The average human laughs a couple of dozen times each day but very few of them stick. I can remember all of the significant laughs of my life: the time a friend clutched his injured knee and for some reason yelled “my kidneys!”; the time I went shopping for my sister’s Christmas card and bought one that said “You’re like a sister to me” on the front; the time I ate a piece of cake that was so enjoyable I laughed for a solid minute. One of my all-time favourites finds me alone in my university library reading Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life – a warm, joyful memoir structured as a reference book. The instigating entry read:
How great is it to find a few stray bonus fries at the bottom of your McDonald’s bag?”
It’s difficult to express quite how profoundly I was affected by this sentiment. Stray bonus fries were a splendid part of my life, so modest that I’d never even thought about their existence before, and here they were sitting in a book, waiting for me all along. Look at what good writing can accomplish! My body had no idea how to respond to such a pleasure, so I started to laugh.
That moment in the library – in itself a stray bonus fry, modest and splendid – is one I’ve returned to again and again in the weeks since learning of Amy’s recent death from ovarian cancer at the age of 51. On the list of people to have been touched by the author’s death I’m easily some way towards the bottom. I’m not a family member, friend or collaborator. I never even met her at a book signing or replied to one of her tweets. She was just the writer of a book and I was just its reader. The emotional commodification of celebrity deaths lately has become numbing, but it remains true that most people have a few public figures that genuinely mean a great deal to them during some part of their life, and that figure’s death moves them like they weren’t just a face on a screen or a voice on the radio. When it happens, you find yourself surprised at the depth of feeling it generates. It hurts. Their death doesn’t belong to you just because you liked their art, but they were still a part of your history, a major factor in the way you came to identify yourself, a mentor, an old friend. I was sad when George Michael died; my sister was bereft.
With one sentence about French fries Amy Krouse Rosenthal changed my life. I’m sure that sounds like hyperbole but few writers have influenced me on such a fundamental level. Thank heavens she was funny. Amy taught me the extraordinary value of the ordinary. When I look at my life over the dozen years since that spell in the library, I see her fingerprints everywhere. If I hadn’t come across her work, would I count my best laughs? Would I understand the importance of rogue chips? Would I take the time to enjoy the feeling of grass beneath my bare feet, or slightly oily rainbows in puddles, or the way ice pings and cracks when you pour a cold drink over it? The finest writers endow you with their understanding of being alive, and it helps shape the world around you.
The impact of Amy’s work on my own ultimately has nothing to do with why I was upset. I was upset because I really liked her. There are many authors whose writing you adore, but few become like a companion in your head. You aren’t just fond of their flair for nouns, you’re fond of them. Amy was playful and wise. She had wonderful opinions about ambulances. The creative invention of her work was always driven by an earnest desire to connect with others. She seemed like the type of person you’d call if you received bad news, or for that matter if you received good news. I never got to meet her but I loved her company. I cared about her.
The first thing I did when I saw the obituary was retrieve my copy of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life from my bookcase. Inevitably, it was the most worn book on the shelf – it looked like it had been in a fight with an older, meaner book. Reading it after she’d gone was an odd experience: I was simultaneously heartsore and delighted to be reminded of how vivid she was, of how much life there was in her life. I came to an entry stating that it would be difficult to convince her that leaning has no effect whatsoever on the outcome of her bowling, and a fanciful but resolutely true thought came to mind: I met her in her words and she’s still there. She always will be.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Eight.
I am staring up at where the ceiling should be, except the ceiling isn’t there any more. In its place is blackness, and so I stare up at the blackness, at the abyss above my head. Sleep is no longer an acquaintance of mine. Like my old school friends, my former colleagues, my ex-housemates and almost everyone I’ve ever kissed, I have lost touch with sleep. Sleep feels like love: it would be nice, but it’s something that happens to other people now. I turn my pillow over as if that will do something to help.
My thoughts wander in the dark. There’s this thing in my mother’s head that she told me about once, and I thought she was teasing me until I looked it up and sure enough, it happens to other people as well. The thing she has is that she hears music that isn’t there. The synapses in her head fire as if she is listening to a song, but without any actual music to work from her brain just makes up the noises as it goes. A couple of years ago I realised that a version of this was happening to me too. When I am particularly tired I hear voices in my head, in all sorts of accents, saying things that people might say. These phantom sentences have nothing to do with each other, I haven’t heard them spoken aloud before, and they are not interesting, but they rattle on anyway. They start again now, and I pay them little notice.
I stare up at where the ceiling used to be and try to make sense of the darkness. There is not enough light for my eyes to adjust to much of anything. My curtains have been left slightly open, I suspect, as a faint orange crack on the mirror grows in detail. Logically I’m aware that it isn’t night everywhere in the world, or even that everyone nearby is asleep, but it doesn’t feel that way. At this hour it’s just me and the foxes.
Also: the radiator is making a new sound. I don’t know what that’s all about.
There is a place where each of us have lingered but that we rarely discuss. Human life is divided into three discrete sections: being awake, being asleep, and the bit which is both and neither. The latter is where I am writing from. At this exact moment – technically 02:37, but if you told me it was 03:37 or 04:37 I’d also believe you – I am lying in bed, my eyes squinting against the cold glow of my electronic tablet. It is now the only light in the room. The world reduces itself, at this time of night, to individual parts: the sensation of my right foot pushing against my left, the outline of my bookcase, the stray creaks from the radiator, the silence in the other rooms.
I used to live here, in this place. As a child I suffered from chronic low-level insomnia. Eventually I’d fall asleep, but it would take hours upon hours as I became progressively more afraid that I’d never sleep again. I felt guilty, like I was going to fail at school the next day, like school was already happening at that moment and I wasn’t there. The obstacle was that I was unable to switch my brain off. My body had not learned to slow its cognitive functions in the way it’s supposed to when you remove all stimulus and lie down on a comfortable bed in a darkened room. If anything it felt as if those functions were speeding up, thrown into sharp relief against the quiet gloom. Without anything meaningful to fill the gap, I would think about my inability to stop thinking, agonising endlessly as sleep revealed itself to be an impossible concept someone had made up in order to torment me.
This, like other childhood terrors, was a significant problem until the day it left and I virtually forgot about it. I’d still visit that place where everything is still except your mind, but I was only passing through. There was no profit to be had in loitering, surely.
The radiator has stopped making any noise at all, which is probably some kind of sign about the lateness of the hour. I’m trying not to look at the little clock at the top of my screen. It would not be a helpful activity. Anyway. As it’s just you and me, here’s something that I’ve never told anyone before.
Since I was a teenager I’ve maintained a ritual to fall asleep. What I’ll do is curl up into a ball and pull the duvet over every inch of my body, so that no light can enter and no part of me is exposed. Then I will imagine to myself that I am the participant in an urgent, highly-advanced scientific experiment. Perhaps even the fate of all life depends on its outcome, but this isn’t always clear. While dozens of shirted men and women scribble on clipboard nervously and jab pencils in the direction of a bank of monitors, my bed sits in the middle of a cavernous underground complex that a Bond villain probably hires out on the weekends. Every single person across the world is watching on their televisions, a global held breath, as machines clank away and numbers are counted down towards zero. My bed rises towards the ceiling and in that final moment, something impossible happens: everything outside of the duvet vanishes.
The universe has gone. Not only that, but it has never existed at all. I scrunch up my toes as I experience the entirety of time and space. This turns out to be a comfort beyond most others. Nothing bad has ever happened. Nothing is complicated or difficult. No-one has ever had an unkind thought about me, or fallen out of love with me, or been annoyed by or disappointed in me. From this position of cosmic solitude I’m aware that I’ll be able to bring the universe back later, and the world will be better for what’s happened, but until then there is just me, and beyond that, the void.
It doesn’t take much effort to understand what I find soothing about this scenario. It’s a fantasy I tell myself in which any worries I might have are erased from my life, and I am somehow feted for this. It isn’t just the nullification of the universe that provides solace: sometimes I imagine I’m on a raft floating down a river through black countryside at night, the only light coming from the pinpricks of stars overhead. I don’t believe the condition is unique to me; it isn’t the result of distress about my circumstances but instead comes from commonplace anxiety of the kind that naturally accumulates through the day. As we lie in our beds, we all attempt to shed our daily concerns so that we’re free to get a restful night’s sleep. Why else would we sleep alone or just with a loved one, covered up in the most private space in our home? Why else would we switch the lights off? We create a situation where the world disappears for a little while – I just happen to visualise the process. If my brain is going to trample ahead unimpeded, I may as well get something out of it.
“Resist the temptation to stay up all night writing before watching the sun rise with a cigarette”, our lecturer Ian warned us, “it’s not romantic and your work won’t be any good.” He was attempting to stop us delaying our essays until the final minute and esteeming bleary relief over the benefit of patiently constructed work. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. In the fevered stretch before any deadline, the library would transform into an impromptu class party: even if you had finished your work, you would be tempted to visit just to be where the (critical film theory) action was.
In contrast to my peers, I mostly followed Ian’s advice, give or take a night where I’d spent 17p on two litres of own brand cola and go to town on Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. This wouldn’t last. Much like my student loan debt, I brought writing deadlines along with me when I graduated from university. As my professional life grew around delivering quantities of words by specific, always impending dates, all-nighters became a part of my emergency writing kit, a toothbrush stashed in the side compartment of a rucksack. While I’m sure my lecturer was right that 19-year-old students shouldn’t procrastinate until the night before their deadlines (although they always will), there is value in working when the rhythms of life have slowed.
In his non-fiction book On Writing, Stephen King states that you should write “with the door closed”, a goal that’s increasingly difficult when the terrifying world news doesn’t end and a device hums softly in your pocket every few minutes. What I’ve found in these long late-night sessions is not the agitation of my youthful bedroom or the mad panic of the study hall, but a strange sort of calm. At night, the phone is in no danger of ringing. I’ve said farewell to my housemate. Everyone I know on twitter has gone to bed, and if I wait long enough, all of the Americans will go to bed too. E-mails stop arriving in my inbox, even the press releases and the spam. The distractions and the excuses fall away in equal measure.
This is not a new discovery. I’ve accidentally stolen a book from a former colleague on the daily rituals of the famous dead, and many of them were similarly drawn to the small hours. Marcel Proust wrote exclusively in bed while lying horizontally, his head propped up by pillows (Proust also lived off of two cups of coffee and one or two croissants every day, and that certainly will not do for me.) But as someone who spent their childhood trembling at the notion of a place which isn’t asleep or awake, it’s a revelation to find myself welcome here. As the world reduces itself to individual parts, eventually there’s just me and a blank screen, with seemingly all the time I need to fill it. The universe has gone, and I’m ready to begin.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Six. Photograph by Laura Ward.
“Jason, can you hear me?”, I said to the empty bedroom. “Are you there?”
Apparently I was not. I got up from my seat, plodded to the doorway. “Jason, I am giving you a sign. This is what the sign looks like.” I shook my arms around like I was trying to flag down an ice cream van, but the corridor remained stubbornly empty. “You’re remaining stubbornly empty”, I told it.
I’ve never had much of an aptitude for materialising on cue. Venturing to a new place inevitably results in me getting lost, so why did I think this occasion would be any different? If I struggle to find bus stops and unfamiliar pubs then what chance did I have locating a hallway years in the past? I’d probably overshot the landing. Right now I was somewhere in the late 90s, trying to warn people not to buy polyphonic ringtones.
I checked my bedroom again, just to be sure, and my subsequent sigh was heard by no-one. It all made sense. Of course I’d be an unpunctual time traveller.
When I was young I didn’t dream of becoming a teacher, veterinarian or engine driver. The first thing I ever wanted to be when I grew up was a time traveller. Having now traversed a few decades in slow motion, it’s clear that what I really wanted to be was Dr Sam Beckett, the compassionate, funny, unerringly decent protagonist of Quantum Leap. For a spell, however, my zeal masked my decidedly average scientific abilities. With the misplaced confidence of an enthusiastically encouraged child, I assumed that I’d eventually figure out some way to accomplish my goal.
In time, of course, my priorities shifted, as priorities tend to do, and I left behind my ambitions of moving at will through the fourth dimension. But I was still compelled, again and again, by stories about time travel. As a teenager I was truly haunted by The Time Machine by H.G. Wells; while the book’s sociological viewpoint is uncomfortably archaic, I will never fail to be devastated by Wells’ descriptions of the end of the Earth, millennia in the future. He evokes a world of abominable desolation where the only life remaining is a few monstrous crabs with gleaming eye stalks and ungainly claws, smeared with algal slime. If I could travel, this would be the place I’d go. Forget ancient Rome, the Renaissance or the Belle Époque. I want to see the very end of things.
Like the vogue for neon windbreakers, Quantum Leap stayed in 1992. Before I knew it I was 30, with no romantic partner but a respectable number of jumpers. And then I was cycling through torrential rain. As sodden corduroy clung to my legs and my glasses sundered responsibility for maintaining my eyesight, I cursed myself for not bringing waterproofs. If only I could go back, I thought, and then I did: back to the living room carpet of my youth, back to being splayed in front of the television on a Tuesday night, rapt and inspired. What was stopping me from returning to my dream and actually doing it?
I announced my plot to the rest of the oh comely team. When asked, quite reasonably, how I was intending to achieve the most consequential discovery in human history, I told my colleagues not to worry. I’d figure something out. How hard could time travel be, really? At this point it was a slight concern that my future self hadn’t returned to let me know that I’d sorted it all out, but perhaps he was biding his time. Surely he just needed a signal. I would head home and try to summon him there.
One of the great comforts in life is realising that the universe is essentially binary. Everything either is or it isn’t, and if the question can’t be answered in those terms then you just need to look closer until it can. Time travel, in the popular sense that we imagine it – as a journey from one place (now) to another (the future, the past) – either is or isn’t possible. The fact that I didn’t appear to myself, older, greyer, finally with a new duffle coat perhaps, did suggest that I was going to fail in my venture. It spoke to a broader problem: if time travel is possible, then why have we seen no time travellers? Occasionally a wag on the internet will dig out something that suggests time travel – a man wearing ostensibly anachronistic clothes in a 1930s crowd, another man in early film footage holding what appears to be a mobile phone – but this seems to provide evidence of wilful delusion rather than anything else.
There are competing rebuttals. If we’re able to develop time travel then it’s not a stretch to believe that we’d also develop ways of remaining undetected (hats?). Or maybe no-one has travelled to this specific time before. Or travel to our era isn’t permitted. Or we can only go forwards. The explanation I’ve always subscribed to, although it makes my head hurt, is that if time moves in one direction then we just haven’t looped back on ourselves: time travel in the present can only exist once there is time travel in the future, and we’re not there yet. Beyond the issue of time travellers in our own back garden (or hiding in the shed), the binary question leads to another concern: how long do humans have left? For this, it’s worth considering The Doomsday Argument, if you can look at its name without running away in terror.
The Doomsday Argument is a deliciously titled but contentious statistical theory that makes the case that if all humans are born in a random order then there’s a certain probability that any individual one will appear somewhere in the middle. The total number of future humans can therefore be estimated by how many have already been born. Disregarding the arguments around this argument, it suggests that there is only a finite period before there are no new people, either through extinction or some other event. This certainly pricks humankind’s fundamental belief in the exceptionalism of itself, but considering what we understand of life on Earth, the notion of eventual demise from natural or man-made events is plausible. If time travel technology is possible, then, can we invent it before our own extinction? 10,000 years ago we had only just figured out how to grow wheat. How far can we progress in another 10,000 years, or 10 million? Even if the pace of discovery eases from its current dizzying clip, it’s fair to assume that with a solid stretch of time our scientific understanding will increase substantially. But if we can develop time travel and have enough time to do so, would we even want to?
Unless you happen to be a six-year-old with a fondness for Scott Bakula, time travel probably isn’t high on your list of scientific priorities, and with good reason. Any benefits we might hope for are outweighed by the possibility of accidentally erasing giraffes from history, or worse. The potential for abuse is considerable, while even its most benign applications carry significant risk of unintended catastrophe. It is perilous enough that an entire subgenre of fiction is devoted to cataloguing all of the ways in which time travel is a Very Bad Idea.
The attraction of time travel for a writer is obvious, allowing characters to visit colourful historical periods with our present-day sensibility, winking at the audience while navigating head-scratching paradoxes. It is entirely possible, maybe even probable, that time travel is like a zombie apocalypse – an impossible idea that has struck something inside of writers and audiences because it’s so rich with narrative possibility. A science fiction concept like a colony on another planet is feasible, but perhaps a central facet of our perception of reality is that we’re unable to move through time at anything other than at our own regular, lumbering speed. We are on foot, and it’s not possible to invent a car. In a larger cosmic sense, maybe everything that has ever happened and ever will happen is happening at the same time, it’s just a question of perspective, and as humans who exist in our short, mortal, temporal lives, we are unable to deal with anything except what’s directly in front of us. The implausibility of time travel, and its deleterious effect even if we could wrangle it, may very well be the case, but my overly optimistic argument is that not everything that is possible has been thought of yet.
Time travel fiction is a warning to ourselves, but its enduring popularity also illuminates why we might just end up inventing it (if we can, which we probably can’t.) Scientific developments are often inconceivable until we start conceiving them. It wasn’t until we started writing about satellite dishes, palm-sized communicators and remotely-controlled mechanical hands that we started trying to figure out how to make them real. The modern world boasts thousands of small innovations that first appeared in a movie or a dog-eared paperback: even the way we count down to zero when launching rockets was taken from Fritz Lang’s 1929 film Woman in the Moon – he thought it would be more dramatic if the count went down instead of up. There aren’t always direct causal links, but the effect of fiction on our technological advancement is undeniable.
The debt that science owes to the imaginations of writers and artists isn’t sufficiently acknowledged, but art’s primary influence is more abstract. The first exposure most of us have to science is through science fiction, and the outlandish ideas that become reality are created by people who were once children captivated by those same outlandish ideas. A chance viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey inspires tomorrow’s spacecraft engineer, or a youthful love of Jules Verne leads to a life as an oceanographer. If someone does invent time travel this century, it’s not far-fetched to imagine that they might have once been a child obsessed with Back to the Future, or Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, or, indeed, Quantum Leap.
The inspiration I personally took from Quantum Leap wasn’t the one I’d anticipated. The programme didn’t drive me towards a career in theoretical physics; I couldn’t even make it through A Brief History of Time. I was more interested in the storytelling possibilities of someone putting right what once went wrong than I was with the science of the endeavour. The following year, I would decide that I wanted to be a chaos theorist because Jeff Goldblum was one in Jurassic Park. It would be years before I understood that it was the stories themselves I was affected by.
A few days after my declaration to invent time travel I sat in a pub with my friend James, telling him of my plan. “How hard can it be?” I said, my joke ossifying. He asked me what I had in mind, and I realised that I’d been picturing a shoebox covered in tin foil, decorated with a few knobs and wires sticking out. It was a device a child might make, playing pretend. Even the gentleman inventor of The Time Machine had a chair. I’ve got chairs at home, maybe I could use one of those? James asked me if I was just being silly. The thought festered because I was. How far had I come from the six-year-old version of myself?
The sobering, retrospectively obvious reality is that if time travel can be invented then it will not be invented by me. This is okay. Towards the end of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, the English teacher Hector describes how the finest moments in reading are when you come across an idea that you thought was special and particular to you, and it feels like a hand has come out and taken yours. The best that a writer can hope for, perhaps, is that some of their words might make a journey through the years that they themselves cannot. There are different kinds of time travel. Maybe someone will be inspired by something I write one day, and will make incredible advances that I don’t have the intellectual temperament for. I’m going to tell myself that this is similar to how I’m really good at coming up with band names while having no musical ability.
This is a lovely, comforting idea to reflect upon, but perhaps it also has direct relevance for the problem at hand. We think of everything as being saved and permanent now, but all is ultimately lost to the indifference of time. Shakespeare and Austen and Joyce will vanish as surely as an article in a printed magazine. H.G. Wells himself wrote 12 million words of journalism and fiction and we only truly care about a couple of his science fiction novels. Everything will fall until all that’s left are the monstrous crabs. I’m undo no delusions that my work will be looked on by gleaming eye stalks one day, but perhaps this piece of writing might find a place to weather the storm for a while. It’s binary, after all. Either time travel by humans is possible or it isn’t. If it is possible, then we will either manage to invent it during our brief spell in the sun, or we won’t. If that moment comes, then either these words will have survived until then or they won’t.
My mistake before, yawping out to my bedroom, was the assumption that I would be able to hear my own call, that the theoretical time traveller would be me. Of course it won’t. I was speaking in the wrong place, to the wrong person. So here I try again:
Distant future, can you hear me? It’s Jason Ward. Good afternoon. I’m writing to you from West Norwood Library in London, England (turn left at France, if you find yourself in Wales you’ve gone too far) at 16:10 on 14th November, 2016. I’m in the computer room; you will be able to recognise me as the one who isn’t using a computer, but is instead busying himself in a notebook while wearing an excellent jumper. If you’d like to say hello I am here, waiting for you.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Four. Illustrations by Abi Overland.
I was sitting in a Pizza Hut in the past, waiting to be disappointed. The conversation turned – as conversation inevitably does when I’m around Ben – to Doctor Who. Over a dozen years the programme has become the central tenet of our friendship; I assume he will spend the eulogy at my funeral defending his wrong-headed views on the Eleventh Doctor’s final costume. As we discussed its showrunner Steven Moffat and contributor Mark Gatiss, something peculiar happened: the pair walked in the door and sat down at the next table. The next table in a Pizza Hut. It was as if we had summoned the two most successful writers in television with our hunger for unexceptional Italian food.
This is far from the only incredible thing to have happened to me. Recently I woke up thinking about my first girlfriend, whom I haven’t seen in thirteen years. I spotted her that afternoon as she entered a sandwich shop. Once I lost my wallet on a bus, and a few hours later got on a seemingly different one to find the wallet sitting next to the driver. Of the 8,000 buses in London, I’d gotten back on the same one. When I was a teenager and landlines were still a going concern, I’d frequently pick up the phone to dial a friend, only to hear their voice on the other end of the line. They had called me at the exact moment I had lifted the receiver.
I’m not alone in being predisposed to experiencing uncanny events. In 1973 Anthony Hopkins was due to star in an adaptation of The Girl from Petrovka and spent an unsuccessful afternoon looking for a copy. On his way home he found one discarded on a bench in Leicester Square station. A year later, he spoke to the author George Feifer on the film’s set, learning that Feifer had lent his only copy to a friend who had lost it. It was the same copy. Or there’s the 2007 story of the local Idaho newspaper that happened to print photographs in two articles on its front page: one of a suspected thief caught on CCTV, the other of a sign painter decorating a shop window for Christmas. They were the same man. Or the episode of another rediscovered book: in 1929 the American novelist Anne Parrish visited Paris on holiday, popping into a second-hand bookshop to buy a copy of Jack Frost and Other Stories, which as a child had inspired her to become a writer. To her surprise, she found that the purchase had her name and childhood address written inside. The original copy she’d owned as a girl had somehow made its way across the ocean to the very shop she was standing in.
There is something satisfyingly ordinary about extraordinary coincidences. Life is peppered with them: in a foreign country you meet someone and find out they went to the same first gig as you, or the tiebreaker in the pub quiz is the fact you learned that morning, or the song on the radio seems to apply to your situation perfectly. Such incidents encourage superstitious awe, followed by reasonable explanations. If Ben and I constant talk about Doctor Who in chain restaurants, and Doctor Who writers are as susceptible to settling as the rest of us, then it’s not impossible that we’d end up in the same place at the same time. Likewise, there are only so many buses on each route, and in the days before the internet my friends and I had little to do except ring each other all the time. Maybe I’ve been in the vicinity of my first girlfriend on other occasions, but that day I was primed to spy her in a crowd because I’d thought of her. Even though the odds are still slim, with almost 9,000 hours in every year,sooner or later something spooky is going to happen.
Anything can seem like a miracle if it’s sufficiently improbable, but the truth is that our brains are built to recognise patterns in a world which sporadically throws a bunch of sixes in a row and is complicated enough to appear random. This doesn’t mean however that the eerily aligned can’t be significant. If, say, a swan takes sudden and dramatic flight at the end of a loved one’s funeral and it feels meaningful, then it is meaningful. What’s special isn’t that the deceased is saying goodbye via a random bird, but rather that in a difficult moment you needed comfort and your mind created something to hold on to. It was a sign: you made it. Powered by grief and love, you found your own way through the dark. Surely that’s more precious than esoteric divine intervention?
It is head-spinning to learn that a new romantic partner lived on your street for a year and you never ran into each other, but the true coincidences are of such a great magnitude that we have no way to process them except to take them for granted. Even just for me to be writing these words and for you to be reading them is an event so remarkable that it takes the entire history of the universe to properly explain it. Imagine how many things had to happen for us to be here on this planet, at this time, to be alive, to be aware, to expect to live a long life, to have access to modern medicine and Beatles records and cake, to be able to love whoever we want, to have the freedom to endeavour to make our lives exuberant and worthwhile. These opportunities aren’t shared equally, of course, and there are many, many fights worth fighting. We have barely begun. Although by most measures this has been a terrible year, it is a terrible year in a spectacular world. For us to be here, together, now: it is a privilege.
In 1980, the astronomer Carl Sagan released Cosmos, a book which explored the relationship between science and the universe. While filled with wonder at the scale and complexity of the universe, its most stunning idea comes even before the contents page, in the dedication to his wife: “In the vastness of space and the immensity of time, it is my joy to share a planet and an epoch with Annie.” This notion has taken root inside my head. The thing that astounds, I’ve realised, wasn’t running into Steven Moffat as I was talking about him. It came a dozen years earlier when I met a skinny kid in a stairwell on the second day of university. Yesterday he got engaged and asked me to be his best man. What are the chances of that?
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Three. Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti.
I built a monster, and I can’t tell you why. Now it is eating me whole. I don’t know when, or even how it started. It’s like when you hear a noise and you realise it has been there for some time already without your brain registering the fact. I must have created it, this buzzing fridge in the background of my life, because it’s sitting in my draft folder right now, but I can’t remember any of the thought processes that led me here. I called it THE DOOMED MEN OF EDINBURGH, and I don’t understand the reasons for that either.
When the letters on my keyboard finally fade, Ctrl, C and V will be the first to go. My habit, unslakeable and undimming, is this: whenever I read something I like or find particularly interesting, I put it into this draft e-mail. It could be anything: an inspired word pairing in a novel, a paragraph from an online article, a line of dialogue, a comment on a Facebook invitation, some wisdom from a song lyric, a sentence I thought of on a bus, a pub name I misread, a made-up portmanteau I mumbled into a bath. In it all goes to a document that has no order, no way to distinguish where anything came from, no path to navigate through at all. It is like something a serial killer would create if he was fond of television criticism and the writing of Sarah Vowell. Currently the e-mail is 62,348 words long and getting larger every day; my abiding fear is that it’s going to turn out to be my life’s work.
I’ve been adding to this literary labyrinth in the same unthinking way that I brush my teeth, put the recycling out on Thursday nights and keep my cupboard stocked with excellent biscuits. The importance it has assumed is unconscious: it is a thing I do in order to exist in the world. It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve started to pull my behaviour apart. With any original intent long since forgotten, what am I getting from the endeavour? It’s a physical representation of what humans do – stuffing thoughts into their head, most doomed to entropy – but has no practical application. What is the value in obsessively saving sentiments that I probably won’t look at again? And why is it an e-mail, an article of communication, when its only true recipient is me? Maybe an explanation is buried deep within the text, if I could only somehow make my way in with a flashlight.
An overly generous comparison would perhaps be with the post-war painter/ ambulatory drinker Francis Bacon. His studio, posthumously shipped paintbrush by dried paintbrush to Dublin, was a living document of his artistic process, with molehills of ephemera and paint splattered up the doors and walls. As if ransacked by his own mind, the ground heaved with news clippings of boxing matches, empty champagne bottles, leaves torn from library books and medical textbooks, ripped up corduroy trousers, photographic stills of that nurse from Battleship Potemkin with her gaping mouth and her bloody, broken glasses. My own peculiar digital scrapbook, while not leading to the literary equivalent of haunted triptychs and screaming popes, works in the same manner: an unsifted depository of the things that fuel me creatively. Everyone has their own cluttered mess, most people’s just don’t happen to be literal.
One day I suspect that I might simply grow out of my incessant aggregating, much as a child will grow out of a toy that meant the world to them the day before, without warning or ceremony. When this happens, the e-mail will spend the rest of its days waiting patiently in my draft folder, all usefulness diffused, but that doesn’t negate the complicated, unquantifiable worth it has brought to my life as a writer and a reader. What matters isn’t what I ultimately do with it but the act of collecting in the first place. The e-mail I will never send, addressed to no one, exists to provide me with the opportunity to read something and think: “This is meaningful. This is worth saving from the oblivion of my own memory. So I am going to keep it. Yes.”
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Two.
He was mine, that frog. His name was Freddie, and somewhere within his squidgy interior was a bell that rang if you gave him a good enough shake. A frog isn’t the sort of tailless amphibian you bring to bed – no-one has ever taken a frog on holiday, or reached for a frog when they’ve struggled to make school friends – but he was a valued member of my menagerie all the same. He’d been there throughout my childhood, he hadn’t pealed up a fuss when exiled to a bin bag in the attic, and he’d somehow survived the great stuffed animal diaspora to be sitting here decades later in my parents’ house. Freddie was solidly B-list, but he was decent. He was my frog.
“That’s not your frog,” my sister said, giving him a shake. I suppose she would know. As a youngest sibling, a lot of the things that you think are yours turn out not to be: picture books, cardigans, a penchant for cake. Once my mother told me fondly about how, as a child, I’d requested we hold a hundredth birthday party for my teddy bear. I was feeling oddly proud of my young imagination when she corrected herself: no, it was my brother who did that, not me. Maybe it’s true that youngest children are indulged and given freer rein, but they still have to elbow their way into a world that was getting along fine without them. So of course Amanda was right. The frog had been new to me but it wasn’t new. It had lived nearly an entire childhood: hers, because she was here first.
My sister has always been older than me. That seems like a redundant point to make but it’s crucial to explaining our relationship. On the day I was born she was eleven years, two months and twenty-three days old. As we grew up that fixed gulf moved with us. When I was a toddler, Amanda was entering adolescence. When I was a child, she was in her late teens. When I was a teenager, she was in her twenties. I was forever a couple of laps behind, incapable of catching up.
As siblings we were defined by our age difference. There was a distance between us, eleven years long. It’s not that she disliked me – as a writer I’m benignly cursed by my undramatic, loving family – but I was always too young to connect with in any meaningful way. When it counted, we supported each other: at three, I cut my face misguidedly trying to shave and she held me all the way to the hospital. But we weren’t ourselves yet, we were our roles. Older sister, younger brother. Our personalities didn’t even get to clash, because what eighteen year old wants to socialise with someone who’s seven? Unless you wanted to discuss favourite Power Rangers (Billy, obviously), I had little to offer in terms of conversation.
To be a younger brother is to know what it means to be tolerated. Amanda’s unenviable task was being the first person in the world to find me actively annoying. I can’t blame her. I scrawled my name in her favourite books. I watched the same three videotapes over and over again. I was a fussy eater and an insomniac. I owned several albums recorded by the Smurfs. If I’d worn a backwards baseball cap I could have been an irritating kid brother from a soft drink advert.
I can’t imagine either of us considered the situation much, however. There were no ill feelings to resolve, no unhealthy dynamics to address. She was just my sister, and I was just her brother, and that was fine. Our attentions lay elsewhere. While the trajectories of romance and friendship often agonise, there’s a tendency to treat family members as immutable. What you don’t envision is that as you change, they do too, and consequently the relationship also evolves. When you’ve known someone your whole life it takes time to notice you’re no longer the people you used to be.
By the time I did realise, it had been a while already. Something had shifted. We’d spend whole evenings just talking and I wouldn’t be obscurely worried that she’d rather be elsewhere. We found we liked being around each other. We believed in the same fundamental values. I wasn’t the tiresome younger brother anymore, and she wasn’t the exasperated older sister. Our lives had moved on. She’d met someone wonderful. I was marginally less inept.
Although my sister will always be eleven years older, it’s not the gulf it once was. We’re still very different but that’s alright: I rarely feel as much like an adult as when we’re having a good conversation. We connect. I think she’s formidable. I hope she finds me funny. It wasn’t until something new emerged that I understood absence had been there before. Amanda was always my sister, but it took us a quarter of a century to become friends.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty.
With apologies to Ben Matthew, my bicycle is probably my best friend. It’s rare for me to arrive at any engagement without a pannier awkwardly wedged under an arm, yet I prefer to use it for pleasure over purpose, regularly spending weekends cycling up and down my local canal like I’m conducting a haphazard topographical survey.
Last year, I arranged to undertake a solo bike ride from Glasgow to Inverness. The journey, my route map promised, would carry me through ancient pine forests, open heather moorland and two national parks. I would traverse a mountain range, cross divine Victorian bridges, visit Rob Roy’s grave and see the millennia-old Fortingall Yew. In the weeks leading up to my departure I was barely present in my daily life. It was as if I was already in the Highlands; I’d get to sleep by imagining I was in my sleeping bag, under a sky ablush with stars.
An afternoon, an evening, a can of Irn-Bru and a fistful of sweets into my adventure, I realised something was awry. I was being eaten alive. Despite the relatively low top speed of the Highland midge, outrunning them had ceased to be an option. A cloud of winged creatures hung around me like a cartoon bad mood, my flesh a siren song for their plodding, fevered hunger. The holiday wasn’t going well. With the last of the day sinking beneath Loch Venachar, I had scant minutes to arrange canvas, poles, pegs and guy ropes in the vague configuration of a tent. When I finally made it inside my refuge, arrhythmic insectile drumming announcing my success on the flysheet, I looked through the mesh triangle and wondered what had brought me there. A sensible person might have told me that camping next to a loch at the height of summer was a mistake. But there was no one to say anything.
As my body released a torturous rush of histamine in a misguided attempt to be helpful, I realised that I was telling myself that I was having a good time rather than actually having one. The truth is there’s no such thing as travelling alone: you always end up taking yourself along too. Even as I pedalled through some of the most dazzling landscapes I’d ever seen, my thoughts, unbridled from the demands of work, daily activities and other people, were free to tumble into fathomless depths. Strenuous physical exertion and solitude conspired to exhume everything I’d wrapped in bin liners and buried under the patio of my mind. As an enthusiastic amateur, I had trained my body to cycle from morning until night. Spending a week stuck inside my own head was another matter.
When you experience solitude alongside ordinary interactions you’re able to appreciate both states more keenly: getting away for ten minutes to buy milk can be like a cooling breeze on a sweltering afternoon. This only works, however, when isolation exists in isolation. As the spectacular trudge of my first day had neared its conclusion, I felt overwhelmed by the likelihood of a whole week without talking to anyone outside the hospitality industry. Between travel companions the difficult parts of a journey become something you share: an in-joke, an elaborate story you tell later, a secret. What joy could I find in flat tyres, midge onslaughts or disappointing pies? When faced alone, they were just hassles. That night I lay in my besieged tent in the dark, listening to the insects hum. I felt guilty. Why did I need another person in my life to be happy? Why didn’t things feel the same by myself? I’ve been fiercely independent since my mid-teens, and yet the idea of cycling hundreds of miles across mountains daunted me less than the prospect of doing it without anyone to make terrible puns with.
There wasn’t a triumphant breakthrough coming. Loneliness is like a heavy coat that you’re unable to take off ; the sight of Ben Macdui or a dotterel or the Glen Ogle viaduct could only be so helpful. I struggled on. The good and the bad rode along with me, bulging panniers on either side of my emotional bike rack. I learned to live on small comforts: a wave from a man on a tractor, a barmaid in Pitlochry who told me about her brother, the cerulean signposts of the National Cycle Network informing me someone had been there before me. I realised—and there was plenty of time to reflect upon this—that all I could do was give myself over to the experience wholeheartedly, regardless of how I felt inside.
So that’s what I did. I swam in every loch I saw, cycled in torrential rain, flew down mountains; ditched my bike to bound up hillocks, yelled from summits, sang to the birds, recited mountain poetry to nonplussed sheep, awoke to see a deer idling outside my tent, ordered four side dishes in an incongruous Australian theme restaurant, camped in a field of heather, camped on the side of a hill, camped anywhere the midges wouldn’t get me, drank Glenfiddich as the sun went down, stood waist deep in Loch Moy and read Nan Shepherd, stumbled across a Bronze Age cairn and walked among the passage graves and thought about the still living and the long dead. And then it was over. On my final night I wriggled out of my tent to sleep under the stars, even though it was overcast and I couldn’t see them.
Rather than being a break from my regular life, the trip became that life in microcosm: trying to make the good things outweigh the bad ones, offsetting struggles with wonders, yearning to connect. I love spending time alone, but I understood as clearly as I ever had that I don’t want to be alone, because life is best when shared with other people: family, friends, maybe even someone who’d be willing to occasionally spend a week swimming in lochs and enduring the bombardments of the Highland midge. I haven’t met them yet.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Six.
We’ve just met. Hello. Hi. We share first names and tentative smiles, a handshake or a nod or the offer of a sausage roll. Like most first encounters there is awkwardness and goodwill in equal measure. A spirit of friendly endeavour. And then something happens.
There’s a question you’d like to ask. I can feel it forming in your mind. There was a word I pronounced oddly, or you noticed a sing-song quality to my voice. Maybe you wait until it’s socially appropriate. Maybe you dive right in. Either way, inevitably: “Where do you come from?”
I’ve heard this roughly once a fortnight for the past dozen years, but it’s an innocent query, and it’d be rude to not oblige. Here’s the answer I’d give to a geography teacher: I was born in Scotland, lived in a Forthside naval base until I was five, moved to Pontypridd, remained there for a decade, then lived in England, then Scotland, moved to London for university and forgot to leave. A decade vanished and here I am, eyeing the finger food and smiling politely. Hi. Hello.
So much early movement untethered my voice from its natural sense of place. All five-year-olds are basically incomprehensible, but I was particularly so, my Scottish accent so thick that teachers and classmates could barely understand me. When my preschool burr finally slipped away, it was replaced not with a Welsh accent but some confused amalgam that persists to this day. There’s something in me that’s essentially unsettled, and this uncertainty has spilled out into the way I speak.
An accent is something you carry around in your throat, an unwitting passenger in life. It can be scrubbed away with effort, but is the clearest biological indication of upbringing. You can only have an accent if you’re from somewhere. So what does that make me? Where do I come from?
Despite living in Pontypridd for my most formative years, I didn’t belong. I defined myself in opposition to Wales: its homogeneity, its questionable approach to vowels, its misplaced pride in Tom Jones, its marrow-deep rugby obsession. For an indoor kid with spaghetti wrists rugby was a weekly ordeal, and seemingly the only sport in existence. If the trite observation about it being the national religion was true, then I was an atheist, dragged to church in ill-fitting clothes.
My real home, I asserted, was Scotland, a country I had little ongoing connection with beyond a quenchless thirst for Irn-Bru and Glaswegian indiepop. There’s a term that articulates this feeling: hiraeth. It doesn’t have a direct English translation, but means “a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.” An etymologist would relish pointing out at this juncture that hiraeth is a Welsh word.
Since skipping Glamorgan at sixteen for a bedsit and bad poetry, my teenage friendships left to atrophy, I’ve told people that I’m barred from the country. There are pictures of me, I used to allege, stuck in the windows of the tollbooths that parenthesise the Severn Bridge. I started believing my own ruse, ignoring the hiraeth mutating inside me. I made London home and joined a community, but something was missing. Almost every new friend had also fled a small town of some description, but they didn’t recite elaborate analogies about being in exile.
Wary of nationalism, I’d also spurned any notion of tradition, culture or heritage that I might call my own. As I got on with the glacial business of forging a meaningful, happy life, some abstract part of me ached and I didn’t know how to stop it.
Until, that is, I read about a man jumping off a ferry.
. . .
On 9th October 2011, the rugby player Manu Tuilagi—possibly inebriated, definitely stupid—decided it would be a good idea to fling himself from a passenger ferry into the busy Waitemata Harbour and swim to a nearby pier. The ill-advised leap came as the denouement to England’s disastrous Rugby World Cup campaign, where dismay over their early exit had been compounded by reports of ill-discipline, drunken nights out and casual bouts of dwarf-tossing.
This baffling conduct passed me by until I skimmed a news story on Tuilagi and his overly symbolic tumble. As my long-held suspicions about rugby’s inherent boorishness were being confirmed, I caught an offhand mention of the contrast Wales provided to England’s indignities. My interest piqued, I delved deeper. Wales weren’t tossing dwarves; they were too busy having weekly choir practice instead. Article after article spoke reverently of their work ethic, commitment to training and support of one another. The men I read about seemed a world away from the swaggering clods of the frigid rugby pitches of my youth, those athletically unfearful boys who made life difficult because I spoke funny.
I’d certainly changed since leaving the country—I could now poach an egg—and I wondered if rugby had too. With the careful optimism of the frequently disappointed, I sat down a few days later to watch Wales’ semi-final, my bare feet padding across rock. And then it happened. I got it.
Rugby, I realised, is about the collective struggle to accomplish a shared goal. It’s a metaphor for socialism. No wonder the Welsh adore it. Co-operation is built into its genetic code: to take part in a scrum eight players bind together, sharing the weight of their difficult task. There are players who never even touch the ball: their job is solely to hold up or protect their teammates. Most pleasingly for someone who spent juvenile P. E. lessons dreading the changing rooms, it’s specifically designed so all shapes and sizes can play: if you’re tall you can be a lock, if you’re short you can be a scrum-half, if you’re heavier you can be a prop. No matter who you are, if you want to play there’s a role for you, like a choir that induces cauliflower ears. Within eighty minutes I’d converted to the national religion; I didn’t just enjoy rugby, I believed in it, struck sentimental by its egalitarian beauty.
. . .
It’s hardly worth mentioning that Wales lost. It didn’t matter. They were ferocious, indefatigable, large-hearted. They played as if rugby was all that mattered. It was only polite to reciprocate. I’ve followed them ardently ever since. Watching now inspires an unfamiliar sensation in my chest, huddling between the lungs: unembarrassed pride. Instead of viewing national identity as a tool used to exclude others and promote insularity, I appreciate it’s also a way to acknowledge history, both collective and individual, good and bad. It doesn’t negate the factors that made me yearn to leave in the first place, but I finally understand Pontypridd’s role in my life.
On the whims of circumstance I grew up in Wales—that underdog of a country, weird and funny and soulful—and it shaped me more than I knew. I’d been wrong for almost my entire life. The values it cherishes are my values. Its struggles are my struggles. When the television cameras cut to an excitable crowd dressed like daffodils and sheep, I don’t recognise myself, but that doesn’t make the feeling of affinity any less valid.
Wales belongs to me as well. Its history is mine. Its culture is mine. The coalfields and the valleys are mine. The Mabinogion is mine. Aneurin Bevan is mine. The Labour movement is mine. The miners’ strike is mine. The post-industrial hardships are mine. Even Tom Jones is mine, for whatever that’s worth.
Most importantly, rugby is mine. It always has been. My grandfather passed away a few years ago, and I can’t watch a game without thinking of how he’d run up and down the length of his sofa, shouting at the television in exultation or despair. I catch myself doing it now too, and in those moments I feel connected to him, to that lost place of my past. When Wales play rugby—and, heavens, when they play they’re magnificent—I remember every bit of him. I don’t have an accent, but I have that.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Five.
The relationship had become like a favourite jumper; it was wearing thin at the elbows and didn’t really fit any more, but neither of us had the heart to throw it out. Four years of Saturday nights and Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings had built up a level of comfortableness which was wonderful until we realised we’d somehow become friends who shared a bed. “Look how superior we are to other couples,” we’d think. “We don’t fight anymore!”
When we finally did gather the courage to give up, it was the bike I turned to for comfort. I’d spend evenings and weekends going up and down the river, as far and as fast as I could. I knew that I was trying to escape from things that I was carrying along with me, but that didn’t matter, just as it didn’t matter that I knew we were doing the right thing by breaking up. I had no plans and no one to see, so I’d ride until I ended up in a different county or until the river started to turn back on itself. I was trying to not think or feel, attempting to replace emotion with the thrum in my legs and a breathless void in my chest.
My bike—brand new, thanks to a government scheme—was better at being a bike than I was at being a person. It had a suspension fork and disc brakes and didn’t lie awake at night wondering if it had made a mistake. Despite the bike’s comfort and technological superiority to my old one, the main reason I bought it was because of a single phrase on its online blurb which said it was “most at home on the canal towpath.” It was marketing patter, of course, but that was alright. I’d found my soulmate, and it had 21 gears and quick release wheels.
There wasn’t anything special about the day I crashed. Maybe if we’d still been together we would have met up with friends, or gone for a walk, but instead it was just me and the bike and as much distance as I could put behind me. I saw the torn-up concrete as it came towards the front wheel, and in the instant between the realisation and the crash I understood that it was inevitable, that every furious pedal had brought me to that moment.
The bike went to the left and I went to the right. Neither myself nor the bicycle broke, but my right leg and arm were nastily grazed—skin replaced by blood, grit and a small island of plasma just above my elbow. The feelings which I’d been racing from came flooding back, and joining them was fear that someone would come by and see me, maybe even try to help.
The idea that someone would see me so thoroughly felled was embarrassing, but a little comforting in its horribleness. I was consciously aware that the moment was a low. It was difficult to imagine that I could feel any worse, which at least meant things might get easier: a long trudge uphill to somewhere better.
After I’d wallowed for a sufficient amount of time I got back up, righted the bicycle and headed towards home. I was only able to use one arm effectively, and was about an hour away, but I was moving again. I stopped off at a supermarket to buy medical supplies and gin, both of which seemed necessary. For the first time in a few years the cashier asked me for proof of age. I offered my right arm, and she seemed satisfied by the response. Once I was home my flatmates cleaned up the wound, and the three of us drank until everything seemed better.
The injuries were painful for a while, and faded one by one. The body can be overly symbolic sometimes. All that’s left of that day is a patch of disturbed skin near my elbow that looks like a dark pink thumbprint. It doesn’t hurt anymore, and when I look at it now it’s hard to remember a time when it did. But it’s still there, regardless: a part of me.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twelve .
It can be a daunting prospect, getting to know someone. Cousins and birthmarks and old relationships and the songs they like and the movies they hate and the places they like to go to think. It’s exhausting. Then all of a sudden the relationship ends and it’s like you’ve learnt a language to a country you’re never going to visit again. What use do I have from knowing that one person’s favourite colour, or what their childhood fears were, or how they like their tea?
All that said, my favourite thing about you is how little I know you. I have no idea how you like your tea, and it’s glorious. As long as I don’t think about it too closely, the idea of learning about you is exhilarating. You make the idea of travelling down that familiar road seem somehow new. There’s so much to discover, but it feels like an adventure rather than a chore. You’re all potential and promise: every new detail is exotic and striking, every piece of family history an unearthed relic, every anecdote some glamorous story.
There are things about you that I do know. I was scared of you at first. You seemed so self-possessed. I’d find myself withering under your gaze, like you could see straight through me. To be honest, you seemed cold. It was as if you’d already decided that I had nothing of interest to offer. My fear became a self-fulfilling prophecy: everything I said would collapse out of my mouth and die.
I’m not sure how things changed, but somewhere along the way they did. It was like a sea-change. I discovered I could make you laugh. Your eyes crease up and you forget yourself for a second. It’s really rather lovely. I like that you’re pretty awkward. You’re probably more awkward than me, actually. I’ve realised that what I was scared of was actually bluster. It’s exciting-like knowing a secret. I feel I’ve seen something in you that most people would miss, something tender and thoughtful.
Of course, I’m aware that getting to know you properly will turn you into a regular person, filled with all the contradictions and complexities that will bring understanding but take away enchantment. It’s not a bad thing. Really knowing a person either replaces the giddiness with something deeper, or replaces it with nothing at all. If it turns out to be the latter, well, I’m okay with it.
It’s worth the risk. For now, I just enjoy you being in my life. I get excited when I see your name in my inbox, or when you enter a room. There’s a sense of possibility that courses through our every conversation like an electric current. Who’s to say what will happen next? Maybe we’ll get talking one random evening, the hours passing unrecognised as we finish a bottle of wine together and end up wandering the streets like teenagers, feeling ten feet tall. Anything seems possible. It’s not that I’m expecting anything to happen between us, but what’s quietly thrilling is knowing that it might.
Another thing I know about you is that you’re reading this right now. Of that I’m pretty certain. I hope the idea of that gives you pause and makes you wonder if I’m writing about you. And then, gosh, just for a second, just for a moment or two, I hope that you find yourself hoping that this is about you. Because let me tell you, oh splendid, maddening person, it is. Hi.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Eight.
When do you become an adult? Legally it’s 18, of course, but it used to be 21, so that takes some of the fun out of it. If it’s already changed once, then what’s to stop it changing again in the future? I remember turning 18 and not feeling any different at all. It’s hard not to see how arbitrary it is.
Instead, we turn to milestones in our lives. The first time you vote, or have sex, or get drunk, or get drunk and then have sex. I remember all of these moments in my life, how they happened and how they felt. I remember what they meant to me then and know what they mean to me now. And on reflection I’m not sure if any of them made me feel the way I did when I bought my first toaster.
I was 16 and living alone in a bedsit in Carlisle. I knew no one else in the city and my nearest parent was miles away. The reasons for this are as hazy and complicated now as they were then, but it meant one thing: I was free.
Living by yourself when you’re 16 is a glorious and bizarre experience. You’re young enough to appreciate the transgressive joy of parental absence, while being old enough to actually do something with it. Mostly I just sat around and read, or worked on my abysmal writing. I tried to go for a walk every time it rained, and would venture outside just after the sun rose and before people started heading to work. The world was lonely and mine.
Retrospectively, it was all pretty grim. I was on a minuscule allowance and was resolutely unemployable, so I had no money and lots of time on my hands. There was no internet connection so I would have to copy internet pages onto a floppy disk at college and read them later at home. I once spent four days eating only nutella, unable to afford anything else. I became afraid of people. My bedsit was above the communal kitchen, and I would lie on my floor trying to listen for signs of life, only going down when I could be sure that I wouldn’t see a neighbour, even if it meant burning the dinner I’d left cooking in the oven.
It’s difficult to describe those days without them sounding depressing, but at the time it felt anything but. There was a feeling I could do anything I wanted to. I learnt how to be alone, and how to enjoy it. One evening I went by myself to the cinema, then came out and sauntered to a different one to see a second film. It was one of my favourite ever nights. I discovered how to live independently, even though it meant combing my hair with a fork. Everything I did that year I did terribly, but I was free to do it.
All of this leads to that wonderful day in my life, the one where I woke up and fancied some toast. Because the bedsit didn’t have its own toaster, I decided to go and get my own. I chose the one I wanted from the catalogue, headed down to the shopping centre, paid for it and headed back home. I had learnt that I was in control of my own life, and that I was responsible with finding the things that would make me happy. In time that would be a satisfying job, creative fulfilment, friendship and love, but for then it was just a nicely-buttered bit of toast. I ate about ten slices that day, and each one was divine. I was an adult.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Seven.
It was a new millennium and my mother was covered in blood. As usual, it was entirely my fault. I should explain:
My best Christmas—aside from the year I was given a puppet of Ernie from Sesame Street—was undoubtedly the one when my parents got me a video camera, somewhere in the middle of my long teenage malaise. I dropped hints for months until finally, wonderfully, they conceded. It was a family camcorder that made everything look like the nightmares of an alcoholic VCR but I was in raptures anyway. Oh, the Cinema I would create! That first night I made an emotional drama starring a bottle of deodorant who comes home to find his wife in bed with a school portrait of my friend Stephen. To this day it remains inarguably the finest on-screen depiction of the relationship travails of deodorant. Orson Welles’ first film was Citizen Kane, by the way.
Finding actual human beings to act was tricky, but I was resourceful. I started making films where I played all the roles, one featuring the strangest fight scene you’ll ever see. Better still was when I persuaded a friend to lend me a bag of attic-perfumed Action Men. As a teenager without access to actors, scripts or any intellectual nuance whatsoever, I fell back on the quality that had sustained me through boyhood: violence, and lashings of it. So Action Man chased Dr X around my kitchen until finally he managed to kill him in our deep fat fryer, and an earnest adaptation of A View From the Bridge (starring Dr X as Eddie Carbone and a kitchen counter as Red Hook, Brooklyn) concluded abruptly when I got bored after the second scene and ended the whole thing in a gory shoot-out. These were dangerous times to be around me and inanimate. My films were improving, marginally, but they lacked something human. For that I would need blood.
Blood was the ultimate prop. Anyone could get a newspaper or some food for a character to handle, but blood wasn’t so easy to come by, unless your actors were very Method. It was a sign you’d come prepared, that you were making a proper movie. It made you unpredictable. If the characters can bleed, then anything can happen to them. My only problem was that I knew nothing about making fake blood. I’d used tomato ketchup in my wayward Arthur Miller adaptation, but ketchup could only ever look like itself. I looked online and found a wealth of recipes, but they all disagreed with each other. Overwhelmed with possibility, I turned to the person who had taken me to see Jurassic Park when I was five and thus started this whole mess: my mother.
Being a person that has the co-ordination of a crayon, I had never taken to cooking, and had barely stepped foot in the kitchen except to pillage the fridge or create bizarre Action Man snuff films. It was a relief to have my mother there leading proceedings, and she was unexpectedly game. I think it surprised her as much as it did me. She has a problem-solving brain, which must have been some of the appeal. We would create batch after batch, having long debates about the correct viscosity, and how an arterial wound differed from a graze. For surely the only time in history, the Internet had provided unreliable information, and we were required to improvise, discovering that adding dashes of green and blue dye to red would create a deeper, more realistic hue. Golden syrup made a solid base, but flour had to be added to thicken the blood. I was grateful years later for this discovery of flour’s thickening properties, which has helped me immeasurably in my non-blood cooking. In a sense it was my first cinematic collaboration.
Our quest for the perfect batch overtook us somewhat, and for a long time it was rare to enter the kitchen without a vat of blood on standby. We filled a season’s worth of jam jars with our middling attempts, having to borrow more from my grandmother when we ran out. They stacked up against the kitchen window, and it was endlessly sweet to look through them at our blood-tinted garden. It took a long time to learn that there is no Holy Grail, no one way to create good fake blood. You need different recipes for different uses: a syrup-blend looks great on a corpse, but there’s no way it’ll spurt out realistically. You’re better off dying washing-up liquid and hoping for the best.
The problem with having vats of blood around, of course, is that you feel impelled to use them, and so my films would inevitably feature people cutting themselves randomly on things and bleeding profusely. It was almost a relief when we ran out and the final jars went back to my grandmother. Creating good-looking blood is one of the many skills I possess that I’ll never really need but I’m glad it’s there, lolling uselessly somewhere between quadratic equations and the ability to remove the pin bones of salmon.
To this day my mother looks back at that period with a mixture of pride and bemusement, but they remain some of my fondest memories with her. She knew it was ridiculous but helped me anyway. I think she liked that her own skills could actively help me do the thing I was most passionate about. It was a rare opportunity, one that wouldn’t quite come again. Film-making was my joyous, blossoming world, but for a few weeks we could share it together. She supported me emotionally and practically, and that’s given me strength as I’ve made my way through the uncertain path of a creative life. Occasionally I’ll see a pool of blood in a movie and think of her, and that’s a very lovely thing.
A slightly different version of this story was published in Oh Comely Issue Six.
I don’t get along with fish. As long as they’re in the ocean and I’m not, that’s fine. It’s not that I hate them. I have no objection to their continued existence: I believe in the conservation of different species through sustainable and selective fishing, I’ve cried at oil spills, and I’m always mildly annoyed when someone claims to be a vegetarian but thinks fish don’t count. After all, I’m not inhuman. If I was, then I’d be a fish.
My distaste isn’t unjustified. I spent the summer of 2004 working for Pinneys of Scotland, the Queen’s official provider of smoked salmon. Based in the Wet Fish department of their processing plant, my job was to remove the pin bones of salmon. It was a time of few friends and cheap fish. This is what would happen: a side of salmon would idle its way along a conveyor belt. I, clad in a long white coat, Wellington boots, pinny, mop cap and snood, would pick it up. I would then pull out its pin bones with a pair of pliers. The pin bones would drop into a little gutter, while the deboned side of salmon would go back onto the belt. I would then pick up another side and begin again. This would continue until about three or four in the morning, when it was time to go home. That was it. On a good day perhaps I’d be allowed to spend an hour further down the line, pulling strips of fat from the salmon, but other than that it was just me and my pliers. Here’s a conservative estimate: during that summer, I deboned about 115,200 salmon. I would dream about conveyor belts delivering endless fish. You can understand why one might become weary. Why someone would prefer that fish just stay out of his face.
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that the key to success in a chosen field is to practice it for 10,000 hours. Bill Gates spent 10,000 hours programming computers at high school before starting Microsoft. The Beatles spent 10,000 amphetamine-fuelled hours in Hamburg honing their craft. I roughly spent about 640 hours removing the pin bones of salmon. So, okay, I’m not the Beatles of salmon deboning. Still, a hundred thousand fish has to count for something. I’m at least the Badfinger of salmon deboning. I’m good. I’m very, very good. If you were to pass me half a salmon I could remove its pin bones before you could count to ten. But that’s the problem: no one ever does.
It’s like speaking a dead language, or having a superpower no-one has a need for. For all my years of education, hobbies and work, the thing that I can do better than anyone else is something that is absolutely useless to me. In the seven years that have passed since that strange, lonely summer, not a single person has asked me to remove the pin bones of a salmon, or of any fish at all, for that matter. And why would they? You buy them with the pin bones already removed (quite badly, at times: I take a peculiar pleasure in looking at shop-bought salmon and judging it on how poorly someone’s removed the pin bones). I may as well not have the skill at all. I remember vividly my disappointment last year when I visited a friend in the country who had bought a whole salmon, only to find when I arrived that another guest had already filleted it. Without me. Did they not understand that I am the Badfinger of pin bone removal?
Maybe I’m focusing on the wrong thing. I didn’t hate the job. It took enough concentration to occupy my body, but not enough to be actually challenging. The machinery was so loud that you couldn’t have conversations, which meant you were left with your own thoughts. It was the most Zen thing I’ve ever done: essentially I spent four months standing in a cold white room, thinking. I would write in my head, racing home afterwards to type it all up. All of my protagonists worked in fish factories, but still. It nudged my other 10,000 hours that bit closer to completion. I’m grateful for that, even if part of me does yearn for the day that I will be reunited with some pliers, half a dead fish, and the opportunity for greatness.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Six .