Wilson, Keppel and Betty up in the West End – the two moustachioed men (minus Betty) would busk for people queuing for plays and musicals, sliding angular and comic with their pharaoh’s headdresses. Pure Music Hall History.) Leigh’s tea is more likely to stain as Leigh takes her tea stronger than me. When I make it, in the morning, I always put Leigh’s mug on the left – L for left for Leigh – so I don’t forget which has green milk in it and which red. (Hers is skimmed, mine semi-skimmed.) Sometimes a spoonful of honey sneaks into mine, I don’t know how – and Leigh doesn’t need to know about that. We have organic teabags, because they don’t release plastic particles into us, the loo, the sea. Today, this morning, 7:48, my tea tastes fine, and I’ve written this much, and the mug is still half full. In the morning, every morning, we start with our wide off-white mugs – I suppose they’re the colour of Cornish Cream in a cream-coloured jug. When the tea tastes bad, and isn’t so much ‘my tea’, is when it has bubbles in it. I don’t know why this is – there’s something demeaning about bubbly tea (not bubble tea, which they sell in Soho). Tea should have a placid, steaming surface; no glissando of milk fat – but this mug is getting too cold, and I can taste the creak in it more than the crank. (I should say, alternate days, Leigh gets up and makes me tea.)
Phone call with Mum, who is reluctant to say what’s really going on with her – as she’s always been. (When she told me the diagnosis, she said, ‘I’m sorry for putting you through all this bother.’) Dad was there, so I couldn’t really say what I wanted.
Montag 17 Januar
There are lots of people who want to be writers, and even more who want to know what it’s like to be a writer. More still are interested in – fascinated by – the inspiration (old-fashioned) and misbehaviour (my art demands I sleep with her as well as you) and bosslessness (forgetting agent and editor) and funky workspace (in some magazine) than are interested in, or give a fuck about, yet another novel. Another novel, however good, is just another novel. Give us the honest interview about how the novel was written, and how little of it was made up. If you’re writing about a passionate affair, and most novels are about passionate affairs (aren’t they?), you bloody well have to have gone off and fucking had one, don’t you? No, the desktop world is a very clear, beautiful and limited one. However rich you are, you can only write with one pen. You can worldbuild multi-volume fantasy epics, but each letter has to emerge individually. (When I’m writing fast, I forget to dot my i’s.) If you don’t love being at the desk, and being in the world of words, being a word-being, then you shouldn’t be a writer. Fine, be a screenwriter. Or go and advertise your vocation, and your interestingness-compared, in the shop window of Starbucks. But the real unreal thing is you and the sentences unspooling from no-one knows where. They are not there already, sculpture within stone, waiting to be transcribed, although who knows? The sound of them needs to be listened to as well as controlled – this vowel here needs to flirt or echo or crunch or floodle with this one there. Being a writer is being, at one and the same time, completely in and completely out of control. (Rock’n’roll.) I know what’s coming and I have no fucking clue – only that it will take place, it can only take place, at the desk. My desk came from Ikea, years ago, and is the kind of trestle that wallpaper is pasted on. The top is hardboard, ink- and coffee- stained, and only the weight of it and what’s on it keeps it attached to the legs. One of the legs was used as a scratching post by Ziggy; I’d get splinters in my left foot when I stood up (pine, I think). But then I turned the trestle around, back to front. They’re shaped like capital H’s laid on their sides with very long crossbars, reaching up. Bless it, the edge is soft-ish, where my arm has rubbed against it. This is more important than a prize.
Dienstag 18 Januar
When I see the surface of the tea in a mug, or even more a cup, I think it looks like the sea – sea seen from space. (Aside: We close our eyes when we take a sip or a gulp, just as we do when we move in for a kiss (unless we’re callow and experimenting with cross-eyes)). But if you keep staring as the drink nears your mouth, you start to see the shadow of your nose in the surface, and your eyes within your forehead reflected in the exposed circle of the bottom of the mug. You (or at least I, but it can’t vary too much) are distorted as in a spoon’s back – the nose is a conk, and you’re looking right up it. The eyes (I’m checking now) look weary and bebagged. In my mug, I look like an exhausted pinhead – desperate for a bang of his drug. (There is a new improved name for pinheads, I am sure.) It has always – here’s Keats, ‘the waters at their priestlike task/ Of pure ablution round the something coast’. I have always been amazed how, a century and a half before Gagarin, Keats gave us a perfect satellite view of our spinning, tidal globe. Even more extraordinary, perhaps, is Ruskin’s whoosh up from Africa to Northern Europe in ‘The Nature of Gothic’. Both prove you don’t need to have done something to have experienced it. No frequent flyer from Cairo to Malmo, even looking out the window of Business Class the whole way, ever saw the details of the distant world as clearly as Ruskin sitting at his desk. Eyes closed. No astronaut took in more through the earthside porthole than Keats at this desk. At his desk. Eyes closed. This is not something you’re allowed to say. Experience is all authority; the weeping victim vanquishes the creepy expert. N=1 is all.
Mittwoch 19 Januar – Workshop 2
Tutorials begin tomorrow. After this, after meeting them individually, I won’t need the secret nicknames to remember all of the new students. I’m getting a sense of the twelve in the workshop group – guessing what they’ll need. With Rudy (Can’t Fail), for example, it could be pure ego management. “Yes, you’re writing interesting stories, but that’s not what you need to be aiming for. You need to shock yourself.” Read Isaac Babel. With Grace (and Flavour), it might be permission. “You don’t have to be polite anymore – no-one is judging you that way.” Write under a pseudonym. Then you’ll be off. With Rebekah (Hecka), she probably needs to know she can allow herself to be as funny as she is, and that it isn’t a bad thing. She’s v. funny. Michael (the Very Archangel) and Samira (Clearer) and Lola (the Polar) I’m more sure about. They need to work on their plotting, and to stop always writing-about-what-they’re-writing-about. Your identity isn’t you. Ola (Controller) and Fritz (the Cat) need to learn what a story is and isn’t (why didn’t they learn this in their BA workshops?) Katherine (Not Arrogant) could be the most promising of them all (she’s trans), but everything’s too on point – she needs to expand her aesthetic. Not always be beautiful. Jess (Stressy Jessie) – Jess is tough. She’ll only learn by fighting me, disdaining me and the institution. (Rudy’s like this, too, but he’ll do it with resentment, she’ll do it because she knows that’s what she needs – she’s been divorced twice, some mere university lecturer can’t hurt her. But she’s going to make him work.) Who else? Andy (with Sandy Hair) is – potentially – a situation to be managed. He seems unreachable. What can I do to reach him? And Anja (Prajñā and Drama) is doing her own personal development thing. She’s on a Journey, unfortunately – unfortunately, because she thinks of it as ‘a Journey’; she accepts the language of living her best life without questioning it. If she wants to keep this, I don’t know if I have much to teach her; I don’t know if I’m the right tutor for her. But someone more sympatico might just, I don’t know, give her the wrong sort of praise. She needs to find her own language. I need to give more praise all over. Today we workshopped stories by Andy (up itself and not in a pleasurable way), Rebekah (one funny paragraph about cheeses) and Ola (undercooked but tasty). Late bus home after a drink in the college bar. Leigh asleep. Mouse sleeping on my pillow.
Donnerstag 20 Januar – Early Grab-bag
Leigh says she feels fine. How many times will I ask her, in the coming (I hope) nine months. Mum also (on the phone) says she feels fine.
Without really making up my mind, I seem to have decided not to shave until the baby is born. Or not born. That means, I already have a two week’s beard. That’s about as long as I usually let it get. Anymore and it tends to become itchy. I am itchy at the moment, though. Soul-itch.
My mother is dying but I can still visit her, or phone her up for a chat which doesn’t get to the subject: my mother is dying.
Will I one day cycle through the park explaining something like gravity – something I don’t really understand – to my little cycling son? Why can’t I jump on the top of that tree? Why can’t I fly?
It’s happened again with Thomas-Thomas – same thing. Exactly. How does he afford it?
I see people dead. Although they are fine and full of potential heartbeats, still I see them as non-conscious matter going cold.
Mouse is a full-on basic beast. He scratches me at least once a day, often when I’m stroking him.
Thinking about Rudy in the class. Students who remind me of myself are the ones I like the least. He’s arrogant. He’s not good enough to be as arrogant as he is. Which is exactly what people thought about me. (Mr. Bicester, English Teacher.)
I lean on the surface of the desk, I press my left elbow down into it, and I write confusion.
Freitag 21 Januar
A map of the territory – Leigh is out with Judy. My desk is three times wide as deep. If I stretch forwards, I can touch the wall with both hands; but I have to lean so far my nose is almost on the page. (My arms are neither unusually short nor exceptionally long.) Let’s imagine the desktop viewed from above. Bottom centre is the writing area – this is where the A4 page, notebook, or laptop goes. Diagonally up from this, on the right-hand side, are within-easy-reach pen and pencil pots. Directly opposite my chair (another time) is the big black screen. To raise it to less back-killing height, it’s on an aluminium box – shoebox size. On this are the plastic rhino and the toy Mercedes. Also, an external hard drive and external DVD drive. Just now, I have a couple of CDs on top of it, some lipbalm, and the wireless mouse. Bottom left is a pile of unsorted A4 drafts of poems, songs, somethings. These end up being dropped into an unsorted but roughly chronological wooden box under the desk, from where they are stacked (once or twice a year) into clear plastic storage boxes and carried down to the cellar – which is full of full clear plastic storage boxes. Upper left is a miniature five-drawer chest of leather. Each drawer could fit a new stack of A4 paper, but contains written pages I like to have to hand – I rarely open it. On top of this is where the wooden things go: two carved lion-faces, a posable figure for life drawing, a Gilbert & George collapsible toy, a Day of the Dead diorama c/o Frieda Kahlo, some Aesop Marrakech Intense Eau de Toilette, a bamboo whistle. To the right of this, against the wall, is a smaller aluminium box where live postcards, passports, scissors, rulers, photographs, tissues and anything misc. Nested in the angle between chest and postcard box is the Green Man. He rests on the fossilized sandstone, looking up at the ceiling. He’s friends with the large but broken hole punch. The right half of the desk is simpler. The big black printer lives here. Bottom extreme right is a life-size wooden bust I call Shakespeare. He wears my hats. In front of the printer stands the Anglepoise. Behind him, ranged against the wall, held up by aluminium bookends, are perhaps twenty-five notebooks of all colours but all A5. Lurking behind the printer, finally, is a metal fan – for the hottest of summer days. I fit it all on one page! My world.
Samstag 22 Januar
Dry day. What’s the smallest thing I could write about? The nothingest. Put it another way, what’s the least important subject I could choose? I could make a joke at this point, and say ‘my sex life’ or ‘X’s books’. This would be like a punishment essay at school. In no less than 1,000 words, describe the inside of a ping-pong ball, or the sex life of a cornflake. Mr. McKee, the physics master (who claimed he’d piloted an observation plane for one of the atomic bomb tests) had me write about Why I am too clever by half. I somewhat amused him by writing about why I wasn’t too clever by half but that I was too clever by 0.513679243 recurring. He liked that. Although it was a maths joke, it was gesturing in the direction of a physics joke. It acknowledged, in a too clever way, that there might be such a strange entity as a physics joke. The smallest thing I could write about, in physics terms, and perhaps in cosmic joke terms, is the level below subatomic particles. I’ve read some popular science books, and watched some documentaries, so I know all about this – I know some physicists study what they call strings, and I also know the Higgs-Boson causes (facilitates? spews?) mass. If it’s not turtles all the way down, them there strings must be made of something – hemp from super-duper marijuana plants. Tiny tiny tiny. ‘Made of’ is a terribly lay term. Something does something string-like. I know strings is where some physicists become cosmic. Everything – and they mean everything – is good good good, good vibrations. The constant is the chord – background noise – the music of the spheres (though atoms are anything but the shiny balls of my school textbooks). Sub-subatomicism. Isn’t this also the least important thing I could write about? – seeing how humans aren’t, so far as we know, in contact with what little boys and girls are really made of. (This may not be true, if it’s in the wibbles between quibbles that consciousness twangs into being.) I like the idea that even if we don’t jam or plunk on a string-y level, we do – in some manner – vibe there, or (more accurately) are vibed, or (as accurately as I can make it) we co-vibe. Not ‘we are stardust’ but we exist as stuff-ily as a cello, as a comet. We are briefly gorgeously tremulously alive. And death is not even reabsorption into the hum, it’s an ever so slightly shifted partial. I hope.
It’s almost impossible to say anything accurate about nothing, and I only say ‘almost’ out of writerly pride that’s actually writerly vanity, because I’d like at least to leave myself the chance to build my own hut of failure. Tangentially, or shamefully directly, something is sometimes said of nothing. Heidegger wrote, ‘Nothing nothings.’ Shakespeare wrote, ‘Nothing will come of nothing’. Donne wrote, ‘I am re-begot/ Of absence, darknesse, death: things which are not.’ Heidegger is accurate; Shakespeare (as Lear) is acute; Donne makes the most basic mistake. Nothing is unlike any other thing, and so should be referred to only in reference to itself.
If this is true, ‘Nothing has always nothinged’ and ‘Nothing will continue to nothing’ – these may be among the few other sayables. Darknesse (not darkness) is not nothing, though it’s hard to imagine nothing as illuminated because light requires energetic presence – of a source, of particles. Also, darknesse requires extension: a single point can be neither dark nor light. The beginning of the Big Bang, wasn’t that already bigger than a point? ‘Too much of nothing,’ Bob Dylan wrote. If you begin imagining nothing by picturing, or trying to picture, a void, you’ve already mistooken it. Absence is as unlike nothing as darknesse, and in a similar way – both require room in which not to be. And to have extension of any sort, doesn’t that require projective or protective forces? I mean, to erect a circus tent, you need tent poles and guy ropes and tent pegs. I suppose you could get round this by saying that nothing can be said to pervade everything. Wherever anything is, nothing is there also – equipresent, but inaccessible. An isn’t that is. To establish this, we could ask some questions: Can nothing ever increase in any way – size, density? Could a smaller nothing be present within a larger? Would a slice taken from nothing also be nothing? (Surely there’s nothing with which nothing could be cut.) As expected, all this nothinging has gone nowhere. At least it’s gone nowhere fast. I think what Donne was trying to evoke was not nothing but nothingnesse. If the baby isn’t born, we’ll be left not with nothing but with nothingnesse. Death is not nothing.
Sonntag 23 Januar
I’ve already described the topography of the desk, but that’s not what I generally see – seated here. What’s peripheral to the page – on all sides except the left, which is usually blocked by the brown-pink blur of my head-supporting palm… I see the interconnecting flecks of old golden hardboard. Light muscovado and ground cinnamon. (‘23 May 1810 Found the word golden.’ William Blake.) It does look like a strangely fibrous planetary surface, seen from a spaceship in orbit (Solaris) – or like Afghanistan (slightly flattened) from a passenger jet at 30,000 ft. Some strands or threads are darker, almost like shreds of redwood bark; others catch the light of the Anglepoise with a sheen like my stretchmarks. There are few features – no writing, no pattern within the random-pressed-together-ness – except one Tipp-Ex smudge-cloud and dozens of inkspills. These are congregated down and to the right; a spotty band of them, like a negative of the Milky Way. Elsewhere, a few larger inkstains. If I Rorschach them, I see for each – an eyelid with eyelashes, a man on his knees, a witch or someone wearing a dunce’s cap, the United States of America minus Alaska, a horse skull, a droopy penis with testicles, a helicopter minus rotor-blades, a cartoon heart viewed aslant. Beneath my right forearm, and also where my elbow touches, the surface is darker and has greater shine – I’ve polished it with rubbing, and the grease of me has gone into it. In summer, if I sweat, this area becomes resistant, rubs me up the wrong way (as damp skin does to damp skin). The near edge of the board is nubbled off where once it was a distinct right-angle; almost-splinters still come off it, very occasionally. I know it’s hollow beneath, but knuckle-rap and it isn’t echoey. Imagine that inner space, inside my desk: a flat, dusty, ever-dark plane. Small moon-people journey across it, lights in their domed helmets. They discover nothing but fallen punctuation marks and more dust. I’ve had this desk around a quarter of a century.
Perhaps, more accurately, it’s a table – I continue to call it a desk.
Montag 24 Januar
I just switched the desktop computer on by accident; I was wiping its black mirror with a blue dustcloth, and my middle finger pressed the button on the back. Why am I so antagonistic to tech? Why do I speak badly of what has done so much for me? If I hadn’t had a wordprocessor and a printer, I don’t know whether I’d ever have written a novel. In Prague, in the early 90s, I lived for several months on a manual typewriter with the Z and the Y reversed. Typing and retyping poems, that was part of it all, the manual labour; essays even. But I needed memory and printing before I could start in on longer forms (novels 1, 2, 3 and 4). I can’t blame the manufacturers for fitting their products to the needs of business. Business now takes computer form. But I know there are imperceptible obstructions and nudges every time a .doc is opened. I don’t write documents, or files; I feel constrained by folders. Words on pages in notebooks (see how Word, Pages and Notebook are all registered trademarks) – the written page is open. It’s glorified already, and doesn’t need to be saved or autosaved. It is singular, can be easily destroyed, but doesn’t constrain. No wordcount, no peripheral-vision clock, no proprietary font. How many people (writers) try to write up to Times Roman or down to Courier New? That is wordprocessing, and a good writer doesn’t process words (even when working on microprocessors inside microcomputers). When a computer is on, it’s expectant; it needs to find a task for you. The page has more patience; it has already consumed all the energy it’s going to consume. I hate calling them computers, because that already sounds dated. But I also don’t want to advertise them by referring to them by brand name. The only computer I’ve loved, truly adored, was my black laptop. As soon as they stopped making black clamshells and forced everyone onto tinny metallic cigarette cases, I became indifferent. Instead, to get back that look, I buy black laptop covers. It’s not the same; it’s no longer a purely dark instrument. I can imagine Baudelaire using a PowerBook Pismo. I hate built-in obsolescence. I hate bloatware. I hate not being able to get rid of what I don’t want, need or use. Speaks the trained, dissatisfied consumer – addressing himself as if he were a call-centre. It’s a sunny day. New computers are so much more affable than old ones, but generation by generation, they just become clunkier.
Dienstag 25 Januar
At school, in English, learning handwriting, I was told repeatedly that my letters should land on the line. That’s what the lines on the page are for, Litt. But for some reason, and I don’t think it was laziness, something in me rebelled – and my words continued to levitate. They still do. Perhaps they’re not flying, which is the most obvious and self-aggrandising metaphor: His sentences refused to be caged by bars, and headed far up into-the-open-sky. Perhaps, instead, they’ve just been waiting for their photo to be taken, then jumped a little bit off the ground. Jump-snap. Edit a sequence of leap-images together, and it looks like someone is jerkily floating through the air – legs spasming and arms semaphoring. A skateboarder mid-trick. Mouse wants attention in the form of chin-chucking, but when he gets bored with one rhythm, he bites. Ziggy never did that. I put him on the floor, Mouse jumps back up, like a capital letter, like a big I, and sniffs my tea – before heading to the black pot that contains my pencil sharpeners. Out comes the gold one for short pencils. Now he’s investigating the rhinoceros. And in writing this I am trying not to alter the usual altitude and attitude of my handwriting. Looking back through January, it seems pretty much a match. The gap beneath is a constant of half a letter’s depth – and, as I look at it, I’m beginning to think it is a form of hovering that doesn’t involve an invisible jump between words. I’m up for this. Somehow, even when I’m not despairing, and despite my teachers, I don’t alight but stay aloft. Writing is my anti-gravity device. Say I’m not grounded – say I’m airy-fairy. Hare not rabbit, Ariel not Caliban, hovercraft not tank. That’ll do me. Better heavensent, at least in aspiration, than earthbound. What the characters touch, when they touch anything, is one another. They stroke and tickle, without trudge or yomp. And so I write barefoot.
Mittwoch 26 Januar – Workshop 3
Story from Rudy. Ouch – they really went for him. Be sexist, boyo, and you’re on your own in my class. You stand zero chance with editors if they think you’ll piss off female readers. He was in all the male heads and none of the female ones – not even the mother. (Irish family but Jewish mother.) Rudy seemed almost tearful with rage, but I think he learned his lesson. Michael came through in the aftermath, and everyone was mild towards the end. This sometimes happens. The class defines itself by how hard someone’s prepared to go in. Ola wasn’t having it with Rudy, and Samira backed her. ‘It could be worse,’ Ola said, ‘I just can’t see how.’ ‘Rape fantasy,’ said Samira. Rebekah added some laughs. ‘Jesus, leave him some skin.’ I did intervene, after that from Samira. I spoke of workshop karma. Only dish what you can take. Michael had tried to write a story about someone being happy, which is one of the hardest things to do. A bit bland. Who is he trying to please? Not me, I hope. I better let him know, in the tutorial, that I’m not his audience. He’s very young. Nice hair. Talent. Last story was Jess. She got the rebound from Rudy, and was overpraised by Samira and everyone else for something fine enough but too explainy. It wrapped up with a big polka-dot bow. We looked at how the story would read if you cut the last line (better), the penultimate (much better) and the one before that (wow, interesting). Also, try cutting the opening paragraph and changing the title. I give this advice so often I should get it printed on a business card. The room we’re in – basement of Russell Square building – is salad compartment chilly. Three of the students were eating dried mango, which is big loud. But everyone’s hungry by 8pm. I tell them, ‘Bananas – the secret of Birkbeck is bananas.’
Donnerstag 27 Januar
Macs – the brand name is Apple – I’ve lived with them ever since I had to get rid of the Amstrad. When I was travelling in America, I saw my first Mac. It was upright, like a small boxy towerblock. The screen was square, and it had a sexy slit for a floppy diskette. Sexy-boxy. I thought ‘I could write on something like that – faun colour, and able to do graphics.’ But by the time I bought a Mac, they were more conventionally shaped: deep screen on top of a video-recorder-shaped hard drive for a stand, and a separate keyboard. Good keyboard – so much better for typing than they are now. After that it was upgrade after upgrade, whenever the old one slowed to the point of pointlessness (or when it stopped playing videos). Because of them, I have become more productive; because of them, I have become less able to see the restrictions within that productivity. I was dead against Microsoft, but Word eventually snuck its way into MacWorld. Snake in the garden. Macs and PCs started to share processors, as if there had never been any profound ideological divide between them in the first place. If Mac approached me, to be one of the funky creatives photographed being creative in front of their laptops (in black and white), would I say yes? It’s a product I’ve used; it’s not a product I’d wish people to boycott. But it’s evil – with built-in obsolescence and operating system updates that kill the speed, kill the hardware. Would it be hypocritical not to appear in a Mac ad, seeing as I was sold on their product the first time I saw it? Jesus, am I nothing more than a wannabe hipster? Is that all this is? Turn on, log in, zone out.
Freitag 28 Januar
Doing my taxes.
Samstag 29 Januar
What if it’s twins? What if we’re having two children, identical or non-identical, and one kills the other? It could happen in the womb, during birth, one’s umbilical cord gets caught around the other’s neck. I sometimes think – most people do, I expect – that I was a twin, that the other died, and that my parents never told me. It would be too terrible to know; not even born and already responsible for Death, for adult grief. I’m hungover this morning. I feel like I’m wearing a skullcap of irk. As normal, I should paracetomolize it into the far corners, but today I feel it’s true to something. This is an anxiety headache, the kind I usually get at the end of a day. Instead, it met me on waking, because I was already wearing it – coronation – with a long beard of fret that had grown overnight. Must’ve had a very bad dream. What-iffery – prophylactic thinking (probably exactly the wrong word, as no prophylactics were harmed in the making of these foetuses, or this head-movie.) (Baby, my mind’s split open). (Headbirths, or, the Germans are Dying Out.) Mouse wants his gorget ruffled. He’s purring like an outboard motor on the top half of this page. And now play-biting my left hand. When he does this, I can see the fossilized skull of the Sabre Tooth Tiger in the Natural History Museum. Two incisors, two canines, clamping him – skull-capture – needles – giving him no chance.(I am writing these words in the gap between his ears.) And the beast’s teeth met in his face. And now Mouse is gone, villain, because he heard Leigh going carefully downstairs. So cute and such a beast. Mahler’s 6th – I think of Mahler’s 6th. He writes the symphony about the tragedy that has yet to happen to him, he mortgages his grief – living in the castle of it before he’s even started to pay. Then he pays. Kindertotenlieder. deadkidsongs Superstitiously, I worry that the work will work its will on the world. Egomanically, ha-ha-ha. Isn’t having such a writer-father in itself a kind of murder? For the foetus. Foetuses. Oppenheimer’s quote. Fee-fi-fo-fum, I am become. Foresuffering. Fort-da. (Just checked, it’s still an embryo. Foetus is used from 10 weeks.)
Sonntag 30 Januar
I remember the first time I heard the phrase ‘pins-and-needles’ – I was probably going Ow and crying, and my mum (after working out what it was) probably said, ‘Oh, it’s just pins-and-needles – it’ll go away soon.’ I don’t remember the exact room or situation, though I’m thinking of the sitting room (in Dunstable Street) with its big green easy chairs, but I remember the relief of suddenly knowing there was a name for this. This in-me thing. This pain. I could feel, or thought I could feel, the difference between the pricky pins and the diving needles. My mother had a sewing basket, which lived by her big green easy chair, and within it was a stellate pin-cushion – a hexagram made of mauve and faded violet fabrics, patterned. Inside was something bristly and very solid. Did the Victorians make pincushions out of horsehair? The pins in my pins-and-needles just nipped into a material that could cope with them, but the needles nosed their way through flesh towards nerve-endings. They sewed the sea of me like dolphins stitching their way in parallel to a sailboat. It was agonizingly freeing, because part of my body (my hand?) was useless with pain. These days I get pins-and-needles every day, in one leg or another. When I finish sitting-sitting, having sat in half lotus for half an hour, I usually have to rub my left or right ankle (alternate days). This makes me worry about deep vein thrombosis. Should I eat an aspirin? At the desk, I get p-&-n when I sit with right leg tucked under left buttock (as now, hence this). Usually, I catch it as it’s starting to boil, small bubbles appearing on the bottom of the pan. Occasionally, I’ll prang my funnybone on a doorhandle, and get the full prickly sleeve – death metal tattoos of skull-bats and hell-flames from wristbone to shoulder. Hand in the fire. This is hella joyful.
Montag 31 Januar
‘This living hand, now warm and capable – ’ I am glad of my hands, which have neither long (which I wanted very much at one time) nor short (which would be difficult) fingers. My hands are, and have always been, good hands. (Not sure about kind hands, doing good to all. Some they seem to harm.) Everything I’ve ever wanted them to do, they have proved capable of doing – playing fingerstyle guitar (B♭m6), threading needles, staying true to a clitoris, holding a pen for hours. I don’t know if my handwriting is my right hand’s fault or mine. Obviously, I don’t think about the exact shape of my letters, my lettering, as I’m doing-writing them, it. To change the hand now would be affected. It’s fast enough, legible, not without flourish, looks neat to others (so they’ve told me). The nails on my right hand are too long and those on my left too short – the one for fingerpicking, the other for unbuzzy fretting. ‘Anji.’ Three main lines cross my palm – they look like a capital A (without a bar) beside a slightly moony capital I (bending in toward the A). I’ve forgotten which of these is the lifeline, but I was once told that it stretches off my palm. See here it is. The thumbs stick out sensibly, quite straight. ‘This living hand, now warm and capable – ’ I’ve envied classical guitarists, like Segovia, who have thumbs that curl out, bent back – so they are perfect for strumming strings. The wrists are quite wide, mine, with veins not hard to see. The hairs on my knuckles are transparent. I think I mentioned elsewhere (more than once) the callous where the pen rests. They’re not a labourer’s hands. The joke: ‘You’ll be first up against the wall, come the revolution.’ Because the fingernails are clean, because no dirt-damage. Mouse has left claw-scars on them. Thank you, hands. My right wrist aches, but this is the fourth page today. I hold it towards you. I stretch it. I am beneath these words, like a mirror image of you. You are not a hypocrite. Put your hand on the page. We fit.
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