The posters were everywhere. Placed so that they couldn’t be missed. Adverts popped up with every app and in the breaks between the action on every box-set and film on every network and franchise. It was something that you just had to do; the greatest show on earth and what a loser you were if you didn’t sign up and get your ticket.
No matter that it cost that much – that much for just a couple of hours. And then there was getting there and the shitty drive through the rush hour traffic on the motorway; the search for a parking space a mile from the venue. The walk with the many, with the excited masses bleating incoherently; whooping at every opportunity. Tits hanging out and heels high; legs showing. Some of them nice but most of them a wobble of too much sugar and alcopop. Flesh and tattoos and hairspray cloying the air and the stink of piss in the little tunnels you have to pass through to get from the carpark to the venue.
They don’t tell you about this bit. There’s no graffiti on the posters or the ads that they show and the lighting doesn’t dance and flicker like a hopeless city backstreet. They don’t tell you about this bit as you wonder if you’ll ever find your car again; if you’ll ever make it out of this crush of wide-eyed fools.
Then you realise that you’re one of them: one just like them. You queued on-line all morning all that time ago just to get this ticket even though it shamed you and burned a hole in the bank for the next few months but you didn’t want to miss out. You knew you had to come because everyone else was coming and this was your chance – the show came into town once in a generation and if you missed it, that was it. No one ever missed the show.
But it’s not shiny like they make it look like it’ll be. The chainlink fences that surround the place have been pushed back but they sit there rusting and waiting to be squeaked back into place and lock you out once they’ve kicked you out and even the security don’t smile. They’re minimum wage agency staff and most of them don’t speak English. All of them don’t give a fuck but they grunt at you and pat you down then push you in to the delight that you’ve waited so long and paid so much to see.
Some of the fools are so overwhelmed by it all that they’ve taken on too much drink and roll about stupidly or make too much noise. Some of them are thrown out a side door before they’ve even made it in to the arena and they’re suddenly sober and bawling to be let back in. For a bit they’re aggressive and tough and angry and then they’re all baby and crying because those doors don’t have handles on the outside and the doors don’t give a shit. When they’re shut they’re just another part of the wall.
You should go your dad says. I went when I was your age and I’ll never forget it. Won’t be as good now as it was then though. I don’t even remember it. A bit pissed I was. Your mum went. It was good, love, wasn’t it. It was good, the show?
And then you’re in and you wish you had a friend to come with because you feel like a weird loping around and pretending to be waiting for some one. You buy a shiny programme that smells of new and read it four, five times pretending to be interested. Looking at the photos and looking for the pissy underpasses and pissed off security; the crappy concrete desert carpark. None of that as the lights go down and the greatest show on earth is there. Very there and right in front of you.
The night is darker and colder and the crowd is vomited swiftly from the venue. No encore or anything like that. Lights up, show’s over and doors that you didn’t even know were there yawn open on all sides and little green stick men tell you the way.
The way is out into the cold and you’re glad you’re on your own; glad that you don’t have to wait for some half-naked fool in high heels and grinning in accordance with the occasion and making that hike to the car so much longer and the endless wait in that line of buzzing cars so much more intolerable.
You just want to get there. Get there before everyone else and get out of here. You’re not thinking about the show or the life-changing experience that you have just witnessed. You just want to get out of this crowd of fools and go your own way.
We’re supposed to stick at it, we wee writers. That’s what they say. Agreed.
I just needed a break from counting the death toll and watching it rise like the stocks and shares – only it’ll never fall like them.
Here’s a random picture that I took in Africa in the summer when the world was a different place, though at the time it was very much the same. Down there in the heart of darnkesses the roads go on for a long time.
And below is what I wrote in my journal last night as I worked my way through a few things are stopping me from really getting down with the page. It’s procrastination, the journal, but it’s as pure as I can get my time-wasting. I like to see the journal as the gateway drug to ‘real writing’…
After I read some brilliant pieces on here about planning I had a think about my own process and realised that it’s something that I very seldom scrutinise. It’s the grindstone and when we turn up we work and that’s that, right? Thankfully there’s a little worm (or a big serpent) in all of us that’ll question everything if given enough time:
When I reread my work I know that if a phrase or arrangement of words impresses me then I’m on to something. We’re all our harshest critic. When I read it and want to melt my face off then I know that I was trying too hard. Critic, yes but not a complete destroyer of dreams; just wanting always to do better.
I really don’t know, though, if rewrite, rewrite, rewrite is the answer. I’m sure that if you hammer away even at a piece of iron for too long it will eventually lose its integrity and be no good for shaping. Hammering and hammering away is also the best way to fall out of love with a story that once burned embryonically in you like the greatest thing ever conceived, by anyone. Ever.
I am convinced that the best writing comes in the initial burst and is born of the flames of the passion in which it was first imagined. This is where the ideas still broils and the human spark still burns bright. It is the heat of this fire that powers the ideas onto the page and the emotion that keeps it alight and to hell with all else. It is why writers give their lives to what they do. Ask them and they’ll tell you that it’s why they are.
The heat of this fire is what it’s all about. If a writer can writ in this heat then there’s magic will come of it. Forget readers for now – the writer is the reader; he’s just got the job of turning it into the right words. Worry about that later.
But come to the page without that fire and that passion and it’s a battle. A tiring one that will only ever go one way. The writer needs to write for the writer and that’s it. For now.
Finding that voice is all about knowing the boundaries that it can be pushed to. The flow of writing can be halted when doubt creeps in about these limits and we start to wonder whether we’re pushing too hard or whether we’re not doing anything other than telling the story: it has to be more than that. It has to be the telling of the character and the creating of the world in which he or she will move.
So the latest novel that I haven’t written yet could be a rambling sentimental narrative that recalls situations and moves the characters about in them in ways that might be expected, might maybe sometimes surprise and even shock, but still fit into those safe boundaries. Sometimes it’ll be loved and other times it’ll be hated but most of the time the worst will happen: it’ll be put down. It’ll be left on the writer’s hard-drive waiting for the sprinkling of magic that he’ll one day figure out…
The writer could listen to the story as it happened and tell it as honestly as he can as he ignores the restraints and expectations; as he pokes underneath the scabs of human suffering and, (what I like to call) ‘rattles the fences’.
For me it’s always a chain-link fence and it needs to be rattled in the early hours of the morning. The scab needs to be half-lifted so that it’s still pulling at the tiny hairs and the finger nail needs to really get underneath and stab at what was already hurting. It needs to be writing that is done in anger and exaltation; in chilly downpours and violent bursts of sunshine. How can a writer ever expect to unsettle the eventual reader if they don’t unsettle themselves? When I can’t sit still in my chair as I write I know I’m into it. If I get too comfortable I know it’s shit and hen it’s good – I never get tired.
People need to be heroes one minute and bastards the next; the speaker needs to be in despair and ecstasy on the same page; he needs to be fucking his girlfriend one minute then masturbating about her in the shower an hour later knowing that she’s in the village fucking someone else as his juices dry on her thighs. Believe me: this shit happens.
And also, while the bastards are bastards in one line of narrative, they’re also dreamers with regrets in another and losers in love in another and that’s just like life and the countless threads of narrative that tangle and swamp us and that we, as writers, do our bust to pick up and weave into something that sings to us.
What I’m saying is that a writer needs to do more than tell a story. That’s all.
Cd 39/Lockdown 36
When all this was starting and I was watching tentative news reports nervously checking the situation in southern Europe and showing clips of temporary morgues set up in quiet corners of big cities, some expert said that if we suffer 20,000 deaths in the UK then that will have been a good result.
They say that we’re in the middle of the peak now and around 650 deaths in hospital each day are being attributed to the Corona virus. By that maths we’re halfway through the numbers and have another 20,000 to go – and that’s just on the first peak. The trouble with this new normal is that we’re getting used to it and we’re absorbing it into our routines and nothing is new and shocking any more.
The epicentre, they say, is now in care homes – the numbers there are thought to be three times what we’re hearing from the hospitals and some commentators are referring to the situation as the wiping-out of an entire generation.
What will be left of these places; these new places that have just sprung out of the ground to cater for the ageing population? If this goes on my unwritten novel will be a moot point and the virus will have done the work of the non-existent future government. Nature has got in there first, it seems, and hurried along what had been unnaturally elongated. Death does not hurry or fuss; he waits patiently and gets what he came for in the end. He’s having a ball at the moment.
Will we learn from this? Will we learn from the lessons we’re having here that keeping people breathing just because we can doesn’t necessarily mean that we should and that sometimes, though it’s hard, we need to be grown up enough to accept that we’re going to die.
A key thing here is that we’ve never quite faced the reality that not being dead is not the same as being alive. It’s just not. My granddad died a year ago at the cottage in Wales. Got up to go to the toilet and boom! His heart gave up and he was, the paramedic said, dead before he hit the floor. He was alive to the last minute; right up to that final desire to piss. His wife, nan, she died a decade ago and they kept her in one of those hutches with the red carpet and fake fireplaces and they let us go and see her and try and make her smile. For eight years she had no clue where she was and it was only the tenacity of her natural instincts that she kept the old tattoo of breathing. It all gave up two years ago: exactly a year before granddad’s fateful date with the toilet that he never made. He lived to the end; she carried on breathed but hadn’t been alive for a long time.
I try to see around the issue. I pull it out of my brain and I cringe away from it as it pulses on the floor: an ugly idea that must have different sides to the ones that I see. I walk around it and I poke at it and I try to force myself to see things differently. I try to encourage other people to help me to see it differently but nobody wants to engage.
I think of god and reject this idea: it’s thinking that way that gets us into so much existential mess in the first place. I think of the moral implication and wonder what is stronger – the right that she had to stay breathing and the right that she had to dignity and well-deserved rest. I think of the bigger picture and the social responsibility that we have to care for each other and I’m thrown back in the same place. And I realise then that what I’m unable to synchronise with is the definition of care. It seems that ‘care’ in this society means not letting people die. My own definition is different.
I miss them both and there’s a lot in favour of the argument that it might have been nice to remember nan as someone who remembered me. Instead what we’re given in this time of medical miracles is prolonged pain and tarnished final memories of the people that we love.
I took my Maggie to the vet a couple of weeks ago. What a dog she was. What a buddy and how I miss her by my side; how I miss the noises she made in the night as she padded about and tried to get comfortable. Thirteen years of her by my side. A buddy that was there before the kids and before the job and before the new house. A buddy the climbed mountains with me, chewed my shoes and smeared fox shit on the car upholstery. What a buddy.
But I saw her decline; I watched the lumps grow on her and I saw that twinkle fade from her eyes. She winced when she walked but would still try to follow me up the hills and jump her big bear body on my lap; she’d still plead with those eyes when I sat to eat dinner and nudge at my knee if I dared to forget about her.
With Maggie I set a date. I called the vet and I told them my plan; I let the people know who needed to and I made sure that the girls could have the perfect fortnight before that date. On the last day I drove her up the hills to the spot where we’d once yomped and I carried her to the spot where we used to sit and look back at the little home we’d made and the big city in the distance. And my heart swelled to burst for all of that time but I knew that I was right in what I was doing.
And when the vet pumped her with a sedative to calm her and she lay her heavy head on my knees I was relieved that she was free of the weight of duty that she had carried out all her life as well as being free of this more recent pain.
When the vet told me that her heart had stopped I think mine stopped a little, too. I don’t think it will ever quite beat the same but I was glad because I had done my job and Maggie, well she had gone above and beyond. She had done her duty and died a good death.
Do you see the point I’m making?
Cd 34/Lockdown 31
Wouldn’t it be an awful situation if we had to start bumping people off just so that our welfare and social systems could function. Imagine a world where governments have no option but to enforce population control in the most drastic ways. In some parts of the world they might start at one end – selective sterilisation and infanticide in poorer areas – and in others they’d hit the other end. In the west it would be decided to skim off the top end and lose the immense burden of the elderly. I mean, let’s be honest: we’ve never really thought that much of the oldies. We give them their special days and we patronise them with old songs and kids’ toys so that they can keep their minds active a little big longer. We put them in nappies but we call them something more dignified and we play them old songs that we think they’d like and we talk about the war because we think that’s all they know, though the reality is that the number of those who were actually old enough to remember the last war even happening, let alone have any real relation to it, is low. My generation has been brought up to assume that all old people are war heroes.
Maybe they are in their own little, this is my battle, kind of way.
They’re living too long, someone said. It was a human person that said this, so the use of ‘they’ is interesting – as though it’s a whole different species we’re talking about here; a whole other animal unfortunate enough to have been born into a state of decrepitude, but benevolent enough – even funny, sometimes. When they’re not puking like a baby or moaning about this or that hip.
When they’re out of earshot we laugh at them. We take the piss because she got that name wrong or he thought the remote control was a chocolate bar. We go to see them and we pretend to care about the stories we’ve heard a hundred times; we pick up cheap flowers from the supermarket on the way and think they won’t notice. When they cry we know it’s because they’re senile and not at all because they can still feel. We can feel, alright. We feel righteous because we’ve given up a bit of our precious time to sit in a room full of old people who peer at us from behind cheap thick lenses and smell of piss. We sit in musty old chairs that have probably been pissed on. We pretend to listen to the stories but we’re really thinking about the cute little care-worker who just started her shift and is wiping spit from the sunken chin of a fat mman who hasn’t walked for a decade but wants to dance with the little nurse.
These places we put them they’re bigger versions of the cages they have at animal testing plants turned inside out so that the windows face outwards and torture the inmates. But not for long. When they expire the whole thing is shovelled out, disinfected and a new bed of straw laid down.
Imagine a society that legislates to do away with this; a society that forces upon people the dignity of an autumn given purpose by being given a date. A society that gives a gift that no other in human history ever has – a choice of departure.
Imagine the funds that would be generated by the loss of such a heavy burden on the tax-paying public. It wouldn’t start being rolled out until the last war veteran had passed along, of course. It is a nightmare to try and bump off an old major who hobbles along hunched over his frame with medals swinging from his chest. Because then the whole idea would be a much easier sell to the rest of us – the species of human that we call younger who can’t ever possibly conceive of mutating into an old person.
There would be safer, emptier roads and no one would manage the impossible task of driving the wrong way down a motorway. The entire population would manage to accept the concept of automated transport and not smoking. Doctor surgeries would be empty and supermarket queues would be swifter. We’d be able to get rid of coins and there’d be places to sit on the bus.
Of course they’d crucify the minister given the job of first mooting the idea, and probably the next few that are forced to pick it up, but as they’re hanging out to dry the seed will be germinating and a new and very appealing reality will be taking root.
The way that this virus is ripping through care homes at the moment, you’d think it was all part of the plan.
The irony of all this, and it hasn’t left me in all the days since this started – plenty more than the 33 I’ve noted up there; it goes back to the start of the year – is that one of the projects I’m working on at the moment is a novel set in the near future where governments are proactively reducing the surplus population and skimming of the surplus individuals that sort of, hang around.
It’s not a new idea, I know that, but a writer who looks for a new idea will probably either spend his or her life looking or slide into the delusion that they’ve actually found something that no one’s ever done before. Personally I find it’s better on the morale to recognise that there’s a million brilliant ideas out there and many, many better than mine. But the belief that I carry is that they’re not mine and so they can’t ever quite be the idea that I want to get across and definitely won’t do it the way that I intend to. That is a very reassuring train of thought, I think, and it keeps me writing.
So the idea is that I don’t do anything so brash as to deny the existence of any similar ideas and reinvent the wheel with my stories, but that I work alongside these the great stories and great writers and learn from them, maybe contribute a little of my own uniqueness to the whole narrative. Walt Whitman said it best when he considered the conundrum. His answer:
That you are here – – that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
I thank Mr Whitman for that, among many other things, and I thank Harry Harrison for ‘Make Room! Make Room!’, the 1960s sci-fi novel that explores the inevitable problems of over-population and at the same time popularised Malthusian theory: the idea that human demand for food will soon outstrip supply. These are not new ideas but they’re increasingly relevant and utterly terrifying.
What this current crisis has done is illustrated the fragility of supply networks that we have in these super-efficient consumer-driven times and how the slightest deviation from projected models or twitch in habits can have very real and quite shocking consequences. A tiny rumour that there might be a lock-down and toilet-roll disappears from the supermarket shelves for a fortnight. A shared message that we will die if we don’t keep our hands clean and sanitiser can’t be found anywhere. For a writer and general observer of human behaviour it is fascinating and fertile ground for inspiration and motivation.
What I’m getting at mostly, though, is the very important idea that it is happening here and now. If a writer can get that impression across then there’s a winner in the making and I really mean that, because all of these great novels – these famous tales of disaster and change and significance: they all seem to happen somewhere else. ‘Make Room! Make Room!’ is in New York; ‘The Day of the Triffids’ is in London; earthquakes and aliens always hit California and so it goes on. And that’s fine; there’s a lot to be said for the recognisability of a place and this can bring credibility and seriousness to a story. It is undoubtedly true that an event in London is going to pull a much bigger audience than the same event in my little town in the Midlands. On a broad average, a reader is probably more likely to come from the capital than any other town in England. But what’s also true is that most people don’t live in London or New York or California and I have this niggling idea that the more this can be reflected in real writing, the more depth it might reach.
I’m determined to create a literature for people like me. For readers like me who live fairly ordinary lives in utterly indistinct towns where nothing extraordinary ever happens. I feel that this is the perfect feeding ground for good fiction because people like me appreciate the tiniest alterations in the everyday routine so that there is no need for the extraordinary – just a desire for the ordinary to be done extraordinarily well.
My story starts in a retirement home in a town very much like mine. These places are popping up everywhere at the moment and in this town alone five have popped up in the last four years. Just to give you an idea of what it’s like here: it was front page news when a crane was erected in the construction of the latest of these homes because its height exceeded that of the church spire – and that had never been done before.
The government has issued a new decree: all citizens, once they reach the age of 65, regardless of wealth, gender, status, health or whatever else, will receive on their birthday, a letter containing two things:
The cheque is a gift. It’s tax-free and it’s for the recipient to do whatever they want with. The form is mandatory and a legal requirement. It demands a date of departure. Within two weeks of their 67th birthday, each person will be euthanised as part of their contribution to the human crisis.
I’ll leave that with you. I’ll be back tomorrow.
Cd 30 /Lockdown 27
Look at the image above. It was taken at the place I work. It’s an old place; hundreds of years old. In fact the school has existed longer by a couple of hundred years than America and was around when Shakespeare was born.
It’s humbling but time is overrated as something in itself to celebrate. She’s a bitch but she just is. There’s nothing to be impressed about; she doesn’t actually make any effort. She just rolls on and we roll on too.
From time to time a special birthday is announced and the poor recipient of the recognition slopes to the front with a forced grin to collect the garden centre voucher that recognises the reason that their shoulders are slumped; their eyes hollowed out and their social life shot to shit. We applaud and smile and are glad that it’s not us. But what are we applauding, really? Relief? Tradition? Kindness? Or the simple fact that this individual didn’t die. “Yay! Congratulations for not dying yet…”
The steps on the photo above are old and the centre is worn by the passing of a million soles. Souls. Even concrete is worn down with repetition; even stone diminishes over time and even that resilient staff member, rejuvenated for another decade of slog by the hanging basket or trellis, will be dead in the earth and forgotten soon after.
Time does it to us whatever we might think. We are swept away by it and we have little say, though we might concoct systems to convince ourselves that we’re not, like everyone else, on the slippery slope towards our deaths.
With that in mind I see the logic of keeping people alive. It is good for morale, I suppose, to think that we might cheat the inevitable for a day or a month. We do it well. We clever humans are the experts at pushing back t nature and delaying (not avoiding, mind) the fateful day of our reckoning.
It is particularly significant in the current climate as the Corona death-toll that we’re given rises sharply by the day and the focus turns to the elderly. I spoke of this the other day, so won’t repeat the same ideas, but rather, I wish to develop them and ask the question that picks at a rather sensitive issue. An issue that I think we, as a society, need to face full-on and not brush under the carpet with a sweeping ideology that ‘all life is sacred.’
I just think we’re a bit old in the tooth for all that, now. It’s time to be sensible and see the bigger picture. Life’s sacred, sure, and it all gets its chance and sometimes it thrives and other times it ceases. It is a natural order that we should try to work with to improve the quality of life to the whole of humanity and not cling to dogmatically – because forcing the issue is to the detriment of all of our lives.
So we’re told to stay in our homes and not venture out, feeling suitably guilty for the lives we’re putting at risk, only to purchase essentials or go to work – if we absolutely must. We’re mocked by the police for wanting to spread a little; for our yearning to see open fields and mountains or the face of a relative; we’re told that we must do this lockdown thing to protect the elderly, to protect the vulnerable. We have put individual livelihoods, mental health and the global economy at risk to protect the ones that maybe nature has selected.
On the one hand the best brains in the country reject the old ways for the new discoveries that are being made in medicine and science; we’re diving into the micro and the macro and manipulating life in ways beyond imagining; and in so short a time. We spend great chunks of our national budgets on ensuring that we can make these breakthroughs and we use them to define us as a species and raise us on the global front.
And we put it to use to keep an ninety-year old mother of six alive as she suffers breathing difficulties thanks to Corona; we use it to replace the knee of a hundred-year old war veteran who spends most of his days in a wheelchair; we repair and replace the lungs and livers of smokers and alcoholics. We keep alive murderers and we encourage the obese by providing ways for them to live with their unhealthy lifestyle.
The reason that a lily-pad has a smooth surface is so that the detritus doesn’t accumulate and pull it down.
We’ve walked these steps for so long that a groove has worn in the centre and by instinct we drift towards the easier route. That way we don’t have to face the difficult questions. But I think that we should face them. I think we should be sensible and take decisions that will bring a benefit to the whole rather than ease our conscience as we prolong the lives of the few.
I am pretty sure that the majority of the elderly unnaturally kept alive beyond their time and dribbling into their collars would agree. I certainly don’t want to be kept going once I lose the ability to control the things around me. Quote me on it. You’ll be able to in the next post…