Better written than both Mr. Iyer goes to war and Gizelle’s bucket list. Though Gizelle’s is rated higher because it’s about a dog :D
The embourgeoisification of my part of North London has taken the paradoxical form of a superabundance of charity shops. My local high street—West End Lane—has six of them, separated by cafes and hairdressers and nail bars and estate agents. Were told that the coils and curlicues of our DNA are made up of meaningful sections of code separated by ‘junk’. On West End Lane, all the DNA is junk.
It (iron lung) terrified me, and yet there was something weirdly attractive about the idea. Isn’t the greatest of all freedoms the freedom from responsibility? How nice to be able to offload all decisions, even the decision of whether or not to breathe, to the experts, to the machines.
And there was something else, something sexy, something space-age, in the idea of a gadget breathing for you. The machine in you, and you in the machine.
I’ve invented a new pastime. I call it Hedgerow Russian Roulette. It involves randomly eating fruits and berries I find in bushes along the side streets of West Hampstead. My reasoning is that I’d be bloody unlucky to find any single berry deadly enough to kill me. It’s not, really, the sort of game I’d want to play with the kids, but it makes my solitary perambulations so much more entertaining. And the beauty of wondering that small purple berry will dissolve your liver is that it takes your mind off those deeper issues—deeper even than your liver. The imponderables. But now it suddenly strikes me as odd that we call them the imponderables, when these are precisely the things you spend you life pondering.
As a writer of books for young people, I am compelled at times to visit schools, whereupon I caper and cavort in an attempt to make the kids like me, and therefore buy my books. It’s shameless and depressing even when it foes well. But at least it forces me out into the world, reorienting and recalibrating my sensory and social apparatus.
Writers live solitary lives, and without that tethering we can become strange.
I tell a couple of stories when I visit schools. One is about the sly bullying and betrayal of a vulnerable kid by a version of me. The other is about the accidental slaying of a dog with a crossbow. I ask the audience to try to guess which is true, which made up. I ask them if it matters, does it make any difference to them as stories. In other words, is truth an aesthetic quality, something that makes art and stories better? Of course, all they care about is whether or not I killed the dog. I give them different answers depending on my mood. And now I can’t remember which is true. Though it’s strange how the young are much more moved by cruelty to animals than cruelty to people.
So far in my life every new phase has been slightly worse than the preceding one, and I’ve no reason to believe that the pattern is about to change.
After a week (which is to say three days) being fry, I’ve concluded that it’s much better to be slightly drunk than sober, but also a little better to be sober than totally arseholed. So it makes me wonder why evolution didn’t make us slightly drunk all the time. You’d get all the advantages—a heightened mood, increased conviviality, greater creativity, optimism, etc.—without the disadvantages of being either really drunk or stone cold sober.
Few things are as depressing as job applications. You feel the despair and desolation wash over you like Bangladeshi flood waters. And then you realise that the only people qualified to give you a reference are retired, dead or hate you.
So, you close down the document, gawp at the wall for a while, until you realise that all the other things you’re supposed to do are even more depressing. And then you hit send with relief but no hope, like a drunk urinating in a bus shelter.
Lots of people think that monomania means being obsessed with one thing (like Captain Ahab with the whale), whereas it actually means that you are mad in only one area of your life, and sane in everything else (like, er, Ahab and the whale). I suspect the most of us have monomaniacal tendencies.
Anyway, all this happened before Mrs McG got back from work. I silently apologised for the silent rage, which nobody knew about. And somehow that seemed fitting for the imaginary loss of the shoes, although I couldn’t tie it together to form a satisfactory paradox, or infinite regress.
Up to that moment—the precise mid-point of my life—you’d have described me as cool, or at least as not uncool. But from then on I was the kind of person who would bring one pair of shorts on a cycling trip, rip them completely in twain on the first day, borrow a gigantic pair from a massively obese American, flee the youth hostel in the middle of the night in order to avoid the intimate repayment of the debt expected by the American in return for the loan, get butted in the testicles by an enraged ram, lose his bike and almost his life over the edge of a cliff, and return home ragged, penniless, and so badly sunburnt that the skin on his ear peeled off in its entirety, retaining its ear-shape, a ghoulish souvenir he would take out to astonish people for many years, until it finally shrivelled away to the size of a small scab, which he fed to his dog.
Like most authors, I spend a lot of my leisure time going around bookshops turning the few copies of my works I find there so that they face outwards onto the indifferent world. It’s the nearest I get to a marketing campaign.
It was by the side of that field that I was dropped off on my first day by my dad. Back then parents didn’t spend years discussing where their children would go to school. My dad drove past Corpus every day on his way in to work at St James’s Hospital, so that’s where I was sent.
…I came across what appeared to be my own gravestone. It was a simple and rather beautiful piece of slate with, carved in deep, sharp letters,
“I had a lover’s quarrel with the world”
So he lost that one, but he didn’t stop running—not away, like some of us, but towards.
I suppose I should be more careful. But the fact I’m still alive suggests I’m being exactly the right amount of careful. And it’s not as if I exactly live life on the edge.
There’s a young woman sitting opposite me in the British Library, and whenever I stare vacantly ahead of me, which I spend quite a lot of time doing, as part of the cogitative process, she’s doing roughly the same sort of thing. So then our eyes meet embarrassingly for a moment. And then I let my eyes dip to avoid the naked stare, but it turns out she’s got a very low-cut top on, so I obviously have to avoid that, which means I have to look away at an angle, say to about ten o’clock, which is uncomfortable and annoying and not at all conducive to the Act of Creation, so then I’m forced to start typing again, but without the ideas being properly cooked.
Rubbish, really. And I’ve already eaten my lunch, so there’s nothing to look forward to. I have written a thousand words, thought.
And, reading through, most of them appear to be ‘breast’.
Still, though, it’s better than not being able to do it, and I strongly believe that you should suck what sap you can from the dry stick of life.
It’s because although for me failure is a kind of joke, a comedy prop, albeit a morbid one, like a skull or a shadow on the chest X-ray in the shape of a penis, for her it’s a threatening, even a monstrous presence. She’s treading water, and she sees, at the corner of her vision, a fin.
And when her friends, out of politeness, ask her what I’m up to, she has a mental image of me looking into the local charity shop windows, or mumbling curses as I walk the dog, or seeing visions of dwarves, and so she just has to lie.
‘Oh, he’s fine. All well. He’s got a new one out next year.’