Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

In Search of the Lost Domain

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Le Grand Meaulnes: by Alain-Fournier

It was thinking about Le Grand Meaulnes that first led me to the idea of Common Ground. I’d read it in my early 20s, about the same age at which Alain-Fournier had written it just before the First World War. A feeling for the book had then lingered in my memory for many years. The book itself became, in my mind, a metaphor for elusiveness.

It’s an almost impossibly romantic book. About brief, obsessive relationships in adolescence that initiate a lifetime of fruitless searching to rediscover the place, the person, the emotion that once inspired that obsession. Always there, always vivid, always just out of reach. So the book’s characters – particularly its young men, Meaulnes, Frans and Seurel – are constantly trying, and failing, to recapture a particular time and place from the past.

The memory of the book remains vivid – not in any of its plot details or characters – but in keeping fresh the idea that there is a vanished moment in the past that you can almost taste and touch. A moment that will remain forever after untasted and untouched. Elusive, the very essence of elusiveness.

Re-reading Le Grand Meaulnes cannot bring it back either. I now read the book with less rapture than I did in my youth. I try reading it in French and I discover another aspect of elusiveness.

Once, a few years ago, I thought I might visit the place in central France where Alain-Fournier had grown up, the setting for the novel. The area was called the Sologne, to the north east of the Loire, an area not much visited. Perhaps I would find the lost domain that’s at the centre of the book? Perhaps in visiting the places so hauntingly described by Alain-Fournier I would put something to rest inside me? But I never made it. It would have been a long detour to get there, and we had a ferry to catch.

Now I visit France regularly and the lost domain seems always likely to be at the end of the country road; just down that path through the trees; that house glimpsed through the bars of the gate. There’s always a mythical, romantic, golden France just out of reach. I keep returning to try to find it. Often it feels close, but it remains elusive.

I suspect that the place itself, its reality, would be a disappointment. Perhaps no common ground. The fact is, it’s not really a place. I’m remembering a book written by a young man I never knew, about whom we know little because he was soon to die in the Great War. I’m also remembering a book read by a young man I probably wouldn’t recognise, who went on to do other, possibly better things but kept regretting that he hadn’t been able to return to the way he was then.

John Simmons

Cromarty and the Black Isle

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

It is 1969. I’m about seven years old. I am sitting in my parents’ bedroom on the ottoman at the end of their bed, upstairs in our house in St Valery Avenue in Inverness. We live in the capital of the Highlands, I know, because my mother told me. My mother says we are descended from Rob Roy McGregor, a famous cattle thief and outlaw who stole from the rich to give to the poor. My mother, although she is northern Irish, is very proud of her children being Scottish. So is my father, though he is English, from near Lincoln. My father says he bought a ticket to come to the Highlands and has never been able to afford the return ticket home.

I’m reading a book I picked up downstairs in the living room, it’s called something like True Tales of the Highlands. In it, I’m about to read a story that I will find so haunting that I won’t be able to sleep for several nights, and when I pick up cutlery at the dinette table before every meal for what will be months, I will drive my parents mad by asking them, every time – until they lose their patience with me completely and I’m made to stop it – to tell me what the knife and the fork I’m holding in my hands are made of.

Two young men, two friends, are out on a walk through a wood, and they come upon a hoard of money just lying there on the ground. They can’t believe their luck. They decide to split it between them. But on their way home, one of them picks up a large rock and hits the other one over the head with it. When his friend falls to the ground he hits him again, until his skull is broken. Then he takes the money out of his friend’s pack, and buries him and the stone he killed him with under a pile of similar stones.

Ten years later and he is a rich and respected man. Every day he wakes up and looks in the mirror and shakes his head, unable to believe the secret he knows about himself.

One day he sits down to eat at a grand restaurant in the city. He orders the most expensive thing on the menu. But when he looks down at the finely carved bone handles of the knife and the fork in his hands, he finds his hands are covered in blood.

Then the bones in his hand speak.

What do the bones say? I can’t remember. I had completely forgotten this story, and the very profound effect it had on me at the time, until a couple of Decembers ago when I’d gone up home to see my father (who is now in his eighties and who now lives out on the Black Isle), who’d had to go into hospital in Inverness. So I was staying at home, but not at home – in a hotel, and it was surreally mild for December in Inverness, thirteen degrees most days, and I was hanging around the haunts I used to visit and the places now totally gone, and I went to the museum, to see if the stuffed wildcat was still there. It was.

In  the  Museum  shop,  I  picked  up  and  flicked  through

Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland (1835), the first book written by Hugh Miller, the geologist, when he was the manager of the tiny bank in the town he was born in not far from Inverness, in Cromarty, on the Black Isle (a few miles from where my father now lives).

A small boy’s father is a sea-captain. He is caught in a bad storm and is about to drown at sea.

The boy, his two infant sisters, and his mother, who’s sitting there sewing away at the fireplace, have no idea, are miles away, safe at home. The boy’s mother is a seamstress. She does a lot of the local sewing, especially shroud-work. (Soon both her daughters will die too, both very young, and her son will be distraught when he hears her tell an acquaintance that she’d rather have lost the boy and kept one of the girls, that it would have made for a different life for her.)

She feels a draught. Go and shut the door, Hugh, she says.

Her son is five years old. When he gets to the door he sees, in the air, a disembodied hand and arm, reaching out. It seems to be a woman’s hand and arm, though it has no body attached to it, and it is lit up, dripping with water, floating in the air by itself. The boy is terrified.

The Black Isle isn’t an isle at all; it’s an isthmus, a peninsula, nearly ten miles wide, over twenty miles long, just north of Inverness. Is it called the Black Isle because of the colour of its good dark farming soil? Or because of something to do with black magic and witchcraft? Or because at certain times of the year, if you look at it from across the other side of the Moray Firth, it looks a deep black colour? Black’s not the only colour the Black Isle goes; one hot and perfect summer I saw richer purples and deeper golds in the fields of the Black Isle than I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world.

It sounds lyrical. Actually the Highlands, it strikes me, is an impossible blend of lyricism and measured austerity, patrolled by hooky-beaked seagulls the size of Jack Russell dogs; the kind of place where someone has shot the faces off the angels in the Catholic part of Tomnahurich cemetery with an air rifle. When I worked at the tourist office in Inverness when I was a teenager, we were regularly at a loss as to what to tell tourists they could do on a Sunday because everything shut, religiously, on a Sunday, and we used to suggest they drive themselves out along the Aberdeen road just to get a good view of the Black Isle; even then, when we were adolescently callous about the sheer beauty of the place, we knew it was a sight to see. My father has lived on the Black Isle now since my mother died in 1990. When I visit I see its sheer impossible versatility, its cliffs and moors and beaches and woods and marshes and heaths, how it’s studded in its beautiful little bays with village after village protected by the dolphins and seals in the firths, and strung between a faerie glen, a tree above a well where the people in the know come to hang rags so that what they want will come true, and, of course, church after church after church.

A fisherman was walking home happily to Cromarty on the Inverness road, after visiting a friend in the upper parish. “The night was still and calm, and a thick mantle of dull yellowish clouds, which descended on every side from the centre to the horizon, so obscured the light of the moon, though at full, that beyond the hedges which bounded the road all objects seemed blended together without colour or outline.” Out of nowhere he heard a terrible noise, like a huge pack of maddened, snarling hounds somewhere very near him, just beyond that hedge; he put his hands in his pockets but there was nothing but the last of the crumbs from the food he’d had on the boat. He held the crumbs out anyway, thinking they might appease the dogs. But there were no dogs; there was only a man, walking beside him beyond the hedge, keeping up with him, and the baying noise had stopped. Good, he thought; the dogs must belong to him, so I’m fine. But when he reached the gap in the hedge, he saw the figure grow and grow until it dropped on four legs and turned itself into a huge black horse.

He quickened his pace. The horse did too. He slowed, stood still. The horse did too. He walked his usual speed. The horse walked beside him. He saw it was an ugly kind of a horse, black-shaggy and limping, and when he reached the cemetery, a couple of hundred yards out of the town, the creature stopped, the air filled with sudden blinding light, like lightning, and “on recovering his sight, he found that he was alone.”

Or how about this one:

A spring lay between two farms. One hot day two farmworkers came, from their opposite directions on the different farms, to drink from it. One reached the spring first, drank from it, and, when he saw the other approaching, grabbed up a handful of mud and threw it in the water. Try drinking that, he said.

But the spring began to boil, and sank into the ground right in front of their eyes. “Next day at noon the heap of grey sand which had been incessantly rising and falling within it, in a little conical jet, for years before, had become as dry as the dust of the fields; and the strip of white flowering cresses which skirted either side of the runnel that had issued from it, lay withering in the sun. What rendered the matter still more extraordinary, it was found that a powerful spring had burst out on the opposite side of the firth, which at this place is nearly five miles in breadth, a few hours after the Cromarty one had disappeared.”

The farmer who’d flung the mud in the spring found that no one would speak to him anymore. Everybody thought he was cursed. So he went to see an old person who lived in a nearby parish and was known locally as a seer. You’ve insulted the water, the seer told him. Go back at exactly the same time as you did so, clean the place with a clean piece of linen towelling, then lie down beside it and wait.

The farmer did as he was told. He lay above the hollow on the ground where the cresses were withered, until the sun was almost down, and the water came spurting back with a force, then settled down and ran as before. “We recognise in this singular tradition a kind of soul or naiad of the spring, susceptible of offence, and conscious of the attentions paid to it.”

The latter of these stories is one of the first in Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland, which Hugh Miller wrote in his thirties and which brought him the start of a great deal of success. He died in Edinburgh on Christmas Eve in 1856, aged only fifty-four. He committed suicide, shot himself with a revolver. He had become hugely famous, a Victorian renais-sance man: a folklorist, historian, poet, newspaper editor and writer; a geologist to whose lectures in the Scottish and English capitals thousands of people thronged; a rhetorician keen to modernise Church legislation; a central figure in the troubled and fiery formation of the Free Church; and most of all, a theologian determined to reconcile, as intelligently and scientifically as possible, ideas on creation and evolution with biblical tract. He died just a couple of years before Darwin would send much of his theorising the way of all flesh, with his Origin of Species; it is truly terrible not to know, not to be able to see, how Miller would have responded to Darwin.

Everything Miller worked on, everything he wrote, reveals his keenness to reconcile things which he knows are simply irreconcilable. “It is possible”, as he wrote in his autobio-graphical volume, My Schools and Schoolmasters, “for two histories of the same period and individual, to be at once true to fact, and unlike each other in the scenes which they describe and the events which they record.”

An old, old shepherd was totally deaf – so deaf that, though he was a pious man, it was simply not necessary for him to go to church on a Sunday anymore since he couldn’t hear anything anyway. One Sunday, having sent his herdboy to Church, he took his sheep and his Bible and went down to a grassy hollow, and “with his Bible spread out before him on a hillock of thyme and moss, which served him for a desk, and sheltered on either hand from the sun and wind by a thicket of sweetbriar and sloethorn, he was engaged in reading,” when he heard something.

He raised his head, looked at the leaves. They were waving in silence, as usual, in the light wind.

He began to read again, and again he heard something – a low airy rush of noise. He looked up.

A lady in a long green dress was standing in front of him, a dress that covered her feet but that left her incredibly beautiful shoulders and breasts completely bare. “The old man laid his hand on the book, and raising himself from his elbow, fixed his eyes on the face of the lady.

“Old man,” she said, “I see you are reading the Book. Please tell me. Is there anything in it to help or to save us?”

“The gospel of this book,” said the man, “is addressed to the lost children of Adam, but to the creatures of no other race.” The lady shrieked as he spoke, and gliding away with the rapidity of a swallow on the wing, disappeared amid the recesses of the hollow.”

Miller is a great storyteller. Off she goes, a swallow on the wing. The power of his storytelling leaps over its own moral import, wiry as a fox. The power lies in the detail which makes the supernatural – and the fierce challenge between the super-natural and the righteous – as real as day. Never mind that the lady in green is banished – she exists; and the old man, all hands and elbows, saw her beautiful nakedness. In the same way, a water naiad can be apologised to with clean linen, and the visual effect of a moonless night will be described every bit as fully and carefully as, and possibly even more carefully than, a devilish beast.

He grew up in Cromarty, which was at that point a quite prosperous port (and prosperity is cyclic in Cromarty, which was most recently buoyed up yet again by the lucrative oil industry in the 1970s). He was a clever but troubled child who never settled to schoolwork. He took an apprenticeship early, as a stonemason, which made him ill for life, ruined his lungs. Some of the gravestones in Cromarty churchyard were carved by him.

Scenes and Legends is a formidably layered history of the place and its irreconcilabilities and versatilities of spirit – a collection of written and oral histories, especially the latter, into a stratifi-cation of stories and voices which make up Miller’s own. “Old greyheaded men, and especially old women, became my books” in the research for it, he says, and fills it with recordings he sees as not just similar to a perennial plant-life, “but also as a species of produce which the harvests of future centuries may fail to supply.”

I read this book between visits to my father in Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, where he was being treated because his skin had turned incurably scaly, wouldn’t stop flaking off. Nurses were moisturising him heavily every day then wrap-ping him tightly in linen to rebalance his skin. I would go up and spend the afternoon with him, chatting, or looking out the huge hospital windows over the dusk shadow of the Black Isle as he dozed. (My father is a keen angler. “I’m maybe turning into a salmon,” he said and we laughed.) Then I’d go back to the hotel I was staying in Inverness, and lie on the bed, choose (easily) between Anne Robinson being mean to people on The Weakest Link on the hotel TV and Hugh Miller’s

Scenes and Legends in my hands.

Cromarty, Crummade, Chrombhte, the crooked bay, a town between two Sutors, “turrents built to command a gateway.” A land dug out of the sea. A town built again, after its first version was deluged by sea. “In a burying-ground of the town, which lies embosomed in an angle of the bank, the sexton sometimes finds the dilapidated spoils of our commoner shell-fish mingling with the ruins of a nobler animal; and in another inflection of the bank, which lies a short half mile to the east of the town, there is a vast accumulation of drift-peat, many feet in thickness, and the remains of huge trees.”

Miller  records  talking  with  men  who  saw  farmed  land where now you can only see sea. He tells the story of the bones of what must have been an old burial yard coming out of the sea,  all  blown  ashore  in  a  storm,  and  the  local  people  who picked them up and carried them carefully to the new church-yard, buried them “beneath the eastern gable of the church.” He tells stories of local stubbornness, restless local ingenu-ity, local brilliance, the local writers who’ve gone before him, Thomas the Rhymer, and Sir Thomas Urquhart who invented his own alphabet and linguistic system, among other unbe-lievable ingenuities. He bares the roots, etymologies, meaning and foundations of the place, its “savage magnificence,” the “sublimity of desolation on its shores, the effects of a conflict maintained for ages, and on a scale so gigantic.” He details its superstitions,  its  religions,  and  the  argument  between  both in a way that puts Cromarty at the thriving heart of contem-porary  religious  and  philosophical  struggle,  “every  tree  of the  wood,  every  tumulus  of  the  moor.  But  I  daresay  I  have imparted  to  the  reader  more  of  the  fabulous  history  of

Cromarty than he will well know how to be grateful for.” Miller the theologian – how Highland – could hear illegiti-

mate spirit. He believed that the very rocks and earth have as important a voice as any afterlife. He was a connoisseur of fossils, an expert on time and its ravaging, a believer in the Great Chain of Being who was consumed by fragile stratifica-tion. I picked his first book up out of a little display of books all about where I’d grown up, and opened it at page 82:

“From the manner in which the bones were blended together, it seemed evident that the bodies had been thrown into the same hole, with their heads turned in opposite directions, either out of carelessness or in studied contempt. And they had, apparently, lain undisturbed in this place for centuries. A child, by pressing its foot against the skull which had been raised entire, crushed it to pieces like the other; and the whole of the bones had become so light and porous, that when first seen by the writer, some of the smaller fragments were tumbling over the sward before a light breeze, like withered leaves, or pieces of fungous wood.”

Sublimity and desolation. The bones spoke.


Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

The first edition of Kidnapped sits on my desk. It’s slightly shabby now, but when it was published in 1886, its dark green cloth cover and gold lettering would have glowed with the promise of what lay inside. The first surprise would have been its folding map, titled:

SKETCH of the CRUISE of the

BRIG COVENANT And the probable course of


The very way the red lines bestrode the deep gouges of sea-lochs and wound among the stark contours of the mountains would have left one in no doubt that this was to be adventure of a high order.

Today, each time I pick up the book I think of Robert Louis Stevenson holding an identical copy, flicking through the pages with long pale fingers, fretting about the reception that would greet his latest work. It feels like a 120-year old talisman with the power to summon him to my side, his vast imagina-tion and love of story spilling almost palpably from the rough-edged, hand-cut pages.

This treasure came to me through my mother’s family. Her great-uncle, an extraordinary individual called RB Cunninghame Graham, knew Stevenson in Paris in 1877. “Don Roberto”, as my great-great uncle was known, was a fellow author; an aristocrat who helped Keir Hardie found the Labour Party; an adventurer and horseman and lover of South America, of whom his friend, the novelist Joseph Conrad, said: “When I think of Cunninghame Graham I feel as if I have lived all my life in a dark hole without seeing or knowing anything”. A character, in fact, worthy of Stevenson’s cre-ation, although that is another story …

I was born in 1949, a biblical ninety-nine years after Stevenson. I grew up in his Edinburgh, among the fine Georgian houses of the New Town, the gardens and crescents with their spring crocuses and pungent autumn bonfires. Both Great King Street, where we lived until I was two years old, and our next flat, in Forres Street, where my father con-tinued to keep his advocate’s chambers for many years after we had moved to the country, were within walking distance of Stevenson’s childhood home at 17 Heriot Row.

Had his ghost haunted the New Town of my early child-hood, it would have found much that seemed familiar. The streets were still cobbled and I remember the pride I felt at the manly clatter of my first pair of leather-soled shoes on the granite setts. Gas lamps hissed above the pavements. A woman with a barrel-organ drawn by a Shetland pony turned her handle for pennies under our tall windows. Rag-and-bone men clopped by on their carts, and when the wind blew from the south the thick smell of malt and hops drifted up from the city’s breweries, as it had done for more than a century. This was the palette from which my first years of life were coloured, although today they seem almost sepia.

Then, in a manner of speaking, I was kidnapped. In September 1957, just before my eighth birthday, I was plucked from the genteel comfort of the New Town and dispatched to a large, foursquare stone house on a windy promontory at Dunbar, thirty miles away down the east coast, where the draughts whistled through the dormitory windows and there was nothing but salt to put on our porridge.

Incarcerated there with fifty other boys, I might have longed with all my being for the familiarity of Forres Street’s high-ceilinged rooms, the view across Moray Place and out over the Firth of Forth to the hazy hills of Fife. But in a private part of my imagination the place I went to was the Highlands.

My father’s parents lived in Perthshire, and we visited them often. We travelled to Wester Ross in the far north-west on holidays. The journey to my other grandparents, on the Clyde, took us along the edge of the Trossachs and past Loch Lomond. The grandeur and romance and melancholy of the Highland landscape had already lodged deeply in my con-sciousness; and although the Scots on both sides of my family were Lowlanders, I felt a powerful affinity for all things Highland. To this day, the scent of freshly split pine logs and the treacly reek of peat make my heart lurch.

The romance of Scottish history, though little yet of its misery, had also worked its way into my imagination. We knew about Bonnie Prince Charlie and Culloden, and the idea of being chased through the heather by Redcoats had been firmly planted in my mind by songs and stories. When the ultimate Jacobite adventure finally came my way, I was, so to speak, ripe for plucking.

I don’t now recall whether I first read Kidnapped, or had it read to me, or heard it adapted for the radio, but I was ten or eleven at the time and it gripped me at once and without remorse. Even the names of the characters had a peculiar reso-nance, for there were Balfours and Stewarts and Campbells at my school, latter-day kinsmen of Davie and Alan Breck and the Red Fox; and I knew well that these families were not just intricately bound up with the great events of Scottish history, but deeply connected with the landscape that Stevenson described, and which I also knew: from the brackeny Borders valleys of Davie’s childhood, to the still, birch-fringed lochs of Alan Breck’s Appin, to the great Campbell stronghold of Inveraray Castle.

Closer to home, meanwhile, there was Uncle Ebenezer Balfour (did Stevenson borrow that miserly first name from Dickens?) and all the horror of his unfinished staircase. On a stormy night, how little it took for the grim House of Shaws and our darkened, gale-battered east-coast mansion to become one in my imagination. As for the moment when Davie realises that he has been tricked by the wicked old man and is to be sold for labour in the plantations of Carolina, his feelings of abandonment and despair plucked madly at my heart strings.

By this time we had moved from Edinburgh to my grand-parents’ house. Here it was the hills of western Perthshire, Ben Chonzie and Ben Halton and Ben Vorlich, that dominated the skyline and my imagination. I missed them terribly when I returned to rolling, red-earthed East Lothian at the end of each holidays, and the thought of them lent extra poignancy to tales of the Highlands.

The move north brought with it a new holiday activity. I began going out with my father on shooting expeditions. Now, instead of looking at the hills, I spent long days walking into them. Like Davie and Alan, albeit as pursuers rather than pursued, we laboured across shelterless shoulders with freez-ing rain stinging our cheeks and dripping down the backs of our necks, or sweltered in August heat that had us longing for the next burn where we could fling ourselves down in the dusty, honey-scented heather and lap up the cool water from cupped hands. Sometimes, just as Davie cursed Alan during their flight across the moors, I cursed my father for pushing me close to what felt like the limits of exhaustion.

During one holidays I was taken on an educational cruise run by the National Trust for Scotland which almost exactly followed the route of the brig Covenant, leaving from South Queensferry on the Forth, where Davie was put to sea against his will, and sailing all the way round the coast of Scotland to land at Greenock on the Clyde.

By the time we had left Stornoway and were through the Minch I had got over my seasickness and sat on deck to watch the hills of Assynt and Torridon, Knoydart and Morar slide by in brilliant sunlight, gulls clouding our wake. Happily, the Dunera, a retired troop ship, did not founder off the coast of Mull but made it safely to harbour in Greenock.

What I didn’t know then was that Stevenson’s father had taken him on an almost identical trip in 1869 in the Northern Lighthouse Board’s steamer Pharos V. This had provided much of the material for the sea voyage in Kidnapped, including the unusual scene of eviction he witnessed as the Pharos took on board a party of emigrants who, almost half a century after the end of the clearances proper, were being moved off their land to make way for a deer forest.

Nor did I know that, in a further curious twist, my own father would later serve for seven years as one of the Commissioners for Northern Lighthouses and make the annual trip in the Pharos VIII to inspect those lonely outposts and bring cheer to the keepers (none of whom today remain, for the very last of Scotland’s 212 lighthouses, including all those built by Stevenson’s grandfather and uncle, was auto-mated in 1998).

Back on land, it seemed to me that with their rich, asso-nant Gaelic names, the hills were starting to become like people I knew, the shrouding mist and dark woods, tumbling, rocky rivers and humpbacked Wade bridges, their personal belongings. Their individuality was all the more pronounced for the emptiness of the landscape in which they loomed. But it hadn’t always been so.

Stevenson set Kidnapped in 1751, five years after the cata-strophic end of the Jacobite uprising at Culloden. It was, in effect, the beginning of the end of Highland society. But although Hanoverian repression and desperate poverty were already conspiring to drive people from the land, there would still have been crofting “townships” in the glens through which Davie and Alan fled; while higher up, the hills would have been dotted with sheilings where folk went with their beasts for the summer grazing.

By the time Stevenson himself came to know the Highlands, however, the clearances were complete, Victoria had already been ensconced at Balmoral for several years, and North Britain had become a place where industrialists with social aspirations developed grouse moors and deer forests and entertained guests in baronial lodges.

The management of the Highland landscape as a huge empty recreation ground had begun, and the absence of civil-isation would certainly have encouraged Stevenson to dramatise what he found there. For like all Victorians, he rev-elled in the melodramatic notion of the sublime, the thin line upon which one thrillingly confirmed one’s own existence: a pace forward and nature would overwhelm one with terror, a pace back and she would transport one with delight. So, for example, Davie, the Lowlander, speaks of Appin being “full of prodigious wild and dreadful prospects”.

Here we differ. I have felt that sense of awe in nature, but never in the Highlands. They can be beautiful, bleak, desolate, enfolding, enchanting, unforgiving – people die in the Scottish hills every year, and it pays to be respectful of the shifting weather, the knife-edged ridges, the treacherous, scree-clad slopes. But for all that, I have always found some-thing comfortingly familiar about even the gloomiest, most sheer-sided west coast glen.

What I found more unsettling, as I grew older and came to know more of it, was the history that everywhere in the Highlands seeps from the peat and wreaths the hilltops. One summer evening in my teens, I walked out to a remote bothy in the hills with my best friend, David as it happens. We spent the night there and I hardly slept a wink for the sound of voices on the wind.

Stevenson undoubtedly heard them too. The voice of James Stewart of Duror, hanged in chains at Ballachulish after his wrongful conviction by a jury of Campbells for the murder of the King’s factor, Colin Campbell of Glenure, the Red Fox; a murder almost certainly committed at the instigation, if not the hand, of his kinsman Alan Breck. Or of the fugitive Jacobite chieftain Cluny Macpherson hiding out in his “cage” high up among the distant crags of Ben Alder. Or of Robin Oig, son of the outlaw Rob Roy Macgregor, playing the pipes on the Braes of Balquhidder.

These were the real voices and places around which Stevenson wove his story, writing it in tautly-framed instal-ments for serialisation in Young Folks magazine. From the very first hearing, its energy and rhythm entered my bloodstream and lodged there.

Stevenson wrote Kidnapped in Bournemouth at the house he named Skerryvore, after the most beautiful of all the family lighthouses. I wrote my first three novels in London; and it’s obvious to me now that they all feature journeys of either quest or pursuit through mountainous landscapes. Perhaps one cultivates a stronger sense of place in absentia.

A year after Kidnapped was published, Stevenson left England on the journey that would end in his death in Samoa, seven years later, in 1894. He was only forty-four. My own self-imposed exile lasted just short of twenty years and on my return, aged forty-one, I deliberately planted myself and my family off the beaten track in a gentle glen in Highland Perthshire.

During the seven years we spent there I underwent the complicated experience of rediscovering a Scotland vastly changed in some respects, as a country on the brink of politi-cal devolution; scarcely changed at all in others, as our view of the fortress-like Beinn a’ Ghlo, and the forty miles of wilder-ness beyond it, constantly reminded me.

Being among the hills again, hearing the river at night through our bedroom window, re-awoke that sense of history as something omnipresent in the landscape, and with it returned the narrative pulse. It was a kind of unconscious preparation for my fourth novel, Blackriggs, which strongly echoes Kidnapped as young John MacNeil and the child known to him only as Ninian flee through the Cairngorm and Monadhliath mountains in a troubled Scotland of the near future. It seems more than coincidence that, after a tortuous journey of its own, the book should finally have found a pub-lisher in the week before I sat down to write this essay.

As I look north now, I have to ask myself whether it is pos-sible to view the landscape before me as something distinct from what I know to have taken place in it. For it seems as if Stevenson’s own story and the story of Davie and Alan, my story and the story of John and Ninian, are all interwoven as strands in the greater story of what it means to be Scottish and to have fallen under the spell of the Highlands. I believe it is impossible to be in love with the Highlands without being in love with narrative; and when these hills and glens provide the backdrop for one’s own life, one cannot ignore the sense of being part of their unfolding tale.

No matter how empty this beautiful, proud, mournful country may sometimes seem, there’s a story under every stone. And if you can’t find one, or be part of one, you have to make one up for yourself.

Wet Sand and Gasoline

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

On a bright midwinter morning, the Fife coast gleams. Calling this corner of the ancient kingdom “a fringe of gold on a beggar’s mantle”,1 James II of Scotland clearly knew his real estate. The “East Neuk” is a beautiful sleeve of farmland – hemmed to the south by the Firth of Forth – with fishing vil-lages every couple of miles until it elbows the North Sea at Fife Ness. Most things about the place – the seclusion, the tissue-papery sunlight and the sea mist known as the haar – seem quietly miraculous.

Standing on the shore of St Andrews Bay, just around the headland, I’m toe-to-tide with otherness. Despite the Tornados thundering in and out of RAF Leuchars, the sea has an immemorial power to captivate – holding sway over joggers, dog-walkers, even freelance journalists; each of us drawn along the ruminative strand of West Sands.

No surprise, then, that east Fife could claim to be the UK’s most poetic habitat, on a leading poets per capita basis. Douglas Dunn’s tenure at St Andrews University has much to do with it. But I like to think there’s something in the air that makes John Burnside, Robert Crawford, Kathleen Jamie and Don Paterson live and work nearby. Lyrical and meditative, Burnside’s poetry develops its own meteorology for the area – and that’s the climate I’m here to experience.

* * *

“strange things come/to those who live/by water”

Poets seldom cross the news radar – the only blips being prize-days or whenever Andrew Motion keeps a straight face about the laureateship – but “History”, a poem that observes father and son, in September 2001, “gathering shells / and pebbles / finding evidence of life in all this / driftwork”,2 is perhaps the most resonant 9/11 reflection that I’ve read. References are oblique, and there’s nothing kneejerk or preachy about the sentiments. Rather, Burnside portrays events as a shock to some wider ecosystem – “we trade so much to know the virtual / we scarcely register the drift and tug / of other bodies”.3 Irrespective of politics, he implies, we’ve all grown estranged from the natural regulations of the world.

It’s not the sort of message, if “message” it is, that’s actively condensed by the media bubble. But Burnside speaks to many of the “issues” percolating in editorial conference rooms: whether and how to reduce our demands on the planet; the role of religious belief in secular societies; the dislocation and rootlessness that modern life can engender. Of course, he doesn’t offer bullet points – handy hints on energy efficiency or what to do when the oil dries up – or, indeed, any doom-laden bulletin. Instead, his poems pick a path through the terrain he’s made his own: what it means to dwell on the earth.

If that sounds grandly philosophical, it’s actually funda-mentally simple. Burnside moves like a beachcomber: attentive, rigorous and aware that “strange things come / to those who live / by water”.4 He might have strong views about what he finds, yet his search is contingent, restless (punctua-tion hardly breaks his stride), improvised. Beachcombing is both a method and an attitude of mind, where “the trick is in the making / not the made.”5 It’s also a useful metaphor for thinking about Burnside’s writing and sense of place – particu-larly in The Asylum Dance, the collection that won the 2000 Whitbread Poetry Prize, and his two subsequent volumes, The Light Trap and The Good Neighbour.

* * *

“the light above the firth”

It’s so easy, as a fleeting visitor, to arrive somewhere and infer all sorts of immanent truths from first impressions. Coming from the city to the East Neuk, a rose-tinted perspective is inevitable. The fishing boats clank and bob in Pittenweem harbour. The crustacean I was eye-to-antenna with earlier may figure in my bowl of cullen skink at the “West End Bar”. Gulls do “flicker”6 overhead, and “the medieval lull / of inland farms”7 bends time as I walk the fields.

Yet having lived in rural Dorset, I’m wary of the curse of the quaint: how the outsider can ignore workaday realities. Not just those times when the rain won’t stop and the mind is muddied. But also that people have businesses to run, familiar cares and internet accounts. Nevertheless, I can’t help swoon-ing over the sunsets I’ve seen in Fife: half a dozen bands of colour (mint, orange, raspberry, blackcurrant, lemon and lime ice-cream) resolving into purple dusk. Or the dawn, rippling out of the haar, apple-soft. It’s hard not to regard such phe-nomena as benevolent.

Burnside pinpoints this special effect in The Asylum Dance. The poem Ports begins: “Our dwelling place / the light above the firth”.8 As both a geographic marker and a means of revela-tion, it illuminates what he strives to understand about “the notion of home”9 and, consequently, “the painful gravity of being settled”10 – since he isn’t readily grounded. Security and co-habitation bring limitations and “the dread of belong-ing”,11 as Burnside writes in The Good Neighbour.

Sometimes, “the shape of the wind on an empty street / is all you know of home”.12 At others, “home is a reason”13 (people to return to and responsibilities), or else it’s bundled with the mesh of information – “shipping forecasts / gossip / theorems”14 – that creates a local culture. Social identity, however, isn’t his primary concern. His yardsticks are sea-sonal, semi-mystical, talismanic. Repeating the tropes of light and dark, Burnside explores how the self reaches its accom-modation with nature.

Occasionally, reading him can be like listening to a secular sermon: I yearn for some wriggle room. But his environmen-talism – his charting “the brilliant commonplace / of all we take for granted”15 – makes me sit still and pay attention.

* * *

“an earth-tide in the spine”

Like the protagonists of his poem Adam and Eve, Burnside is “stunned with a local wonder”16 at the beauty of his surround-ings. But his canvas is larger than Fife alone. “Somewhere behind it all”, he maintains, lies “another world of charge and borderline / an earth-tide in the spine”.17

For Burnside, the spine is a sensory organ, a divining rod that links him, physically, with the planet’s “deeper pulse”.18 It’s the bell-wether of his “green” credentials. He writes of being “aware of everything / aware of shoals and stars / shift-ing around you / endlessly / entwined,”19 evoking what the scientist James Lovelock calls Gaia, the hypothesis that the earth and all its life forms are one, self-sustaining organism.

After 2005 – a year in which, as the headlines screamed, “nature struck back” – the idea that humanity could be more humble in the face of elemental forces is not mere eco-babble but practical advice. In his latest book, Nature Cure,20 Richard Mabey claims we’re increasingly “out of kilter with the rest of creation”, and that redressing the balance isn’t simply about “household management writ large”. I imagine Burnside agrees.

In  essays  and  poetry,  he  aligns  himself  with  indigenous people – groups such as the Sami, still better known as Lapps, from whom he borrows the myth of the earth’s living pulse; the concept being that the Creator placed the beating heart of two-year-old reindeer at the planet’s core, and as long as people hear this rhythm “all will be well”.21 But Burnside fears it’s become almost inaudible.

Instead of patronising indigenous people, he believes “we moderns”22 can learn from them. “Where I come from”, Burnside wrote in 2003, “home means something that mis-takes itself for permanence: it means possession, it means consumption”.23 In other words, tenancy rather than owner-ship should be the contract we make with the earth – coexistence not conquest. Arguably, parts of The Good Neighbour become too pedagogic in this respect. Generally, however, Burnside’s writing is sensuous enough to dilute the lecture. In a poem for Harald Gaski, the Sami activist and writer, Burnside celebrates “their works provisional, their dreams immense, / their children raised in memory and song”.24 Metaphorically, the Sami are beachcombers, too.

Such post-colonial kinship doesn’t seem faddish because Burnside also taps a native strain of British nature poetry, stretching back beyond the English Romantics to the Scots Gaelic bards. People have extolled the “renovating virtue”25 (in Wordsworth’s phrase) of the Great Outdoors ever since there was an indoors to leave behind. It’s simply that now, in the age of mass tourism, the problem is “how to be alive / in all this gazed-upon and cherished world / and do no harm”.26

* * *

“prayers that stay unanswered”

Writing in 1966, a hundred years after Thomas Hardy resigned himself to “Crass Casualty”27 governing the universe, the critic EDH Johnson lamented that “the study of natural history could never again address man’s moral and aesthetic faculties”.28 Well, never say never again. While I’ve no wish to legitimise the neocon mantra “intelligent design”, it’s as natural history that its advocates seek to present it. (Lord knows what Johnson would think of that – I found his book, The Poetry of Earth, completely by chance. It had once belonged to my aunt.) Nature writing is indisputably the locus of Burnside’s moral and aesthetic faculties. But he nips the Creationist fallacy in the bud. “Where logic seems apparent …”, observes a poem called The Hay Devil, “we go too far / imagining a god / of purposes”.29 That’s not to say religion is absent in his work. Far from it, religious discourse pervades his writing and, indeed, the words I’ve used to write about him and Fife. Yet it’s more cultural hand-me-down, I think, than genuflection.

Vestiges of religious language remain the most apt to describe our consciousness of nature. Perhaps this is because, as Richard Mabey suggests, “all natural metaphors are minia-ture creation myths, allusions to how things came to be, a confirmation of the unity of life”.30 But it’s as much a literary as a theological inheritance. Although the East Neuk has me in raptures, it doesn’t send me hurrying to the kirk.

Having outgrown childhood religion (“I could see / their omnipresent God was neither / here nor there”31), Burnside retains his capacity for awe. Realising science can’t measure metaphysical experience, he senses a universal hunger for grand narrative: “something in the world we cannot name / though each of us negotiates the form / it happens to assume”.32 His great moral endeavour, then, is to search for an idea of order – “something vast / that holds us all and never lets us slip”33 to replace or compensate for “prayers that stay unanswered”.34

Christian symbolism is acknowledged in the poem Kestrel, which refers directly to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Victorian classic The Windhover. “Though I am no believer”, Burnside writes, “I could find / the blue-bleak ember of an old / signifi-cance, the promise that remains unsayable”.35 However, his own rattlebag of beliefs contains earthy, “pagan”36 sympa-thies, a Buddhist-like emphasis on reincarnation and an almost shamanic sensitivity to “the otherlife of things”.37

* * *

“the promise of elsewhere”

Walking the coast path from Anstruther, where Burnside lives, to Elie, with its wide mouth of sand, I feel recharged within. It’s that wish-you-weren’t-here moment of spiritual right-sizing, away from the rat race, that many urbanites crave. For Burnside, however, that’s only stage one of reconnecting with nature. He doesn’t strip off and paint himself with woad, at least as far as I know, but there’s another setting to which he believes our lyric receivers can be tuned.

“Of course we escape,” he writes in The Good Neighbour, “even the sound of rain … is loophole enough … for all the given versions of the self”.38 What he wants to get back to is a “primal emptiness”39 of being. From this clean slate, percep-tion can start again. “Radical illumination”40 is Burnside’s slightly hippyish phrase for how “we understand / another life resides, / older than time / and dizzy with momentum”,41 alongside us, in the here and now.

At its most mystical, “the promise of elsewhere”42 signifies aboriginal dream-time and a forensic snapshot of evolution-ary process – “one broad presence that proceeds / by craft and guesswork”.43 This is quite a tangle of metaphors: partly indigenous myth, partly ecological theory, partly the Christian idea that Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. But there’s no need for dogma. Burnside’s best writing reflects just how much mystery we are never likely to unravel:

“Nothing explains the pull and lurch of the sky, how, sooner or later, each of us goes to answer; no logic stills the heartbeat in the earth:
it never stops, it knits within the bone, a world around the world we understand
waiting to be recovered and given names.”44

* * *

“a word for everything”

Naming is Burnside’s sacred rite: “whenever we think of home / we come to this”45 – whether it’s “a handful of birds and plants”,46 a street such as Tolbooth Wynd or plaice “the colour of orangeade”47 on a fishmonger’s counter – knowing the names of things is what distinguishes home from something foreign. Beyond basic familiarity, however, names are also the way to animate personality, and to classify the environment’s ceaseless “skitter and glide”.48 A couple of poems in The Good Neighbour record Burnside’s young son vocalising what he can see, “one object at a time”49 – a step defined as “the com-mencement of the soul’s / unfolding / self-invention / in a world / that shifts and turns”.50

That wonderful, symbiotic observation echoes a point the critic Jonathan Bate has made. Burnside’s work, he says, “turns on the paradox that we are both a part of and apart from nature”.51 Tellingly, the figure of Adam, the original namer and natural historian, appears regularly. Just as beach-combing is a game of rediscovery – identifying “these slow / dank angels”52 that the sea gives up – so Burnside tries to find “a word for everything … hallowed and round as a pearl”.53 Yet he knows his efforts to fix meanings are subject to the sheer flux of matter, its Ovidian transformations.

Burnside’s poetry works in “the gap between a sound / and silence”.54 Sometimes, as he writes in a new poem (published in Poetry Review last autumn), the latter is “the only good reply”55 to the beauty of Fife or any other landscape. After all, there’s nothing inherently consoling about it – the sublime doesn’t reside in coastal topography: it’s in our minds. Often, we settle for “that cold and salty pact / the body has with things unlike itself”,56 and only when we create “a sufficiency of names”57 – a vocabulary nuanced enough – does language begin to bridge the gap.

* * *

Back on the beach, staring at the sea has brought me to a “vivid standstill”:58 the same feeling I get from reading Burnside. Poetry doesn’t need to supply homilies. These insights may be “no more or less correct than anything / we use to make a dwelling in the world”.59 But, in a time of throw-away soundbites, they’re sustainable. As I head towards the car – the sky darkening – something seems renewed.


  1. Taken from a tourist information sign in Pittenweem.
  2. “History”, The Light Trap (Jonathan Cape, 2002), p 40.
  3. “History”, The Light Trap (Jonathan Cape, 2002), p 41.
  4. “The Unprovable Fact: A Tayside Inventory”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 69.
  5. “Koi”, The Light Trap (Jonathan Cape, 2002), p 3.
  6. “Ports”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 1.
  7. “The Unprovable Fact: A Tayside Inventory”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 71.
  8. “Ports”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 1.
  9. “Settlements”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 29.
  10. “Settlements”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 29.
  11. “Annunciation with Zero Point Field”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 10.
  12. “Homage to Cy Twombly”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 31.
  13. “The Hay Devil”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 50.
  14. “Ports”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 1.
  15. “The Painter Fabritius …”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 78.
  16. “Adam and Eve”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 20.
  17. “Sense Data”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 12.
  18. “Sense Data”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 12.
  19. “Ports”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 3.
  20. Nature Cure (Chatto & Windus, 2005).
  21. “Journey to the centre of the earth”, John Burnside, The Guardian, 18 October, 2003.
  22. “Journey to the centre of the earth”, John Burnside, The Guardian, 18 October, 2003.
  23. “Journey to the centre of the earth”, John Burnside, The Guardian, 18 October, 2003.
  24. “By Kautokeino”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 41.
  25. “The Prelude”, William Wordsworth, excerpted on The Wordsworth Trust website,
  26. “History”, The Light Trap (Jonathan Cape, 2002), p 42.
  27. “Hap”, Thomas Hardy, cited by Johnson, below.
  28. “Introduction”, The Poetry of Earth: A Collection of English Nature Writings from Gilbert   White   of   Selbourne   to   Richard   Jefferies, edited   by   EDH   Johnson (Gollancz, 1966).
  29. “The Hay Devil”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 46.
  30. Nature Cure (Chatto & Windus, 2005).
  31. “Fields”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 41.
  32. “The Painter Fabritius …”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 83.
  33. “One Hand Clapping”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 12.
  34. “Settlements”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 29.
  35. “Kestrel”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 63.
  36. “Blue”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 45.
  37. “Fields”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 42.
  38. “Annunciation with a Garland of Self-Heal”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 33.
  39. “De Humani Corporis Fabrica”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 5.
  40. “Travelling into the Quotidian: Some notes on Allison Funk’s ‘Heartland’ poems”, John Burnside, Poetry Review, Volume 95:2, Summer 2005.
  41. “Of Gravity and Light”, The Light Trap (Jonathan Cape, 2002), p 35.
  42. “Haar”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 19.
  43. “Animals”, The Light Trap (Jonathan Cape, 2002), p 19.
  44. “By Kautokeino”, The Good Neighbour, (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 43.
  45. “Ports”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 1.
  46. “Ports”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 1.
  47. “Ports”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 1.
  48. “One Hand Clapping”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 12.
  49. “Pentecost”, The Good Neighbour, (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 25.
  50. “De Anima”, The Good Neighbour, (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 36.
  51. “Eco Laurels”, Jonathan Bate, The Guardian, 25 November, 2002.
  52. “The Unprovable Fact: A Tayside Inventory”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 68.
  53. “One Hand Clapping”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 12.
  54. “Ports”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 3.
  55. “Responses to Augustine of Hippo”, Poetry Review, Volume 95:3, Autumn 2005.
  56. “Responses to Augustine of Hippo”, Poetry Review, Volume 95:3, Autumn 2005.
  57. “Adam and Eve”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 22.
  58. “The Unprovable Fact: A Tayside Inventory”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 67.“Ports”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 8.

The Rules of Modernity

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Books were never my friends.

Records were. Are. Not actual records, you understand; not big vinyl things. I’ve never had that nostalgia for the physical – I’m a child of Thatcher, I can’t remember an industry that made things, so I don’t need to have them in my hands. Much better, in the case of records, to have them in your head. In fact, nowadays, mine live in the sky. In my house of broad-band, and wi-fi, and iTunes, I like to think that every bit of music is already there, in the air, waiting to be caught in my white plastic box of butterflies.

Put it down to being an only child, if you like. I think I do now, if I didn’t then. Because records are the sound of company. For other people, books always seemed to be a refuge, somewhere to escape from the chatter of family life, or a marauding bullying brother. But I never wanted to escape. I wanted to invite my entertainment in.

Now I read. It seems the right thing to do on solo journeys by bus and train. But once I’m home, my first loyalty is to records. And for ten years, a particular loyalty to records by one band, mostly written by one man: Stuart Murdoch, of Belle & Sebastian.

I got to know these songs when I was living abroad. I was happy enough. But now I see the echoes of my only child-hood in that year. On my own again, this time an ocean away from family and friends, adrift in an unrecognisable strain of a language I thought I knew. I chat away, but no one quite gets me. In fact, I start to feel like a cardboard cut-out version of myself. I can talk about my day at work, what I’m doing at the weekend, “it’s a really nice restaurant, and not too dear”. But anything beyond a GCSE role play is hard work. I want to tell them about me, to make a joke, to discuss what I think of their politics, but I’m marooned. Everything I say comes out as straight fact.

While I was there, people sent me packages. The things I missed were details, drizzles, tastes, Lucozade, Lancashire cheese (I’ve never felt so British as I did then). And from Emma I got little square packages. Records. Records from the fringe of their native land, and even more out of place here.

But in those early Belle & Sebastian records, in the emo-tional sub-zeroes of Québec, I made friends. Stuart, of course. A Scottish voice, and a British one. It’s there in his turns of phrase, and his humour, and the cultural countryside he takes me walking in: Radio 4, Man About the House, Debenhams. The characters, too; Belle & Seb songs have a cast. Lisa, who goes blind; Lisa’s friend, who’s abused; Anthony, bullied at school; Sukie, the kid who hangs out in the graveyard; String Bean Jean; Lazy Line Painter Jane. These characters turn up in different songs, sometimes together, sometimes alone. The songs are rarely about just them, but it’s like they walk past as Stuart sings. Then there’s Belle and Sebastian themselves. Not the ones from the original French children’s story, but the ones from Stuart’s imagination. The ones who met outside Hillhead Underground Station (one of the stories from the record sleeves says so). I’ve always assumed Stuart and Sebastian are one and the same.

It seems to me like a lot of writers are always writing about the same thing. Different voices, and different situations, but the same thing. Stuart’s sketches are nearly always about the uncool school kid who learns to be confident in who they are. They don’t change to fit in; they find the world changing and find their corner of it. The road comes up to meet them. They don’t flower; instead the poppies that grew tall with adoles-cent cool shrivel in the glare of an adult sun, leaving our heroes to bask in the light.

Glasgow is one of Stuart’s characters, too. Its places namechecked with that easy familiarity my parents use of Blackburn; another place I have an imaginary bond with. So Stuart sings of the river, the Easterhouse, the church on the hill, and school discos. Never having been there, in the Canadian snow I invented my own Glasgow. It was a city of dinge, of grease (I think that’s all the cafés in the songs). It is usually grey, and dark. I see the cast in bedsits, or children’s homes, or hospitals, or maybe just on city buses. So I decide it’s time we met.

* * *

“Wow, New York, just like I pictured it!” (That’s Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City”.) Glasgow isn’t. But there is something oddly New York about it. I think it’s because I leave Queen Street train station to the planned grid of American streets, to sirens wailing, and to traffic roaring over the brows of little hills I can’t see beyond. But after a few town centre blocks, I’ve been here before. Not here exactly, but places too like it. The station with its Smith’s and Costa’s, the pedestri-anised precinct of big shops and lousy water features. This could be the middle of Leeds, or Birmingham. Not much sign of the hipsters.

Of course, Stuart would want me to take the bus away from the centre. It’s what he and his characters are always doing. But buses are the most intimidating way of moving round somewhere new. They announce their destination, but rarely their route (maybe they’re as shy as their visitors). So for the stranger, they’re baffling. Of course, when it’s your own city, your own bus, all of this becomes second nature. You stop fret-ting about the route and listen to the people on board. That’s why I like people talking loudly on mobile phones. I like that they give me licence to listen. Of course, I have to fill in the gaps. But instead of making my judgements on clothes and faces, I get a string of clues to eavesdrop on. Meeting on Sauchiehall Street. Bored of the old men’s pub. Fish and chips.

Yeah, you take the bus to get to know people, without having to do the work yourself. Without the embarrassing list of small talk questions. You just join the dots. It strikes me that a lot of Stuart’s songs are dot-joining. I know he has a predilection for graffiti – it’s given him the name of a song, an album, and an early band. I guess graffiti is the line from the middle of a story you don’t get to hear. The writer writes the story instead.

So I don’t take the bus. I walk. I want to meet the place as much as the people. I start at Hillhead, and I’m heading for Novar Drive, where the band made their early records in the church hall, the church hall over which Stuart lived. The name fits with my fancy: It has the feel of sixties space-age optimism, like London’s Skylon, or the aching self-conscious-ness of all Britain’s Mandela Ways. On Novar Drive in 2006, I imagine tenements, kids at bus shelters, shuttered-up shops, ASBOs. The sixties dream soured.

On the way, I’m looking for The Grosvenor too, the café where many of the early songs unfolded. It looks promising. All I have is a road name which is difficult to find on a map. And turning the corner, I’m confronted with concrete and cobbles, and a litter-strewn street. It feels right, but the illu-sion doesn’t last long. Suddenly, the street is strung with fairy lights above my head, and I am theme pubbed to within an inch of my life. You can see it would once have been pretty, but now it’s just, well, twee. Just what Belle & Seb are always accused of. (They’re not. There’s too much bite, his cute lines too acute. But this is.) Maybe I need to see it at night. Maybe it needs a drunken fight against the whitewashed walls. I open the door.

The Grosvenor is not a café now, but an arthouse cinema.

Here I find the hipsters: university kids queuing to see the gay cowboys. It has a café, but not what I want. There’s too much chrome, it’s too expertly lit, the fruit is far too shiny. I’ve been here before, too – this time in Greenwich, in Cambridge, in Nottingham. I can only stay seconds. This just doesn’t seem like the place to write a song. It’s the place to write muzak. I keep my fingers crossed for Novar Drive.

There’s a Belle & Seb song called “Expectations”, and mine were wrong. It dawns on me that I’m in the poshest part of town. Did I know Glasgow had a posh bit? You don’t get to see it on the telly. Glasgow is murder, thick accents and gallows humour. But not here: Glasgow’s West End is wide streets, big houses, panini, cappuccino. There are no tenements. There are big bay windowed houses. They are grey, yes, but not depressing. This is hard-working Victorian grit. I peer in. Some of what I see matches my mind’s eye, right enough. Nasty beige carpets, and three bar electric fires which look danger-ously wired. But this is not the poor area I imagined. It is the closest us middle class types get to poverty – it is studenthood. Sure there’s the odd old person – just now I’m walking past a gentleman in a suit, mustard waistcoat, and peaked mustard pocket handkerchief – but he is outnumbered by the bereted girls of Belle & Seb gigs. It’s all they can do not to analyse poetry on the street. There’s the odd shop that feels right – a charity shop, and a card shop that looks like a charity shop, and an old ladies’ shop, selling tweedy two pieces and vinyl accessories which seem to match with slightly psychopathic efficiency. Oddly, the shop is called “Rage” (I can’t hear the old ladies saying it). But these three are paraded next to a wine shop – not an off licence, definitely a wine shop. And a coffee shop. With wi-fi. I sigh. I check my e-mail.

Of course, I should have known this, really. I mean, I knew he was at Glasgow University. Most of them were, and it’s just round the corner. So it makes sense that these are not the tales I imagined of lonely childhoods, or the wayward unem-ployed. They had time on their hands because they were students. He’s even said he likes to sing about University as “school”, like the San Franciscan it seems he would have loved to have been. I suppose I ignored it. When I listened, I took his ‘schools’ to be true to life, British, tales of woe in the secondary modern. I have been comprehensively misled.

I like it though. I’d like to live here, or have lived here, or been a student here. There are well kept terraces, views across the city, and home cooked carrot cake. Even the buses are brand new. Double deckers with digital displays that say they’re “transforming travel”. no one will be drinking cider from a carrier bag on the back seat of them (it’d be hard to write a song too, while the infomercials are looping along inside). And Novar Drive is nice. I see the church hall, but can’t get in. Next door, six “luxury flats” are on the rise.

I don’t feel cheated, just wrong. I can’t complain. In a way it should be reassuring. Stuart is from my milieu. Middle class former student, catholic record collection with a taste for the bohemian. Has it always been like this? Would he come back here and be surprised (like my mum and dad when the back streets they used to know lead to retail parks)? There’s gentrifi-cation everywhere. Where I live, too. I can’t complain. I’m to blame. I love my broadband, my organic fruit, my smoothies, my unknown parliamentary neighbours.

You can hear it in the records too: they’ve gentrified. Where once there were wayward harmonies, fluffed lyrics, too much echo from the church hall, or the sound of someone unzipping a cardy in the opening bars, now there are pop pro-ducers and shiny surfaces. It causes no end of grief from the fans. They blog their way through regretful nostalgia of times past. But they are not the students they once were either. They are buying Tesco Finest and working in ad agencies. They are going to the gigs but staying in their seats. “It’s very loud, isn’t it? I can hardly hear the recorder.”

To me, though, this is just so much packaging. Stuart is still there, his songs full of little moments of beauty and humour, squeezed into half sentences. There are no great story arcs; even when epic they’re no more than five minutes. Epics of the everyday. But there is always delight in the details: a sudden view of orthopaedic shoes, of “tartan garments”, of black washing turned grey at the launderette. Stuart’s writing gives me tiny smidgens of joy, the sort of joy you might get perfectly catching a jam jar which has chosen to jump from a cupboard, or when the things you’re buying in a shop come to exactly ten pounds, or when you see someone at a gig who you never knew liked the same music as you. My response to these divinely tiny joys is fantastically out of proportion to the things that cause them. That’s why Stuart can throw away a line about the wannabe actress who can’t act her way out of a paper bag, and leave me smiling for the rest of the day.

* * *

I get on the underground. It throws me, because it’s not the tube. Living in London it’s easy to forget that there’s anything else. Taking this bullety train is like visiting a foreign city. The seats are different, the ticket barriers different. I am abroad. I wonder if the people on the train know I’m writing notes about them? I’m looking for the characters in the songs. Not them them of course, but their types, the happy misfits, unafraid to be quietly different, to talk of Marx while walking into Matalan.

I think I see them. A kid reading photocopied sheets from “The Rules of Modernity”. He has grey corduroy flares on which are swallowing his shoes, the kind of round, smooth trainers that look like big balls of cheese. I only know they’re there because he has his legs crossed. If they were flat on the floor he’d look like an elephant, his legs unankled, straight down until they hit the deck. The man next to him is in a sort of suit, but his trousers have a flare, too. I can’t tell if this is fashion, or a silent hint of the non-conformity of Lisa, or String Bean Jean, or Judy (and her dream of horses). I give him the benefit of the doubt. I get off, and head for the bus.

I’m Grim Up North

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

You know when people say it’s grim up north? They’re right. My advice to anxious urbanites thinking of relocation is think carefully. What do you value? Where will you find it? My problem is the people – tattooed, moustachioed nosebiters choking the Saturday streets and drinking themselves rabid on two for the price of one bottles of Bud Ice. The men are even worse. I exaggerate of course but take it from me, anyone with a metropolitan frame of mind (and using a phrase like that strongly suggests I fall into that category) will soon come up against the limitations of small town northern life.

An explanation is in order. If it’s so awful then why am I here? It began with my own escape to London, although I’ve no real memory of this momentous event. Looking back it seemed the obvious thing to do, but looking back is an unreli-able exercise. Nevertheless, one Saturday in September 1988 I must have gone south to start a new life in, er, Walthamstow. Perhaps it was because the Big Move was so inevitable that it didn’t warrant thought. Perhaps it was because all my friends were in London already and that anyone with a shred of ambition was heading south. Either way, I wasn’t acting on my own. I was following a script, one that had a profound effect on me when I first read it. Billy Liar was its name and this is the story of how it changed my life.

Six or seven years earlier I’d bought a copy of Billy Liar from a second-hand bookshop in Nottingham’s Victoria Centre market. I took it home, lay on my bed and read. In those pages I didn’t find a story, I found myself. It wasn’t a book, it was a mirror. I kept wanting to shout “yes, that’s exactly how I feel”. It was a revelation, an epiphany, a Big Bang whose faint echo I can still hear today.

First, some background. Billy Liar was written by Keith Waterhouse and published in 1959. It’s set in the fictional – but all too real – Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton, located somewhere in West Yorkshire vaguely adjacent to the Dales. The action takes place over the course of a day (a Saturday in September please note). It begins with triumph in Billy’s dream world and ends with tragedy in the real world. It’s funny yet sad, light-hearted but serious. Anyone who’s ever experienced the dead hand of small town life – frustrated by the inward looking people around you, longing to escape but fearful of the consequences – will identify with Billy’s story.

It’s a beautifully written book. Rich imagery abounds. A character is described as having “grown old with quick experi-ence, like forced rhubarb”. A torn bench sprouts dirty foam lining “like brains”. Unable to give one of his hateful girl-friends a frank honest look, Billy settles for a “frank honest profile”. I think we’ve all been there.

For a main character Billy is sparsely drawn. We’re given little information about his appearance, although he clearly belongs to a world where young men went from short trousers to suits more or less overnight. We’re not told exactly how old he is, although references to time spent at technical college and his easy admittance to pubs would suggest Billy is eight-een or nineteen. Allusions to fashion and music locate the novel in the mid to late fifties, so quite how Billy avoided National Service isn’t clear. Instead Billy works for local undertakers Shadrack and Duxbury. Not surprisingly he dreams of escaping to London to write comedy, live in a Chelsea studio and dabble in bohemia.

So far, so entertaining, but it was the last chapter that really struck me. When Billy’s web of intrigue tears apart he makes a run for it, but at the last moment, train ticket to London in hand, he turns and heads home with rather more spring in his step than someone in that situation should feel entitled to. Was it the brave or the cowardly thing to do? Should we scorn or rejoice? Is Waterhouse saying we can never really escape, or simply wrapping up his tale up in the least predictable way he could find? I’m still not sure, but I remember being absolutely stunned when I first read it. I wanted to grab Billy by the collars and scream into his face “do it!”. That feeling never quite left me.

Naturally, I came to think of myself as a bit of a Billy, but with one important difference – the actual lying bit in Billy Liar isn’t really me. I’m a dreamer, but I’m not much of a liar. I lack guile. I am deficient in cunning. The moment an untruth has left my lips, those present can see through my pretence as though it were a particularly well-polished prism. Unlike Billy, whose practised deceit is the cause of some much trouble, I learned in childhood to tell the truth, not because it was morally right, but because I was so incredibly bad at the alter-native.

No, the reason Billy Liar hit home was my background. I was born and brought up in the north Notts badlands; despite this, Stradhoughton seemed frighteningly similar to the towns I knew – Mansfield, Sutton-in-Ashfield, Kirkby-in-Ashfield, then later Ilkeston, Heanor, Eastwood. Dear God, even now their names cause me to quake. As an awkward ado-lescent more interested in books than beer these towns were a fine place to receive a kicking. Wherever we lived (and we moved often) I felt no connection with the place – a resident but never quite at home.

That wasn’t the only reason I identified with Billy. His bor-derline obsessive-compulsive behaviour, his ham-fisted efforts at self-improvement – that was pure me. Billy aches for modern, metropolitan parents, the sort who swear, drink mar-tinis and above all read – ungrateful as it sounds, me too. I remember visiting a friend’s parents’ house after starting college and being struck by the fact they had books. We had no such suspicious things at home. Billy Liar touched me so deeply because it captured the sense of small town ennui so perfectly. The claustrophobia, the boredom, the grey Sunday afternoon gloom that never seemed to brighten. My particu-lar small towns weren’t in Yorkshire, although culturally they were pure north (ask DH Lawrence or Alan Silitoe). Attitude, not postcode, is what counts.

Determined not to repeat Billy’s mistake (if that’s the right word) I moved to the brilliant incandescence of London. What a relief. Here was a place where anything seemed possi-ble, where difference – not similarity – was celebrated. I’d achieved the anonymity that Liz, Billy’s best-of-three girl-friend, so craves. She wants to be invisible, without having to explain everything all the time. Like Liz (a rather flat character in many ways) I wanted no ties, no expectations, and that’s exactly what I got.

Best of all it was so easy. Billy tortures himself with doubt about his ability to survive in the capital – his bowels “filled with quick flushing terror” at the thought – but I don’t remember any such hesitation (although having a support network of friends obviously helped enormously). He goes to the brink, suitcase in hand, but can’t bring himself to jump. Perhaps his connection to the north is too strong, perhaps he thinks too much (OK, he definitely thinks too much), perhaps he’s just too young, but whatever the reason he bottles it and slinks away in those closing pages. For me that’s the whole point of the book. Billy chafes against the limitations of his world just as I chafed against mine. However (and this is the important bit), his failure to act inspired me not to make the same mistake. I learnt from Billy. He showed me the way, even if he didn’t take it himself. Would I have jumped on that train to London in the final pages? Reader, I did.

And so it was that for thirteen years I lived a London life. I worked, married, bought a flat, had a child. Unwilling and unable to shell out an extra quarter of a million for another bedroom we did what any sane reader must judge absurd: we moved to bloody Yorkshire. You’d have thought, given all I’ve written, that I would have learned my lesson and chosen a soft, shandy-drinking southern hotspot like Brighton, Bath or somewhere else beginning with B. But no. I went north. Despite everything I knew (or thought I knew) about the place, I went back. Just like Billy.

By now you might be thinking, “You’re no better than he was. Billy couldn’t break away and neither could you. You spent a few wild years down south – so what? You came back”. Guilty as charged, only it’s not that clear cut. Like Billy, my feelings for Yorkshire are complex. For every plus there’s a minus – self-reliance vs. smug self-satisfaction, a strong sense of identity vs. knowing your place. And above it all, class. Billy’s mother captures this perfectly when she says, “we’re just ordinary folk”. Speak for yourself, love. Billy’s Yorkshire – like mine – produces some excellent qualities in its people, but the oft-heard assertion that it somehow represents “the real world” is nonsense. It’s no more or less real than anywhere else. The north is a frame of mind not everyone can share – Billy doesn’t and I couldn’t (still can’t). Billy rails against the “lying reminiscences” of the older generation and quite right too. Their ramblings recall an England that never was, a col-lective hallucination. It’s the supreme irony of Billy Liar that in the end (almost) all the other characters are shown up as liars, while Billy catches at least a glimpse of the truth.

How does this explain my return? It doesn’t, except to say I came to believe my own lying reminiscences and convinced myself that where I’d come from wasn’t that bad. Like most people, I’ve an almost unlimited capacity for self-deception. I hoped the north had changed, I hoped I’d changed; but I was wrong on both counts. Half a decade later I’m getting used to the place, the same way a lifer gets used to prison, but is it home? Never. I’m as uncomfortable today as I was at sixteen, only now my options are more limited. None of which is Billy Liar’s fault. I loved this slight book as an angry young man stuck in the sticks wondering what to do with my life, and I still love it as a grumpy old man stuck in Yorkshire with dis-tinctly mixed feelings about the place. What Billy Liar really did all those years ago was give me courage. Billy gave me per-mission to believe I didn’t have be a younger version of my dad (not that Horberry Snr ever seemed too keen on that hap-pening). Billy’s failure to act became my go ahead to do so, a neat theory only slightly ruined by my return and subsequent ambivalence. I need to read it again.

How to Find Your Voice in Burnley

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

[Ext. Burnley Town Centre. Day]

A rusty white Cortina moves slowly out of town, steering through police horses and football fans heading to Turf Moor for the match. Inside the car, the DRIVER, a tired-looking middle-aged Asian man, and his passenger, an inebriated younger man – a STRANGER to the area – are thrown around by every new pothole as they enter increasingly untidy suburbs.


This Healey Wood.


I don’t want to go to Healey Wood. I’ve already been here.


Where you want to go?


I’ve told you … What’s your name?

DRIVER (Turning as he stops at junction)



Your mate just shouted “Uncle”. What’s your proper name?



STRANGER (Slumping back into seat)

I told you where I need to get, Uncle. Coal Clough.


Why you want to go Coal Clough? Bad area you know.


Yeah well everywhere I’ve been someone’s said “Bad area”.


Some bad areas in Burnley, innit.


Where do you live, Uncle?


Duke Bar. That’s bad area if you’re white. This bad area if you’re me. You get me?


But you’ll pick me up though? I don’t know where the fuck I am anymore.


No card, innit.


But …

(The STRANGERS attention snaps left as the car is overtaken by a child of no more than twelve, helmet-less, screaming down the road on an off-road motorbike.)


Why you want to go Coal Clough?


I told you. I’m looking for someone.

[Ext. Streets of Coal Clough. Day]

The STRANGER cuts a solitary figure shambling down and then up a painfully steep street, made tiny by the wild misty hills of the South Pennines ahead and the mill chimneys of the town to his rear. The camera cuts between his breathlessness (conspicuous on this bit-terly cold yet sunny afternoon), his wide glassy eyes (disconcerted at the amount of sky suddenly available ever since changing trains at Preston) and his uneven steps – echoing loudly through the cobbled gulleys between identical rows of back-to-back houses crowding the narrow roads. It might be a sandier-brick Coronation Street, if every fourth house weren’t boarded up and the streets weren’t deserted but for a few groups of scruffy kids kicking a football or playing on their bikes. They watch the stranger suspiciously. He’s looking lost now. A net curtain twitches. He stops to light a cigarette. Traffic noise pulls his attention to an adjoining road.

[Int. Pub. Day]

The camera roams around a busy neighbourhood pub that with its claret gold-patterned carpet and dark wood furniture, resembles the home of a working class family with middle class aspirations. A gas heater fires out its warmth as the racing on the TV fights with S Club 7 on the jukebox: “Reach For The Stars”. The music appears even more incongruous as the camera surveys the patrons: includ-ing an alarmingly thin, heavily tattooed MAN IN HIS FIFTIES, sitting next to a HUGE YOUNGER WOMAN with “Seek and Destroy” embla-zoned across her Pennine-like chest; a crowd of MIDDLEAGED MEN

at the bar watching the racing – all in jeans and jumpers – all loud, all white; a PAIR OF MEN in England rugby shirts with TWO WOMEN dressed for a grab-a-granny nightclub rather than an afternoon in the local; and the STRANGER, on whom the camera rests, standing alone at the bar with a cigarette in his mouth and an almost empty pint of Guinness in front him. A small, stocky MAN OF PENSIONABLE AGE arrives next to him and reaches over the bar. The barmaid, a short woman instantly recognisable as the LANDLADY, hands the man a clipboard.


All paid up, Jim?


Just checking now. Alan been in, Pam?


Why, has he won?

(It seems PAM has grown accustomed to receiving no response from


Another one, love?

(The STRANGER takes a moment to realise that PAM is talking to him.)


yeah. Thanks. And one for yourself.


I’m alright. Here for the football, are you?


No. I’m … looking for someone.

(He waits for PAM to ask who. She doesn’t.) Paul Abbott. Do you know him?

(PAM weighs the money in her hand, shaking her head.)


Do you know him, Jim? Paul Abbott.

(JIM shakes his head without looking up from the tote sheet.)


He used to live round here. He’s the bloke who writes “Shameless”.


Our Richard watches that. I’ve not seen it. Do you watch that Gary, that “Shameless”?

(GARY, who up until now has been standing with his back to the STRANGER, barely turns his head.)


I have done. It’s set round here.




Well, it’s filmed in Manchester but –


It’s set round here.


yeah …

(GARY looks the STRANGER up and down before turning back to the racing.)

He grew up round here and he’s still got family in the area, I think.


What do you want him for?

JIM (Still without looking up)

Wossername knows the family. Barry’s Angie. Reckons it’s all true.



GARY (Turning sharply)

So it is set round here, in’t it.


yeah. (To Jim)

Has it changed much?




Round here. Have you lived here long?


(Reluctantly raising his head) Me? No. ‘Bout forty years.


Can I buy you a drink?






(At the other end of the bar, serving one of the glamorous woman) Do you watch that “Shameless”, Sue?

SUE screws her face like she’s gulped vinegar rather than gin as a rush of arctic air announces the entrance of a BIG BALD MAN with a thick moustache and immediate presence. He is greeted warmly by the entire pub as KEITH. KEITH stands just behind gary and the STRANGER, resting a tattooed hand on the bar. PAM pulls KEITH;S pint without being asked – a guest ale with a home-made label that the STRANGER can’t make out any more than the fading green letters on the huge hand.


Father in-law got mugged outside here last week.


Did he? Erm, shit. Is he alright?


Would you be alright if you were eighty-six and some cunt’s bust two of your ribs for seven quid?




Well then.

(As he massages his head the STRANGER glimpses KEITH, laughing through his nose and mumbling to GARY.)

Benefit town this is now. Fucking benefit town.

(The STRANGER and GARY have to shuffle along the bar as KEITH pushes his bulk between them; the STRANGER very aware of KEITH eyes on him.)


Two pound, Keith.

KEITH (Searching his pockets, eyes still on the STRANGER) Who you looking for, lad?


Well I’m not exactly … Paul Abbott?


Him off the telly? I know him.


Do you?


Calling me a liar?


No. I … I knew he grew up round here.


That’s how I know him, in’t it. How much, Pam?


I’ll get that. And another Guinness, please. And one for your-self erm, Pam.

(PAM smiles thinly and takes the money. Frank Sinatra gives way to Neil Diamond on the jukebox and at least half the pub starts singing along: “Love On The Rocks (Live Version)”. The TV channel has been switched in favour of Sky’s minute-by-minute football service.)

KEITH (Sipping his pint and winking at various customers as they catch his eye)

What d’you wanna know then? Cheers, by the way.


Cheers. Erm, just a bit more about the area.


Journalist are you?






No. Abbott –




Paul, yeah. He reckons research gets in the way of a good story.


Fuck you doing here then?


I’m interested.


In what?


In how you can come out of background like his, seventh of eight kids, mum and dad gone by the time you’re eleven, brought up by your sister, you try and kill yourself at fifteen so they section you, divorced by twenty one … And instead of ending up in prison or McDonald’s duty manager, you go on to write some of the best British TV of the last twenty years. “Cracker”, “Clocking Off”, “State of Play” –


Shall I tell you? Either you find a way to laugh at the shit or it buries you. Simple. Ask us a difficult one.


He reckons writing saved his life.


Aye well that sounds suspiciously like a load of bollocks to me but he’s a good lad is Paul, so I’ll take his word for it.

KEITH (enjoys the disinterested sniggers of GARY and JIM.) What’s he up to now?


Living in Manchester, I think. Writing a rock opera about the race riots.


You should talk to young Kev over there. He’s BNP. Stood outside the Duke of York night it went up.


That’s right in’t it, Kev. You’re BNP.


Fuck off!


He’s so tight is Kev, if he finds a plaster he cuts his self …

Where you from, lad?


Birmingham. Living in London. I’ll have to watch the time.


Never mind time you’ll have to watch your back round here now it’s getting dark. Fucking rucksack. You look like a tourist.


Get many tourists round here, do you?


That’s what I’m tellin’ you. No. We having another? It’s thirsty work is this research.


I’ll do it.

(PAM pulls another round. KEITH and the STRANGER lean further into the bar.)


Aye, it’s a good do is “Shameless”. But it’s not real. Or it’s real enough for your fucking Guardian readers, but it’s not really real. With me?


His thing … Paul’s … is that drama should reflect society, but not necessarily literally. There’s no reality in most TV, just fucking escapism. But there’s real drama in everyone’s life, every day.


Oh aye? Done much scaffoldin’, have you?


Makes you laugh out loud at mental illness and alcoholism and even paedophilia, then breaks your heart, sometimes in the same scene, till you can’t help but realise that no one’s life’s ordinary.


‘Cept for Jim’s of course. Your life’s ordinary as fuck, in’t it Jim?




But the thing I love most about him is the faith he puts in you to cope with it all, work out what’s “real” and what’s not and make sense of it. He believes in his audience. How many writers of anything can you say that about?


Plenty of tits an’ all, “Shameless”. Tasty that Karen, in’t she?

STRANGER (Grinning stupidly) yeah.


Hold up. (Shouts)

How those Clarets doin’, Smithy? Still nil-nil?


He’s like Frank off “Shameless”, old Smithy. You’ll never see him wi’out a pint and a fag on and he’s more kids than Dr Barnardo’s.


If desperation’s a crime, I’m a fucking lifer.


Most folk round here, they don’t want much. Bit of a drink, bit of a laugh and the odd million quid off European Lottery. Is that too much to ask?


Did you see that survey the other week, the one where they tried to find the funniest region in the UK? Lancashire came out second.


What come first?




Aye well it’s a laugh-a-fucking-minute down there, in’t it. Wouldn’t get a pint down there for the price you’re payin’ here, would you?




Right, so get ‘em in then while I have a piss. Might be cheap up here but you can’t expect me to do your homework for bloody free, can you.

(KEITH leers at a YOUNG CHINESE GIRL in passing as she enters the pub and begins trying to sell DVDs to drinkers out of a plastic Lidl bag. THE STRANGER checks the time on his phone, struggling to focus.)


Alright there, love?


Plot won’t sustain drama, Pam. But character will.


(Watching Sky) Same again?

Cut to:

[Int. Pub Toilet]

The STRANGER sways comically at the open urinal to the dulled yet nonetheless relentless tune of The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” playing in the bar. The camera jerks along with him as we

read the word-processed sign posted at eye level: “In the interests of the safety of our customers CCTV has now been installed through-out these premises. So smile”.

The STRANGER smiles.

Cut to:

[Int. Pub. Evening]

The camera swims around the room, the picture in and out of focus. The lights are on now, the jukebox is dominant and the clientele has changed. Yet KEITH and the STRANGER are exactly where we left them: at the bar, now totally reliant on its solidity for support, KEITHS hand resting on the STRANGERS back. As he talks, the camera switches between the STRANGERS wet mouth, his half-closed eyes, and KEITHS nodding head.


But Keith. Keith. Keith. TV drama’s not theatre or a film that wasn’t good enough to get made. It’s special. You let it into your life in a unique sort of …

(The STRANGER is distracted by the sparkling red lips of a WOMAN ABOUT FORTY across the bar. He smiles suggestively at her. Then finds KEITH shaking his head in deadpan warning – straightening the STRANGERS face in an instant.)

… way. Imagine you’re a scriptwriter. You know someone’s paid to go to the cinema or watch a DVD, so they’ve already invested in it. But TV. If you haven’t grabbed us by the throat in the first sixty seconds, the remote control’ll kill all your ideas, everything …




I mean, even books. Novels, like. If Dickens was alive, who’s to say he wouldn’t just go: “Fuck this, if society can’t be arsed with these big thick things I keep churning out, I’m off to

write for Eastenders”. You know?




Corrie then.


Fucking Dickens. Jesus … Are we having a whiskey me and you, or what?


And a cigar. Yeah.

(KEITH summons PAM and points at the STRANGER, who pulls his wallet yet again out of his jeans as if it’s an arrow stuck in his leg.)

Then I need to phone Uncle.


You’ve an uncle lives in Burnley?


Not my uncle. Just “Uncle’”. He’s a cabbie. But I’ve lost his card. No. He never had a card. Put his number in me phone.


He’ll not be a cabbie you fucking London tart. Where’d he pick you up?


I think I’ve missed me train.


Outside a pub were you? In town?

Your Time Starts Now:

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

QUESTION 3.b): “Rummidge is not Birmingham, though it owes something to popular prejudices about that city”,1 David Lodge. Discuss.

Seven years ago, almost to the day. It was the middle of the afternoon, and the sun was just poking its head out over the green campus quadrangle. Inside Avanti, the half-empty campus diner, two people were perched high on stools, picking at cups of murky orange soup. One, a bespectacled middle-aged man named Don, turned to the other, a shy and awe-inspired girl of nineteen, and asked:

“Have you ever read any David Lodge?”

And that was my first whiff of Rummidge. In Edgbaston, just a year into my university education, sitting with Don Hughes – who was and still is one of Random House Publishers’ friendliest sales reps. Rummidge, as Don went on to explain, is an intriguing comic world created by David Lodge. Rummidge University in particular, is the main back-drop for the trilogy of “campus novels”, Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work, written between1969 and 1989. In all these novels Rummidge is a version of Birmingham; a charac-ter in itself, born out of Lodge’s learned satire. There is Birmingham, which belongs on the geographical map of England – in the belly of Britain, just past the perplexing spaghetti junction and Cadbury World. And then there is Rummidge, which resides firmly on the literary map of Lodge’s comic imagination. But what do the two really have to do with each other?

Back in 1999, over lukewarm soup with Don, I had little idea of the significance I would later attach to Rummidge and its creator. Seven years ago, like most people in the last year of their teens, I didn’t really know where I was going; what I wanted to do with my life. But I knew I loved reading, writing, and well, Birmingham – although as Lodge knows better than anyone, the latter is a statement that many people find hard to digest. The reason I was sitting there with Don was that I was at the mercy of an experimental scheme called the “Student Brand Manager” programme. This was a strange breed of pseudo-internship which entailed more free books landing on my doorstep than I could ever hope to find readers for, followed by a relentless stream of postcards, cardboard pig cut outs, branded t-shirts, Noddy Holder masks and Captain Pugwash tattoos. Lamentably, many of these items lived their greatest years as house party decorations and dressing up materials, and not all of them found their way out of my filthy and almost certainly haunted cellar. But for those that did, the idea was that I, along with twelve other students around the country, would go forth and create a Marketing Buzz for Random House titles. Out of all this bedlam, for me, two things eventually grew: a career in writing ads for books, and a love for the novels of David Lodge.

That day in the diner was only my second “Meet Your RH Sales Rep” session, so there was plenty for me and Don to talk about. When he went on to suggest that I arrange a launch event for Home Truths – the new novella by this already renowned local author – I agreed enthusiastically. Then, after weeks of frantic planning, I met David Lodge in the over-crowded and over-heated Arts Faculty Senior Common Room, where he talked and read from Home Truths. The event took place in the same SCR from where he had recently retired after decades of academia, and also the same SCR where much of the action in the Rummidge trilogy took place. After that day, I read as many of his novels as I could.

I soon found that I could not enter a Rummidge novel without first being confronted by one of Lodge’s disclaimers: “Perhaps I should explain, for the benefit of readers who have not been here before, that Rummidge is an imaginary city, with imaginary universities and imaginary factories, inhab-ited by imaginary people, which occupies, for the purposes of fiction, the space where Birmingham is to be found on maps of the so-called real world”.2 As he also explains in a later criti-cal work, the two places differ in various ways: “Rummidge is more dourly provincial … The University of Rummidge … is a much smaller and much dimmer place”, and, “its undistin-guished English Department could not conceivably be confused with this large and flourishing school of English …

in which I have had the privilege of working for most of my professional life”.3 Similarly, Rummidge’s town centre has an extreme kind of grimness about it which in fairness, now seems exaggerated. Think of the kind of muddy brown cityscape you’re used to seeing on “The Office”. Imagine Brent-ville; the soul-destroying trading estate and its perpetu-ally grey environs, and you’re starting to get the picture.

Despite these differences, I can’t help finding that the campus descriptions have an undeniable likeness to my mem-ories of the real Birmingham. There is a passage in Small World which, although it is told from the voyeuristic perspective of the character Philip Swallow, still conjures up the essence of a balmy summer term at Birmingham. Philip gazes out of his office window, at the sun which “blazed down from a cloud-less sky on the library steps and the grass quadrangle”. He watches the girls in their summer dresses, “strewn all over the lawns”, while the boys lounged in clusters around them, “skimming frisbees … eyeing the girls”. He watches as the young students sun themselves and wrestle playfully, “in a thinly disguised mime of copulation …”. And he admires the way “the compulsion of spring had laid its irresistible spell upon these young bodies…”.4

Of course we did some work. But as everyone knows, there is a world of amusement to be had in between all the acade-mia; in those times when the “books and ring-binders lay neglected on the greensward”. University, as well as a time for expanding the mind and stuffing your head full of specialist knowledge, is also a time of discovery, of chasing the spark of new relationships, forming new friendships; of following dreams even as they are still forming. Philip was right; in those days it really was like a “spell” had been cast in the air.

Speaking in Jane Austen’s Emma, Mrs Elton pontificates, “One has no great hopes from Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in the sound”. Negative perceptions of Birmingham like this still abound today; and as Lodge admits in his author’s note, Rummidge owes something to these prej-udices. In the opening to Small World, he describes how the academic staff, having arrived in Rummidge for a conference, “glumly unpacked their suitcases” in their study-bedrooms. He describes how they surveyed the “stained and broken fur-niture”, the, “cracked and pitted walls”, and the many fade mark patterns which were the tell-tale signs of “posters hur-riedly removed by their youthful owners at the commencement of the Easter vacation”. Disappointedly, they tested the springs of the narrow single beds which, “sagged dejectedly in the middle, deprived of all resilience by the bat-tering of a decade’s horseplay and copulation …”5

The intention may be to caricature Birmingham through the dour grimness of Rummidge. However, what may seem to be a dilapidated Martineau Hall from the perspective of the characters, instead reads to me like a mirror image of the real Mason Hall of Residence on which it is based, and where I spent my first year in Birmingham. What this passage really projects is a sense of who passed through this room before the academics, before Lodge. Who plastered the walls with pin-ups and then had to hastily rip them down again? Who made the springs in the bed sag, and how? Between the lines, there is an almost nostalgic portrayal of the joyful shabbiness of student life. The wanton bliss we all took in the idea of “roughing it”, all the time knowing (or hoping) that it was only temporary. Student days are the only days when living in freezing, squalid conditions can have a sense of fun about them. The party continued even when in our second year, we upgraded from Mason to a tiny, mould-riddled house in the student vacuum that was affectionately dubbed Smelly Oak.

What begins with Lodge taking a gentle jibe at Birmingham being rough around the edges, ends up being a nod towards the more universal student experience, to which students from any major city would relate. As is the case with most large university towns, there is a striking disparity between Birmingham city centre and the more sheltered campus life, tucked safely away in suburban Edgbaston. But the two worlds are never more intertwined than they are in Lodge’s campus trilogy, which has at its heart exactly this polarity between academia and the so-called “real world”.

Recently I went back there to see how much had changed, and to go in search of Lodge’s own writings on the matter of Rummidge vs. Birmingham. Six years on, sitting once again in the musty but homely third floor of the university library, I put down my chewed Bic Biro and browsed the shelves of the English Literature section. I scanned the non-fiction shelves for Lodge’s many works of literary criticism, then leafed through the dozens of best-selling novels by the same hand. After a while I began to realise I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for on any of these shelves. Nice though it was to be back, I wasn’t that awe-inspired, bookish student anymore – I realised I wasn’t going to find the answer to this question on a page.

“You could never call it elegant or beautiful. It never will be”, Lodge said, after agreeing to meet me again. “It simply doesn’t have the cultural riches and architectural interest of London, and for a second city it has always seemed a little impoverished”. Despite being born and bred in South London, Lodge has now lived in Birmingham longer than any other city. And although he’ll never feel quite like a native, he told me he certainly has no wish to move, and now thinks of himself as a kind of “adopted Brummie”, having written about it so often in a “fictional disguise”. As any Brummie knows, (whether you’re a native or just a dishevelled student passing through) there are many secret charms to Britain’s second city. And, even as most balti-swigging students even-tually evolve into more refined human beings, so “Brum” has also improved itself drastically in the thirty years since Rummidge was conceived.

As Lodge observes, there is always much to do there; “more than most people have time for”, and you can easily afford a more civilised quality of life than you’d manage in London. The last ten years in particular have seen huge improvements to the city centre – Lodge highlights the Centenary Square development as the most significant, in creating a central public attraction for the city’s people to visit.

Lodge once noted that Mrs Elton is notorious for being one of Austen’s most obnoxious characters, so much so that we ought to take anything she says with a sprinkling of salt. But there’s other ways to see that she is wrong. Go and wander along the meandering canals in the city centre. Stroll into Brindley Place, with its water-side culture of cafés, theatres and art galleries. Drop in to the new Mail Box and Bull Ring shopping centres. Or take any bus down the Bristol Road and go to the green campus quadrangle. Stand under “Old Joe” – the University clock tower – on a sunny day, and listen to him chime.

Legend has it that some undergraduates applied to study at Birmingham as a result of having watched the television adaptation of Nice Work. Maybe they were furnishing a hope that they might be taught by a lecturer like Dr. Robyn Penrose, the inspirational heroine of the novel. Or perhaps they were pleasantly surprised by the scenery, as I was on my first visit; seeing what the characters Robyn and Vic in Nice Work see when they gaze out of Robyn’s office window:

“The students in their summer finery were scattered like petals over the green lawns, reading, talking, necking, or listening to their discoursing teachers. The sun shone upon the façade of the library, whose glazed revolving doors flashed intermittently like the beams of a light-house as it fanned readers in and out, and shone upon the buildings of diverse shapes and sizes … It shone on the botanical gardens, and on the sports centre and the playing fields and the running track … It shone on the Great Hall where the university orchestra and choir were due to perform … and on the Student Union with its Council Chamber and newspaper offices, and on the art gallery … It seemed to Robyn more than ever that the University was the ideal type of a human commu-nity, where work and play, culture and nature, were in perfect harmony.”6

Written over thirteen years earlier about fictional Rummidge, this affectionate eulogy seemed even more poignant when Professor Lodge chose to read it out on our graduation day in 2001. As it happened, he was being crowned Doctor of Letters on the same day, having been involved with the University ever since his academic career began there in 1960. His words served then – as they do now – as a stirring snapshot in time. There we were in the real Great Hall – elegantly gowned, and praying inwardly that we wouldn’t trip up in our heels on the grand staircase when our time came. Sitting listening to Lodge’s fictional portrayal of that time and place, nostalgia binding us to his every word, suddenly the similarity between Rummidge and Birmingham was uncanny.

But times change. Lodge isn’t writing about Rummidge any more – he’s moved on, along with the rest of us. His latest academic novel Thinks … is set in the University of Gloucester. His hair is a little thinner than when I first met him. I’m not quite so scared of my own shadow as I was then. And the university itself feels different today from the one I knew five years ago. The computer revolution is the first big change to hit you when you’re back on campus – you can’t go ten yards without bumping into a Cyber Cluster of some sort. And, after three years of working for Lodge’s publishers, I’m now also heading somewhere pretty different.

But it’s nice to think that, somehow, Lodge’s Rummidge helped me to find some direction, helped me to decide what I wanted to do. Or was it Birmingham? Either way, my memo-ries of life at university, and the years beyond have all been enriched by Lodge’s writing. Rummidge, although an imagi-nary world, was rooted topographically in the reality in which my own three-year adventure was set. So much so that it must now be difficult for any Birmingham alumni not to mistake one for the other. As Lodge admits in an article written ten years after the last page of Nice Work, “The membrane between fact and fiction, between ‘Birmingham’ and ‘Rummidge’ has undoubtedly become thinner and more transparent with the passing of time”.7 For me, looking back, the membrane is barely there at all.


  1. David Lodge, Small World, author’s note (London: Secker & Warburg, 1984).
  2. David Lodge, Nice Work, author’s note (London: Secker & Warburg, 1984).
  3. David Lodge, “Fact and Fiction in the Novel”, in The Practice of Writing (London: Secker & Warburg, 1996), p 34.
  4. David Lodge, Small World (London: Secker & Warburg, 1984), p 158.
  5. David Lodge, Small World (London: Secker & Warburg, 1984), p 3.
  6. David Lodge, Nice Work (London: Secker & Warburg, 1984), p 249.
  7. David Lodge, “Fact and Fiction in the Novel”, in The Practice of Writing (London: Secker & Warburg, 1996), p 34.

Ecstatic Boredom

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

“Once you’ve acquired the habit of motorway driving, it’s damned hard to kick it. You may set out on com-pletely innocuous excursions, fully intending to take the scenic route, but yet again the slip-road will suck you in, a lobster-pot ingress to the virtual reality of motorway driving.”1

Slip road

In 1996, Will Self described his London home as being sited “at the navel of the world, the absolute beginning of the M40”.2 I was born at its absolute end. The M40 is my back-bone. My life’s journey has followed its route down the middle of England from Birmingham to Oxford, back to Birmingham and on to London. Raised in East Finchley, Self’s journey has centred on the London to Oxford stretch. Perhaps it is apt we should meet in the middle. When re-

reading Self’s short story collection, Grey Area, I discovered a connection that starts near Junction 8A (Thame, Aylesbury, Oxford), and encompasses a house, a car crash, a friend and a shoe.


At a loose end on a summer’s day, with nowhere to live in my final year at Oxford and a desire to avoid the exam fever that would grip keener students, I spotted an ad for a room to rent in the countryside. That day in the champagne heat, the ad had a Bridesheady lure: share a gatehouse on a country estate with two trainee furniture makers and a teacher. Fancying a road trip, I unparked my ageing Toyota Corolla from the Iffley Road and set off down the dual carriageway towards the M40 and Thame.

The Red House, as it was called, lay off a fast, snaking A road. Perfectly symmetrical, it was visible to the right of a flat, grassy track. Made of red brick with a red brick chimney and red tiled roof, it had huge Georgian windows which, on the ground floor, were partly swallowed by uncut grass. Apple trees hung about the building in an attempt at a wild orchard, and beyond spread fields. The roof sat inside the walls, as if planted on a smaller house which had since grown fat. It was love at first sight. I moved in and painted my room with the help of one of my house mates, David.

A month after the start of term (5 November, to be precise), I was indicating to turn right into the Red House driveway while waiting for a break in the traffic. A not unpleasant out-of-body spinning sensation followed. Tapes and burger boxes smashed against the dashboard; my forehead bounced against the steering wheel. When I came to, I was bemused at being parked neatly on a grass verge facing the opposite direction. It turned out that another car had careered into the back of me. A house mate tried to take me to A&E, but on bonfire night the queue went round the block and we gave up. Having been shrunk to half its original size, the car had to be scrapped. It had been a lifeline with Oxford, with tutorials and friends. Stranded miles from town, I wandered round confused, sporting a purple bruise.

In Self’s story, Chest, pollution in the form of a sulphurous fog chokes the characters. The protagonist, Simon-Arthur, drives along the A418 towards the village of Tiddington and “up the track to the Brown House”.3 Of course! I realised. The Brown House is the Red House; I’d been told a couple of years ago by David, that Self too had lived there. Self has taken the house and its environs and poisoned it – turned its red to brown, let its green fecundity rot:

“The house stood about twenty yards back from the track, in an orchard of diseased apple trees; their branches were wreathed in some type of fungus that resembled Spanish moss. The impression the Brown House gave was of being absolutely four-square, like a child’s drawing of a house. It had four twelve-paned windows on each side. As its name suggested, it was built from brown brick; atop the sloping brown-tiled roof was a brown brick chimney.”4

Simon-Arthur later observes a pheasant shoot around the house which, apart from the fog and “sick trees”,5 is exactly as I remember this intrusive winter activity. The shooters would stomp into our garden, point their guns and miss birds stand-ing a couple of feet away. In Chest, they fire so close to the house that the shot hits the windows with a “sharp spatter”.6


The purpose of motorway driving is to cut down the time it takes to get from A to B. Maybe it’s hailing from suburbia, where a car symbolises the possibility of elsewhere, or being born near Spaghetti Junction (and loving those loopy lengths of 1960s fairground architecture), but long before reading Will Self, I used to drive up and down A-roads and motorways for the sheer pleasure of it.

The completion of the Oxford to Birmingham stretch of the M40 coincided with my time at university. When it first opened, I had the road to myself. For a brief moment, British motorway driving took on something of the glamour of the freeway. Flat Warwickshire fields stretched out like prairies. You could weave from lane to lane as though splashing about in an empty swimming pool. I think this was what first sucked me in.

At university I was always the chauffeur. Spurred by reading Kerouac, we did extensive drives without necessarily having a destination in mind. On one occasion, two friends clambered into the back seat at pub closing time and woke up to find themselves on a mountain road in Snowdonia at sunrise. Going north on the M40 then west on the M54, I drove through the night on a couple of Pro-plus. My co-pilot swigged most of a bottle of tequila.

Later, living back home during the early 1990s, the reces-sion contributed to my addiction. Whenever I was frustrated or bored, I’d head for the motorway and drive sometimes for hundreds of miles until I’d got my fix. Driving in a straight line seemed to re-align me internally. I loved the fact that everyone else was in a hurry to get somewhere while I obtained my pleasure by purposefully going nowhere. Since we were locked away from each other in our metal boxes, no one could know my inferior intent.

Self’s own motorway interest was shunted into fifth gear one day when he was pootling along in the middle lane and realised that the other vehicles around him were static in rela-tion to one another. “At that moment,” he says, “you cannot be certain whether you are hurtling forward, or if, on the con-trary, the great grass and concrete trough of the motorway is being reeled back behind you … it was a profound epiphany. I was inside a synecdoche of society itself – a perfect figure of modern alienation”.7

After that, like the protagonist of his short story, Scale, who is writing a motorway saga, From Birmingham to London and Back Again Delivering Office Equipment, with Nary a Service Centre to Break the Monotony?,8 Self was hooked: “I got a job that provided me with an utterly inconspicuous dark blue Ford Sierra and a remit that allowed for plenty of motorway driving”, he says.9 He became a service station connoisseur, a seeker after complex gyratory systems,10 a highbrow motor-way geek.


For years Self was ashamed of this obsession “because Britain seemed so notably deficient in motorway culture”.11 Where the US has Route 66, Cadillacs and the road movie, we have short roads to divide a small country, snarl-ups and ugly service stations. It’s not surprising that our drizzly highways have rarely made it into print.

My introduction to Self was a Penguin 60 of his short story, Scale. The cover shows a dragon digging its claws into the roofs of houses that feature in the story as the model village of Beaconsfield. Pink, hallucinatory clouds float in the sky. Scale put motorway driving on the map in a new way. I’d always enjoyed my covert road adventures but had allowed the motorway to flow past, not appreciating its component parts.

Self pays homage by dissecting motorway architecture and furniture (road fixtures and fittings) and using a specialised vocabulary. Features that had been anonymous or shadowy were now described with precision: instead of the triangular box with stripy white lines, a no-go zone which had registered subliminally, Self has “the curved wedge, adumbrated with …

oblique white lines, that forms an interzone, an un-place, between the slip road, as it pares away, and the inside carriage-way of the motorway”.12

In Scale, motorways filter into all aspects of the life and work of the writer-junky who narrates the story. He writes motorway novels, poetry and theses. He heads up the M40 to High Wycombe to buy kaolin and morphine supplies. Knowing the make-up of the motorway as intimately as his own body, he compares the history of his drug abuse to that of the British thoroughfare. Injecting morphine laced with kaolin chalk residue, he turns his veins “the tannish colour of drovers’ paths”.13 Later, his body has become so scored by cal-cified deposits (underpasses and flyovers), that he sees a “route-planning image” when he stands naked in front of the mirror.14 He has to be careful not miss an artery and “cause tailbacks right the way round the M25”.15


Self  loves  motorway  driving  not  because  it  is  exciting  but because it is “ecstatically boring”.16 A long drive helps him to think. “It’s very close to philosophising”, he has said, arguing that thinking is taboo in England.17 Driving for its own sake, he is free to enjoy all aspects of the journey, including traffic jams: “I love the frustration on the faces of people”, he says.18 Like Self, I have always found the boredom of motorway driving exhilarating. My own epiphany came when I discov-ered  that  an  extended  drive  led  not  only  to  feelings  of freedom and abandonment, but that the movement allowed day dreams to knit into ideas. To enter this dream or hypna-gogic  state,  you  must  be  alone.  Transcending  tiredness  you keep  going  until,  finally,  it’s  just  you,  the  road  and  the machine travelling at what feels like no speed – 20mph and 80mph at the same time. Your hands feel welded to the wheel. A  car  is  a  moving  think-tank  for  one:  unless  you  get  so carried away that you career into the crash barrier, or have a narcoleptic fit, you’re unlikely to be reprimanded for thinking inside this box. Driving is free time, freewheeling up-down-time  for  the  mind.  It’s  an  amazing  feature  of  motorway driving that you can be absorbed in two distinct tasks at once: driving blind in the fast lane while being splashed with lorry

spray; and fantasising, plotting, jotting poems in the air.

I became particularly hooked on night driving. It’s more dangerous and intoxicatingly beautiful in a lonely, drifting way. You enter an insomnious state, cutting through the night and road, charged with power while others sleep. It’s poetry in motion, a journey to the end of the night. The intensity is magnified because there are so few drivers around. You alone have a romance with the road.

I once drove from Oxford to Birmingham at 4am, having not slept for two nights. The rhythm of the road conjured up a symphony which I could hear distinctly. Self poeticises this driving dream state in Scale. The protagonist writes “motor-way verse” which arises from the way in which drivers subconsciously apprehend motorway furniture – signs, mark-ings – and the physical sensations of travelling along different road surfaces:

“F’tum. F’tum. F’tum.

Kerchunk, kerchunk (Wat-ling-ton) …”19

It’s a brilliant conceit. The modernist American poet, Hart Crane, set out to create poetry which – by incorporating tech-nological advances – would be a synthesis of modern America. This resulted in his epic poem in praise of Brooklyn Bridge, The Bridge (1930). Motorways, “these great works of twenti-eth-century monumentalism”,20 are Self’s equivalent of the nineteenth-century suspension bridge, and as such, should be celebrated artistically. His jokey, clunky motorway verse satirises our cultural refusal to take the motorway seriously.


Self believes that motorways, not buildings, will be the grand testament to our age. They are “our pyramids … our great col-lective earthworks”.21 In both Scale and Chest, characters have mystical visions of motorways as future archaeological sites. In Chest, Simon-Arthur, whose health is failing, gets out in a lay-by feeling “lost in time, ahistoric”.22 Turning away from the road, he feels “enclosed in his lay-by burial ship. A Sutton Hoo of the psyche”.23

Scale pushes this idea further. The protagonist plans to be buried in “something in the manner of an ancient chamber tomb”24 by Junction 5 of the M40 (Stokenchurch) where it bisects the ridgeway, described as “that neolithic drovers’ path which was the motorway of Stone Age Britain”.25 When the M40 has become “a monument to a dead culture”,26 he hopes that by linking his tomb with Avebury and Silbury Hill, future societies may posit the idea of “a continuous motorway culture, lasting some 7,000 years”.27 According to Self, motor-ways do not cut an ugly swathe through our green and pleasant land; they connect us down the centuries to our pre-historic past.


Mixing safety and danger, proximity and distance, anonymity and identity, motorways appear to separate us from one another but in fact connect us up. When the traffic stalls, we ram up against people but remain thankful for a tin veneer of separation. Feeling immune from normal rules, we don’t expect to see these people again. We can be voyeuristic, extrapolating others’ lives from a “support British farming” sticker on the back window, a plastic skeleton dangling from the rear view mirror.

As drivers, many of us go round angry with purpose, snob-bishly hating everyone else, yet the odds are that we pass each other every few years. North and south, east and west, we go round the roundabout of a small island – and are all going to the same place in the end. The motorway is like the setting for a latter-day Odyssey in which we’re all mundane mini-heroes travelling from obstacle to obstacle in the same democratic mode of transport, going everywhere and nowhere, bored out of our route-mapped minds. The least we can do is enjoy the journey.


I wasn’t aware that Self had also lived in the Red/Brown House until shortly before David died in 2004. After our year there, David moved into one of the nearby cottages. He recalled that during some sort of party at the Red House, one of Will Self’s shoes shot through David’s kitchen window. I think he said it was an outsized brown brogue. Sadly, David took the shoe and the story to his grave.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to revisit the Red House to indulge my own lay-by (grass verge) nostalgia since, during the writing of this piece, someone drove into the back of my car and wrote it off.


  1. “Mad About Motorways”, in Junk Mail (Bloomsbury, 1995), p 129.
  3. Grey Area (Penguin Books, 1996), p 134.
  4. Ibid
  5. Grey Area, op. cit., p 154.
  6. Grey Area, op. cit., p 153.
  7. Junk Mail, op. cit., pp 130-31.
  8. Scale, Penguin Books, 1995, p 26.
  9. Junk Mail, op. cit., p 131.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid p 132.
  12. Scale, op. cit., p 3.
  13. Ibid p 6.
  14. Ibid p 7.
  15. Ibid.
  16. The Idler, issue 2, November 1993.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Scale, op. cit., p 25.
  20. Junk Mail, op. cit., p 130.
  21. Ibid p 133.
  22. Grey Area, op. cit., p 134.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Scale, op. cit., p 50.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid p 51.

The Essex Factor

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

“Once upon a time,

I don’t remember when.

Caught in the vacuum between now and then. Out on the road, phantom light lights to the East. The forgotten land where no roads lead.

This is the Land That Time Forgot.

This is the Land That Time Forgot.

Call it Nowhere.”

(Keith Godman, “The Land That Time Forgot”, 1985)

I read Giles Smith’s Lost in Music when I was twenty-one and quickly realised that my early adult life had been captured in words. Sort of. My joy was edged by irritation that Smith’s “failed” musical career in Colchester – with The Cleaners from Venus – had been far more successful than my own with Maniac Squat. Such frustration is enough to make you want to write a punk song called “Fuck Off”. Which I did, and then put it out on Maniac Squat’s own label Heroin Dread. (Sales: 453.)

Having played music for a bit, Smith took to writing about it instead. Lost in Music is a chronicle of growing up with music – the nerdish obsession, the hero worship, the irra-tionality. He describes falling in love with Marc Bolan as a youth, and maturing to the well-crafted pop of XTC and Scritti Politti. I met him for a cup of tea recently and he said that the book was, amongst other things, a claim on behalf of all the obscure, unheralded, but adored records in people’s collections. To be truly lost in music is to embrace the arcane.

Smith is probably correct in his implication1 that Colchester is some way below Memphis, Liverpool and Bromley, Kent, in the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll towns. Citing Pete Frame’s Rock Gazetteer of Great Britain2 as his authority, he represents Colchester’s contribution as Modern English (early eighties new wave/post punk), Nik Kershaw (weird eighties pop), Sade (soulful eighties balladess), and Blur (nineties Brit pop, with arty pretensions).

I’m not sure if this appraisal somewhat underplays north-east Essex’s musical heritage or whether I’m just more parochial than he is. Perhaps he can be forgiven for omitting to mention the wonderful Bum Gravy (military/industrial/complex), and their seminal single “Fat Digester”, not to forget the execrable yet popular death met-allers Cradle of Filth. Those bands’ golden years came in the nineties after he’d left town for better things in the Smoke. But he could have mentioned that the legendary Jack Bruce of Cream lives in Alphamstone, just a few miles into the sticks. That John Cooper Clarke retreated to Colchester in the late eighties to escape the “habitual attractions” of Manchester and London. Or that Camulodonum, as the Romans called it, has always had a thriving bands scene; it’s just that most have been completely unsuccessful.

One band that tried very hard to make it was Penny Arcade. Effete indie hopefuls of 1989, they turned down small record deals while they waited for the big one. Apparently, they can still be seen in Colchester’s pubs, staring vacantly, as if wondering where it all went wrong.

* * *

“Britain’s oldest recorded Town”, Colchester is in flat, agrar-ian, coastal East Anglia. The grain belt of England. My thesis is that Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire are culturally aligned with America’s Confederate states; united by a common sense of rural secessionism and unfettered inbreed-ing. The analogy holds good until you start to analyse it. True to the naffness and vacuous core of provincial English town-life, Colchester is the land that time forgot, with every sub-culture lasting years longer than it should. There are still bauhauses of Goths to this day. The desire to bring an edge to this otherwise drab world is what has driven many young men into the pierced bosom of rock. Young men like Giles Smith. And me.

In towns such as Colchester there are no degrees of separa-tion. Lost in Music conveys the feeling of living there so precisely because it takes time to explore the characters in the story and the connections between them. How important these details seem in the slow banality of a minor commuter-bation; how irrelevant they are once you’ve escaped.

Lost in Music gets beneath the clothes of Colchester, articu-lating more how it feels – or more precisely how it sounds – than what it looks like. The entire chapter dedicated to Nik Kershaw3 gives deeper insight into the place than a census. Giles Smith’s Colchester is defined more by who doesn’t live there than by who does: “Marc Bolan was by no means the only pop star I hadn’t seen in Colchester High Street. Others included Rod Stewart, Noddy Holder of Slade and that man with the sideburns out of Mungo Jerry … Colchester wasn’t a good town for that. It wasn’t the kind of place pop stars came to, or came from”.4

* * *

Waveney Wilcox, or Waff, is an unconventional father figure. The son of a strict property-developing father (my grandfa-ther), Waff balanced the conflicting demands of tree surgery, art, music and rampant alcoholism to assume legendary status across the north Essex/south Suffolk region. As you might imagine, this had a few disadvantages for me, notably an acute fear of his imminent death or imprisonment. On a brighter note, his exceptional but largely unfulfilled musi-cianship and song writing were the primary influence on my youthful attempts at rock stardom. When I formed Maniac Squat with old friend Scott (Arsepiece) in late ‘91 my dad was the obvious candidate to play bass, not least because he was the only person I knew who actually could.

The early Maniac Squat sessions, gigs and a demo were characterised by clumsy playing, abject song writing, brazen plagiarism and, worst of all, my shockingly discordant singing. A demo recorded in 1992 is so bad I can’t face ever hearing it again. Two of the four songs were “written” by Scott and me, and are poorly executed derivatives of Iggy Pop’s “Dum Dum Boys” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, unrespec-tively. The other two were written by Waff and had been first performed by his band Plasma in the late seventies. Auteurs we were not. As if in search of better musicians to play with, Dad moved to Germany after the demo and was replaced by Michael Giaquinto (Barnaby Wild) on bass, with Romford-born Chris Tate (who was too grown-up to adopt a pseudonym) coming in on drums.

Over in Smith’s parallel universe, Lost in Music narrates the achingly familiar production and distribution of an early demo tape.5 They never sound anything like a “proper record”, and the only people who buy them are very good friends, relatives and other people in bands. Smith was fortu-nate enough to hand a tape of his first real band, Orphans of Babylon, directly into the car boot of the great John Peel,6 with no more luck than if he had posted it, but better off by a fine anecdote. The piles of tapes to which Smith added his spoke more eloquently of the hopelessness of his musical aspira-tions than John Peel could ever have expressed in words.

Listening to The Cleaners from Venus today, it is hard to escape the conclusion that they could, and should, have achieved more. Unlike Maniac Squat they were good musicians, especially Nelson, the bassist. Lost in Music cites person-ality issues as the main reason they didn’t supplant Sting. I put it to Giles Smith that poor production and the lack of one, truly great pop song in their repertoire created a glass ceiling for The Cleaners. He agreed, contrasting the high quality of production by Andy Partridge of XTC on Newell’s first solo album “The Greatest Living Englishman”7 and The Cleaners producer-less offerings.8

When it comes to bands, everyone has an opinion. In two-bit Nowheresvilles the music journalist on the local paper can become a de facto John Peel. Coverage has its problems, however, as Lost in Music records: “The recognition, the pes-tering in the streets, the pressure of becoming a local ‘face’ overnight – none of these was a stake. But there was, instead, the chance of embarrassment, the grim likelihood of coming out of this venture ashen-faced with entirely the wrong result”.9 Smith then details the pain that results from the Essex County Standard augmenting its review of your band’s latest gig with details of your age, occupation and the part of town you live in.

Although Maniac Squat’s art was deficient, the live presen-tation of it was at least distinctive. I established the masochistic pre-gig ritual of guzzling a bottle of vodka. This process perpetuated the classic drug-genius myth to myself while absolving me of any personal responsibility for the fuck-awful music that came blaring out of the speakers. My band mates and I would play different songs at the same time, call the audience “cunts”, trample on their drinks, and be sick mid-set. I’d also thrust my arse in their faces and wave my cock at them. If you were one of the few people who saw this, please note that it was very cold at the time.

Our compound of DaDa, punk and nihilism had been explored comprehensively by other artists – many times – but we had something distinct. Only a few people got it, however, and the punch I received from a biker at Wivenhoe May Fair in 1993 is perhaps representative of our public reception. There again, I did throw a can of Special Brew in his direction. At least no audience could ever have hated us more than we hated ourselves.

You are probably getting a sense that the rock odyssey that was Maniac Squat is broadly distinguished by disappoint-ment, but there were conspicuous highlights. We went into the studio in the summer of ‘93 and reproduced another one of dad’s songs, “Total Annihilation”, well enough for it to be played on a battle of the bands competition on Radio 1. We came last, yet this was progress. We were very pleased with ourselves, sickeningly so.

Then, like The Cleaners, we were asked to tour Europe. Or a bit of it. Drummer Chris couldn’t come, so Damon (Did) – short, mad and straight out of Norwich prison where he’d been incarcerated for poll tax rioting – occupied the vacant stool. Did was a less metronomic drummer than Chris but he owned a van, which Giles Smith ranks justifiably as the most important qualification for being in a band.10 So we set off in a matt black Ford Transit on the Harwich-Ostend ferry full of bright-eyed expectation. We returned two months later full of drugs and Slavic bodily fluids.

Our first gig was in Pilsen – famed for producing beer, and in retrospect an imprudent place to start, possibly. We got a wild reception in a packed club. One teenage boy was jumping about at the front of the stage the whole night, head-banging, smiling and generally digging it. I spoke to him after the set whereupon I discovered he was deaf. I didn’t know whether to be walking on sunshine that our performance had communicated with him in such a special way or shot through the heart that you had to be deaf to like us that much.

Satisfaction at our Pilsen experience gave way to hubris as we rolled into Prague. The promoters at the Bunker Club greeted us warmly, took us out for a meal in an exquisite restaurant, then put us up in a flat near the venue. We thanked them by drinking two fridges full of beer and playing like complete wankers. Then we smashed up the flat.

If only we had been managed by Pete the Bastard, The Cleaners’ manager, whose lush antics pepper Lost in Music. He was, at least, triumphant in getting them a record contract. Perversely, our managers never drank that much but failed to progress our career one notch.

For me, the best-written element of Smith’s writing in Lost in Music is his portrayal of Martin Newell, The Cleaners from Venus front man and principal songwriter. Every interesting band needs at least one eccentric nutter. Although Smith’s representation of Newell is affectionate and amusing, charac-terising him as a latter day Syd Barrett is rather disingenuous. Newell’s refusal to undertake what could have been a career-defining follow up tour of Germany in 1988, he told me recently, had more to do with the economics of feeding his family than it being a danger to his “mental equilibrium”,11 as Smith suggests.

* * *

Scott and I simultaneously moved to London to go to univer-sity in late ‘94. We were still living the dream despite a couple of rough years in a musical hell that felt like a collaboration between Hieronymus Bosch and Jilted John. Combined student loans were utilised to cut a disk; the ultimate vanity purchase. We found a studio on an industrial estate in Maldon and “laid down” about ten tracks in two days. Something had changed. A few of them actually sounded good (ie not shit), so we hawked them round labels and distributors. Backs/RTM offered us a distribution deal and in early ‘95 “Fuck Off” backed with “Spit On Me” and “Hey Rude Boy” were released nationally to a glut of reviews including NME, Melody Maker and, best of all, “Single of the Week” in Kerrang! There were up to three gigs a week at this stage and for a few piss-golden months we were a passably competent rock band. I had never wanted more than that for my life. And I didn’t get it.

Maniac Squat’s “greatest hit” went like this:

“I always knew you was a little bugger

And now I caught you playing rugger Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off

Yeah I caught you this time

And that’s my only crime

Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off








Good innit?

Our second single, “Aaaarghh!”, was a case of flying too close to the sun with vinyl wings. We pressed too many, put on some poor tracks, chose the wrong A side and failed to promote it properly. At the same time it became increasingly difficult to get a deranged Did to come up to London to do gigs. Consequently, Maniac Squat died a lingering death over the course of 1996. Like Giles Smith, I am inclined to blame the “loony” in the band for its demise, but we had actually all had enough. The thrill had gone. Once you realise that you will never be anything like as good at making music as your teenage heroes, it’s harder and harder to keep doing it.

Giles Smith left music and has become a successful writer and award-winning journalist. He hasn’t been able to leave the piano alone completely, however, making a guest appear-ance on a Martin Newell solo album. My self-delusion is sufficient to keep me rocking; I’m in a dirty blues/rock band called The Chavs, writing and recording with the exquisite Gillian Glover, and brilliant musicians Woody Woodmansey on drums and Rod Melvin on piano. I hide the dark truth of my Maniac Squat years from them like a priest hides evidence of an affair with an altar boy. There’s no prospect of giving up the day job, but I’m happy to still be lost in music.


  1. Giles Smith, Lost in Music (Picador, 1995), pp 16-20.
  2. Pete Frame, Harp Beat Rock Gazetteer of Great Britain (Banyan Books, 1989).
  3. Giles Smith, Lost in Music (Picador, 1995), pp 120-32.
  4. Ibid pp 16-17.
  5. Ibid pp 110-11.
  6. Ibid pp 103-104.
  7. Ibid p 264.
  8. Ibid pp 196-205.
  9. Ibid p 105.
  10. Ibid p 34.
  11. Ibid p 234.
  12. Maniac Squat, “Fuck Off”, 7” vinyl single, cat. HRN001.1995. Lyrics by Tom Wilcox.