These days, fans accost me in the street. Rick, they say, how did you do it? How did you get where you are today?
Waal, it wasn’t easy, I reply, adjusting my codpiece. The bus was late and I missed my stop. But I got here. Eventually.
The fans don’t think so, oddly enough. They look at each other and edge away, leaving me wondering why I can’t come clean about my sudden ascent.
You haven’t heard about that? Think about it, you nonce – what else could prevent me publishing a post here since mid-May last year? Illiteracy? Lumbago? Wild horses?
Nay, nay and nay. Nothing but success, pure and simple. For let’s face it: a bloke who hits the big time doesn’t need to blog. (Or beg for that matter, which is much the same thing.)
Now, as I bask in the glory from the isolation of my grandiose grotto, I feel a plectrum of guilt. One that picks at my nylon nerves. I mean, don’t my fans deserve better?
Yes, you do – you know you do. Well, here it is: a retracing of my path to prominence. Follow it, and you too might aspire to greyness. To greatness, I mean.
Milkman. If cheese is made from milk, big cheeses are made from milkmen. Delivering milk, midnight to dawn, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue swinging me along – such was my first job of work. A month or two on the dark side set me up for an enlightened life.
Trolley-boy. Nothing’s harder to handle than twenty shopping trolleys in a row, especially in the swirl of customers and cars. My short stint at a supermarket taught me that control is an illusion. Holding on is the best we can hope for.
Administrative Officer. After accidentally acing a public service exam, I wrote letters for the Minister of Police. Few of us are truly happy, it seems. In almost a year I discovered that, for many, life is a complaint for which there is no cure, judicial or otherwise.
Law Clerk. Speaking of the law, I was in it for a bit. Just long enough to learn that every firm – every group big or small – has its own unwritten rules. Which I broke. Stuck out the back with the stationery, I wrote satirical news stories until I earned the sack.
Assistant Resident Boarder. Living with fifty teenagers gave me a good gauge of my own mentality. The results weren’t pretty. Clearly, I’m no leader of boys, let alone men. Which is why it’s best to go it alone, all the way to the asylum.
Investment Relations Officer. God is not always the best guide, especially when it comes to gold. I discovered this while working for a posse of preaching prospectors. Tasked with placating doubting Thomases – irate investors seeking imminent earthly reward – I realised that the faith of others is never enough.
Medical Typist. To be a good listener, you need someone to talk to you. For months on end I had doctors whispering in my ear, dictating letters. After a while, I thought they were talking to me. But they weren’t. They were talking through me. Dodge the dictators – this became my motto.
Writer. Okay, so I wasn’t a real writer. For a time there, though, my words did earn me some dough. Three kid’s stories netted me $800 (one was reprinted), at about 40 cents a word. Evidently, this invaluable experience taught me nothing, as I ain’t published anything since.
Data Entry Operator. Data – it’s everywhere. And it needs to be entered and operated on. That’s where I came in. For ten years I dealt with botanical data, sampling along the way something of the poetry of science. Lesson No. 9: there’s an art to everything.
Casual Research Assistant. To zone out, that’s what I learned while casually assisting a friend with her research. Numbers aplenty cried out for input and, as an aimless Arts graduate, I was ready to put in. As I daydreamed, my digits became, well, the digits. Truly, trying too hard makes trying too hard.
Ten sure steps to success or a beagle’s blighted breakfast? Call it what you will, this serpentine, potholed path has made me what I am today: a humble Passport Officer (ongoing), no less. Which is perhaps more than a trifler like me deserves.
And yet, as the Lonestar Hitchhiker himself, Don Dilego, puts it:
I want to build a brand new road,
But I’m not so sure I know where it goes…
For someone who has a lot of friends, I get pretty bloody lonely. Okay, so all my buddies are imaginary, but what has that got to do with it?
Years ago, I made a big decision, and probably a bad one. I decided that real people suck – as pals, at least. Phantoms, I felt, make better friends. What led me to such a pretty pass? Was it the misanthropy of my parents or my own social awkwardness? A bit of both.
Mostly, though, I put it down to the crazy ideas I had as a teen. Back then, all my friends – bar two – seemed to lack a couple of crucial qualities: complexity and concern.
No-one called me, you see. No-one came after me. No-one seemed to care. The friendships I had were fed solely, I believed, by me. And, in my youthful eyes, one-way streets inevitably led to dead ends.
Sure, there were no smartphones in those distant days, but I wasn’t that hard to contact. No, my unpopularity had nothing to do with my remoteness and everything to do with the way I perceived my pals: as shallow and lacking in seriousness.
You wouldn’t know it now, but back then I was an intense individual, one obsessed by the quest for, err, Beauty and Truth. I was, in other words, a pompous git; amusing at times, but definitely not someone to chat to about your holiday plans or family news.
People who thought about such things were superficial – such was my elevated opinion – and no doubt I made it clear to my friends that I felt this way. Thus they didn’t call me. Why would they?
Like nature, culture abhors a vacuum, and into the breach stepped books.
When I was little, my mum gave me a bookmark whose inscription I took to heart. You might know the poem. It begins, ‘Books are friends/Come, let us read’. What hope did I have?
So, over the years, instead of making friends, I bought books. Second-hand ones, of course, because they have more character. Books became my imaginary friends.
And now I’m lonely. Why? Because just as, years ago, I categorised my real friends and lost them, I’ve gone and put my books in boxes. Somehow I’ve managed to distance myself even from my imaginary mates.
Come, let us read. If only I could!
I’d been away from home for a week, working. Over breakfast, and out of idle curiosity, I asked my five-year-old son to tell me what he thinks I do for a living. ‘You make books,’ he said, playing with his porridge.
‘Well…’ I began, and stopped myself. His answer was understandable, I supposed, since he knows about the stories I’d published and about the book I’m trying to write. Understandable but awry.
‘Well…’ I started again, before stopping a second time. I sat and sipped my tea. Whether my son knew it or not, he was actually right. In its own way, my employer is the biggest publisher in the land, pumping out two million titles a year. I just hadn’t thought of it that way before.
‘Spot on,’ I said to my son. ‘Your dad makes books.’
What’s the simplest story you can think of? No, not Hemingway’s six-word classic, ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’, which probably isn’t even Hemingway’s. I’m picturing the modest passport, and the spare biographical details those slim volumes contain.
Name, sex, date and place of birth – now therein lies a tale. Think of Homer’s heroes, for instance, and the thrills and spills their lineage bequeaths them, as they try to live up to their names, and to being both Greek and male. (Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, has it really bad.)
Think of almost any pre-modern story, in fact, and note how its characters strive to meet the expectations laid upon them at inception. Expectations encoded in the facts of their birth.
Identity – it’s part of our inheritance as humans. An inheritance that, in recent times, we’ve come to resent and reject. Today, we change our name and gender at will; today, we fudge our age and our origins on a whim. Which is why the modernist (literary) text – yikes! – is invariably about escaping our ancestry by trying to ‘make a name’ for ourselves, however ugly or empty the new one might turn out to be. For, as Eliot puts it in ‘The Wasteland’,
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images . . .
All this (and more) brings me to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, which I happened to read during my recent time away. Its hero, Tom, yearns to be a ‘living, breathing, courageous individual’, not a ‘cringing little nobody from Boston’. He hates the reality of his impoverished existence, and he’ll do almost anything to escape it – he’ll even alter his identity by becoming Dickie Greenleaf, the son of a rich industrialist.
Sadly, I know how he feels. There have been a few people in my life who, I’m ashamed to admit, have known me only by the wrong name. (I mumble, you see.) I’ve never corrected them – then or since – because I prefer to be seen as someone other than myself. Call me a coward or just call me Will, as one of them used to do.
It’s kind of ironic, then, that I now work for the Passport Office, helping to make those shrewd little books that authenticate identity. Like Tom Ripley, I’ve tried hard to escape the facts of my birth, and yet they’re still with me, a kind of passport, perhaps, to another life – possibly even my own.
Just don’t tell my son about my real job or he won’t want to grow up to be like me. Then again, maybe he Will.
Sometimes the deadliest things seem the most harmless. Take the whale shark. On the surface, this fat fish resembles a peace-loving kale-nibbling mammal; peer into its blowhole, though, and you’ll catch a gut-churning glimpse of the real thing: a malevolent predator bursting to bite you in two.
Then there are ‘innocent’ messages like the one I whisked away from a desk today. At first glance, this little note speaks of a simple adhesive slip-up and the chance misplacement of a mug. Sad but insignificant. And yet, when fully decoded, it tells of something infinitely more sinister – of a family ravaged by addiction and, egad, of a civilisation whose innards are being eaten out by moral corruption of the vilest kind.
Frightening plus 1.
To make matters worse, this message was left in the open, totally nude, a veritable spark itching to ignite the imaginations of passing public servants, one which would do them – and society – no end of harm.
Frightening to the power of X.
Luckily, I was on hand to whisk it away, and, as usual, I reproduce it here as a warning to the unwise. Now that’s how you take a message!
The past. We’re more used to seeing it on the walls of museums and ancient ruins than on the walls of our homes. And yet you’ll find it there too, if you scrape hard enough.
Ancient ruins? Yeah, like those of Pompeii, with all their candid graffiti. ‘I screwed the barmaid,’ scrawls one Roman. ‘O walls,’ writes another, ‘you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.’ And then there’s ‘Nothing ever happens in this shitty little city,’ which, sadly, I had to make up.
Anyway, that’s what this budding novelist has been doing for the past week: scraping old paint off the walls of his house. Stripping away the past, as it were, layer by colourful layer. Brown, blue, purple, orange – it’s as if I’ve been living under a rainbow.
A toxic rainbow, of course, which explains why my family has decamped for the duration, and why for a week my noble visage has been half-hidden by a mask. Weep, ladies, weep! It’s the lead, you see, it’s dleadly.
In ancient Rome, people put this highly malleable metal in water pipes; in the nineteenth century, they put it in wine (to sweeten it); in the twentieth century, they put it in paint. That’s progress for you. Now paint comes free from artificial sweeteners, which makes it harder to swallow but supposedly much safer. Goody.
So there I am, perched on a stepladder, laying bare the history of my house with a hand-scraper, stroke by wearisome stroke, as if I’m turning the pages of a book. And I’m thinking, why does old stuff always seem so dangerous; I mean, that’s what Freud was essentially on about, right? Buried stuff coming back to bite us.
That’s when I get to the woody flesh beneath the sickly skin. Pure, unadulterated timber that once formed part of a wholesome, harmless tree, one that would never drop a branch on your head or try to trip you up with a rearing root. O, I cry (metaphorically), why did we ever exchange nature for culture? Then I put my blade through a rotten board and immediately I know. Like the present, the past is as much enemy as ally.
And, yes, that’s pretty profound.
But wait – there’s more. A lot more, alas, because this post was supposed to save me work by featuring something I wrote in the past, about the past. Something from another blog I once kept. Something called ‘Little Chicago’.
What’s in a hat? Memories, of course.
Over Easter, Queen Jane and I were whisked away by Dennis Potter’s redolent rendering of the Mayor of Casterbridge to Upper Wessex, where we followed the fall of a man undone, like Achilles, by unassuageable anger. Afterwards, we made our own descent: into the heart of our local hamlet, where Jane browsed wares while I sat reading in the sun.
‘There’s a bluebeardy look about ’en,’ Nance Mockridge said, of the aforementioned Mayor. ‘Stuff – he’s well enough!’ replied Christopher Coney. ‘Some folk want their luck buttered.’
Before long I was approached by a nuggety old bloke, who drew me out of Casterbridge (for, having finished the screenplay, I had started the book) and into conversation. Like townsfolk from Hardy’s tale, we parleyed in High Street.
My companion spoke, in thick English, of various things: of his heart’s fatal flaw and his decision to stay the surgeon’s hand; of his native country, Poland, and his arrival in this, his chosen land; and then, remarkably, of my own adopted home, the suburb of Springfield. It, he said, had been a Polish place, like another, in America, only smaller. Little Chicago, they called it.
Finally, he said he liked my hat.
I own two hats. One came to me from a market stall; the other, from my grandfather. As usual, I was wearing the first, for, unlike the second, which is heavy with age, it is young and lightweight.
My companion added to its store of memories. More importantly, though, he wore his own dusky thin-brimmed cap as if it were more ballast than burden. History, he showed, has a steadying hand.
So, you see, it’s not all bad.
I don’t care. The rain having stopped, I’m now going to go and do my bit to poison and preserve humankind. I’m going to go and paint over the past.
It’s a new year but has anything changed? Of course not. The fate of civilisation still hangs in the balance, thanks to the pig-headed ham-fistedness of bureaucats and dogs everywhere.
Why, no sooner had I returned to my post at the elbow of power (or thereabouts) than I chanced upon the following scrap of paper, left smouldering on a desk by some incautious ignoramus. Fortunately I was on hand to whisk it away, thereby protecting the privacy – not to mention the welfare – of all concerned.
That’s how you take a message!
Two years changed my life. The first was 1984, the year I lost my voice. I was twelve at the time, and on the cusp of adolescence. Things were going well. My family had moved to a small country town, where for the first time in my life I had enough freedom to flourish. My father was often away, so as his eldest son I grew in stature. I was popular at school and captain of my cricket team, and I even had a girlfriend of sorts.
Ironically, I also became one of the ‘voices’ of my school that year, being chosen to speak on some kind of recording – I can’t remember what. Boy, I wish I had that tape. Why? Because my fall soon followed, and I didn’t talk again for thirty years. Not freely, that is, not as ‘me’.
It was my own fault, I suppose. Instead of creating an imaginary world, as we usually did, a friend and I set about ‘reshaping’ a real one: a sewage works on the edge of town. Into the open tanks went sprinklers and rocks, on more than one occasion. Thus did we become vandals; thus were we caught and disgraced. Thus was I stripped of my new-found liberty and life, and of the town I loved. Thus did I drag myself back to that devil’s playground and try to drown myself in the muck. Thus did I fall silent, smothered by shit and shame.
Years later, I fictionalised my downfall in a story called ‘Adam and His Other’. It starts like this:
We begin and end with an image. A boy crouched on the edge of a tall concrete tank, staring at a face in the filthy water. His face. Overhead, the sky, faded and flat; close by, skirting the high chain-metal fence, a dusty track fringed by scrub. And silence, too, for nothing moves, not even the figure in the water. Yes, the boy above is no Narcissus; the face he beholds is not a reflection, but solid and real. Look closer. Study the looks on the faces. Are they not identical, like their features? There, around the eyes, shock and dismay; there, in the eyes, sadness and a shadow of hope. Now look down. Yes, the boy has his hands in the muck; yes, his hands are on the shoulders of the other. Effortlessly, the boy holds him under; effortlessly, one boy holds the other boy up.
2014. The second year that changed my life. Or will. Because a few months ago my voice came back, bursting up from below with astonishing clarity and force, like the unitary yowl of a newborn and its labouring host. How did it happen? Not through trying, oddly enough, but by letting go.
Since high school, I’ve been obsessed by two things: writing and singing. Both have been about recovery – I know that now. About recalling my voice and with it ‘me’. Thus I began book after book and took lesson after lesson; always, though, my voice – real or written – came out ugly and weak. The harder I tried, the worse it became, until something inside me gave up and gave. Only then did I let myself go.
Twelve years my recovery took. It started when I allowed myself be led to a quieter place, to live and work amongst people who like to listen. As I let myself speak, I found that my written voice grew louder. I produced articles, posters and displays at work, and I wrote children’s stories for magazines at home. I started to study again and, despite having failed before, I finally wrote my way through. Reflection, research and a receptive readership – all three things encouraged me to speak up. I graduated in April, a straight-A student.
This year, too, I ‘came out’ as a writer; I laid bare my literary persona by starting this blog, and I conceived a small writing business-to-be, my first. Slowly but steadily, I climbed out of the muck.
At the same time, my real voice grew stronger; by letting myself go, I grew into a man as well as a maker. The past eight years have seen me become a husband and father, and respect and responsibility have given me voice. Sure, arguing with my wife and yelling at the kids have loosened the cords, but only singing to and around my children has brought me release. The emotions my offspring invoke – all that agony and ecstasy – have filled me so full that I’ve come rushing to the surface, borne back to life on a sudden upsurge of song. Miraculously, my voice has regained its upper register, and with it me my higher self.
Of the songs that have served me well, ‘The Starting Line’ by Keane is special. I find the first two lines of its soaring chorus particularly ‘uplifting’:
Drag your heart up to the starting line
Forget the ghosts that make you old before your time
So, you see – 2014 has been a big year for me. By putting the ghosts behind me, I’ve made it back to the starting line. Now, of course, I’ve ‘got to get underway’, but that’s another story. What about you? What kind of year have you had? Go on – get in touch. Let yourself go.
It’s a rare sight these days, someone smoking a pipe. If you’d been sitting on my shoulder a few weeks ago, though, that’s exactly what you’d have seen. A drifting dome of smoke and, somewhere underneath, a bedraggled young bloke chugging away at a churchwarden.
And it wasn’t one of your blunt, British-bomber-squadron kind of briars either; rather something resembling half a handlebar moustache gone wrong. Bent to buggery, it was, like a saxophone. Boy, that cat was burning up the scales.
Pretty wild vision, huh? So wild, perhaps, that it might simply have been a pipe dream – is that what you’re suggesting? Well, as I was office-ensconced at the time, anything’s possible. I do one-handed work, you see, which leaves a lobe free to roam the busy street below or, if things come to a pretty pass, to romp like a rabbit through time and space.
Too wild, as my four-year-old son would say.
Real or otherwise, that bloke and his briar took me back to my own pipe-sucking days. The past, it seemed, was sending up smoke signals, drawing me back. Years ago, in high school, I’d had big plans. First, I was going to buy an old car, rip off its roof, fill its back seat with soil, and grow flowers. Then, presumably, I was going to cruise the streets, the proud captain of some kind of vehicular vase.
I’d do things differently now, of course. I’d grow vegetables instead of blooms. Form follows function these days.
Later, after washing my hands, I was going to get me a pipe. Oh, yeah.
Pipes denote personality, you see, and personality is something I’ve always wanted. Motorcycles are the same, but I never got a bike much more than I never got a pipe. I blame my parents for this, of course, since they threatened to insert such devilish devices into a pipe of a different kind – my exhaust pipe – if I was ever caught in possession. Thus did my quest for a pipe-driven personality go up in smoke.
I’ll leave you with a lame lament about women’s skirts, because these groin-concealing garments are something else I’m seeing a lot of through my work window at the moment, it being summer and all. Or not seeing a lot of, to be more precise. And that’s my point: hemlines seem to be scaling new heights.
Soon I won’t have to exercise my imagination at all in public, and that’s a bit of a bummer. For what we’re witnessing here is – yes, you guessed it – a reprehensible race to the bottom.
In the ideal office, each and every drone would take messages. As it is, most simply leave them lying around, thus endangering the safety and security of all.
Not me. I safeguard civilisation by collecting, from desktops and drawers, these incendiary scraps of paper, which I publish on the internet as a service to society.
Here, then, is a message I removed from a desk today. Brace yourself…
Now that’s how you take a message!
Here’s something my biographers don’t tell you: sleep used to keep me awake at night. For a time there in my twenties I’d sit up half the night reading books about the stuff and about all the sweetness and light it sheds on human life. The experts would tell me that –
Happily, I can’t remember what they told me, if anything. I seem to recall, though, that their texts were dotted with cautionary tales from history, just to give me nightmares. Titanic tales, you might call them. For if that iceberg hadn’t been asleep at the seal, then the ship of the century might never have sailed into the movies. Yes, that’s the kind of ‘experts’ they were.
I was worried, you see, because I seemed to be sleep-walking through life, unable to awaken. Something was wrong, I knew – I’m perceptive like that – but rather than blame my misfortunes on, say, me, I decided the problem was sheep.
Not sheep, but sleep. It’s funny, though, how often one concept invokes the other. Trust me, the link is more than linguistic.
Sleep. Opium of the masses, drug of the nation. Sleep. Superfine wool you pull over your own eyes. (That sounds pretty sheepish, doesn’t it.) Sleep. An alluring apparition you can have but not hold, and which shows itself only when your back is turned. Sleep. The word I keep repeating.
Shut-eye. Clearly, I was short of it. But how much did I need? In the end I came to a radical conclusion: none was enough – nay, more than enough. Sleep, I decided, was a waste of precious time, time I’d be better off wasting myself. Impressed by my logic, I wrote ‘Think like a bull’ on a piece of paper, pinning it to the wall with my horns. Then, in one extended sitting, I set out to finish the novel I was writing.
The sound I’m making now is the sound my brain made when it broke. Did I tell you my brain broke? Good, because it’s a secret.
Okay, it was a bad idea – having since heard about Operation Sandman, I now know that sleep deprivation is a form of torture, a fate worse than tickling. So, yes, I made an ass of myself, and, yes, my thinking was a load of bull. (My ‘novel’ was nothing to write home about either.) Verily, I had sinned against sleep and paid the price, my ship-like cerebellum being brained by the immovable iceberg that is science, or nature, or something. Unlike the Titanic, though, I got a second shot at going under…
Fast forward to the future, to the here and the now. My life is wide awake and fully dressed, even if my fly is undone. I’m a homemaker, a father, a husband; I’m the owner of a lonely blog. I am living, it would seem, at the coal-face of life. And yet (he writes in hushed tones) I’m still not completely sold on this sleep thing.
Fact is, I’ve had a bellyful of the whole palaver. Chased from the matrimonial couch by the late-season fruit of that union (a real little peach), I’m lucky to fit in twenty-two winks a night, let alone the full forty. Then there are bumptious beagles that bay, nocturnally, and an inner writer that mercilessly wags the dog – the Timm who tumbles me from my makeshift mattress in the early hours, so I can pen piffle like this. The wee early hours.
Sometimes, I’m just too damned tired to sleep. And, yes, I have tried counting to sheep, but, gee, they’re slow learners.
There’s a lamb nearby now, as it happens, in a neighbouring yard. A real one, I think, and not just an ethereal ewe sent to mock me. The little nitwit bleats mournfully at any hour of the day or night, weighed down, no doubt, by its woolly woes. Like me, the poor thing seems to struggle with sleep. Would some simple mathematical task help it nod off? Counting people, perhaps, as they jump through hoops? After all, what works for worn-out public servants ought to do for Ewe too…
See what I mean about sleep and sheep?
Chop, chop, I hear you say. My point, if you insist on hearing it half-baked, is this: the Sandman has feet of clay and the experts are dreaming – sleep just ain’t the holy grail it’s made out to be. Look at me. Six hours’ shut-eye and I feel terrific: I’m at one with the world and, best of all, the words are flowing, every one a winner. Enough said?
So here’s my advice if you’re thinking of bowing to the god of nod by going to bed early. Sleep on it, for heaven’s sake.