Awful things happening.
It’s going to be all right
It’s going to be all right
It’s going to be all right
(Repeat to fade…)
Five miles before Wroxham, the tractor turned in front of me. I trailed it past Beeston St Lawrence Church, Beeston Hall and Wroxham Hall. Into Wroxham itself, the non-descript capital of the gorgeous Broads, entirely ruined by the road I was driving on. Over the narrow bridge into Hoveton and out round the railway bridge. At Rackheath, where I turn left, he turned first.
And so, for half-a-commuting-hour, I fumed, until with Thorpe End looming, he headed off into a farm track. I hate driving. I hate what it does to me. Like ten minutes here or there makes a smidgen of difference, but how those minutes are magnified behind the wheel. I drive because I need to, but I resent every instant.
Back home, there was tea and children’s bedtime and then I went for a walk. Twenty metres from my cul-de-sac, the streetlights finish. Beyond is blackness. In the years I lived in cities, I missed this dark terribly.
And, in the stubbly field beyond the houses, there were stars.
Star watchers (I don’t know why I don’t say stargazers, but something in that term annoys me) associate seasons with constellations. To the south-west, still high but past its best, was the Summer Triangle, Vega-Deneb-Altair. Autumn’s peaking, of course, and that means the square of Pegasus, uninspiring and plain, and its companion, Andromeda. You’d imagine the Andromeda Galaxy, twice the size of the full moon, would be a thing of wonder, but it’s too dim. You need a telescope to see the monster that our galaxy, a billion years hence, will splat into.
Aldebaran, Alpha Tauri, had begun its march up the sky, bringing winter in its rear, the freezing wonders of Gemini and Orion and Sirius.
Spring – Leo and Virgo – was entirely absent, but northerly Arcturus, which dips below the horizon only briefly at this latitude, was hanging in there. I read once – I can’t find the source now and I’m not sure if it’s true – that Arcturus’ motion is taking it out of our galactic plane, that it might even have originated in another galaxy which collided with ours before the sun had even been born.
And then I started to wonder. Imagine a star, winding its way around the galactic core, has its orbit disturbed. What if it picks up enough motion for it to escape the Galaxy itself? There are a hundred billion of them in the Milky Way, after all. Does the Galaxy shed stars like bonfire sparks? If our sun was one of them, twenty or thirty million light years from home, how would that feel?
And so I conclude that tractors and speed limits and traffic delays don’t matter a damn, and that our galaxy, a milky stripe painted right over our heads, is unutterably beautiful.
He was handsome. Twenty-two, twenty-three. Butter-blond. Standing in the road, hand grasping a pillar. He had that glowing wholesomeness that seems to be a Swedish birthright.
He never made a noise. I glanced away, and when I looked back, he had fallen to the floor.
I was in a restaurant in Khao San Road, a grubby, despicable travellers’ ghetto in Bangkok. A year previously, I had succumbed to pneumonia here. I’d come back because I was sick of being scared of this place. Just twenty-four hours out of Heathrow, I’d arrived to this.
Memory shifts with the years. I used to remember seeing a sparkle of glass next to his hand. Now I see a syringe. Did my wife see it, tell me about it, and now I see the syringe too? I don’t know.
But I do remember this. The restaurant staff surrounded him. The owner picked up a telephone and dialled. We’d all stopped eating. The staff cleared for a moment, and I saw his face. It was a frigid blue.
The ambulance came and the medics tried to revive him, but they didn’t move him. They waited for the police to take their photographs. That was the moment we knew.
What’s strange is my lack of emotion. This man died five metres from my face, but I watched it coolly. Is this a survival mechanism, this ability to face tragedy and not be upset? Only in retrospect does his death fill me with an awful sadness.
I hope he had identification on him. I cannot bear the thought that somewhere – Uppsala, maybe, or Utrecht or Minneapolis – there might be a family still hoping that their boy will return from the south-east Asian darkness. It would be obscene for me to have this knowledge and not them.
Not that I could bring them much comfort. Only that he died quickly and was not alone. Not much comfort at all.
I’m in a terrible muddle over names.
Last time I started blogging, I chose a silly name. I became Disintegrating Clone, named after a ridiculous comic book saga. I figured the blog probably wouldn’t last more than a fortnight – the length of time it had taken my first blog to fall into disuse. But the blog took off and my confidence increased. Then I realised I was running out of things to say about comics.
So I ditched that blog and name, and became – again without much thought – Distance. Right now, I’m Priene, a name I use on writers’ boards. I’ve got more aliases than Klaus Barbie. It’s become ridiculous. So what’s going on?
My father was a clever, uneducated man. My parents came from Gateshead, a deprived industrial town known then as the mucky road to Newcastle. My grandfather deprived him of the education he needed by refusing to let him go to grammar school. He left school at fifteen, went into a trade, and, when post-war Britain opened up opportunities for people like him, joined the Civil Service.
I never saw my father read a novel. Not once. And non-fiction, almost never. How does a clever man live with such a lack of stimulation? Not well. He suffered from depression most of my life. He was not cruel, but he was withdrawn.
He did believe in learning, though. Never explicitly stated, his belief was that boys should do science, and girls could have the arts. My brother, a natural scientist if ever there was one, flourished, and is now a University Professor. In my half-assed fashion, I tried to follow father’s desires and brother’s example, and made some terrible errors. I had mistaken talent for desire. I could potentially have become a scientist or an economist (I flirted with both) but my fundamental flaw was, deep down, I didn’t have a sliver of desire to be either.
Let’s just say that Professorship isn’t waiting in my near future.
I’ve liked a few subjects in my time, but the only one I adored was literature. I squirm as I write that. This declaration of love is an admission of defeat. My father, who I’m sure thought me a disappointment anyway, would have heard those words, puffed on his pipe, and turned sadly back to the television.
Perhaps I’m doing him a disservice. A moot point, given where he is now.
What drives me, then, is this sense of shame. Shame at wanting to be a writer. Shame at not being the son my father hoped for. How have I managed to avoid submitting a single item in a quarter of a century? Write two hundred poems and not show a soul? Keep a blog for two years without telling a single friend or relation? Adopt a string of pseudonyms and provide no link between them?
Shame, that’s how.
I wasn’t quite sure if I would blog again.
Just out of incomprehension, I guess. I’d do some posts here and – strange emotion for me, this one – be rather proud of them. Transfer over to a novel, a short story, and the result was pure sewage. Then I’d force myself to write and it’d get even worse. I had three finished first drafts of unsalvageable quality and I wasn’t getting any better. Blogging got lost in the slipstream.
Also I was doing lots of driving and discovering how much I loathe drivers. I only learnt recently, and then out of pure necessity. What is it with people behind wheels? What’s with the overtaking on corners? The speeding? The flashing? The desperate need to get past one of thirty-seven cars lining up behind a bus? It’s like Death Race 2000 out there, and everyone thinks this is normal. Matushka Zastupnitsa. And I had an accident – my fault for not realising just how shitty the road surface was.
I’ve always imagined that I will die in a road accident. A stupid, nonsensical fear. Pathetic, but it’s there in me, and it never goes.
So I was tired and out of sorts and I took a writing holiday. Doppelganger in the very gentlest way accused me of being a hysterical worrywart who should shut up with the soul-searching and do more posts.
I will do more blogging, I promise.
I’ll cut down on the unbecoming self-doubt and just try some stuff out. Come to think of it, this is my place, after all…
Must write something, but nothing comes to mind.
A side-effect of my bloody car crash, I think.
You Are Spider-Man
Quick and agile, you have killer instincts (literally).
And that kind of makes up for the whole creepy spider thing.
I have a potato allergy. Sadly, I love potatoes. The British staple tuber is an exotic, unreachable object of desire for me. If Adam gave up Eden for the bite of an apple, I’d do it for a handful of Walkers Prawn Cocktail Crisps.
I also can’t eat banana. Maybe it’s the same allergy. But giving up banana is no big deal.
Anyway, I miss crisps, and maize bacon frazzles and rice cakes just don’t hit the spot. Then yesterday, I discovered Sainsbury’s Sweet Potato and Plantain Crisps. I hold them close to my chest all the way home.
Ever wondered what sort of saddo would buy Sweet Potato and Plantain Crisps? A potato-allergic saddo, that’s who.
This morning, I wake up with diarrhoea, shakes, light-sensitivity and a head going thumpa-thumpa-thumpa. As fear of anaphylactic shock clutches my heart, I wonder what might have caused it.
Mushroom sauce? Nah.
Chocolate easter egg? Nope.
“It could have been those crisps,” I say, “only they weren’t potato.”
“Yes,” says my wife, “the banana ones. I thought it was funny you were risking banana…”
“They weren’t banana, they were Sweet Potato and Plantain. They should have been OK.”
“Oh,” says my wife, looking sweetly amused, “so you didn’t know that plantains are cooking banana?”
I spend the next hour on the toilet. If I didn’t know before, I do now.
Can we admit that his plots were sketchy? That his characters were unconvincing? That his novels, with endlessly recurring characters, situations and jokes, tend to blur into one?
If you start enumerating Kurt Vonnegut‘s weaknesses, you might conclude that he couldn’t write at all.
When I heard he’d died, I thought hard about whether you could actually call him a great writer, but, yes, he was. Every bookcase should have a place for Slaughterhouse-Five, and one classic alone will put you into the canon. And I’ll always love Cat’s Cradle and Mother Night.
He was an anti-novelist, in the line which comes down from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Stripped of convenient literary devices like plotting, Vonnegut’s work draws heavily on theme. If you don’t see Slaughterhouse-Five as a meditation on war, then you’ve missed its intent. I had a friend who couldn’t understand why each death was followed by “so it goes“. It seemed a repetitive and pointless device.
But “so it goes” was the heart of the book. Death is repetitive and pointless. How many writers can hammer that home and still make you laugh?
He was also a polemicist: imagining a planet with an unpleasant guano punishment for white-collar criminals was his way of countering apologists for Richard Nixon’s “victimless” crimes. He was funny and political and, if he lost his way occasionally, that journey was fun too.
Now Vonnegut suffered from depression, and its shadow runs through all his work. Can we conclude that his often passive and lost characters sprang from that source? His mother committed suicide, and his son, aided by drugs, had a major breakdown. Vonnegut considered his depression hereditary and so, I suppose, unchangeable.
It’s this passivity of characters which strikes me as Vonnegut’s major weakness. In his early work, cohesion and theme pull us through this, but his later books were often aimless. Characters like science fiction writer Kilgore Trout (surely Vonnegut’s younger self?) pop up time and again, but the law of diminishing returns sets in. Vonnegut was painfully aware of this. “Even Jesus would have started repeating himself, if they hadn’t crucified him first.”
If depression was a constant problem, Vonnegut’s anthropology degree didn’t help. Thanks to this, he believed that everyone was almost exactly the same. If that is so, how can you differentiate between characters? How can they be good or bad? To paraphrase Yevtushenko, Vonnegut’s world had neither Montagues nor Capulets, nor Romeos, nor Juliets. Yet despite this, Vonnegut’s writing radiated humanity and warmth. He was a contradiction.
In 1984 Vonnegut attempted suicide and, 1997’s moderate Timequake notwithstanding, his last twenty years produced little of note. I remember Salman Rushdie hatchet-reviewing one of Vonnegut’s last books. If aging boxers retain their punch longest, humourists keep their one-liners: Vonnegut said that he was thinking about issuing a fatwa.
And Rushdie, then the greatest writer in the world, started sliding into his own long-term decline. So it goes.
Writers tend to be among the most arrogant and unpleasant individuals our species can produce, but never Vonnegut. JG Ballard said Vonnegut’s “sheer amiability could light up all the cathedrals in America“. If you loved Vonnegut’s books you probably loved the man himself. Vonnegut was our clever, childish, twinkly-eyed uncle and we miss him because, damn it, there aren’t many of those around any more.
…is some old style internet policing.
Back in pre-millennium days before years of abject failure turned Ipswich-Norwich matches into an excuse to deliberate on the futility of belonging, rival fans used to get together on a bulletin board and indulge in fantasy violence.
Anyway, there they were dissing each other’s shirts and planning a fracas when up pops PC Smith of the Norfolk Constabulary. He warns them that this is conspiracy to commit affray (or some such) and that further posts will result in severe legal action. The police had just that week discovered the internet and hadn’t twigged on that the posters were actually all still at Middle School. PC Smith then got into a prolonged debate with a twelve year old who told him that he was “bigger than you, harder than you, smarter than you and I earn more money with you“.
The result was a big victory for the hooligan lobby. I don’t know if Norfolk Police still have a cyber-football-violence section. But I miss them.