ASTON. You said you wanted me to get you up. DAVIES. What for? ASTON. You said you were thinking of going to Sidcup. DAVIES. Ay, that'd be a good thing, if I got there. ASTON. Doesn't look much of a day. DAVIES. Ay, well, that's shot it, en't it?
— The Caretaker, Harold Pinter
Sometimes when you’re writing there is an exhaustive, ever-growing list of options to take. There is the desire to write a quiet suburban tale of divorce and failed life while another passion, say writing about criminals organising a heist, also burns. On the same day, there is the search to go down one road, unfamiliar and strange, another hunt arises to go down the road wholly known. I believe with this wealth of options, which rides with one of the great democratisations of writing being its cost (if you have a piece of paper and pen, you can write), is the closest a lot of us come to writer’s block. It’s not that we don’t have things to write about, it’s that we have too much to write about. So, with that in place, here is a list of things this blog was going to be about this week:
- Sex. No, I haven’t made a video that’s about to go viral but I wanted to write a blog about sex and writing. This week, I was in a great class with Leone Ross, hosted by Spread The Word, where the topic was writing love/sex scenes. If you’re looking for some modern writing beyond Miller and Nin, I’d recommend Ross’ own short story collection Come Let Us Sing Anyway and Monsieur by Emma Becker. The latter has a paragraph of four words which beckons an entire city to be involved in the love affair: Paris held its breath. For this blog, I was also going to write about artist Jack Vettriano. In the documentary series What Do Artists Do All Day? he made an astute point about sex and it being taken seriously in this country: “If I were to paint industrial decline or inner-city drug abuse you can’t help but think, That might be taken quite seriously. But a woman painting her toenails for her lover, that’s just Benny Hill.” You can see more of Vettriano here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=902K9eWfNX0&ab_channel=ArtDocumentaries
- Acceptance. Stick with me on this one, I’m still trying to figure it out. If there was a terrible “culture death ray” out there and this ray could wipe your mind of all your cultural knowledge and leave just one cultural icon then for me it would be Leonard Cohen. Because of my preference and time, there will be many musicians, writers, artists whose work I’ll never listen to, read, look at. But does this mean the converse should rear its head? Does it mean that they should be left out of the buffet of art? Of course not. If it did, this blog would certainly be scraped in the bin long ago.
- Frédéric Dard. I’m four books into the six translated works of this great crime writer. Despite writing over 300 books, the translations mentioned above are relatively recent. I highly recommend him and will write more in a post in the future. For now, head over to Pushkin Press for more (https://pushkinpress.com/our-authors/frederic-dard/).
- Going back to sex and acceptance, it seems a real waste of time for something as well-known and contributed to as the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Like a lot of criticism, it seems to fall into that hinterland of lambasting others’ attempts rather than praising those who get it right and those who try against the culture of such awards. As McMurphy said in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, “But I tried though…I sure as hell did that much, didn’t I?”
And these are just some of the things I didn’t write about this week.
The strange thing about television is that it doesn't tell you everything. — Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth
When you’re writing alongside a full-time job, you have to give some things up. For years now, I’ve been practising this art which is more sacred than what I take on. It has caused me to give up my Leyton Orient season ticket (Ohh, how I wish I were watching some live football now), saying no to various nights out, saying no to various nights in, saying no to learning what the Top 40 is, or what that recent meme means (except #berniesmittens), a career alongside writing, a dog, a family, sanity, etc. But what I’ve said “no” most of all to over the years, the thing which is brought up to me in conversations time and time again from friends asking if I’ve seen the latest one, is TV shows (again, an exception will follow alongside It's A Sin which I recommend you go watch - after you finish reading this).
I haven’t seen The Wire, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Chernobyl, Band of Brothers, Sherlock, True Detective, Fargo, Twin Peaks, Narcos, Better Call Saul, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Oz, Stranger Things, The Crown, Emmerdale, Coronation Street, Mrs Brown’s Boys, Countryfile, Homes Under The Hammer, Bargain Hunt, Loose Women, The Real Housewives of Slough…etc. So how I ended up watching The Queen’s Gambit - I don’t know. But, looking for something to teach recently, I’m glad I did. And I’m even happier that I read the book afterwards.
With so many books published today, it’s harder than ever to catch up (let alone keep up). What was being raved about yesterday, you only get the time to read tomorrow. If you read a lot, you’re not out of trouble on this one. Part of reading is opening yourself to many ideas and experiences and in that multitude rises the quest for more. To find a book that many people have read can be tricky unless you wish only to teach the classics. By being part of the cultural zeitgeist, The Queen’s Gambit is one of those books which steps in. The milestones the TV series hits, come directly from those milestones in the book.
Let’s look at just one example of what we’re looking for when seeing milestones within a book: inciting incident. If we take Joseph Campbell’s definition of an inciting incident as the “call to adventure”, there are many early scenes we could choose as the inciting incident. But I think with an inciting incident when it has a deeper meaning which we can go to, again and again, then the scene which best epitomises this is not simply when Beth beats Mr Shaibel (the caretaker who taught her chess), and nor is it when she beats him and Mr Ganz (who runs a chess club), but it is when she beats them both, at the same time, and with ease:
“About midway into the games she was staring out the window at a bush with pink blooms when she heard Mr. Ganz’s voice saying, “Beth, I've moved my bishop to bishop five” and she replied dreamily, “Knight to K-5.” The bush seemed to glow in the spring sunlight.” (pg. 21)
Beth wants more of that ease, which becomes as the book progresses more crucial than merely winning or losing. Being a good writer, Tevis brings back this sense of Beth’s ease, of her casualness when she reaches an equilibrium outside of drugs, outside of obsessive study, at the end of the second act when Beth beats the US Champion Benny:
“She looked to the other side of the room and out the window. It was a beautiful day, with fresh leaves on the trees and an impeccably blue sky. She felt herself expand, relax, open up. She was going to beat him. She was going to beat him soundly.” (pg. 156)
If you’re a writer, or you’re teaching writing, The Queen’s Gambit is not only a good read but also helps to highlight the milestones writers hit, the roads taken, when they are delivering a story: arousing readers not merely to read the surface but to dive deep down for jewels.
If you're interested in learning more, are working on a project you'd like to make better, please feel free to contact me:
‘I used to worry that I was missing out on all the things happening in the world,’ she said. ‘I worry about that, too.’ ‘But nothing is happening in the world. Don’t worry,’ she told me. ‘You’re not missing out on anything.’ — Motherhood, Sheila Heti
In my late teens, an age where I would have been as proficient a dad as a cocktail umbrella is protecting a home from a storm, I yearned to start a family. The yearning lasted a year: sudden, consuming, there to plaster over the worries of life rather than fix them.
Nearly twenty years later, when I was getting divorced, I worried that I wouldn’t have children with a finality that the decision made would last. This yearning was potent as the possibility of starting a family ended not through my biological make-up but that of the women I’m attracted to; my age or older. The pain which some people go through in their decision not to have children is full of compromise and explanation: to themselves and other people. I’ve been lucky that such pain visited, but didn’t stay.
As I read Sheila Heti’s wonderful autofiction novel Motherhood, I underlined section after section in the confirmations, a unified confirmation of a long-formed realisation, that not having children was the right decision for me. Some of the reasons for not having them run concurrently with desire: the overriding desires of romantic connection, platonic relationships, art, solitude. This was expressed wonderfully by Heti near the beginning of the book:
“When I was younger, thinking about whether I wanted children, I always came back to this formula: if no one had told me anything about the world, I would have invented boyfriends. I would have invented sex, friendships, art. I would not have invented child-rearing.”
A bit like Ian Dury’s Reasons To Be Cheerful, Pt. 3, I have a huge list of reasons to wake up in the morning (I would advise you make one too for times when you don’t feel like it). Children, are not on that list. It’s a question of taste, a taste that I’ve been lucky enough to choose. A taste which includes Martin Scorsese, Elena Ferrante, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Harold Pinter, pancakes, Andre Dubus, atheism, Guinness, a cigar on a Saturday morning, sex in the afternoon, Jimi Hendrix, Jackson Pollock, Alice Munro, Stanley Kubrick, Leonard Cohen, John Coltrane, Philip Roth, Ian McShane at the beginning of Slave To The Rhythm, the ending of Sarah Kane’s Crave, the start of Frances Ha and much more.
I’m not saying you can’t indulge in any of these tastes if you choose child rearing, but rather having a child was not in the repertoire of how I want to spend my days.
Further on, there is the unique expression of worry of what a child, and the lack of one, represents in a person’s life: meaning. Heti compares having a child as being “…a city with a mountain in the middle…Everyone in the city is proud of the mountain.” Further to this unique and powerful metaphor, is the pronouncement, “In a life in which there is no child, no one knows anything about your life’s meaning.” Throughout the book Heti searches for meaning: spirituality, relationships and, the most potent meaning of all, art which in Heti’s case, and my own, is writing.
In the last third of the book, a strong demand for the reader to assess their own life comes from a dream Heti has:
“If you want to know what your life is, destroy everything and move away and see what builds up again. If what builds up a second time is much the same as the first, then your life is pretty much as it could be. Things couldn’t be much different from that.” When I got divorced I moved countries, lost friends I had from before, suffered familial bereavements and came through: with writing, with old and new friends, in a relationship which both nurtures and frees, and without, after a long-ago few months, the desire for a child. More important than happiness, I am at peace with how this chapter of my life turned out.
“…for all the good that is or ever was beneath the moon could never offer rest to even one of these exhausted spirits.”
— The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
Like me, during these times of a lockdown, which is everything in name and nothing more, you may have to still take the tube. Taking the tube during the gaps of lockdowns, was a worrying enough experience as you stared at your fellow traveller who wasn’t wearing a mask, examining their bloodshot eyes wondering if they’ve just had a massive coughing fit or whether they’ve been up all night watching QAnon videos. Now, when I start my descent down the escalator I’m looking around for Virgil to walk with me, to guide me through these modern nine circles: past the ignorant, the callous, the ones who don’t care and the other six circles of marauding wheezy idiots who think they can out macho, outrun, outsmart a virus.
Finding no Virgil, I’ve had to get creative to get through my journeys with my blood pressure rising. Taking comfort in the expression, A rising death and R rate is the mother of invention, I decided to pretend to be a spy. Here are some pointers:
— When someone enters your tube carriage without a mask and sits opposite say, “The sparrow is most alive in the mornings,” before escaping from the closing tube doors.
— Carry an umbrella as a weapon. Preferably one four metres long which you can hold like a javelin to avoid people wheezing down your neck.
— Listen to Liszt or anything which can inspire a Cold War feeling.
— Don’t pick up the Metro to leave cryptic notes in. That tatty rag left on a seat didn’t need to be engaged with pre-Covid, nor should it be engaged with now or post-Covid. Leave it alone. Its writing will only raise your rage. Instead, look around for a correlation between readers of that newspaper and those who aren’t wearing a mask.
— Instead of using a poisoned tip on enemy agents, liberally throw around hand sanitiser.
— If you want to blend in, you won’t achieve it by reading a book. However, reading a book will lower your blood pressure. Here are some cheery titles to read in a speeding underground petri dish: Last Exit to Brooklyn, The Bell Jar, The Painted Bird.
— Remember, you’re an agent who can’t rely on their government*.
Oh, leave off, said I to myself. Do you really think I want your crowds? Your people? Why, even our Saviour said -to his own mother at that -“why should I care about you?” So why should I, of all people, care about all these noisy, beastly people? — Moscow Circles, Benedict Erofeev
Last Sunday evening, I decided to go on an 800-calorie a day diet. Working as a caretaker across two schools, while on a zero-hour contract, this diet lasted until the salient leader I follow (Nicola Sturgeon) announced a lockdown. Six hours later, the same news (unsurprisingly) was delivered by the semi-sentient sausage meat wrapped in privilege, topped with an Andy Warhol wig. Since then, I’ve been eating 800-calories an hour.
While riding the tube, heading to work, wondering what would happen first, furloughed or heading to the ICU (so far - neither), I started to read Benedict Erofeev’s samizdat masterpiece, Moscow Circles. In the madness of the week, it seemed appropriate to read about an alcoholic, travelling seventy-eight miles from Moscow to a small town to see, what we believe, is his beloved and son. As we travel with our narrator, Benny, towns are jammed in the text, enjambments all over the work, we start to learn that all is not at it seems.
Suffering from delirium tremens brought on by what could be zapoi*, Benny gives us insights on Soviet culture, agriculture, architecture and politics, filtering all of Russia’s heroes through the prism of alcohol. Chekhov is pressed down to his dying moment, asking attendants to bring him champagne. Alexey Stakhanov, a hero of the socialist Soviet economic system for increasing worker productivity, becomes part of a maths riddle, given by an imagined Sphinx, asking how many times a year “…did he crap…”, bearing in mind “…he went on a bender 312 days every year” and on those days he doesn't crap. Lastly, Pushkin’s fate is pronounced as unknown, “…no one in Russia knows…” but everyone knows “…how to purify varnish”. In reality, Pushkin’s fate is known to Russians with as much clarity as we know Guy Fawkes’ fate.
Throughout these fantastic moments from an intelligent but unreliable narrator, there are glimpses of daily life that seep in giving reasons to his alcoholism and drunk journey. There is the sacking from his job as a foreman of a crew laying telephone cable. There is his love of his son, who he is separated from who he yearns to see. Then there is a scene where he describes a man cut in half by a train. With the upper-half still alive, children bring him a cigarette and laugh. The scene is written in a more structured way than what is before and after. To such changes, we have to speculate the reality, the soberness, of the section.
In a challenging world that is delivering punches steadily and from many angles, perhaps the denouement of Moscow Circles, offered twenty pages from the end, stays with us as it asserts the danger of looking for relief in addiction. Benny talks with an imaginary valet:
—You see, Peter, there’s one question which I simply cannot answer. Perhaps it’s because it’s such an important question. — What is it? — Have I got anything left to drink?
* Described by Emmanuel Carrère in his excellent book, Limonov, “…going several days without sobering up, roaming from one place to another, getting on trains without knowing where they're headed, telling your most intimate secrets to people you meet by chance, forgetting everything you've said and done: a sort of voyage.”
We read to understand, or to begin to understand. We cannot do but read. Reading, almost as much as breathing, is our essential function. — A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel
Last year I gave myself the goal of reading one hundred books in a year and hoped there would be more time to do it. I don’t believe my wish caused the global pandemic. If it did, time was still not in my favour.
I’d received a promotion in my day job, which meant more of a commitment in a demanding place, one which I continued to go to during lockdowns. Mid-January I met a wonderful woman who, continuing to be wonderful, I was living with at the end of the year. There was writing too: redrafting novels, short stories, writing some new short stories, fifty-thousand odd words on two projects which didn’t get moving and the submitting of my writing (two acceptances: www.inkandescent.co.uk/mainstream and http://mironline.org/illneverhaveanother/). Despite this, I reached my target and pushed a bit more to 102 books read. For a writer, I came to reading books late. I was in my early twenties. This is akin to a pro footballer kicking a ball for the first time in their thirties. Since then, I’ve become a convert to books and have tried to continue to devour them, love them, talk about them, envelope them within the gaps of my reading life. Despite this, those gaps are wide as oceans. Last year, I wanted to place more rafts in them.
There was no plan for what I would read. Rather, the books came to me in a jumble of what I’d seen in bookshops, heard about from friends or online reviews, or the vastly populated land of the TBR list. Some books came to me through living a social life, as much as one could last year. Charlotte by David Foenkinos, a book written in a fascinating style, I saw in The Jewish Museum’s gift shop after seeing Charlotte Salomon: Life or Theatre? (https://jewishmuseum.org.uk/exhibitions/charlotte-salomon/). The exceptional The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy came to my eyes while walking around the library, just before the first lockdown. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Winter came to me because the year had reached Winter, and while I couldn’t read it in a pub, I took it on my phone with me.
Then there was pure old curiosity which drove my choices. I returned to some writers whose work I loved and wanted to read more of (Annie Ernaux, Bill Hayes, Olivia Laing, Vesna Main), books I wished to know more from their blurbs alone (Skint Estate, The Appointment, The Polish Boxer) and those to seek understanding, in Faulkner’s words, “…to muse why it is that man does what he does” (King Kong Theory, GBH, Three Women).
As I didn’t have a plan last year and discovered so many gems on the way, do I have a plan this year? Yes, and no. To place alongside those rafts in the oceans of what I do not and have not read, I would like some personal galleons to come alongside them of writers I’ve never read (Austen, Plato, Perec), ones I’ve only read little of (Hemingway, Cheever, Plath, Zadie Smith) and those who I’ve yet to finish (Moby Dick, Dostoyevsky, Ducks, Newburyport).
Reading a hundred books in a year will never satisfy a curious mind. And nor should it.