Objects In The Rear View Mirror

I forgot to do this last year for a bunch of reasons I can’t completely remember, but I’m back on track for a round-up of my favourite things that have happened in the last 12 months. In no order, these are:

1. The kids. This year has been another cracker with my wee family. It hasn’t always been easy, but seeing Dora and Indy getting on with the world has been a treat. In particular, Indy learning to talk has given us such joy — almost every day now we get a new word, and with every word our communication grows, our interactions develop, our bonds become stronger. He’s funny, he’s happy. Dora is still mostly feral, but she’s finding her way, all the time, a few steps back and then a few more forward. She’s developed an addiction to Lego, she loves reading Ottoline and Harry Potter and the Worst Witch, she argues about pretty much everything, she laughs all the time. They’re good kids, and I love getting to know them.

2. Mon’s art. Mon’s finally, slowly, getting to paint again with some regularity. Like me, she doesn’t get nearly enough time to make her work — and it’s therefore brilliant that she’s finished off these astonishing paintings and started on some really exciting new work. After she lost so much time in Indy’s first year, it’s been a real thrill to see these pieces coming together, and I’m so so excited by the work she’s sketching out and backpainting. She’s a bloody genius, my wife, and I count myself beyond lucky to watch her art unfolding in the studio.

 

3. Kefalonia. I used to write long posts about my holidays, but don’t blog as often as I used to, and so haven’t. But we went to Greece for two weeks in the summer, and it was brilliant. We went swimming every day and collected pretty pebbles. There was a titanic storm that rumbled all morning while Indy stood at the window and thumped the glass every time the lightning struck, and the day broke into vast grey Miyazaki clouds that washed away into the bluest of sweet blue skies. Waves had painted the beach in perfect smooth sand. The insects were incredible — a praying mantis, big black bees with pearlescent wings, swallowtail butterflies, a great emerald beetle that zipped about my head and lit on my hand. It then bit me, which wasn’t quite as cool, but for a wee moment I felt like Dr Doolittle. I read loads, wrote loads, and threw Dora in the swimming pool about a thousand times. It was brilliant. This is the actual moment Indy fell out of the sky. We decided to keep him.

indy

 

4. Reading sea books. My original resolution was to read only sea books in all of 2017, and in this regard I’ve failed. I abandoned the task around August after finishing Moby-Dick, firstly because I stopped writing the sea book I’d been working on, secondly because very few of the sea books I tackled actually had much to say about the true nature of the sea, and finally because nothing else quite cut the mustard after the Melville. The stand-out was Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, which is an extraordinary book and everyone should read it. Overall, though, I mostly felt relief when I decided to let it go and read some books that were not about the sea.

5. Wainwrights. As a family, we’ve started the long, slow process of sending Wainwrights. We’ve now walked about 16 of the 214 fells that Alfred Wainwright ascribed in his famous guidebooks, so there are clearly still loads of them to go, but we’ve loved every one we’ve done so far. The uphills are hard, the downhills are hard, but the tops are completely worth it — especially the plateaus and ridges, and earning a sense of having climbed up out of the world below. At some point Indy’s going to get too heavy for the sling, and then we’ll have to slow the numbers a wee bit, but for now — up we go.

6. Film and video work. This has been a fairly steady year for my freelance video work, but most of all I’m soaringly proud of my work for Kendal Mountain Festival. Along with my friend Dom Bush, I edited the trailer for this year’s festival, as well as copyediting the voiceover poem. The film edit was difficult and time-consuming, and I’m really proud of what we made:

 

7. Getting veganised. Come June 2018 I’ll have been vegetarian for 10 years, a decade in which I’ve eaten wider and healthier, become a much better cook, and made better decisions in spending my money. Taking that to the next step hasn’t been easy, but over the last two years, Mon and I have moved steadily towards a vegan diet. We’re pretty much dairy-free and I go weeks at a time without eggs — and again, it’s improved my cooking and my eating and my thinking about where my food comes from. I’m not quite ready to go fully vegan, but I am moving steadily in that direction (especially since working out how to make my own seitan, which is just tremendous).

8. British Sea Power. I saw my favourite band three times this year. First was in London, where I took my students on a college trip — on the Tuesday we watched Under The Skin with a live soundtrack by the London Sinfonietta, and the students all despised it — beautiful, discombobulating enigma that it is. But on the Wednesday, we watched BSP perform a live soundtrack to a collection of Communist-era existential Polish animations, and they were majestic. Their music was sublime and transporting and wonderful in every way. The second gig was on the tour of their new record, Let The Dancers Inherit The Party. It’s another cracking record — of course it is — that slots in perfectly with the rest of their catalogue. Fave tracks are Electrical Kittens, What You’re Doing, St Jerome and Bad Bohemian, but the whole album’s brilliant. Third and finally, Mon and I zipped down to Manchester to see them headline the People’s Festival in the Albert Hall, which was epic — Dutch Uncles and Field Music playing too — a heart-thumping whirl through their finest moments. Their music is consistently superb and in constant reinvention. They’re the best band in Britain. I hope I see them three times in 2018.

BSP

9. Moy’s 90th. My grandmother Moy turned 90 this year. She’s amazing. She’s travelled all over the place. Once, in her 80s, she sent me a postcard from a youth hostel on a glacier in New Zealand. For her birthday she wanted all of her grandchildren together, and so we went — Kate, Anna, Ali, Emma, Kirsty, Tim and me, plus partners Kees, Ian, Adam, Ina and Mon, plus great-grandchildren Tom, Jack, Dora and Indy. We descended on Aberfeldy in the rain and spent all day drinking tea or wine, and it was brilliant. I don’t get to see anyone in my family as often as I’d like to, and it’s always a treat to catch up. Anyway, Moy’s a badass. Here’s the squad:

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Photo by the bodacious Adam Seward

10. Writing. A year of ups and downs for me and my writing. Then again, aren’t they all? In the last 12 months, I finished my third distinct draft of The Hollows, decided against rewriting it again, and moved on with surprisingly few regrets. No regrets, really. The more space I put between me and that third draft, the less I like it, and the more I want to get the story right. I’ve now sketched out the plot for the fourth draft, which already feels more cohesive and engaging, but that’s on a back-burner until I’ve finished something completely different. To that end, I’ve been working on another novel since June or so, tapping away with 100 Days Of Writing. It’s going okay, by which I mean that I’m enjoying it. I very seldom had fun while working on The Hollows #3, and on leaving it behind, I promised myself that I wouldn’t spend all these hundreds of hours wallowing in my own head unless it was making me happy. Novels aside, my short story output and publications have been very few and far between — only half-a-dozen pieces here and there, with barely as many written again. I’ve mostly finished a couple of short film scripts, another flash collection and a ‘novella-in-flash’, but there’s nothing wrapped up and ready to go. I only get one day a week to write, and that time needs to go on the new book. And that’s okay. I like the novels best of all.

So that’s that. Looking ahead to 2018, there are a few things I want to do. Most of all, I hope to finish the new novel and another flash collection. And if, by hook or crook, I somehow manage to get those finished, then I’ll start The Hollows #4. I’d like to go back to a Scottish island for a bit. I’d also like to direct a short drama film, which is something I’ve had in my mind for a while. It’s about 12 years since I directed people, and I’ve learned a lot about cinema since then — and about people. Finally, I want to read more, because books are the best of things.

2017 has been a strange one. For all of the terrific things I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life, Brexit is still the batshit stupidest thing in the world, and Trump is still a howling sphincter. Those twin sprawling catastrophes have haunted and defined my year, and they both push me into furious despair pretty much whenever I think about them. It hasn’t got easier. It’s worse. The longer they endure, the worse they become. Maybe 2018 is the year we can put them both to bed and step back into the light. Please, 2018. We’re ready.

Melville House

I’ve been keeping this schtumm for a wee while, but I am now absolutely thrilled to share the news that The Visitors has packed a suitcase to go travelling, and will be published in America this December by the good folks at Melville House Books. I’m delighted the U.S. edition is in the hands of such an exciting publisher. You know you’re in a good place when you see a thing like this:

Radio silence

My blogging has been exceptionally poor since returning from Thailand. And I’d apologise for such awful radio silence, were it not for the fact that I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do, which is to get my head down in The Hollows and write my ass off. Five months later, I have no ass left. It’s completely gone. That’s how much writing I’ve done. No ass.

Last night, I finished a very first, very rough draft of The Hollows. It comes in at just over 101,000 words. I started in February, and couldn’t work in May (because of this). If I add up my two days a week of writing time, and the myriad mornings of sentences and paragraphs, I estimate the draft has taken me a total of approximately 35 days. That’s a ludicrously short space of time, and I’m still not sure how it happened. The Visitors took me near enough six months, I think, while my first (and thankfully forever unpublished) novel demanded a year of full-time work. I don’t think I’m getting any faster, though the muscle memory will be there – this chair, this keyboard, this notebook, this pen – but perhaps I’m believing a little more in what I want to do, where I want to go.

After spending all of 2014 torturously writing the wrong book, I’ve reached the conclusion that the key to writing is writing the right damn book. And The Hollows is right – right for me. I know it to my fibres. Even though there are weeks or months of editing still to come before I’ll feel ready to share it with my wife, I’m pleased with it. My first instinct for this story revolved around memories and mud, and while it has taken a roundabout route to get here, morphing through a dozen incarnations, it has finally come around, finally delivered what I wanted. My heart broke when I realised I was writing someone else’s story. The subsequent weeks spent with a notebook and a pen were some of the most productive of my life, but none of it could have happened without setting off along the wrong path. Sometimes it takes the wrong path to find the right one. Right? Write.

So there it is. We write to the universe. Sometimes it writes back.

I have a full week of college work to come, then ten days camping on Tiree and Coll with my wife and daughter. I’m going to print my rough draft and take a bag of pens, and read through the manuscript while the sea hushes in the simmer dim. Then comes the edit. See you on the other side.

Edinburgh International Book Festival

I haven’t really had a chance to share this yet, but I’m thrilled to report that I’ll be at Edinburgh International Book Festival this year, appearing alongside the intimidatingly talented Chigozie Obioma to discuss his debut novel, The Fishermen, and mine, The Visitors. This is really exciting, and very humbling. I’m delighted to be contributing to such an amazing event.

I have also just discovered that all debut novelists are entered into the First Book Award. I’m up against some outstanding competition, so if you’ve read and enjoyed The Visitors, I’d be hugely grateful for your vote: mosey over here for the full longlist.

Crumbs chief!

Take Me Back To Manchester

I’m currently wrapping up another film project before I get back to my writing. A couple of months ago, my friend Dom Bush and I were commissioned to make a film called Take Me Back To Manchester, based on the extraordinary true story of a lion tamer called Lorenzo Lawrence, an elephant called Maharajah, a cartoonist called Oliver East and a 200-mile walk across the country.

It was an incredibly tight turnaround – we had less than six weeks from commission to completion, and only three weeks from the shoot to the deadline. Dom shot the film, using drones and steadicam, and I cut it. I used the parallax effect for the first time to bring some of our amazing archive images to life. Technically we co-directed the film, but the story was so rich, the contributors so engaging, and the archive material so fascinating, that it pretty much directed itself.

Take Me Back To Manchester has now been shown at Toronto Comic Art Festival, and a shorter version will be screened on a loop in Manchester Museum.

Roll up, ladies and gentlemen, roll up…

*

This is my last film project for a while. I’ve really enjoyed working on this piece and To The End We Will Go, but I’m more than ready to get back to the Hollows. I’ve been maintaining my erratic early morning writing sessions, even if that means grabbing five minutes before Dora explodes downstairs demanding her breakfast. Those snatched sentences and stolen paragraphs might only give the book twenty words, fifty words, a hundred words a time, which feels painfully meagre in isolation, but they add up over weeks and months. I’m up to about 66,000 words, for all the difference it makes, and happy with where it’s going. I think again of how little I achieved last year, and feel a grim urge to push on and make up for so much wasted time.

To The End We Will Go

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.37.46*

After almost two years of work, I have finished making a film about hay meadows. This has been a huge project for me, both professionally and personally, and it has changed the way I think about the world.

When I come to the end of a project, I usually have a stronger understanding of the subject than when I began. In this case, while my knowledge has increased hugely, I’m left with far more questions than answers. In 2013, I was commissioned by Cumbria Wildlife Trust to make a ‘democratic’ film about meadows, tasked with balancing opposing points of view to create a space for discussion and reflection. Within that brief, I started the project with a sense that hay meadows were something like a set of scales, and if only the interested parties could work together better, then an equilibrium could be achieved between food production on one side, and sustainability on the other. I no longer think that’s possible; and I now think of meadows more like a jigsaw, being made by many people all at once, only everyone has a different picture on the box. Every time you place one piece down, another changes. They are mosaics of demand, shifting with the seasons. All the fundamental issues facing agriculture in Britain can be measured in hay meadows: growth, demand, food, want, waste, profit, biodiversity, sustainability, heritage, science, tradition.

Over the course of the shoot, I talked with school kids, beekeepers, walkers, landowners, farmers, conservationists and a 97-year-old farm labourer who worked in meadows between the World Wars. I left a camera in a barn outside Kirkby Stephen to record a five-month time lapse of a meadow in growth. I learned more about slow motion video, and about macro photography. After ten months of searching, I tracked down an astonishing piece of archive film footage from the 1930s. Halfway through it, there’s a shot of an old tramp simply standing in a lane, staring at the camera. It’s haunted me ever since:

old man*

All this was happening in the build-up to the Scottish referendum. Through the process of making this film, the two became inextricably linked around my realisation that if we are to survive – as a species – then it’s by being smaller. We need to reduce. To be less. Less ambitious, less hungry, less wasteful, less oblivious. We will survive in communities and cooperatives, not corporations. This was one of the many reasons I supported a Yes vote in Scotland. For me, the referendum went a long, long way beyond some petty nationalism. It would have swung a sword through the Gordian Knot of a corrupt, venal Britain. I cried my eyes out on the morning it was No. Being small and being nationalistic are not the same thing. We’ll be better as bees in hives, sharing the meadows. (This analogy does not, for me, extend as far as having Queens.)

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 22.45.32*

Anyway.

I found out this morning that To The End We Will Go has been selected for the CMAC Rural Film Festival. This will be my first ever festival screening, and I’m really pleased. It’s quietly astonishing to think about people on the other side of the world watching my wee film and spending a few moments in Cumbria. The last shot is a drift of swifts exploding past my window against a purple dusk. I love the thought that an audience in Minnesota will look out of the same window and see African swifts in a Cumbrian sky.

Thailand two

Bangkok is smoke, Samui is steam. Flying into the airport was like flying into Jurassic Park. Even as we arrived, a cloudburst yammered on the tarmac, and the airport sprouted with gigantic, alien plants I’d never seen before, spines folded back on themselves like Escher prints. Samui has mountains in its interior, all pasted in dense jungle, crisscrossed with broken roads and coconut plantations. The coast is a ring road of shacks, tourist bars and holiday resorts. We stayed on the north-eastern tip of the island in an apartment overlooking the sea. On our first day, we saw Brahminy kites cruising above directly above us, hanging on the breezes, terrifying the coast. Tiny tailor birds perched on palm fronds beside the balcony, and myna birds hung upside-down from the rafters while we drank our beers and watched the sea.

I’m not very good at relaxing. Even the things I do for fun – writing, climbing, drinking with my friend Banks – are bruising, high-impact activities. So it was strange to have so much enforced time away from home, away from work, away from my computer. I even felt a little edgy during the first few days, but soon drifted into a gentle routine of swimming, reading, telling stories, and writing. The writing in particular was vital time for me. I sat with my pen and notebook and spent a few hours every day battering out what The Hollows is about.

Each night, we went to eat in local restaurants or hooked up with with friends. We’d gone to Samui in particular because our pals Helen and Michael were getting married on the beach. We spent a few days either side of the celebration with their excellent Australian mates – really good people. On the way back from their wonderful wedding, we were driven by the craziest taxi driver I’ve ever met. He laughed without pause for the entire twenty minute ride. He had a photo of his son on the dashboard.

‘What’s your boy called?’ I said.

‘His name is Mr. iPhone,’ said the driver, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. ‘England is cold, cold, cold, cold, cold, cold, cold!’

Ang Thong marine park is an extraordinary place. After a stomach-churning ninety minute boat ride to the first of the two islands we were allowed to visit, we climbed lethally steep stairs to a viewpoint, overlooking a hidden lagoon on one side and the marine park archipelago on the other. With a little help, Dora counted off every one of the hundred and fifty steps, chanting all the way. Having climbed down to the lagoon, we told her about pirates and mermaids and the giant fish that eats little girls who don’t listen to their mummies and daddies about not swimming in the water because that’s what the sign says, poppet.

On the second island we visited, we stood no more than two metres away from wild monkeys. They sat at head height in scrubby trees above the flat white sand, eating figs. They weren’t even slightly interested in us. We watched them for a long time before they disappeared into the jungle. In the trees behind them, set back from the beach, was a shrine. Dolphin skulls, monkey skulls. Shrines everywhere.

The sea had blown up by the time we had to leave. We’d taken seasickness tablets, and Dora promptly passed out on me, but there were people screaming as this horrible damned tub of a boat skidded and crashed and shuddered in the waves. There were three Irish women on the boat – a mother and two daughters, I think – and they started singing in Gaelic, sweet and soft as nursery rhymes. I don’t know if it helped the shrieking Finnish lady, but it helped me. I believed them to be songs of sailors’ wives, praying for the safe return of their men from stormy seas. They might have been pop songs, I guess, but hopefully I’ll never know.

On our third-to-last day, we had the truly bittersweet experience of taking a Samui tour. Every island tour offers elephant and monkey shows. You can’t do it without. So we went, agreeing that we simply weren’t going to take part in the animal shows.

The first part of the trip was a visit to some extraordinary floating temples. We’d driven past them in tuk-tuks a dozen times without knowing they were even there, these gigantic statues of Buddha. That was special. I have no religious faith, but I respect and enjoy the measured spectacle of religious achievement – of cathedrals, of temples, of such conviction. Wandering amongst the statues in the fire of early morning – the first of the day’s tourists, joined only by the temple dogs – was awe-inspiring in the true sense of the word.

The elephant show was next on the itinerary. We were swept along with the crowd, and ended up watching it. There were two elephants. They were brought from different parts of the compound. As soon as they met, they touched trunks, then their handlers finagled them into jigs, into standing on their hind legs, their fore legs. One kicked footballs. One of them was bleeding from the skull. A string of cheery, gormless volunteers came down from the crowd, and the elephants placed a foot on their backs. One elephant pretended to give a honeymoon massage, rubbing a man’s penis with her trunk. We felt humiliated for her. What was worse was realising that at least the show was something to do. Immediately afterwards, the elephants were chained up again – far apart – and each began a heartbreaking, relentless, moronic swaying. One elephant waved her head for a minute or so, then lifted her trunk, as though she’d heard something – and resumed her swaying. I watched her repeat this for twenty minutes. The other did an imbecile dance, lifting her left foreleg, waggling it in the air, replacing it, lifting it, replacing it, lifting it. It was depressing beyond measure.

We explained to Dora that the elephants were unhappy. She was at first puzzled, then very upset. When we came to the monkey show, the first thing anyone heard was Dora, asking why the sad monkey had a chain around his neck.

‘Jesus Christ,’ said the Australian lady beside us, ‘if a three-year-old can see it, what’s wrong with the rest of them?’

There’s nothing to say to that.

After these miseries, we powered up and down gut-squeezing mountain roads in ferocious 4x4s. A Latvian girl we’d collected from a yoga retreat (‘I no eat, I no eat, I on detox, of course!’) had a shrieking meltdown when we went off-road, and demanded to be let out and abandoned in the middle of the jungle. ‘Faster, faster!’ yelled Dora. The Thai drivers adored her for that.

Orchids overgrowing in the road. Bamboo exploding skywards in thickets too dense for light. Coffee growing wild in the hills. Palm trees fifteen metres high, clustered with coconuts. The mummified monk. He claimed he knew he was about to die, so had the others build a glass case around him, and spent his last months meditating inside. That was forty years ago. The case was only opened to give him sunglasses after his eyes had desiccated. The heat, the haze. I dropped our camera in the river. We swam in a waterfall, against the current, with the setting sun glittering in the top few metres of the water and the rest of it falling into jungle gloom.

The hours before evening, when the heat had gone from the sun, and the wet fragrance of the jungle filled our lungs. Arguing with drivers, taking the tuk-tuk into town, decoding every menu for vegetarian options. The warmth of night envelops and cradles and doesn’t want to let you go.

We found a thousand shells on the beach, all their perfect whorls and spirals broken open by the sea. I found ten metres of rope, as thick as my wrist, and dragged it along the beach in an anaconda trail. I left it in a spiral. The plastic bottles that wash up in the foam, each encrusted with a hundred tiny mussels. I found a shark’s tooth and a sunhat.

Mosquitoes. The microcosm of expats. A wasp, longer than my finger, black as jet, trapped beneath a glass and rattling a fury.

‘Of course, I emigrated when they started letting just anyone into Britain,’ he said without irony. ‘I couldn’t handle it now.’

A butterfly, purple and white, the size of both palms together, shadow shapes on candlelit walls. The beaming Thai waitress, eight months’ pregnant, pointing a lost Westerner towards his friends. He didn’t give her so much as a look in acknowledgment.

‘The slitty-eyed gits,’ said another. ‘They’ve stitched me up again.’

Everywhere we went, the Thais continued to be the friendliest, most welcoming people we’d ever met. In one local restaurant, where they spoke no English and we communicated in gestures and smiles, they took Dora off to play. In another, they brought her nine peeled tangerines. She ate them in a state of grateful awe, watching the ceiling fan spin beneath the palm frond ceiling. Pat and Enjoy, the girls who ran the cafe where we ate our breakfast, took endless pictures of her running around the garden, leaping between stepping stones, a bundle of sweat and freckles. One morning, she spontaneously told us her first ever story.

We couldn’t escape the end. It gathered into the last days, mountains on a long-distance drive. Normally I sleep like a bag of bricks, but for some weird reason, on our last night on Samui, and then again at our stopover in Bangkok, I managed only two hours a night; and none at all on the 14-hour flight home. I was in something of a delirium by the time we actually made it back. In Heathrow, a drunk man had been stopped at Arrivals, and was howling at a security guard.

‘I’m a citizen of the UK! This never happened before we let people like you come in here!’

Welcome home. I can’t even use the word Great anymore. It was great meeting my dad in Manchester airport, though, and catching up with our families over the next days; then floating back to ground, restocking the fridge, washing our clothes, putting the suitcases away, putting the books back on the shelf.

I usually read relentlessly on holiday, but this time was different. The only book I really enjoyed was the incomparable Wolf Hall. I spent far more time with pen and paper, working on The Hollows. I’m not going to talk much about it, this time. I feel very much like I overextended myself in discussing the book prior to the Kate Mosse incident, and I’m not going to do that again, other than to say that I talked it through at great length with Mon, who is the most amazing reader I could ever ask for. I’m excited by what I have planned, and I’ve written the first 12,000 words in three days. In this respect, jet lag has been a friend to me; I’ve been waking at 5.30 in the morning, ready for my day, and writing before I go to work. I’ve always been envious of writers who wake early to write – it’s never worked for me before – but it’s working this time. I’m not going to set an alarm for it, but if my body keeps waking, I’ll keep writing. No matter how rough my day at college, there’s a little kernel in my heart that knows I’ve written something, anything – a hundred words, five hundred words. That burns inside me even if I’m too wasted to write at night.

So that was Thailand. Every travel, every trip, is an inherent contradiction, both coming and going. The xenophobic ex-pats were outnumbered a thousand times over by the honest, open smiles of friends and strangers; for every caged bird and poor demented elephant, there were Brahminy kites, indigo butterflies and geckos inside paper lanterns.

When I first left Britain, I was wired with stress, working too much, making myself ill. Thailand gave me the space to recover, to triangulate the things I want to do, and to spend time with the people who matter most to me. That’s what this life is about, if it’s about anything at all. Ultimately, I don’t feel like I’ve travelled very far, because distance is measured from home, and I took mine with me.

Thailand one

Birds called from the web of girders inside the airport. The taxi ride into the city gave us billboards as long as sports fields, shanty towns on roadsides, golden Buddhas measuring every hundred metres of motorway. Bangkok itself was a sprawling, smoky, humid assault on the senses. Our hotel, crisp and air-conditioned, perched beside a lurid grey canal. The surface rippled constantly with the motions of a million tiny fish, while white and orange carp lazed at the surface, ghosts in the murk. A minute’s walk in either direction led to shanties of plastic sheets and corrugated iron. We wandered the neighbourhood. There was a temple on the other side of the block. There were temples everywhere. A minute away, a shop sold pictures of the king, four or five metres high, in ornate gilt frames. Thais are the friendliest people I’ve ever met, though Dora definitely helped us through the city. Her hair is such an unusual colour that people stopped us in the street to say hello, sawatdee ka, sawatdee ka. Mopeds use pavements like roads. Pedestrians take their chances in every crossing. We ate in open kitchens off the street, the smells of onions and ginger and drains all mingling into one rich fug. We met a man selling pad thai from a street cart. It was the best pad thai we’d ever eaten. He was the fourth generation of his family to sell pad thai on the streets of Bangkok, and he’d been doing it for forty years. Beside him, his mother, the third generation, a walnut of a woman, grinned and bowed as we devoured the noodles, sawatdee ka, sawatdee ka.

A young man with grey hair followed us from the hotel to the boat pier, stopping when we stopped. When we reached the river, we watched a metre-long monitor lizard slip into the water. We took the express boat from Banglumpo to Ko Wat, crowded in with tourists and Thais. The helmsman and the skipper communicated over the engine roar with a code of shrieking whistles. Egrets bobbed on rafts of vegetation and polystyrene. We spent the day marvelling at the cloisters of golden Buddhas, ate our first ever guava, and made friends with a Cambodian couple who crossed a park to take pictures of Dora. We dropped 108 coins in the 108 bowls that run alongside the reclining Buddha.

We walked back through Banglumpo markets. A man sold insects on skewers from a food cart – locusts, spiders, shiny black scorpions. The sign on his cart said photos cost 10 baht. I bet he makes more from photos than from food. A few stalls down from him, a beggar called out, baht, baht, baht, baht. He had long legs, though very thin, and long arms, but his torso was little bigger than his head. I watched a thickset American study him for minutes, then cross the road to give him several folded notes. The beggar said nothing, zipped the money into a small purse, and rattled his cup again. Baht, baht, baht, baht. The American scowled and walked away. The beggar’s face was at the height of the car exhausts. When they passed, he studied himself in the fleeting, warped reflection. Then he rattled his cup.

We picked up a flyer for a vegetarian cafe called Mango. It was some of the finest food I’ve ever eaten, fierce with ginger and sopped up with crispy dumplings. It was so good I wanted to hug the owner, Doo. He told us about his farm in the mountains, where they grow all their own food – everything they use comes from the farm. Four hip backpackers, wrapped up in finding themselves, complained that there wasn’t enough potato in their curry. Doo apologised, and they didn’t even acknowledge him. When we left, he was off to one side. He was sculpting, with his studio open onto the restaurant. He was making a beautiful goddamn elephant, and it was as perfect as his food.

Entire neighbourhoods built on stilts, thriving in the shadow of the underpass. Herons fishing from the bamboo rafts that trap sewage on the river. Duk-duk drivers hawking on the ground when we turned them down. Monks taking selfies. A tree surgeon, five metres up, without a harness, one foot on a stump and the other on a telegraph cable, leaning up to cut the branch above his head. Skinny cats, their tails lost to traffic. School kids chasing us to say hello to Dora. Families of five on mopeds. The rangy man who followed us, always ten paces behind, stopping when we stopped.

Jet lag kills me. When I first went to Australia, I didn’t sleep at all for two days, then slept almost continually for a week. In Bangkok, I kept waking in the night, and lying awake while cats yowled in alleyways and the roads hummed with mopeds. I thought I had a handle on Charlie Hebdo, until I saw some French language news on the television. They ran through some of the cartoons drawn in response. They showed one of Asterix and Obelix, simply bowing, and I burst into tears.

Bangkok is a riot of sight and sound and colour and taste and especially smell. Acrid exhaust fumes, the sharp twist of boiling oil, honey frangipani, frying garlic. The people who watched us, morose, from their open front rooms, then burst into smiles when they saw my daughter. It has been a truly extraordinary experience. I’ve never known anything like it. We wish we were staying longer.

Next stop, Koh Samui.

The slow life

Another year, another holiday. A fortnight before our wedding, and with a thousand things to organise, Mon and I have taken Dora for a week on Kefalonia in the Greek Ionian islands. Some people thought we were crazy, leaving so soon before the big day, and others thought we’d done exactly the right thing. It’s been wonderful. Our studio was cheap and cheerful, but had stunning views of the sea. The beach at Lourdas was only a few minutes away. We’ve done as much sunbathing as Dora would allow, and spent the rest of the time building bad sandcastles or splashing in the shallows. We visited Melissina cave, where they filmed The Goonies, and drove round onto the Lixouri peninsula to the secluded beach cove of Petanoi, ringed with sheer white cliffs.

panorama 2View from our balcony

Kefalonia is intoxicating. Olive trees spill into the verges, and fig trees grow in long-abandoned lots. The cliff-top hairpins are graffitied with faded communist slogans. Goats dawdle as they cross the road in scraggy herds. Each of their bells is tuned slightly differently, so the goatherd knows where each animal is foraging. When they’re hidden by the pines, the bells sound like secret orchestras, playing just for you. Skinny feral kittens bat at grass stalks and dry leaves. Cacti grow on roadsides. Beehives, painted rainbow bright, cling to precipitous hillsides. After lunch, old men sit in the meagre shade of trees and smoke. All the while, the island is alive with cicadas. They chatter all day in a raucous chorus that never stops, resounding all around in a cacophony of tones and clashing rhythms. After a day or two, I learned to tune it out, but occasionally I’d become suddenly, urgently conscious of the racket, and the world would explode again with sound. In the hour either side of sunset, when the heat was exquisite, the evening air grew heady with jasmine and lemon. The jumble of architecture felt strange and at times a little sad. The global crash hit Greece harder than most, and there are abandoned building sites everywhere. The skeletons of these half-formed houses cling to the hills and wrap themselves in vines. It’s an extraordinary place.

One of my favourite things about going on holiday is having the time to read. I’ve been reading a little more often in the last few months – trying not to work so late, and going to bed with a book instead – but on holiday, I can gorge myself. This time round, I went through The End Of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas, Thursbitch by Alan Garner, Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey by Fat Roland, The Coma by Alex Garland, It’s Lovely To Be Here by James Yorkston, Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel and The Evil Seed by Joanne Harris.

I love Joanne Harris, but struggled to get into The Evil Seed. As Harris explains in her introduction, it was her first novel, and she doesn’t feel she was firing on all cylinders. I found the regular switch of narrators a little jarring, for all that her writing was as wonderful as ever. Harris is a master, but The Evil Seed simply wasn’t for me. I also struggled with The End Of Mr Y. It started well, with a great premise – in a second-hand bookshop, a research student discovers a novel no one has seen in a hundred years. The book is supposed to be cursed – anyone who reads it will die. What a brilliant idea for a novel! Scarlett Thomas is extremely good at explaining the complex scientific theories that underpin the book, but as the plot unfolds, The End Of Mr Y felt increasingly like a collection of philosophical discussions tacked together with incidental actions. It was too disjointed for me – no flow.

I bought The Coma by Alex Garland years ago, and have been saving it until I finished writing The Year Of The Whale – because Garland’s book is also an illustrated novella, which is how I’d like The Whale to appear, if it ever does. It’s another good premise – a man exploring his own coma for meaning about his life – but one that is better managed in Marabou Stork Nightmares by Irvine Welsh or The Bridge by Iain Banks. Using minimal text, Garland brilliantly navigates his way around the dreamworld of the coma, wonderfully abetted by stark, startling woodcuts, but the final sequences became convoluted and disjointed with exposition, breaking an otherwise immersive experience. It was a shame, on finishing the novella, to realise that it came to a little less than the sum of its excellent parts.

Now we come to Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey, the second collection of flash fiction by Fat Roland. Disclaimer: I know and like Fats. I hope that won’t detract from my review of an excellent collection of shorter stories. Fats tends towards the weird in his work – or the really weird, in fact – often working with the mundane to expose the inherent strangeness of this grand and rolling shambles we call life. And he’s extremely good at it, too. Hey Hey Hey is a generally very strong collection, but some of the stories are exceptional: stand-outs for me were The Listener, and Michael Is A Horse, A Beautiful Horse, which rank amongst the best flash pieces I’ve ever read. I preferred Hey Hey Hey to his first collection; although Andropiean Galactic Lego Set Blues is also good, this second collection feels more assured in its use and abuse of the surreal, more convincing. It’s funny, chilling and thrilling, all at once.

Fat Roland HeySeveral of the stories are about swimming pools, and then I noticed this. Curious, no?

It’s Lovely To Be Here is a collection of James Yorkston’s touring diaries. For those lucky individuals who have still to discover James Yorkston, he sounds like this:

 

…and he’s one of my favourite musicians. I’ve seen him play three times – by accident at The Raigmore Motel in Inverness back in 2001, I think, supported by Malcolm Middleton, though it may have been the other way round; then with his full band at The Brewery a couple of years ago, which is one my all-time top gigs; and then solo at The Dukes in Lancaster last year. He’s brilliant live, and these diaries – witty, honest, funny, poignant and a little sly – give a compelling insight into the flip side of life as a touring musician. I guess it gave me pause to think of the times I’ve approached him (or other musicians) after a gig, gushing praise and wishing well. Especially now I’ve started performing my stories live (nowhere near the same experience, but in the same universe, I suppose), I better appreciate that sometimes that’s the last thing a performer wants – to be inundated with people, and all the psychic tension and expectations they bring with them, when they’d rather go to bed. These diaries are funny and wickedly honest.

I never planned on reading Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel. I absolutely hated Beyond Black, the only other Mantel novel I’d tried, and I was therefore cynical about the praise heaped on this book and its precedent, Wolf Hall. But when I’d finished all the books I’d brought with me, I had to turn to the graveyard of dog-eared abandoned holiday reads in the hotel. Bring Up The Bodies was the only one I even halfway fancied, though I started reading with reluctance. And do you know what? It’s magnificent. Set in the court of Henry VIII, it plays out the last few months of the life of Anne Boleyn from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the king’s fixer. Bizarrely, Bring Up The Bodies actually gave me what I was expecting, but failed to find, in George R R Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire – thrilling, page-turning intrigue on the price of power and the rise and fall of dynasties. It reads like The Godfather. Mantel’s Cromwell is an absolutely astounding narrator. I’m definitely going to seek out Wolf Hall, now, and I was delighted to see in the author’s note that she has more plans for Cromwell.

Finally, there’s Thursbitch by Alan Garner. I’m relatively new to Garner, off the back of his wonderful collection of British Fairy Tales and his short novel Strandloper, though I probably read The Owl Service when I was a kid. I’m still digesting Thursbitch. It’s profound and important, but it isn’t much fun. Garner creates worlds real enough to touch. His prose is so sparse, his stories so lean, that it often feels like there’s nothing there at all – as though his work is invisible, and his books are slices in time, windows into centuries when the world was young and hungry, and land still mattered. Thursbitch is about an old magic, a northern magic of white hares and white bulls and bees, of toadstools and snakes. It’s almost voodoo. A magic of the stones and the seasons and the night sky and the bog. It’s a magic of balance – of keeping the land and the people in check, pragmatic, without mysticism or spirituality. It’s heady stuff, and I’m still reeling. Like Strandloper, it’s dense, often using language so archaic it feels alien, and Garner gives nothing for free. I’ll read it again in a few years, I think, and see how it’s changed – how I’ve changed.

Back into pre-wedding mania. The garden has bloomed without us. The Black-eyed Susan has climbed to the top of the trellis, and the Russian vine is turning into a triffid. They remind me of the plants that explode everywhere in Kefalonia, wild and reckless in the dust and dirt. It’s strange to come home. Mon and I talk a lot about living abroad. I get depressed by the daily horrors this government continues to inflict on anyone who isn’t already rich, and I harbour visions of growing my own peppers and onions and garlic and chillies. We talk of Spain and France. Of a simpler life, I suppose, where we’re not drowning in screens and SATs. One where I can write and Mon can paint and Dora can chase katydids in the pear trees. There are times it feels like a boy’s dream, to run away, and times it feels like the brightest, broadest road we could take.

Halfway through the holiday, there was an insect drowning in the pool. It was my turn to rescue it, so I slipped into the water, swam across and scooped it out on the end of one of Dora’s toys. It was a honeybee. It dried in an instant and flew away, and I swam back to the edge of the pool. Just before I clambered out, I spotted something and stopped. It was a speck, no more than three millimetres long, but it was unmistakably a mantis, intricate and perfect as clockwork. I’d never seen one in the wild. I called Mon across to have a look. Even as we watched, it flexed its killer forelegs, snap snap, and marched across the baking tiles, three millimetres tall and a king of the world. The day before, driving back from the cove at Petanoi, Mon saw a golden eagle.

I love Cumbria, but there’s a splinter in my head that says we could be living cleaner, should be living simpler. Living slow.

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