You might have gathered from previous posts that I’m not a fan all this simpering self-help stuff. And I don’t want for that to put you off because the reason that you’re reading this is because you’re looking for that something little and extra that might just catch a spark. I’m in with that idea: I love that you’ve got the passion and energy to push. The point is that the so-called self-help stuff that’s out there really isn’t what it says on the tin.
I’m sure that most of these guides and bits of advice are well-meaning and that they’re written in the spirit of brotherly blah-de-blah love and all that. But they’re not, by definition, going to help you help yourself because for the most part they’re requiring you to change yourself and to be someone else; to be them. Or at least to be the them that they wish they could be: the them that they want you to think that they are.
The way I try to look at it is that you’re going to be you forever – just like you’ve always been you, and you spend the time you’ve got looking at these bits of advice from faceless geniuses and feel shit about you: the only you that you’ll ever be and the only one that you have any real chance of ever being.
So those are the facts as I see them and, like most things in life they’re distinctly ordinary. The truth often is. That’s why there’s no great pizazz on this website or on this blog. It’s what it is because it’s the truth as I see it. From time to time there’ll be a photo or two and that’s also the truth: a truth for me and one for you if you take the time to look at it.
And all truths are equally valid. Yours, mine and every other poor soul out there.
Another absolute truth is that I’m totally in love with Lolly. Not Lolly the person, because she’s not real; well she was real a bit, but not in the way that I’m going to make her real. That’s the point you see: I knew this girl for the blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things and she let me feel the hair on the back of her neck; something that I thought was a bit weird at the time but caught in the moment as I was in that overgrown garden on the edge of a mountain, well all my senses were screaming at the same time and she must have meant it when she brushed her fingers over my crotch as she left me there with the smell of her hair still on my fingers. She was fourteen and me just a couple of years older and that is just about the only time we ever really interacted. I mean I did see her in the shower through the gap in the door and I’m pretty sure that she left it open on purpose.
But that’s part of the whole story as I’m trying to tell it. Lolly, when I’ve written it and brought it to life will be so much more than the actual thing but it’ll be the truth at the same time. Details to come. If you’re still reading.
I wonder how many great writers out there will never be defined as such simply because circumstances mean that they have to go out to work each day, or look after the kids or do any of the million other things that take precedence over simply sitting at the desk and moving all of those amazing ideas from the brain onto the page or screen. I also think it’s entirely possible that there are many great writers out there who are simply unaware, or uninterested in writing.
I mean, why would you want to be a writer, really? There is such a strong argument against it and it makes no logical sense to follow a dream that will most probably lead you back to the same place you started. It certainly won’t pay the bills, unless you get really lucky – and I’m convinced that luck plays more of a role than talent. You must be with me on this oh struggling writer: you must have picked up a piece of published writing, maybe even a full novel, in the knowledge that its author had been paid to write it and known for absolute certain that you could write better. Often it’s not even a question of the sublimity of the prose; often it’s simple lazy writing as though whoever put it together simply didn’t care.
I may not be a great writer and I’m pretty sure that I’ll never become one, but I do care. I care about every single fuckstick of a word that goes down on my page. I care about the journey that I’m on when I’m writing and I take care to enjoy it because I know that it’s the trip that counts.
I never know how frustrated I should be when I read about writers posting their tips on how to get the best out of the day. It’s things like this:
Who actually lives like this? I am up and out the door on my way to work having cooked for, fed and dressed two kids, then myself, then checked their homeworks, my emails and talked to the wife and checked all bags are packed and ready to go and walked (probably in the rain) before this knob-rocket has even shifted his useless arse out of bed. Who lives like this.
Well the truth is: no one. So don’t listen to it. If you want to be a writer then don’t listen to the bullshit websites and the snowflake generation crap about their routines and their fitness regimes and their phony diets. These pages are the only bit of fiction that these people ever churn out: it is a life they want to lead. It is the life that they think they deserve because they don’t know what life really is.
The best advice I ever saw was, if you want to be a writer: write.
The reality is that you probably work hard each day doing a job that frustrates you, not because you think you’re too good for it but because it hampers your writing. The daily trudge gets in the way of what you wish you could be doing; putting your amazing ideas onto the page. Could be that you’re the next great undiscovered writer and that’s fine by me because it increases my chances a tiny bit.
But your writing material is all around you. The things you see; the people you meet; the conversations you overhear. It’s all part of your story and you’re the only one who can tell it. I always thought that my town and my people were the dullest on the planet. The little guy in Tokyo thinks that, too. And the woman in the African village and the kids who live in the Yukon. Those places fascinate me. Anywhere that’s not here fascinates me. Always has. So the logic has to be that my dreary little town might also be fascinating to someone somewhere else. It’s my job, I decided, to tell the story that I want told about it.
The most dreary of things, like the puddle in the discount supermarket carpark that reflects the neon street lights or the soggy newspaper that has lain in the alleyway all autumn or even the repetitive walk through the morning to work: it’s my story. No one knows it (yet) and no one can question it. All they can do is read it and decide whether or not they like it. And that, so long as I like it before I send it out there, is absolutely none of my business.
When I started the Spin post the other day I didn’t mean to write about the media hype around the latest whatever it is to keep us on our toes; the latest fear to keep us in line; the latest threat to justify paying taxes and the 24 hour newsreel. I didn’t even intend to have a dig at the kids who see little past their smartphones and will be the first to perish when the power actually does go out for good.
I didn’t intend to write those things but they were prevalent throughout the day and I did say that these posts should somehow reflect the day that they are written in a tiny snapshot of a way. If I can. I mean I’m still religiously writing in the journals. By hand. With a pen, that has actual ink. And I don’t think that that will ever stop. I don’t think it can, you see when the power does go off…and I have candles.
I intended to write about actual spinning. In my head. It has come back and it’s disconcerting. Mostly it happens when I cough or change position quickly. I walked into town for a coffee with a colleague and she must have noticed me veering all over the place like I was drunk.
Two years ago it struck fairly hard. I remember it like it was yesterday; I was teaching a year 10 class and my brain seemed to come loose from the inside of my head. I wouldn’t say it actually spun but rather oscillated back and forth like a VHS cassette on pause. I couldn’t stand up; I couldn’t see. My eyes were watering and my skin clammy with cold sweat. By the expressions on their faces I didn’t look too good either and I had to feel for the door and creep to the office. For months after I thought I had had a stroke; I thought it was a seizure; I thought I had a brain tumour.
They ran the tests and found nothing and I was still getting dizzy and after a while it stopped. But now it’s back and I think that it could be stress. Too much thinking and analysing and trying to meet my ridiculous demands. Trying to force myself to write the amazing ideas that fling themselves mercilessly inside my brain in manic attempts to be let out. And there’s the girls to look after and the job to keep on doing.
I’ll just have to see how it goes but I’ll probably be at the doctor’s again. I mean, what else can I do? It’s affecting work. It’s causing me all sorts of anguish and I really don’t want it. It’s not like I’m looking for something to define myself by so that I can know just who I am. I want the freedom of mind and the stability of the earth beneath my feet so that I can find the balance to write: that’s how I want to define myself.
There’s a lot of writing to do…
It’s half a year and two full seasons since Africa and I really haven’t put my thoughts down in any sense of reflection yet. Pages and pages of notes, grubby with Zambian dust and frayed at the edges are filed neatly on the shelf above me. The things inside; the ideas and events that I recorded every minute that passed are safely stowed inside and by far the most precious thing of all the things that I brought back. But they’re different to what I need to do now with the advantage of hindsight and the perspective of time.
I said it at the time and it remains true: I would go back there tomorrow. There was an affinity that I felt with the place and with the people that made me certain I could make a home there if I wanted to. There was a pace to life there that somehow seemed to synchronise with my own; an order of priorities that made a lot more sense that these western ways. A bigness of country and sky that lent itself to freedom and space that we don’t get on this cramped island of ours.
But most of all it was the smiles. The smile that I wrote about in Joy and that I saw on the faces of even the poorest and most wretched of souls that I met. A sense of the genuine article that knew itself and had known itself for a long, long time before the civilisations that now claim to know what’s best for the world.
I am a part of this world of civilisation; it is in my blood and there’s nothing that I can do about that. But I didn’t yearn for it while I was away. I didn’t yearn to watch television or drive on tarmaced roads; I didn’t once wish that I could pop to the local shop and buy chocolate or a takeaway coffee in a plastic travel mug. I missed my girls, but that’s a different thing. I would have taken them with me if I could and it would have been hard to come home.
But I find that I miss the Africa I knew for such a short time more than I missed home when I was there…since I got back I have found a new love for here. I have had to because I realised that there’s magic in all things when you move away from the plastic. But those local adventures are for a different post.
These Africa reflections will try to tell the story of those days where zebras walked the central reservation of the city we stayed at for a while and elephants strolled between our tents while we slept; the world where the women held themselves so proud and erect as they carried their few possessions on the tops of their heads and where every market trader is your best friend.
The little girl smiled at me. Her face was darker than the African night and shiny smooth. I thought a face this sculpted and serious couldn’t possibly smile, the same way that the ironwood sculptures they were selling on the roadside in the dust only stared, unmoved like the people selling them. It was not a scowl but I was intimidated nonetheless by this seven year old girl in the heart of Africa. Her name was Joy and she had the beating of me from the off. This was her back yard, after all, and I was a long way from home.
And yet here I was, teaching her. Spellings in the local tribal language.
“Benya” I said. “What does it mean?”
And then it happened; that hardwood countenance melted and her face became suddenly alive and each crease told a happier story.
I was glad she was happy “but what does it mean?”
She said nothing, only continued to show those perfect luminous teeth, her face alight as she moved her head a little to the side that it caught new angles: bright sunlight trapped in the shadows. Each time I asked the smile seemed to strengthen. She was enjoying herself. But still she said nothing, just watched me; the strange creature I undoubtedly was to her, sweating in the cool of the morning, flicking at tsetse flies and jumping at my own shadow. She has seen me skirt a wide hemisphere around a ragged dog as I passed through the village, the rabies poster in the clinic back home clear in my mind; the malaria pills stashed safely in my money belt.
She clicked her tongue and the dog sprang up, bounded over to her, then flopped harmlessly on its side and let her scratch its mangy belly. Joy smiled.
Later I asked the teacher what it all meant.
“Little Joy” I said “why did she do that each time I asked her what it meant? What benya meant?”
It was the strangest thing. The teacher tilted his head a little and beamed at me, just like Joy had. Then he laughed.
“Mzungu”, he said, white man, “you put too much importance in words. Benya means biiiig smile.”
School starts at 7 in Zambia’s Northern Province, but it is not sharp; the children trickle in as nonchalantly as the standpipe in the corner of the yard. First one and two at the school gate, grubby fingers curled around the chainlink. Then three, four until I’m standing shivering in the chill of the morning surrounded by a dozen or so eager pupils, clad as they are in parkas and beanies. Except for the red dust blown up by the passing ox cart, the fruit of the sausage tree hanging heavy above the tiny schoolhouse and the chorus of strange songs I might be transported to my own gloomy October suburb at the other end of the world.
The children know his shape from a distance along the road. It is seven thirty and the teacher is on his way and in no hurry; they slip through the fence, the sight of him their permission to enter, and pound the dust to the rusty swing set in the playground. Joy is there, beaming. She is carrying a dented paint tin and is eager to show me its contents.
“Teecha” she says; “Manende. Manende.”
In the bucket is what I take to be oysters; flat and greased and very black. I take one because she tells me to; everyone takes one and it is cold, slimy in my hand. Soggy newspaper; like the messy stage of papier mache.
“It’s millet bread” the teacher explains; “Joy’s mum brings it each day because she can’t pay school fees. Everyone has to contribute something. Manende we call it.”
I have taken the biggest piece and I watch as the teacher dips into the bucket and pulls off a much smaller piece and pops it in his mouth. He winks at me as he works it round his mouth. “It’s good,” he says, then swallows hard and strolls back to the classroom.
Joy is watching me, expectant. She sees the bread that I’m holding limply in my hand. It smells damp and my fingers sink into the flesh of it. She draws her fingers to her mouth and motions me to eat. I think of Yorkshire pudding and Marmite. Her eyes are fires and now everyone is watching the Mzungu as he eats the black bread.
Just smile, I think to myself, as I take the first bite. Just Benya.
The kids are all talking about World War III. It’s the buzz word on the street though none of them really know what they’re asking when they ask if I think it’s going to happen.
“Why would it?” I say. “What makes you think that it’s going to happen?”
They answer invariably “because it’s going round on twitter” or “Because so and so said.”
My god, what power to be the one with the big following and mini-intelligence that can smear these ideas across the internet and fling them out on the most susceptible media like mobile phones and social media.
But they don’t really look for detail; they don’t ask about what has started the hysteria – not about an Iranian general killed in Iraq by an American president on the other side of the world. It’s there if they want to see it; it’s there for them to do the research if only they took the time or even wanted to know. But part of the point is that they neither want to know or care about knowing. It’s not the point at all: the point is that there could be an outcome somewhere down the line that might affect their own safe little rhythms. There’s some vague memory from a history class that they half-listened to about Franz Ferdinand. A war started there, didn’t it..?
Do they think of the innocents dying in foreign countries? The misery on the streets; the fear of the children at night; the broken cities and the charred buildings. No. It’s too foreign and the faces too unlike their own to care about that too much.
They don’t really fear for their own safety in this either. There’s a big city fifteen miles away and if that got hit there might be some effect but that’s very unlikely, despite the spin. There’s no real need to hit that city, either. It would be a long way down the list and there’s absolutely no chance of this little town getting hit.
But then someone mentioned that they probably wouldn’t hit populations like that, anyway. That’s sooo 20th century. What they’d do, this is the new spin, is to hit the infrastructures. Out of town utilities. So dirty water, maybe. Might run low on petrol for a bit. All ok so far; some of them like the idea of a bit of disruption.
Then someone says that they’d hit the power stations first and there’d be blackouts. No power. And there’s silence for a minute as they contemplate the romance of actually needing a candle and not just using one to make the downstairs toilet smell nice; maybe missing an episode or two of a favourite soap, but that’s not so bad because, they think, I’ve got my phone. That’s portable that is, don’t need to power for-
And this is when it hits home. Only then that they start to stop mithering and muttering and actually pay attention. This is the hysteria and it would be fascinating to see. It’s a fascinating time to be alive, really. I quite enjoy it when I take the time to stop and think about it.
But it is all spin. It’s hard to know what to take in and what to ignore. With all this noticing that I’ve just started to notice that I do I’m trying to limit what goes in.
Does it matter that the US president hardly opens his eyes when he speaks? That his facial expressions make it seem like he’s being sarcastic – but then don’t trust me on that. I’ve never been so good with reading people’s expressions. Apparently I’m always carrying anger with me. Didn’t know that.
I’ll be back with more spin in a bit…
At the end of the day things turn out as they’re meant to. It’s a case of natural selection. The mud sinks back to the bottom of the pond. All things return to dust in the end and sometimes in the meantime the things we don’t want to happen do anyway.
If we could live with that and be a bit more patient then maybe there wouldn’t be so much of a mess. It is a mess. You must be a able to see that as well as I can. It’s all so temporary and plastic and cheap and we put up with it so that we can keep up. Fomophobia might actually make it into the dictionary this year. I mean ffs.
It’s the way it is and we have to be brave or afflicted to resist it. I resist as much as I can and I’m not brave, simple unable to keep up. I’m too busy counting the patterns on a new carpet or listing the jobs I won’t do today.
I notice, though. I see them pass me by, these plastic people who run the world and influence the rules imposed on me. These phony figures of authority that slide past me as I stand still and feel the current running through my fingers. As I wait to be called up to my rightful place but lack the desire to get there on my own.
Degrees of Desire. That’s all it comes down to in the short termage of it all. It is mightily unsatisfactory. But it will all work out in the end when there’s no one there to see it.