Strange days indeed (Most peculiar, honey)…

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Dark forest wide.png

This week, the UK has started to dismantle the achievements of 60 years: A period of unparalleled peace in Europe, security and prosperity. Brexit is an epic act of self-harm, under a Prime Minister who has further divided an already fractured nation. And this week, I’ve been suffering one of the worst depressive episodes I’ve had in a while.

As others will testify, depressive episodes are really good at what they do: They come without warning, for no apparent reason. Sometimes they last for hours and others, for weeks. Then you never know how long it’s going to be before the next one, how long that will last, or how severe it will be.

Panic attacks are like being mugged; anxiety, like being stalked; and an episode, like having all those assailants and stalkers in your head at the same time. Then they all sit there: They sit around in your brain, sipping tea and stealing your biscuits like there’s no tomorrow, chatting away about your life, and never knowing when to leave. It’s like a trip to a scary place; a mental place, far from home. Then you watch the departure boards, as trains and planes are announced, then cancelled. You’re lost and stuck. This one’s a youngster: Today is day three. Welcome to my brand of depression.

I don’t have the luxury of what some might call “triggers”, any more than I have an early warning mechanism. There are always things to maintain and entertain an episode though; things which might not normally bother me, if I knew what normal was: Things like failed Amazon deliveries of my books, when their system tells me I’ve signed for a package, then I have a burden of proof negative, trying to persuade them that I really didn’t receive my goods. And at the moment, I have an excruciating tooth ache, which is as varied in its severity and duration as any depressive episode; ergo, I’m constantly on edge about when the next attack might be launched. And my local Tesco Metro didn’t have any sea bass, which is what I’d planned for dinner tonight. First world problems I know, but ones which affect me more than they should. Because they are now in the “Unknown” or “Unaccounted for” pile in my mind: Lost, with me helpless to do anything, except expect a possible resolution sometime. But not knowing when that might be causes me further anxiety.

My depression, the tooth ache, the deliveries and the unavailability of fish, all conspire to take an already low mood and systematically hammer it further into the ground. Sometimes the only thing to do is sleep, which is difficult with chronic tooth pain. So I get over-tired; a condition I once thought the preserve of fantasist parents. So I suffer insomnia. Once, drinking would have been a solution but it’s a testament to my resolve that I don’t lapse.

This too shall pass. And it will, as they do. And although I’ll go back to simply hiding it and others will think I’m okay, I’m not. At the end of each depressive episode, you lose something; They take something out of you. Even though it’s barely perceptible, after each episode, you will never feel as good as you did before. The new happiness plateau is lowered, permanently.

Of course, there are valued sympathetic friends but many of them get the other problem: That being clinically depressed can often mean you don’t want to speak to anyone, because you don’t know what to say. Depression can be unfathomable. Then there are still the others, who feel I brought it all on myself. My depression is deep-seated, originally triggered by a robbery at knifepoint. Then I drank as a coping mechanism and the drinking took over. Then I lost everything. I suffered many things which induced PTSD out on the road. It was a rough ride. But it was my fault in the eyes of some. And it’s that which has resolved me to get rid of more of those people permanently from my life; to erase them and deny their existence. To paraphrase an old friend, who wrote recently on social media:

Because the most depressing thing of all, is Brexit: Sorry, but I’m going to find it hard to talk to or engage with those who voted for it. They’re fools. I’ll certainly find it hard to forgive them for what they’re doing to me and my family. What they’re doing to their own? Well, that’s their affair. Perhaps that will change and I don’t like the fact that I feel negative towards them for this. But I’ll absolutely never forget it. I don’t think any of them have or had any clue what they were doing, except those to whom chaos was the only desirable outcome (who are just evil – I don’t know anyone like that I hope, that’s the Dacres and Hopkins and Farages of this world – true scum that we don’t need on the planet, let alone in this nation). But they’ve associated with, and driven the agenda of, howling degenerates, racists and bigots like that with their vote.

For the record: I don’t stand behind it. I won’t stand for it. It’s the biggest act of civil stupidity I can think of in recent times, in a supposedly major world economy and state. Where once I was proud of the United Kingdom, it is no longer that: It’s broken, divided, and I’m ashamed. As soon as individual EU citizenships become available, I’ll be near the front of the queue. I wish Brexit hadn’t happened, as much as I wish my breakdown hadn’t happened. But it’s happening, and I can’t stop it, any more than I can end a depressive episode.

They are brilliant at metaphorically flooring you, and keeping you on edge otherwise, with paranoia and anxiety about the next attack. Previously, they’ve landed me in hospital when I’ve overdosed but this one has come with a psychosomatic condition, as they sometimes do: Uncontrollable vomiting this time, which kind of insures against keeping pills down. So I shouldn’t be bothering any doctors this time: Every cloud.

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A hall of mirrors | Reflections of yesterday

FICTION

Hall of mirrors
Hall of Mirrors, Caloptric Chamber, Mirror Maze in Petrin Park

Interrogation, introspection, introversion, group therapy…I’ve been doing a lot of talking to myself lately, and the best way to do that, in the absence of any outside help, is by writing: Pink Sunshine was a self-study in my writing, and so is this. Yet, such seems to be the complexity of my writing that I’ve been told I can pull this kind of thing off. If I’m pulling anything at all off, it’s just an ability to tell my own stories through the medium of fiction. There’s a part of the writer in all stories but anyone who doesn’t know me, wouldn’t know I’m in this one. So why mention it? Because I’ve been asked how I do it, and can I teach others? I don’t know. But I can provide insights as well as telling the stories.

At least one of the people who asked me if I could teach them, was one of my younger friends, now almost out of their teens. I’ve counselled them on many things and got them to look at things differently, which has helped them. This is just a story about altering perceptions…

Reflections of yesterday

The Unfinished Literary Agency is an underground publishing house, which I set up to tell the stories of others; Stories which would otherwise go untold. Like most of the characters in these stories, Marlene thought she was unimportant: She was a nobody. No-one would want to read a story about a random girl like her. So I made a suggestion on how we might make the story more interesting, while keeping it real.

It starts with a Beagle: a dog called Huxley, Marlene’s best friend and confidante. She insists on her name being written that way, without any character accents to denote that it’s pronounced “Mar-Lay-Nah”.

They were having a picnic in Mountsfield Park, surrounded by her life, in three Sports Direct bags. A man asked: “Why do so many homeless people have dogs?”

“Because most people aren’t like you, sir. Most people don’t stop to talk. In fact, most people just walk on by. If someone just says hello, it makes me feel better. While there are so few people like you, I have a dog. I have Huxley, and he’s company. He listens. I’m Marlene. What’s your name mate? Sit down if you like.”

“Jay, and thanks.” Jay swung his rucksack from his shoulder and sat next to where Marlene lay on her sleeping bag, under a tree. It was a quiet time: mid-afternoon. Parents would be returning from shopping in Lewisham and getting ready to pick the kids up from school, before coming to the park. Every now and then, people walked by on the pathways. There were only two other people on the grass: a young red-haired girl, seated cross-legged, looking at something in her hand; and an older man, lying on his side and propped up on one arm. The girl passed something to the man and he looked at his hand for a while, before blowing something from his palm.

“You’re Muslim, right?

“Yeah, the rucksack sort of gives me away, doesn’t it?”

Shared irony is always a comforting bond: A tie formed when two people who’ve never met before, realise in a moment that they’re of similar intellect; When one can crack a joke and the other doesn’t feel the need to demonstrate anything by finishing it off; When one doesn’t have to ride the coat tails of the other, because they both get what didn’t need to be said. They are equals. There’s usually some wag around in a social situation who’ll feel the need to fill things in: The kind of person who might give you unsolicited advice at a pub fruit machine or pool table. There were no spare parts in this conversation.

“How long have you been here?” Jay asked.

“Today, only about an hour. I try not to think about how long it’s been in all.”

“You know.” It was another shared moment.

“You’ve been here?”

“Yeah, I was out here for just over a year before I converted.”

“So what happened? I mean, if you want to tell me.”

“I think I might be as reluctant to share the tale of how I came to be here as you are. My conversion to Islam though, was an awakening. Some might call it an epiphany but I don’t believe in God. Or Allah.”

“What? Explain that one, please.”

“Well, one day when I was out here, someone gave me a copy of the Quran. To be honest, my first thought was, ‘Thanks. This looks delicious’, but I couldn’t throw it away. No matter the contempt I have for religion and all that it’s caused, I respect every other human and that includes their beliefs. I wondered perhaps if I might reject God because I don’t understand him. I find that sense of not knowing unnerving, a fear of the unknown. The best way to deal with fear is confront it. So I decided I’d educate myself. I felt I owed it to the man who’d given me his copy of The Recitation.

“It was a coping mechanism and a comfort. It was escapism to safe entertainment. At it’s core, the Quran is just a different telling of the same events; The same stories, told by someone else with a different perspective. An alternative to the Bible. Despite what many perceive, a lot of the ancient Islamic texts have their roots in the one thing which unites us all: Humanity. In many ways, Islam is actually much more tolerant than Christianity. The Quran was the Guardian, to the Bible’s Telegraph. And where Jesus was just a nice guy, I wouldn’t be surprised if Muhammad smoked a bit of weed. I don’t know, I just found the Quran much more accessible than the Bible. The Bible’s dictatorial, whereas the Quran is a guide. It was refreshing to see a different take on things. But either book in the wrong hands…

“So I took the faith and changed my name to Javeed. It means forever. But when I say I took the faith, I didn’t. Because I can’t have faith in something which is unproven; a paradox. I need to question what I don’t understand, and religion will not be interrogated. Instead, it tells us that we must believe and have faith. I’m not ready to relinquish my will. But I did have a new found faith in humanity and, just as I’d read that man’s Quran, I felt indebted to Islam. So I started attending the mosque. It was shelter, company, and food. Was I using Allah? If he exists, then he will judge. Until then, I consider myself free.”

“So why do you still dress that way? Do you go to prayers?”

“Because I get something from it. I see other people’s ways of looking at things. It taught me to see that failure, me losing my home and all, was just that to the weak man: A failure. But the strong man sees a challenge and he rises to it, to change, to make things better. And I felt I might be able to do some good. You see, there are a lot of young Muslims who feel alienated and persecuted. Well, I know how that feels. I suppose the best way to sum up a situation I don’t understand, is I’m not bound by Islam but by humanity. With my brothers, we are all members of the same human race. That’s what I found Islam to be. It’s not a religion to me, it’s a family.”

“What about the women?”

“Well, that sits very uncomfortably with me. But I could run away and ignore it, or I could try to do something about it. I see those women and girls as suffragettes. They’re way more persecuted than the men, and by the men. Over time, I’m trying to make the Imam and others more progressive.

“So you’re radicalising them? That could take a while.”

“My name is Javeed. It means forever.”

“What was your name before?”

“Jim. Which means Jim. Anyway, Marlene, I should go. I’m cramping your style. I think these people walking past are giving us an even wider berth than they’d normally give you alone. They are no-one. Because every one of them who walks past, you’d probably not recognise if you saw them again. Let them stay that way. Let them retain their anonymity, and be forgettable. Here, let me compensate you for your time.”

“Compensate me? Like, pay me for talking and listening? I’m a captive audience mate. Besides, it was nice. You actually remind me of someone, but I don’t remember who.”

“I wouldn’t know. In any case, it was a pleasure. You’re a valuable person Marlene. Don’t forget that. Here…”

“A tenner? You sure?”

“Of course. It seems quite appropriate. On the reverse of the ten pound note, is Charles Darwin: Evolution and the rest of it. And his ship, HMS Beagle. Well, I do believe Huxley here is a Beagle.”

“Can’t argue with that. Thank you. Thanks mate.”

“You’re welcome my friend. I don’t care what you spend it on. That’s your business. I’d like to think that you used it to do something, to make things different. Keep your head up kid. I know you can swim, you just gotta keep moving your legs.” Jay stood and shook Marlene’s hand. “Be safe.”

Something. Something to make a difference. To eat a hot meal would make a change. But she couldn’t dine out wearing five layers of clothes, or with Huxley and her house in tow. Instead, she bought some food, which she had no intention of eating. She bought five loaves of bread, some wafer thin ham, a block of Cheddar and some tomatoes; all of which were reduced as they approached their sell-by dates. She also got some plastic knives and cling film. The food probably would have been destined for the homeless, but she had a plan: She would make sandwiches and sell them. Any she didn’t sell, she would give to the homeless, most of whom lacked the resources to make a sandwich of their own. The way Marlene saw it, she was buying raw materials to make into something and add value. In percentage terms, the margins were very large, so she could cover her costs, make a little profit for herself and give something ready-made to those with no money. The business plan required her to place faith in the general public to buy her goods, but other than that, it was sound.

On the first day, most of the sandwiches went to the homeless. Pure prejudice seemed to keep people away. Her stall was a makeshift table made of plastic bread crates, her hand-written sign listing her sandwiches: Ham or cheese, with or without tomato. Sandwiches just like mum used to make. All were priced at 50p. But it seemed that the same anonymous people who passed her by, were equally unprepared to give her money for something she’d done. They needn’t have any concern for hygiene. She wore plastic gloves while making the sandwiches, and sanitary wipes to keep her hands clean. She’d lost £5, but she’d given homeless people something to eat.

The next day she spent less and broke even. At least people were coming to her now, parents with kids mainly, perhaps reassured by her presence on a second day. For the next few days, she reached a plateau and her venture stagnated. She was covering her costs, giving a few sandwiches to the homeless and making a few pence each day. She needed to upsize but for that, she needed more capital.

She wondered about what she was doing; interrogated her business model. Perhaps she appeared too needy. But she’d never begged, and people were buying from her of their own free will. She wasn’t asking for anything. There was no mention of helping the homeless on her sign, as she imagined people might make the wrong association with her food. Perhaps those people weren’t even eating her sandwiches but 50p was such a small sum, and at least they got something. Some of her customers became familiar faces. They talked to her and she learned about them.

It was at the end of the second week that Marlene decided to make a change. She wrote a new sign, with just the sandwiches on and no prices. She stood an empty baked bean tin next to her sandwiches on the stall, and stuck a label on the tin: Thank you.

Human psychology is a deep and complex field of study and her human lab mice proved a theory: If presented with something which requires questioning, most will walk on by. But some people will seek answers. The revamped sandwich stall invited people to enquire, at least about the price of a sandwich, or to find out what they were being thanked in advance for. Without too much prompting, some humans quickly exhibited completely altered behaviour. They found themselves in a new paradigm; one where they were being thanked for taking something, and invited to leave a donation. The important decisions about the transaction had been placed firmly back with the customers: Whether to take something and if so, how much to pay for it. She remained a few feet from the stall; still present but not so close as to distract from people’s own free will. At the end of that first new day, Marlene’s tin contained £6.35.

She had a viable business model, of the simplest kind: Source cheaply, add value and sell at a profit. The added value here was the sandwiches being made: It was Marlene’s time. Her modest success was down to her honesty, and her trust in that of others: She could make no secret of the fact that her stall was unconventional. On the few occasions when she was asked the price of her sandwiches, she simply asked people to pay whatever they felt the food was worth. And there were those who took food and left nothing, but she wasn’t going to question them. One could quite easily be someone just like her, who might be embarrassed. By maintaining a distance, Marlene relied almost entirely on human spirit and her faith in such was somewhat restored.

But she wasn’t getting anywhere. Her business was standing still. She wasn’t making anything of Jay’s gift. So Marlene and Huxley took a walk. They couldn’t walk as far or for as long as they used to.

The sky was peach melba with a crème brûlée topping, and a warm breeze drove the day’s dust out of Mountsfield Park. Midges were beginning to form vortices around nothing, and ants were retreating to warmth. Marlene instinctively raised her wrist to her eye as something approached, but one midge didn’t make it home that night. Greenwich was the limit now, and even that took from afternoon to night, with frequent breaks. But everything in between was their time. Evenings were Huxley’s.

Marlene didn’t know Huxley’s exact age but they’d said he was already getting on a bit when she took him as a rescue dog from Battersea. His snout and some of his coat were greying, but no matter his age, Huxley liked to walk. He liked being outside – perhaps something to do with his previous life, chasing hares – so he was the perfect dog for a homeless nomad. He wasn’t a weaponised dog. An owner makes a dog and a dog’s love is unconditional. Marlene was sure Huxley would kill or be killed for her, but she never sought to find out. She threw Huxley a stick. ”Sticks and stones. My old bones…”

Fetching sticks aside, the only time Huxley wasn’t with Marlene, was when she’d had to work to repay a favour, or buy him food. A slut, a dirty whore, a re-useable doll: Just words. But she’d had fingers broken, been raped and left for dead in the park when she’d first washed up there. It wouldn’t have happened if Huxley had been there, but she hadn’t wanted him there. She would kill or be killed for him.

The Royal Borough of SE10 was no better than SE13: Postcodes didn’t change the status of a homeless person. But with that status come certain rights: You are always safe with your own kind. Although not true of humanity as a whole, there was an unwritten code in the homeless community; a people without borders. They were people of limited means but with deep resources.

And so Marlene and Huxley would regularly join a group who congregated in Greenwich Park, at the top of the hill, by the Royal Observatory. There they were left alone at night, by all but the most curious and determined. They looked out at Docklands on the peninsular, with the City in the background. All of life was there, most of it indiscernible to the untrained eye.

At low tide, the banks of the Thames attracted beach combers. They’d look for coins beneath the bridges and barriers; They’d turn over stones and prod through the mud for other treasures; One day perhaps, a priceless artefact or discarded weapon. Further out, walkers would be among the undead, as street people pushed against the tide of robots to pick up after them. The invisible cleaned up after the anonymous.

Fiction writers have sometimes been accused of over-stretching the imagination; of inventing convenient coincidences to carry a narrative. While it is true that fiction is often stranger than fact, by its very design, it is also true that life imitates art. Although they can be tropes for a lazy writer, strange coincidences do occur in real life. However fantastical these situations can seem, when reported as fact, they become received wisdom. When written as fiction, the author is more likely to be questioned. This is exactly why Marlene said that the next chapter shouldn’t be written about, but for the same reasons, I insisted it should. She had entrusted this story to a writer and that writer was me. I couldn’t teach Marlene to write. At least, I couldn’t teach her how to write as I saw writing, because I would have to teach her how to write like me. When I myself don’t know why that is.

I was writing the story of Marlene, but I was also writing the story of a writer, who wanted to be a writer like Paul Auster: One who writes “in a certain way”, which sometimes frustrates him, because he can’t teach others how he does it; a writer who used himself in many plot devices and a named character in at least one story. On occasion, he’s used seemingly wild coincidences in his plots. But by way of a demonstration of how life can turn up these events, in October 1989, he asked listeners of National Public Radio’s Weekend All Things Considered programme to send in true stories, to be read on-air as part of the National Story Project. The response was unexpected, with over 4000 submissions. Everyone, it seemed, had a story to tell. True Tales of American Life gathered some of these personal accounts to demonstrate that life could really be stranger than fiction. One such story was “The Chicken”, from Linda Elegant of Portland, Oregon:

As I was walking down Stanton Street early one Sunday morning I saw a chicken a few yards ahead of me. I was walking faster than the chicken so I gradually caught up. By the time we approached Eighteenth Avenue I was close behind.

The chicken turned south on Eighteenth. At the fourth house along it turned in at the walk, hopped up the front steps and rapped sharply on the metal storm door with its beak. After a moment the door opened and the chicken went in.

Other Auster trademarks are tributes to people he admires, with cameos or as a clue to a name in one of his characters, subtle references at various depths of immersion; Stories set in and around areas he knows intimately, like a pre-teen knows his or her genitals; and links to his other stories, through places or people; sometimes fleeting, others more overt.

It was while on the hill in Greenwich that one unlikely thing happened, when an unexpected Ellery Moon came into the story:

It was unusual but not unprecedented for someone inclined by curiosity to climb the hill and share the view from the summit. There’d never been one with a guitar before, least of all a twelve string. Ellery had come there to look at the Maritime Museum from an elevated viewpoint.

Odd and quirky things do happen. Sometimes, something breaks through the monotony and invites us to think differently. It’s a meeting of magnetic poles: Attraction and repulsion.

Ellery was a scholar of European neoclassicism in the visual arts. It was a modernising movement when it emerged in the mid 18th century, but also a conservative one. It sought to fight back against received wisdom and accepted norms, by simplifying things. In architecture, it was an admiration of the function and simplicity of ancient Greek and Roman buildings, relatively unadorned with fussy decorative features. Ellery saw the maritime museum as an example of the architecture, with imperialism at its heart. Nationalism was something he found repellent but in order to understand that which he didn’t know, he needed to question it. “Architecture is frozen music”, he said. As far as Marlene was concerned, he simply spoke to buildings, as others do animals or plants.

Although Ellery’s interests were not ones she shared, Marlene found his interpretations of the world fascinating, and him an engaging orator. Everything was linked, he said. And where there were no obvious connections, they were still there to be discovered. He explained how certain things were triggers for him, which would most likely not affect many others: He was in touch with his senses to an extent where an oil painting, a piece of music, an architectural structure, or even a passage of words, would evoke in him a vision or a memory; one so powerful that it could make him visibly weep. Although it wasn’t recognised as a mental illness, it had a name: Stendhal Syndrome. It was another easy label to apply.

Ellery’s songs were not exercises in subtlety, his voice an embattled rasping call to action. His lyrics, an angry mix of threat and paranoia, chasing doomed dreams as he faced invisible oppressors. For him, music was an inferno, into which he’d toss caution and the inhibitions which he believed bind us in life. Anthems, protests and love songs, delivered in a rasping 60-a-day voice, with his guitar a machine gun triumphing against those unseen forces. He sought no-one’s approval for anything he did.

He taught Marlene to sing. She’d never been able to sing, but Ellery told her she always could, she simply lacked confidence. “You need to get out of your comfort zone and face a fear”, he said. “At school, I was just like all the other kids; mumbling words behind a hymn book in assembly. But then I started going to pubs and I was introduced to Karaoke. Some friends of mine were in a band, and it was hearing their voices over a microphone that made me wonder what I might sound like if I opened my lungs. And that was where I found it: All my anger and frustration was in my voice. It sounds narcissistic and clichéd, but when I heard my own voice over the speakers, it was an awakening. I didn’t even notice anyone in the room, even though the bar was packed. I was just into screaming and howling, but in some sort of tune. When I’d finished, I looked around and everyone was silently staring at me. I just thought, ‘Fuck you’ as I put the mic back in the stand, then they starting applauding. At first, I thought they were glad I’d finished. But they kept going. A few of them cheered and whistled, perhaps even more relieved that I was done. But then, one person stood up; then another; six in all. One shook my hand, then another, who slapped me on the shoulder and told me, “Nice one, mate”. They liked me. Wanna know what song it was that I ripped apart and threw around that room?”

“I’d imagine it was more an interpretation or tribute, rather than a straight cover or impression?”

“Fuck yeah. If you’re gonna sing a song, it’s more of a tribute to the original artists to give it your own style, rather than just ape them. The great thing is, it works if you’re shit at singing. It’s subjective, both to the performer and the listener. To the ears of some, a cover tribute takes on greater meaning than the original. Music history is littered with examples, depending on who you listen to. But the best example is probably Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails on Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt: “It’s his now.” For me, even though I’m a space boy, Bauhaus owned Ziggy Stardust’s eponymous track. That was even better than the Starman himself. There are examples in films and TV series too, where someone has taken a classic and re-imagined it, or turned literature into film; or vice versa. The arts are self-pollinating, but if we treat them as less than living entities, they will perish. I want to cede a new renaissance.

“So my first ever song performed in public, was George Michael’s Praying for Time, from the Listen Without Prejudice album.”

“But sung as…”

“But sung as me. That was the thing. For four minutes, I made that song my own. They said I sounded like an angry Michael Stipe. They said I held my forearms upwards, screaming at them all the time, whether I was standing or crouching; like I was displaying stigmata in my self-harm scars.

“These are the days of the open hand. These are the days of the beggars and the choosers. This is the year of the hungry man. Whose place is in the past. Hand in hand with ignorance. I sang twenty years and a day. But nothing changed. The human race found some other guy. And walked into the flame. And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate. Hanging on to hope. When there is no hope to speak of. And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late. Well maybe we should all be praying for time…

“But I was still using someone else’s words. To be honest, I don’t know if any of my own songs are any good. It’s impossible to be discovered, so no-one will hear them. But they’re all I want to say and if people get to hear them, they might tell others. The best chance to be heard, was to cover something someone else had already done. In so many cases, the words are there, and I wish I’d written them. But I didn’t, so I sung them. Even as I tell you this, I’m unsure as to what might be too much to say. I want you to get it, without having to question too much; but I don’t want to insult your intelligence by telling you too much, because then I take away from your personal interpretation. And right here, right now, I just don’t know when to shut up.”

Words can only be stopped when the mouth is otherwise occupied, and a first kiss is a catalyst for many more. Exchanges of bodily fluids quickly evolve, from the first drop of saliva, to ones which can be life-changing.

As one life ends, so another begins. It’s just changes. They have happened in the past, to create the now; and others are planned, to shape the future. The world turns on its axis, one man works while another relaxes.

Ellery sang at the birth, and Marlene gave them Ebony: An ornamental wood, dense enough to sink in water, with a smooth finish when polished, making it valuable.

A “Paupers funeral” is one paid for by the state. It’s normally at 9am, as that’s the cheapest slot, and you can only be incinerated. It’ll be attended by a suited figure, there to ensure that everything is done. There’ll be three pieces of music: One to welcome the mourners; another to accompany the lowering of the coffin; and the end.

The music didn’t even have words which Marlene could imagine Ellery singing, in his angry, impatient voice, struggling to escape, from something. She remembered him singing Amy Winehouse at The Dublin Castle, where Amy used to drink and play; and Madness. Suggs spoke about her, in the way Suggs speaks:

“We used to see her around in Camden, we started off in The Dublin Castle, a place where Amy very much liked. I wrote a song about Amy Winehouse which is on this record called ‘Blackbird’, without going on about it, it was a very tragic thing.”

When a panic attack strikes, it will do so without warning and for no apparent reason. A partner unable to free himself; their baby sealed in a burning box; and Marlene, on the wall.

“Even if I am in love with you. All this to say, what’s it to you? Observe the blood, the rose tattoo. Of the fingerprints on me from you. We’re still alone, around the danger zone. And we don’t talk about it. The passing of every soldier, but the only soldier now is me, fighting things I cannot see. I think it’s called my destiny. I am changing. Don’t give away the good too soon. I tried hard to resist, when you held me in your handsome fist. It reminded me of the night we kissed. Of why I should be leaving.”

And as one story ends, so another begins. Huxley went quietly at the PDSA in New Cross, where he met and said farewell to Doctor Jones. Hannah Jones then became a part of the story again, when she called Marlene a few months later: An injured beagle had been brought into the hospital by a stranger. He’d found the dog at the kerbside and guessed it had been hit by a car. It was barely more than a pup and it hadn’t been chipped. Before he went to Battersea, would Marlene be up to meeting him?

They were having a picnic in Mountsfield Park, when a man asked: “Why do so many homeless people have dogs?”

“Because most people aren’t like you, sir. Most people don’t stop to talk. In fact, most people just walk on by.”

“Ignorant people, perhaps. You’re homeless though, right?”

“What gave me away? The bags?” Shared irony is always a comforting bond: A tie formed when two people who’ve never met before, realise they’ve clicked. “Yeah, I’ve lost the lot mate: Home, money, people I cared about. I’m Marlene. Ironically, it’s derived from Mary Magdalene. But mine’s Mar-Lay-Nah, after the Suzanne Vega song.”

“I’m Jim. It means Jim.”

“Wanna hear a story, Jim? This guy came up to me once, right here. If you grew a beard, you’d probably look like him actually.

“So this other guy, he gave me a tenner. The Bank of England tenner has Darwin on it, and a picture of his ship: HMS Beagle. And Huxley here is a beagle. And the guy just said to make something with that tenner. It took me to a lot of places, that note and those words. I met a lot of people and heard their stories. And after that, I realised what it was I could do. I worked out that it was the best way to give the most back. Money is like the air: breathe it in, breathe it out. It’s just selfish to hold on to it.

“One day, I might learn to play this twelve string here. It was Ellerey’s. He taught me to sing. He allowed me to find my voice, even if it was in the words of others.

“But before I go out busking, I’ve set up The Human Lending Library. It’s a massive place, full of stories, but not housed in a building. It’s a library without borders. You don’t borrow books; you borrow a person. You don’t take them home with you, although some might appreciate that. No, you just ask one of them to tell you a story. And most of the time, they’ll have a story to tell, which they didn’t think anyone would want to hear. It might be their own or someone else’s: Someone who’s no longer around to tell their own story. But if someone asks, that changes things for the story teller. And it often changes the way the listener thinks of those story tellers.

“Libraries stand for freedom. Freedom to read, to think, and to pass on wisdom. They are about education, which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university. They’re safe entertainment. Some of the most under-appreciated people in society are librarians, yet without those gatekeepers of knowledge, we are ignorant.

“Our children lack the knowledge we have. We need to teach them. With knowledge, they can navigate the world, understand things, question others and solve problems. We must tell them the truth and not let them be lied to or misled.

“We should read aloud to others, or recite stories to them. Read them things they enjoy, even if those are stories we’ve already tired of. Or tell them a new story. And we can write. All of us – readers and writers – can dream. All of us can make a change, just by thinking more and doing things differently.

“Well, I’m one of the librarians and we’re everywhere. All anyone has to do, is rather than walk past, just ask. Both parties get something far greater than money from that free transaction.”

And Jim was lost for a moment.

Marlene didn’t expect a donation; She didn’t ask. It was pure coincidence that Jim gave her a ten pound note. A coincidence which gives meaning to the phrase, what comes around, goes around. Marlene’s situation too.

Marlene didn’t think this story worth telling. But by looking at things differently, she didn’t fail and end up back in the drain. She returned to where she felt she belonged, where there are far greater things than money. History repeating need not always be a death toll. Even in the darkest places, there is hope. Sometimes, we need to be stripped of everything to realise that there is more to life and to start seeing the world differently. The Human Lending Library is fictional, but with its base in the facts of Marlene and others’ lives.

She mock-fretted that if her story was told, people might read it and be moved to act upon it. Pretty soon, the librarians might receive sufficient donations to change their circumstances and living arrangements. There might one day be no Human Lending Library.

I told her not to worry. Such a dream was just that: firmly in the realms of fiction.

Have you fed the snake?

THE WRITER’S LIFE

royal-python
A Royal python (Python regius), like my parents’ permanent house guest

Yesterday I took my parents to lunch, for their golden wedding anniversary. I must admit, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

This wasn’t an unprecedented gesture on my part, and no unexpectedness arose from actually being there. It’s true that I wouldn’t have been having lunch out with my parents as recently as three years ago, because I’d done my drunken best to kick everyone away from me. But I’m better now. I’m a writer, I earn modest royalties from my books, and I can treat my mum and dad. The initial surprise was in how my local had changed since I was last there.

I don’t not go to the pub because I’m an alcoholic: I’ve got that genie back in its lantern. I don’t go to the pub for the same reason I rarely go anywhere beyond my studio: Anxiety. If I were able to overcome that, I might be able to make more of this idyllic setting I’ve found myself in. Then I might be able to pick up a newspaper, pop to the pub for lunch, then finish with a coffee in the coffee shop under my studio. But those things don’t happen.

My local is the one I chose among a number of agreeable looking contenders when I first came here. It’s not my local in proximity; there are other pubs nearer home. It became my local because it looked friendly, and when I first went in there with my removal man mate, we found it to be just that. It’s an old pub; the building dating from the 16th century, with an open fire and higgledy piggledy furniture. They serve traditional Sunday roasts, at a decent price and without farting around: Just the kind of thing my parents like, being as they were, fans of the Wetherspoons roasts (RIP). My local was a place I might go, if ever I plucked up the courage to go there on my own. I never did. Yesterday’s visit was going to be fine: I’d mentally prepared, and I had pleasant company.

But like ‘spoons roasts, my old pub has gone. The pub itself is still there but the atmosphere has left, as though someone popped a balloon. Now it’s a gastro pub. My village has room for another one and if I were wealthier and less anxious, I could enjoy a fine meal at a different quality eatery every night. But the boozer had gone, along with the friendly locals. When we arrived at 12.30, we were the first. My heart sank when I looked around and saw that all the furniture was uniformly laid out and the whole place had been de-cluttered. It was that very cluttered nature of the place which made it homely, even if there were few others around. Now, everything was gone.

I’d reserved a table, which we duly occupied when we were requested to do so. Immediately, the menu caused me slight alarm by proxy, on behalf of my parents: Being of a certain age, they are used to having things a certain way. In the case of roast beef, this would include the meat being cooked way beyond my personal preference (rare) and in a Bisto gravy (other gravy brands are available). This roast beef came with a red wine gravy and I assumed the meat would be served pink. We asked if we might have an alternative gravy but the reply from “Chef” was that he’d already prepared the sauce. I was tempted to tell the pretentious cunt to climb down from his rocking horse, and that I’d boil a fucking kettle if he really couldn’t manage it, but I managed to hold my tongue.

When my parents’ lunches arrived, they looked just like the sort of roast beef dinner I’d relish: slightly pink meat, and the red wine gravy was silky and delicious. My appetite excluded me from participating in what would have been an expensive waste of money. Instead, I related some anecdotes to my parents while they ate, before writing some notes in my pad (My parents get that I carry a notepad around all the time, and they enjoy hearing what I’m thinking as I write, I think). My mum commented that there were no prices on the menu: There were but she’d not noticed. It didn’t matter, because I was paying.

In the time we were there, the place filled up considerably. It got quite lively in fact. It wasn’t the old boozer atmosphere though: Compared to what I remembered in that place, this atmosphere was a bit wanky, with pretentious types, hipsters, yummy mummies and fun dads. I began to take a dislike to some of those people, because they’d taken over my old place. Of course, it was never mine but still.

Once, I’d have grown more anxious and paranoid, feeling somehow that it was me who wasn’t welcome there. It’s irrational but that’s how my mix of mental malfunctions works. Now I live by coping mechanisms and what was taught to me by one of many psychologists: Cognition.

Although it’s never been openly discussed, my parents don’t seem uncomfortable when I’m apparently being utterly rude and disrespectful by writing notes in my journal, right in front of them. There’s no paranoia on their part, as I tell them what I’m writing about. They had their mouths full, so it was good for them to listen and not have to reply.

I was writing about the people in the room. Because what I’ve known for some time now is that however objectionable someone might be, they’re human. And given that I don’t discriminate on any grounds, it would be hypocritical of me to take a dislike to someone based purely on the way they look and seem. I’m sure these invaders of my old pub were nice people once you got talking to them, but I wasn’t, so I wrote about them.

That guy over there, with his man bun and generally infuriatingly fucking friendly face, could be a psychopath. Equally, he could be gay and mourning a break up with a partner. That annoying little kid over there: She might be wearing that hat because she has cancer and not long to live. The two girls in the corner, could be sisters or lovers; this could be their first or their break-up date. Everyone has and is a story. We don’t know until we ask. And if we don’t ask, we shouldn’t judge. What a wonderful world this would be if people thought a little differently. What a wonderful one mine has become since I did.

There are many interesting people among my friends, some with many stories of their own. And I’m probably one of very few people whose pensioner parents have a pet snake: Adopted from me when I had my breakdown, because I needed the money and the snake needed a home. My parents’ house was once going to be an interim measure but now they won’t let go of the little guy.

It would probably do me some good to get out more, but monthly trips to see the kids and the odd pre-arranged thing like yesterday is about my limit. My anxiety is only crippling in that it renders me housebound. It’s fortunate that I’m in a place where I don’t mind being.

And what are my problems anyway? First world problems is what they are. As such, they are insignificant compared to those of millions of others. Those are the important people: The silent ones. The ones with no voice, or no means to make themselves heard. At least I have that. And with that, I might make a difference. I know that I already have to some people and that’s worth more than money.

It’s becoming a trope: That I’m not a writer for the money. I’d be deluded if I thought I’d make anything from what I do. But even if I’m doing it for free, it comes back to me in other ways.

Life can throw up surprises, and that’s what makes being alive so much fun. I write stories about it, and people seem to like that.

 

Shameless plug
A shameless plug

I have a new short story out soon: It’s called Reflections of Yesterday and it’s about perceptions; how we see people, and how we look at them. If you look at things a different way, the story takes on a different meaning. That story will be in my second collection of shorts. The first is available now.

Gallivanting with royalties

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Some royalties
Some royalties

Yesterday was the first of two lunches this month, paid for by book royalties. I took my children to a pub, which is normal these days: I can be trusted around drink. There we enjoyed starters, mains with sides, desserts and drinks, at modest cost (it was a Wetherspoons), because my royalties are modest at best. But as I’ve said before, I’m not a writer for the money; days like yesterday are the reasons I do it.

The inevitable separation anxiety has kicked in today. Most people experience this sometimes but for me and many others, it’s particularly hard. It’s the come-down after a high. It’s being with someone and enjoying yourself so much that you can forget where you are. But the next day, you look around and it’s all gone. It’s not as painful as it used to be. Once, it was self-pity, because my drinking had brought about the family split. Now, with a lot of work from all parties, everything’s settled to a point where we can all agree that with hindsight, things have worked out for the best. Everyone is in the best place, especially the children, with a stable mum, in a stable relationship. But nevertheless, it hurts, and it’s compounded by depression.

But what am I to do? Start drinking again, to cope by blocking it all out? I think not. My children, and the many others who’ve regrouped around me, are many reasons not to lapse.

After lunch, and just as the pub started filling with wankers (there was a football match on), we departed to the shops. I have many friends who are football supporters but the men’s game holds no interest for me, given that it’s so capitalist and just not what I call sport. I accept that friends wish to watch matches in a group environment with their peers. I only wish that a minority would have a little respect for those around them, especially in a family environment. But live and let live, so we left.

In Waterstones (other book retailers are available), my son (aged 12) pointed a book out to me: Ideas Are Your Only Currency, by Rod Judkins (other books by other authors are available). Unsure if this was inspired or ironic, I flicked through the book and it’s perfect, for me, right now:

FUTURE-PROOFING FOR THINKERS.

‘What skills and abilities will a student need to prosper in five, ten, or fifteen years’ time?’

In a world of change, where skills become out of date quickly, it is ideas that last.

We all need to be prepared for a world that is fluid, global and interdisciplinary. Distinctions between specialties will blur and overlap. Change is happening at electrifying speed. In this vortex there are no maps.

Featuring 100 interactive chapters to inspire groundbreaking new ideas, this is perfect for fans of Keri Smith’s Wreck this Journal, Paul Arden’s It’s Not How Good You Are and Rolf Dobelli’s global bestseller The Art of Thinking Clearly.

It’s not a self-help book. For me, it will be a reference tool; a source of ideas. Before I’ve even started to read it, I have a new short story in draft form: The Art of Thinking QWERTY.

Of course, the simple act of thinking more is something I’ve always advocated. For me, it’s creative thinking. For others, I just wish they weren’t so ignorant. I’ve been saying this in my general rhetoric and especially on social media: If we all just thought more, it would go some way to making life more tolerable. Some people get me, many don’t.

Next Sunday is the date for my next lunch with royalties, when I take my parents for Sunday roast at my local pub. It’s quite comforting sometimes, knowing that I’m the middle layer of generations in my family: It’s nice to have elders and younger people to talk to.

I’m the generational sandwich filling. I am Marmite.

A discomfort I can barely explain

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Little man on top of the world

Despite having everything I could hope for, there’s still a tension to life which I can’t quite grasp. This is not a new thing. It’s one of the many products of depression and anxiety, PTSD, personality disorder…

I really do have everything which my modest needs require: Food and shelter are taken care of in a way which others might take for granted, and so may I have done once. But I know how fragile any situation can be, and I remember how easy it was to gradually slip off of life’s ride. When you’ve been a tramp, even basic human needs become gifts.

I’ve been at the studio for exactly a year, with all indications that I’m now on a rolling tenancy and likely to enjoy many more years here, as my two neighbours have. Private renting comes with its own inherent anxiety, when a tenant is at the mercy of a private landlord’s personal whim. My own landlady is a social one, in that she accepts housing benefit tenants for the properties at the more modest end of her portfolio. The studio is very comfortable, well decorated and maintained, and no more than I need. The reasonably low rent is one which my housing benefit covers.

The fridge, freezer and cupboards are full. So for that matter are the biscuit barrel, the crisps basket, and the Minecraft Darth Vader Paul Auster mini bar (another, long story). I’ve usually got weed to chill with too. Just lately I’ve had more days when I actually feed myself than not, which is some kind of progress. Sometimes it’s as though I just buy food to look at it, or for other people to eat. Now I’ve got back into an old habit of planning meals. So often in the past, my indecisiveness was such that I’d grow tired of thinking about food and just not bother: Irrational, but just another part of the cocktail which makes my brain what it is. If I plan meals in advance, that part of me saves the indecisive one having to make a decision. It’s part of the fun mix which is my borderline multiple personality disorder.

Even though the studio is small, it’s crammed with the things I love: Films, music and books. It’s not so crammed as to look like a mentally ill hoarder lives here; Through the keyhole would reveal a cool, cosy little place: That of someone who likes their own space and who is perhaps somewhat eccentric. It’s been likened to Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter’s apartment, albeit smaller: I’ll take that. And in the corner by the window is the desk, with the typewriter and all of a writer’s tools, on and around it.

I’m content with my writing at the moment. I’m pleased with the three books which are out. My children’s story at least is getting good reviews in the marketplace: It’s helping people. I only wish that some of the people who tell me in private that the other two are good, would post reviews online. I find it frustrating and unfair that I spent three years writing my anthology and it would take five minutes to post a review. That sense of entitlement is another part of my frustrated mind. It’s the part of many depressives which allows them to crave contact with others, only to then push those people away.

Now that I’m free of editing for a while, I can devote more time to actually writing, which is what I’m paid nothing to do. As such, I’m having fun with some new stories. I’m practising a way of working which my more successful and wealthy peers employ: Experiment, play, throw away. This will sometimes produce a daily output of a few thousand words, which will then be consigned to the slush pile, or become something else.

I’ve invented a new character: A kind of Lewisham Tank Girl. She’s involved in one short story I’m writing at the moment and could well be a recurring character (in no more than three, before I have to consider another novel). One day I might do a head count of all of my characters and perhaps write something fun which they can all be in. I fear some may harm or kill others: Experiment, play, throw away. I’d first need to re-read everything to see who’s still alive.

So I have relative security in my housing situation, and as much writing as I can fit in until I’m no longer able to do it. I have things to look forward to in the short term too: This weekend’s monthly visit to Milton Keynes, to gallivant with my children; and a lunch I’ve arranged for my parents on their Golden wedding anniversary a week after. This is something which makes me want to grab all those old friends who dropped me when I was drunk. I want to grab them by the necks and show them that everyone who was affected by my illness, is cool with me now. I worked hard to rebuild those relationships, so that now everyone gets to actually enjoy my company, rather than fear it. I will live with the guilt for the rest of my life: That’s the price I pay for sobering up. But I haven’t lapsed and neither will I. Those around me know how important they are to me and if I returned to drinking, I would lose all of that.

The lunch with my parents is just a traditional Sunday roast at my local: Not a place I frequent, but it’s been very pleasant on the half dozen or so occasions I’ve visited in the last year. So I’ve booked us a table, so that my parents can enjoy a the tradition of Sunday roast, as they do, and my company, which they now do: They’ve told me so. They’ve also both told me that they’re proud of me. Well, I’ve come a long way and it was fucking hard, but I did it because of them. But I can already hear the friends I no longer speak to: “He’s taking them to a pub. Oh, right…” Well, fuck off, those people. I am an alcoholic. I am a functioning alcoholic. This is not to say that I just about manage not to soil myself; It means that I can go to a pub and enjoy a social alcoholic drink in good company: Company which I do not crave with those who still judge. That’s part of the life sentence; a penance I must pay.

All those people I should be kissing.
Some are here, and some are missing.

There’s plenty on my mind, which I’d like to share, only to illustrate how frustrating my life can be. There are things I wish to say to people; Things which I would gladly air in public, but then I have to consider the other parties. So those are conversations to be had with other people, or more than likely, just with myself. Or in fiction. Because with words, I can destroy people. But I can also do a lot of good with my writing, not just for myself. This month’s royalties will just about cover the cost of the lunches with my children and my parents.

So everything is good for the most part. But still there’s that discomfort I can’t explain.

And that’s what clinical anxiety is: It’s irrational, it’s that niggling doubt, not a fear (that comes with the panic attacks), but an unease about something which may or may not be there, like a presence. The important thing is, it’s always there. And one of the reasons for that is those who still think ill of me: I’m sure they’re happy. But that’s paranoia and insecurity.

All of which is why, when I’m asked how I am, I’m just okay. It’s easier that way.