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Dispatches on Survival and Resistance

books john berger barbara kingsolver gary snyder martin shaw trump reading writing annie dillard anxietyDispatches on Survival and Resistance

Information has been weaponised and is being used against us by those who stand to gain from mass confusion. The question is, how are we going to defend ourselves?

Imagine truth has been deliberately buried under a great pile of rubble by a group of people so distracted by greed they are willing to sacrifice the viability of life on earth for the sake of a few extra golf clubs on the (rapidly disappearing) Florida coast.

The rubble is made of tabloid propaganda, fake news, misinformation, half-truths, spin doctors, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin, Katie Hopkins, most of the internet. The pile of rubble is as vast as a mountain range. Navigating a path through the rubble without falling off the mountain is one of the great challenges of our time.

T S Eliot famously wrote that ‘Humankind cannot bear too much reality‘. This is presumably why the Daily Mail is so popular. It’s also where drugs come in. But now is no time for getting wasted. Our overheating, war-torn planet needs us. It is us. As the late, great John Berger wrote: ‘Reality is all we have to love. There’s nothing else.’

The only information that can’t be weaponised and used against us is the truth that comes from direct personal experience. Digging for truth among the rubble of lies can be a lonely business. This is where books come in.

Books cut through the loneliness. Books take no notice of time, distance or borders, even the ones that exist between life and death. As the author Johnathan Safran Foer wrote in a recent article for The Guardian ‘A book is the opposite of Facebook.’

If virtual reality is a space owned and managed by mass-murdering corporations, who act as gatekeepers and tax collectors, books represent the open-access land of the imagination. You can pitch a tent anywhere in literature and make it yours. There is no ongoing subscription, no data handed over and sold behind your back, no passwords, nuisance emails and expensive updates, no space for advertising. No up-to-the-minute technology, at eye-watering prices. Just some old trees sliced into pages to make a container for a story, or a poem, or an essay.

I have a friend who is younger than me. She gets anxious. It’s one of the reasons I like her. Frankly, if you’re not anxious right now then you’re not paying attention. Late one night we were drinking gin and talking about anxiety and I was rambling on about books and how they help me and my friend asked me to write a list of books I thought might help her.

The following five books constitute the first installment of this list. They are all books of essays. Essays, being short and full of arguments, are a good way back into reading if you’ve re-wired your brain for the benefit of mass-murdering corporations. Think of these essays as ammunition. Use them when the gin wears off and the money runs out and you find yourself embroiled in a difficult chat with someone who thinks the Daily Mail is a newspaper. Use them for love, comfort, truth and solidarity.

1 / Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard (Harper Perennial, first published 1982)

This small book deals with all sorts of big subjects, from polar exploration to weasels (‘We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place’) but the subjects don’t matter. Annie Dillard could write about the inside of my filing cabinet and it would be spellbinding, for ‘We are down here in time, where beauty grows.’

Annie Dillard is the reason I hardly ever publish anything on this blog. I have her words taped to my desk: ‘What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?’

Not much, as it goes.

2 / The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder (Counterpoint, first published 1990)

This was my bible when I was alone and terrified in the High Pyrenees. I read these essays – on walking, language, wilderness, change – over and over again, lying in my tent while thunderstorms crashed around the mountains. Gary Snyder became my excuse for being lost: ‘There are paths that can be followed and there are paths that cannot. It is not a path. It is the wilderness.’

Gary Snyder was the inspiration for Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. While the rest of the Beat Generation mostly drank themselves to death, Snyder dedicated his life to thinking, writing and ‘constantly walking.’

It was Snyder who wrote that ‘In western civilisation our elders are books’.

This book is one of my elders.

3 / Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber, first published 2002)

The title ‘Small Wonder’ refers to the sad inevitability of the attack on the twin towers in the context of American foreign policy, and to the miracle of life and all the small wonders of nature (which we are in the process of destroying).

Barbara Kingsolver’s novels achieve a rare thing, balancing story and polemic, taking difficult subjects (McCarthysim, the execution of Trotsky, the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, climate change) and turning them into fat novels you can’t put down. Her standing within the literary world and politics is such that she was invited to lunch with Obama shortly after Trump’s inauguration.

In this book of essays she reminds us to keep digging for truth, precisely because the mass-murdering nature-bashing corporations would rather we gave ourselves up to confusion: ‘What is new is that we know so much about the world, or at least the part of it that is most picturesquely exploding on any given day, that we’re left with a desperate sense that all of it is exploding, all the time. As far as I can tell, that is the intent and purpose of television news. We see so much, understand so little, and are simultaneously told so much about What We Think, as a populace polled minute by minute, that it begins to feel like an extraneous effort to listen at all to our hearts.’

But we must, and reading Barbara Kingsolver helps.

I wish she was my granny.

4 / Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance, by John Berger (Verso, first published 2007)

If I had to pick a favourite out of all the hundreds of writers I love, it would be John Berger. I love his sparse and painterly style. I love his courage and sense of adventure. I love his unflinching gaze. I love his endless optimism: ‘The multitudes have answers to questions which have not been posed, and they have the capacity to outlive the walls.’

This is a book about despair in the age of Iraq and George W Bush: ‘HOW MUCH LONGER GLOBAL POWER IN D NUMB HAND OF DOSE WHO KNOW NUTHIN?’

But it’s also a guidebook for survival, articulating the questions we’re all asking, in our various  languages, with ever-increasing urgency: ‘People everywhere – under very different conditions – are asking themselves – where are we? The question is historical not geographical. What are we living through? Where are we being taken? What have we lost? How to continue without a plausible vision for the future?’

He shows us what resistance looks like, and what giving in looks like: ‘Nihilism is resignation before the contention that Price is all. It is the most current form of human cowardice.’

John Berger died on 2nd January, 2017. His last words were published in a small book of ‘notes’ called Confabulations: ‘We will learn how to wait in solidarity. Just as we will continue indefinitely to praise, to swear and to curse in every language we know.’

5 / A Branch from the Lightning Tree by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, first published 2011)

Martin Shaw is a mythologist, and this is not so much a book of essays as an introduction to myth and how we need it in our lives. It was written after Shaw spent four years living in a tent on the side of a mountain in Snowdonia; it’s for anyone who gets anxious wandering the barren desert of work-sleep-telly-buy-consume, everyone who yearns for something different: ‘If you don’t want to be Crazy Horse, Boudicca, or Pablo Neruda, stop reading now. It’s probably best we nip this relationship in the bud. This is a book about teasing out the mischievous, solitude-loving, flamboyant, sorcerous, arms-extended-into-the-inky-blackness singing songs of the lost-highwayman aspect of your nature.’

I loved the stories: ‘After more treacherous journeying, Anga came to a towering mountain, so high your eyes would strain and go blind if you tried to see the top of it.’

I loved the commentaries: ‘One hit of DMT will blow the castle doors open in seconds and precipitate a chemically engineered free-fall into a Persian garden. As we congratulate ourselves on having plunged straight into Ceridwen’s cauldron, we would do well to remember our fathers turning to the whiskey cabinet and gazing at sunsets through the castle gates.’

It gave me a new way of looking at old problems: ‘Another larger interpretation is that the planet itself may be trying to awaken us from the thing that Eats and Consumes All. In this case the listener by the door is a tsunami, a flooded New Orleans – something that in the cold light of day says, “For Christ’s sake; don’t you hear the sobbing of your beloved?”

In 2016 I was lucky enough to have the chance to hear Martin Shaw tell a story and talk about his work. Times are dark and troubled, he said. And when times are dark and troubled there’s only one thing to do: make beauty.

And if you’re wondering what I’ve been making, search for Andy Mac on NTS radio, play the mix and wait for the owls.

Elena Ferrante on Brexit

chickensElena Ferrante, best-selling Italian author who has (just) managed to hang onto her anonymity, eschewing all interviews and never being seen dead on social media, has spoken out about Brexit.

Really?

No.

I am making mad connections between entirely unconnected things because it suits my argument.

I’m upset about Brexit. I could fill a post with all the reasons why I’m upset about Brexit, from the most self-centred and practical (loss of right to live and work in 27 countries in which trains and houses are actually affordable and the sun actually shines) to the most outward-looking and existential (the rise and rise of the far-right and what this means for world peace). But I’m not going to talk about Brexit. Not while we’ve all still got a hangover. I’m going to talk about stories.

Because I have finally reached a conclusion: Leave won not because voters were stupid, misguided, hoodwinked, or vicious (some probably were, but most probably weren’t). Leave won because the perpetrators of Leave told the most coherent story, and in times of unfathomable complexity, such as now, a coherent story is like a pork pie on the side of a freezing mountain. You know its wrong, but you’ll eat it anyway.

The connection between Brexit and Elena Ferrante, apart from the fact that Elena Ferrante distracted me from the mad ravings of Trump for the whole of December with her utterly fabulous Neapolitan quartet, is that right at the end of the last book ‘The Story of the Lost Child’ she has one of her characters explain something about bad fiction, which reminded me of Nigel Farage:

‘Only in bad novels people always think the right thing, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause, there are likeable ones and the unlikable, the good and the bad, everything in the end consoles you.’

The problem with Nigel Farage, apart from all the other problems with Nigel Farage, is that his consoling stories are made of pork pies. Truth doesn’t come in slogans. Truth is nuanced and subtle, quiet and contradictory, a fine balance of probabilities, a line drawn in snow, an instinct for kindness, a desire for justice. Truth, dammit, is always collapsing into awkward puddles of conflicting points of view, both of which are equally valid. Truth is too complex to be represented on the side of a bus. Truth surfaces in strange places. Truth has even been spotted on Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, although not very often.

Which brings me to my final point. I have been struggling for a long time to explain to myself why I hate promoting myself on social media. Someone told me it was because I was lazy. I am lazy, so that had the ring of truth, but it wasn’t the truth. The truth, as ever, was more complicated. Social media relies on a two dimensional world of constructed selves, with all the difficult bits left out. Novels, on the other hand, or books of any kind, are only as good as they have managed to scrape away the constructs to reveal the messy and often embarrassing and yet deeply human and therefore unifying truth underneath. There’s a deep conflict between the goals of good writing and the goals of social media.

Therefore I have decided that 2017 will be the year of rejecting coherent narratives, listening instead of ranting (ranting is so Nigel Farage), resisting the temptation to construct a cooler, slicker and more successful version of myself on social media, and instead engaging with the yin-yang complexity of existence whilst eating chocolate-covered coffee beans, although not last thing at night.

I like dark chocolate, are you with me or against me?

Except that sometimes I like milk chocolate and sometimes I even like white chocolate. Sometimes I don’t even like coffee.

Who the fuck am I?

I am both.

Two fingers to Nigel Farage and his bad novels made of pork pies. I am British and European and Welsh and a citizen of the World and totally sure and totally confused and happy and sad and lazy and mad and sane and educated and underemployed and worn-out with working and indebted and human and real and ordinary. 

Just like you.

Just like the characters in the novels of Elena Ferrante, which is why they’re so damn good.

And finally, if, like me, you happen to find complexity comforting, rather than threatening, then I’d urge you to spend an evening watching Adam Curtis documentaries on Youtube.  Whilst eating chocolate-covered coffee beans. Dark, milk, white, whatever….

Cheers. Here’s to a grown-up and heavily nuanced 2017.

 

 

Why I Live in a Shed

why i live in a shed

The north wind is behind me

And I’ve planted out my sweet peas

The money tree is thriving

But the best things here are free

When people ask, I tell them I am writing a book about housing called Why I Live in a Shed. What I am actually doing is running, singing, surfing, drinking, cursing, worrying and waking up in the dead of night to make marks in the dark with a pencil.

I have spent the winter housed. And now it is spring and the time has come to say goodbye to my latest insulated, centrally-heated, multi-roomed holiday (bathroom, washing machine, fridge, hot water) and wander back through time and space to the shed, via an off-grid wooden gazebo, some meditation (not medication) and a quick trip to Portugal.

But first I am going to offload some thoughts, facts and statistics that represent the thin end of a wedge the size of Wales. Think of it as backstory.

I thought I lived in a shed because there weren’t enough houses to go around. Politicians across the spectrum all seem to agree that what we need is housebuilding on a scale not seen since the second world war. Turns out this is propaganda (also known as Total Bollocks). The reality is that there are 65 million bedrooms in Britain for just 55 million people. And while it is true that 1.8 million households are waiting for social housing, it is also true that 737 000 residential properties that could house 2 million people are brick and mortar bank accounts, kept deliberately empty so they can be bought and sold to turn a profit.

The Prime Minister pleads with a journalist ‘Please don’t make me look like a prat for not knowing how many houses I’ve got’ and The Sultan of Brunei applies for a 10% discount on his council tax because his London house is not his first (or second, or third) home.

[Pitchforks]

We do not need to build more houses, unless it is to create yet more inequality. ‘The purpose of much of the world’s construction is construction, its primary function is to provide contracts for the companies that build and perks for the officials who commission’ writes George Monbiot.

We do not need to build more houses, unless it is to speed up the elimination of the human race. ‘Concrete production is among the main sources of carbon pollution worldwide’ observes Danny Dorling.

I live in a shed because government policies designed to inflate house prices and make the economy look stronger than it actually is (in private life this is called cooking the books) mean it is effectively impossible for anyone under the age of 40 to buy a house.

I live in a shed because I would rather live in an uninsulated tin can on the side of the road several hundred miles from anywhere with no toilet or hot water than bite my nails for the privilege of renting a boxroom in a house full of semi-strangers, from which I am obliged to erase all evidence of my existence every time the letting agent lets himself in with his own key to perform one of his ‘regular and invasive’ inspections.

Call me old-fashioned but I’m a 36 year old introvert who craves order and stability and has already lived at 17 different addresses, not including 2 years in a van and 3 years at university.

Renting, in my experience, is miserable, unaffordable (in the year to 2013 median rents in London rose by 9% while wages rose by 2%), insecure and unregulated. In spite of the fact that private landlords are subsidized by taxpayers – that’s you and me – to the tune of £17 billion (housing benefit) 1 in 3 private rental accommodations don’t meet the government’s (pitifully low) standards.

I live in a shed because I am by nature a writer and musician and living in a shed is the only way I have a hope of realizing my dreams and projects. I have wasted more time and tears than I care to count trying to squeeze myself into a square hole. I do not think that only individuals with trust funds should have the chance to be artists. I do not think this would be good for people or for art.

Mainly I live in a shed because Thatcher sold us the narrative of consumerism to pit against the narratives of class and communism, which did not serve her. (Just like she sold the council houses, often in job lots to cronies who went on to become millionaire private landlords.)

It is true that our homes represent our selves in material form. But the important, creative link between home and selfhood has been hijacked and monetized by consumerist ideology. Our  nests reduced to disposable nest-eggs. Instead of telling the world something about who we are, in myriad intriguing ways, our houses try to tell the world how much we are worth. The bigger the house, the more worthwhile the person. But this is a childish waste of life. Logically speaking, we can never be worth more or less than anybody else, no matter how big our houses are, no matter if we call ourselves the Sultan of Brunei or the prat from Chipping Norton.

I live in a shed because I hate consumerism with a visceral, seething, spitting hatred. It threatens the ground beneath my feet, the stars in my eyes, the salt on my tongue, the futures of my sisters’ children and everything else that I love with all my heart.

This housing crisis is a symbolic manifestation – a cancerous symptom – of consumerist ideology. Housing is not just an economic problem. It is an existential problem.

‘The effect of focusing on the house as consumer commodity has an effect on the social structure as a whole’ writes Jessie Hohmann. ‘Housing is important in the formation and protection of identity, community and place in the world.’

Housing is central to an ideological debate that needs to rage and rage, because when we lose our place in the world we lose everything. We forget that we belong here, to this green and gold and lovely planet, and behave like angry squatters, shitting on our own doorstep.

But we do belong, literally, with every cell in our bodies, as Leonardo Da Vinci neatly observed nearly 600 years ago – ‘Man is called by the ancients a world in miniature and certainly this name is well applied, for just as man is composed of earth, water, air and fire, so is the body of the earth’.

Which is something I have experienced first-hand, through living in a shed. So listen up, because I’m going to sing you a whole new song.

For a more lyrical shedlife extract please visit Dark Mountain.net

Moments

scots-pines

Thanks to an award from the Society of Authors worth six months of gardening, I am donating most of my present moments to writing about the shed and other shed-related issues; ecological obliteration, the housing crisis, stars.

I’ve been animal sitting among snow-covered mountains on a remote hillock topped with a few dozen tall and bendy Scots pines. The pines shield me from the worst of the weather and harbor owls and kites. There’s a windmill and a hammock and horses to ride.

I was sitting by the stove, feeling the ache of time passing and cuddling the kitten, when this poem arrived:

 

Screen shot 2015-01-26 at 11.35.17

 

Next up on my monkish writing trail is another house, and after that a wooden gazebo in the woods, but on both sides of the house and the gazebo is a stint at the meditation centre.

A few people have mentioned recently that they think meditation is self-indulgent. I have wondered if they were right. But last night I watched the startlingly good BBC film Bitter Lake and I knew they were wrong. As Schumacher wrote, way back before most of the things in the film had even happened:

‘Where can one find the strength to go on working against such obviously appalling odds? What’s more: where can one find the strength to overcome the violence of greed, hate and lust within oneself?’

Some other people have said that they think meditation is boring. I get that. I have also been conditioned by Twitter to have the attention span of a goldfish. All the more reason to meditate. Sit down. Shut up. Stop buying stuff. Reverse the awfulness of Bitter Lake.

Plus, I increasingly consider boredom a failure of my own mind. As Geoff Dyer puts it:

‘Often when you’re bored, it’s that friction between you and time.’

The older I get, the more I want to learn to live in time. The more we run away from time the more time runs away from us, but moments fully embraced seem to stretch time. As Nadine Stair wrote in another poem, when she was 85:

Oh, I have had my moments
  And if I had it to do over again, I'd have more of them.
        In fact, I'd try to have nothing else. 
	   Just moments,one after another.
      Instead of living so many years ahead each day.

Poems, like kittens, only appear when we’re sitting quietly doing nothing. Violence, on the other hand, requires blind and furious action.

Art of Place

Dominic ClareI am in Wales, staying in a town full of writers and environmentalists. Specifically, I am staying with Jay Griffiths, looking after her cats while she is talking about Time at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and then talking about Frida Kahlo in Stornoway. The world turns in mysterious ways. Years ago I used to download music from the Smithsonian Institute’s vast library of sounds. Guadeloupe accordions, Dirty Jazz from Down South, Cubanismo from the Congo. Record labels have caught on and started making compilations from the archives, but you can still go there and get lost at your leisure with nobody trying to make you buy anything. I read Jay’s book Wild when I was on Lewis in 2012 and have been recommending it to everyone I meet ever since. Then I met Jay, earlier this year, and somehow that turned into a winter of empty Welsh houses to write my next book in, and make some home recordings of some new songs to tide me over until the next record. So here I am in Wales in this town full of writers and environmentalists. One of them is George Marshall, who has just published a book called Don’t Even Think About It, which attempts to examine the psychology of climate change denial and why nothing is changing, even though we all know (don’t we?) that it’s only a matter of time before the Titanic sinks and we all go down with it. So sane people are grieving for the trees and the skylarks and the vanishing places they love, and everyone else is watching TV….. or surfing. Last weekend there was swell. I drove to a funny little town called Borth, and surfed some funny little waves, and then I drove up the windswept coast and before I knew it I was in Snowdonia, parked up in a little valley near where I was born. I rambled around in the wet mountains for a couple of days and on my last day I went to visit a sculptor called Dominic Clare. Clare once trained with David Nash, who is responsible for my all-time favourite artwork. If you ever get the chance to see the film, seize it. I took some photos in Dominic Clare’s garden and wrote some stuff about his wood-carvings, which you can find here. It’s the first of a new column I am doing for Toast Travels called Art of Place.

Bookshelf #2 Paul Kingsnorth

wake 1

I love books about as much as I love anything. That’s why I wrote one. It’s also why I have decided to share my love of particular books and their authors with a special “bookshelf” post each month (or six months…) I won’t be attempting exhaustive critiques. I will simply be sharing my personal connections, inspirations and loves. This month it is the turn of Paul Kingsnorth, whose first novel, The Wake, is easily the best book I have read this year.

when will i be free saes the cilde to the stag

and the stag saes thu will nefer be free

then when will angland be free

angland will nefer be free

then what can be done

naht can be done

then how moste i lif

thu moste be triewe that is all there is

be triewe

be triewe

At university we had to do a paper on ‘Englishness’. I found it very difficult. While I could talk about Wales or Cornwall with a semblance of pride and love and dignity, I was lost for words when it came to England. The England I knew was a place of clone towns and creeping suburbs. The England I read about was responsible for slavery and colonialism and class. I could not identify with England. Was this because there was so little of England left?

When physical landscapes are desecrated, our sense of who we are, both individually and collectively, is weakened

for man tacs on the ways of the place he is in

The hostile takeover of England’s cultural landscape is familiar territory for Paul Kingsnorth, whose book Real England; The Battle against the Bland (2008) is essential reading for anyone who weeps at the sight of a vast new supermarket on the outskirts of their hometown.

In his latest book, which was crowd-funded on Unbound and then longlisted for the Booker prize, Paul Kingsnorth goes back to the roots of his obsession, confronting the original hostile takeover of England’s physical landscapes. In 1066 a marauding army arrived on our shores, raping and murdering and burning villages, turning locals into slaves and forcing people to pay for access to their own land, a norm that has persisted ever since

a bastard will be our cyng and angland will weep for a thousand years

Hung carefully on the little-known facts of a doomed guerilla uprising that took root in the years following the Norman Conquest, The Wake is narrated by Buccmaster of Holland in a ‘shadow tongue’ loosely based on Old English. The language takes a bit of getting used to, but the purpose of it is clear – this is Buccmaster’s story, and his meanings are framed in his language, as all meanings must be. To impose our own tongue on Buccmaster would be to saddle him with our own meanings, and therefore miss his triewthe.

What emerges, however, and all the stronger for it, is that Buccmaster’s triewthe is very much our truth. His deeply emotional responses and psychological complexity are as modern as they come, and the strangeness of the language only serves to emphasise that this is as much a book about what it means to be human as it is about specific historical events. The past illuminates the present. The connection between landscape and identity, the desire for autonomy, the need for privacy, the aftermath of war and the nature of freedom are themes that dominate Buccmaster’s reality and our headlines. As all good art should, The Wake forced me to look at the familiar through an unfamiliar lens, encouraging a re-assessment of my assumptions.

Buccmaster is no hero. A deeply flawed and unreliable narrator, he says ‘fucc’ and ‘cunt’ a lot, beats his wife, talks to trees, considers himself a ‘ceosen’ one, looks down on his inferiors and frequently runs away from battles, yet his difficult relationship with his father and subsequent egoistic insecurity reverberate down the centuries. He makes total sense. His complete identification with the land he belongs to, his overwhelming sense of ownership and place, his hatred of being controlled, his love of freedom, all rang true. His story felt like my story. For both of us (I suspect for all of us, if we were lucky enough to have access to the outdoors as children) the land that brings us up becomes a kind of parent-substitute, and the loss of it is akin to the loss of our parents. Not something you recover from easily, if ever.

Buccmaster’s trust in the ‘auld gods’ of the trees and the fens brings him shame and ridicule in the context of recently-imported Christianity. As readers we are invited to examine what we know deep down to be true, and notice the ways in which our own truth conflicts with what we are told to be true by those who are occupying not just our physical landscapes but also our cultural landscapes.

With the loss of our land it becomes hard to hear ourselves think. Our sense of self is weakened, we become vulnerable to occupation

in the tuns all is so great and blaec and there is so micel sound that no man can be free or triewe

All very handy for market fundamentalism, England’s current despotic ‘cyng’.

As the title suggests, The Wake does not have a happy ending. And yet I felt uplifted and hopeful when I reached the end. Like a postcard from a long-lost love, the only one who ever understood me, arriving just in time, just before I jumped. For

a bastard will be our cyng and angland will weep for a thousand years

and England is still weeping.

But still, and it is good to be reminded,

thu moste be triewe.

Paul Kingsnorth is the author of two non-fiction books and a collection of poetry. The Wake is his first novel. He is a founder member of dark-mountain.net – a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.

The Droving Project

cat drove 1While I was in Scotland this August I took part in a cattle drove. Brain-child of Katch Holmes, who runs the infamous Knockengorroch World Ceilidh, the drove was essentially an art project, designed to raise questions about the relationship between rural and urban culture. Toast Travels were kind enough to publish my writing about it, which will also feature in an exhibition of Alice Myers‘ photography, which opens on 9 October 2014 at the Doon Valley Museum in Dalmellington. It’s worth checking out The Droving Project website.

Bookshelf #1 Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I love books about as much as I love anything. That’s why I wrote one. It’s also why I have decided to share my love of particular books and their authors with a special “bookshelf” post each month. I won’t be attempting exhaustive critiques. I will simply be sharing my personal connections, inspirations and loves. I’m kicking off with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died last Thursday, aged 87.

GGM

The first Gabriel Garcia Marquez book I ever read was not a masterwork of magical realism, or a profound meditation on the human capacity for romantic love (these would come later) but a slim and little-known travel book called Clandestine in Chile.

This hundred-page paperback tells the true story of Miguel Littin, a Chilean film director who was exiled after the 1973 military coup and then returned in disguise, risking everything to “bring the world a truer picture of life under Pinochet.” Littin told his story to Marquez, who re-told it in the first person, using eighteen hours of taped interviews.

The blurb on the back of my well-travelled copy provides hard evidence of the truth in it:

“On 28 November 1986, in Valparaiso, the Chilean authorities impounded and burned 15 000 copies of this book.”

When I visited Valparaiso myself, twenty years after Littin’s clandestine journey and thirty years after the coup, the foreign city was delivered to me full of meaning. Thanks to Marquez, I had already been there in my imagination. Thanks to the fact of my humanity, my imagination is every bit as real as my reality.

When I later came to read Love in the Time of Cholera I found even more truth, and it was a truth that felt heightened, rather than diminished, by the quantities of magic in it.

The older I get, the more complicated the relationship between reality, imagination and truth seems to become. Reality is so subjective – having to be funnelled first through our senses and then through our various languages – that I can’t help suspecting that there is no such thing. Truth, on the other hand, is everywhere. We feel it, see it, imagine it and know it – even when we can’t talk about it. Which is where stories come in, and why great storytellers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez are mourned with nothing less than the heartfelt love of perfect strangers.

It is through stories – film, television, books – that we get to share our actual experience of truth (as opposed to reality as presented by various news media) and therefore feel less alone.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez made me feel less alone when I was sitting on the concrete floor of a South American bus station and navigating a tidal wave of sadness associated with my latest break-up. I was reassured to learn “that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”

I felt less alone after finally meeting Jose Arcadio Buendia, the protagonist of One Hundred Years of Solitude, an inventor whose magic-inspired inventions lead him further and further from his ordinary life, into all kinds of chaos, and yet “even those convinced of his madness left work and family to follow him.”

Perhaps one of the side effects of progress in science and technology, of staking everything on the illusion of empiricism, is forgetting the value of magic. Another ancient woodland is cut down to make room for a motorway service station. We are left staring into “the abyss of disenchantment.”

But perhaps good stories can rescue us, helping us to understand that we do not understand. Putting us in our place.

“The first of the line is tied to a tree and the last is being eaten by the ants.”

I read One Hundred Years of Solitude this year, one border crossing from Colombia, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born. I found it difficult at first, in the same way that strange countries can be difficult at first. There were so many characters, and they were so fantastic. They said things people don’t say, they lived according to strange rules and kept the oddest of habits, they waged unwinnable wars and their thoughts were pure poetry. It was only after I had been with these people for several hundred pages that I finally began to accept the truth of them, which was accompanied by a feeling of relief, because I was also accepting the truth of me – which is that my grip on ‘reality’ is tenuous, and it is the poetry of my imagination – my existential solitude – that makes me who I am.

As Salman Rushdie said of Marquez in a recent essay in the New York Times

“He was a dreamer who believed in the truth of dreams.”

Becky and I both read One Hundred Years of Solitude, one after the other, in various Central American jungles, while young men rode past at dawn on horseback, listening to pop music on their ipods. We both struggled with it, wrestled with it, woke each other up with the most poetic bits of it, were desperate to understand the truth of it, and eventually loved it with an inexplicable, unreasonable, tearful love.

Just like life.

To quote Salman Rushdie again;

“For such magnificence, our only possible reaction is gratitude.”

I will be singing about my book ‘The Ribbons Are For Fearlessness’ on 29th April at 6.30 in the Falmouth Bookseller.

 

Why I Write Songs

ribbons ep blog postIn the interests of living in time, rather than killing it, which is a sentiment I took from a recent blog post by the wonderful poet Claire Pollard, who was also on a train at the time of writing, I decided to use my recent long train journey back to Cornwall from London to try to express why I write songs. My desire to do this was inspired by the weird feeling I have when I look at my various social media selves, which don’t seem to bear that much relation to my actual self, the self that spent the best part of the last decade writing songs in secret, usually whilst crying/drunk/stoned etc, without feeling the slightest need to involve society or media.

However, at the ripe old age of thirty five, two things have finally sunk in (better late than never). One is that life is ridiculously short, and the less time I have left, the faster that time goes, which is unfair, but true. The other is that I have to spend most of that time making a living, unless I want to perch in a shed for the rest of my life, which I might, but equally might not, because hot showers are wondrous things. Having tried many jobs, from labouring on building sites to flower picking to teaching to gardening to busking, I have decided that the only way I can hope to be at peace is to work as hard as I possibly can to create opportunities to make my living doing the things I love. Such as writing and recording songs.

Social media is one way to create such opportunities, being a great place to share and sell these songs. However, in trying to sell my songs, I seem to end up also trying to sell myself, which in turn seems to result in the emergence of someone who doesn’t exist – someone a lot chirpier/more confident/more sorted/less baffled than I am. Which leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling that I don’t exist. It’s not false, it’s just not the whole story.

Because the selling part is not the main event. It’s a necessary evil, a by-product of the making part. The truth (and this is probably also the reason why people like me find it so hard to demand money for their efforts) is that I will keep writing songs (and books) whether or not anyone ever buys them, because I am one of those people who is constantly at risk from drowning in their own thoughts, and songs are my life raft. And since that kind of embarrassing truth just doesn’t come across very well on bubbly old social media, I decided to risk not looking very cool (again) and stick it up here, just for the record. I have no idea why it came out as a kind of poem. Blame Claire Pollard.

Why I Write Songs

I write songs because I’m not okay, and songs make not okay, okay.

I write songs for you who don’t have time to wonder at the morning,

And for you, carrying all that quiet heartache with such fortitude.

I want to make you cry.

I write songs because I’m lonely and songs are my reward for being free.

I write songs because our world is crumbling and the light is hard to see.

I write songs and now I sing them, too, because time is shorter than I thought

And this will all be over soon.

I write songs because I’m here again, and again and again and again.

And because I keep falling in love too fast, with unforgiving men.

I write songs because I happen to be there when they land on my desk

Tired out from flying.

I write songs because I’m lost, and the cost of living is too high

And songs are the only way that I can afford to fly.

I write songs to fill the gap between my longing and my dreams

Because happiness is not what it seems.

I will be launching the Ribbons EP on Saturday (5th April) 6pm at Newlyn Art Gallery, and on Sunday 13th April 3pm at Strong Adolfo’s, Wadebridge. When I have figured out the technology you will also be able to buy it from this website.

Money and Art

busking‘Money sucks’ said my friend, a painter, from the depths of my sofa.
We had been talking about the weather. It’s cold. She can’t afford heating.

I understood exactly what she meant. Until I started busking, and learned that people were willing to pay me to do something I loved, money was tainted by the lengths I had to go to in order to get it. Serving endless plates of chips to dickheads who had never been taught any manners, picking daffodills from dawn to wintry dusk in frozen boggy fields for bully-gangers employed by corporate flower farms, cleaning the rooms of my fellow (richer) students at university while I should have been cramming for my finals. Money sucked. Because what I really wanted was time, and money was sucking up all my time.

It wasn’t until I cut out the middle men – banks, job centres, bosses – that I began to see things more clearly. And I saw that I had fallen into a trap. The starving artist trap. I had shot the messenger – money – instead of the message.

Money talks. And what it usually talks about is greed, consumerism, inequality, corrupt politics and environmental desecration in the name of progress. These messages are everywhere. Go shopping, screams the TV. Vote for us! Scream the fracking politicians. But the individuals behind the crass adverts and childish politics also fell into a trap – I’ll call it the fat banker trap – where instead of shooting the messenger, they started stalking him. Which has led us to this desperate situation in which starving artists, having renounced their shares, can only stand by and marvel in helpless horror at ‘…the casual indifference of those willing to sacrifice so much truth, so many people – even the stability of the global climate – for what, in the end, amount to the most trivial, transient baubles of personal wealth, status, comfort and power.’*

No wonder most normal people think money sucks. Only it doesn’t. And we mustn’t.

Money is neutral. Along with being a messenger, money is a facilitator and a resource. It can fund corrupt politicians. It can heighten inequality. It can trumpet propaganda. It can buy plastic shit made in sweatshops by children. It can be hidden in offshore bank accounts (although what the point of that is I’m not entirely sure). Or, it can allow for travel and exploration, leading to a deeper connection with our world. It can be given to people who need it, so they can drink clean water. It can buy land and protect it for future generations. It can be invested in green technologies. It can buy time and talk about truth.

No busking?

Frack off.

*(David Edwards – The Compassionate Revolution; Radical Politics and Buddhism)