I'm not one for looking back. My focus tends to be on the present or the near future - it's where the action is, after all - and I don't much recollect or reminisce.
But I was clearing a cupboard in a bout of clutter-removal and I found a box full of photos and letters. Man, I used to write and receive a lot of letters. Anyway amongst them all I found an old A level submission. The date at the top informed me I'd handed this particular car crash over in January of 1989, six months before I was due to take the final exam. I scored 51%. (Curious, btw, to see anything other than Maths marked in percentages but that was evidently the thing back in the day...) What struck me most was the teacher's neatly pencilled comment at the foot of the piece. I don't remember the teacher in question, but the comment began like this:
"When are you going to start taking this seriously? Your situation is desperate."
It goes on for a few more lines before concluding, "it's a good job marks aren't subtracted for errors or misunderstandings or you would have achieved a negative score." Having marked more than my own fair share of A level work in the thirty years since, I've gotta say I'm impressed by the snarky chutzpah on display here. I don't remember having any concerns or stresses about my studies at the time and I can only assume I took this portentous warning in my stride... which suggests, I guess, that the accusation was fairly levelled.
All of which makes me reflect on the person I am now. I have the draft of a novel due for submission in six weeks or so. Am I, like the eighteen-year-old version of me, blithely swanning on, oblivious to the stress and pressure whilst those around me tear their hair out? No I am bloody not. I'm one-part sleepless to three-parts cacking myself while colleagues and friends assure me everything will be OK. Meanwhile, my inner drama-queen wakes me at three a.m. to remind me my 'situation is desperate.'
Just when the tables turned I can't be sure though I'm guessing it was sometime in my thirties.
The only consolation? Well, I might not remember much about sixth form college, but I remember the grade A I got six months after this particular wrist-slap. Let's hope it's a sign...
My brothers and me been goofing around in our Whatsapp back-and-forths trying to name the ten albums that have most influenced our taste in music. The ones that've most made us the listeners we are today. It's been doing the rounds on Facebook and it's way harder than it seems. We're not sharing good or even great albums necessarily - not all stone-cold history-of-pop classics - just the ten that, rather then end up as dead-ends, opened up long vistas of subsequent discovery.
Example: I love Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden but it's not here 'cos I never spent much time with the rest of the post-rock scene. It's an end, not a beginning for me. On the other hand, some albums prime you for others like gateway drugs; a fortnight after listening to artist A, you might have checked out another five or six bands - like the underground maps you see with the stations replaced by musicians. These gateways tend to come early in life so there's a whole bunch of old in this list; 2007 is the most recent release. That's not to say new gateways aren't possible though - a thrilling prospect, right?
Mostly these days I'm about hip-hop, electronica, lo-fi, art-rock and alt-folk - genres with hyphens in them basically. So here are my ten. For reasons that now seem wilful, I decided to limit myself to stuff I still had physical CD copies of. Sometimes I hate myself.
Without Low End Theory, I wouldn't have found Digable Planets, Mos Def, Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, The Roots, Common, NAS or Aesop Rock so I owe Tribe Called Quest (and De La Soul) for that. Without The Blue Aeroplanes' Swagger - or, say, The Smiths' Hatful of Hollow - I wouldn't have found I dunno, hundreds of bands; The Shins, Death Cab for Cutie, Art Brut, The National, Dirty Projectors... and Future Sound of London's ISDN opened up a world of sequencers, sampling, beats and bleeps; from there I got to Orbital, RJD2, DJ Shadow, The Avalanches, Four Tet, Superflu, Quantic, Bonobo and dryhope.
The Hold Steady's Boys and Girls in America opened the door to Titus Andronicus, The Japandroids, Drive-by Truckers, Richmond Fontaine... Grant Green introduced Blue Note records, be-bop, hard bop and more hyphens besides (Lee Morgan, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakey); Scritti Politti's Green Gartside was all philosophical and literate when I was just a dumb kid. Without him I'd not have been primed and ready for Prefab Sprout, Orange Juice and Aztec Camera, Lloyd Cole, Elvis Costello or The Pet Shop Boys; Branford Marsalis' work on James Horner's score for Sneakers got me into soundtracks. (An aside: Spotify tells me I'm amongst Thomas Newman's top 1% of listeners. Jeez.)
Joni Mitchell's Hejira (or Blue, Hissing of Summer Lawns, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter...) was my introduction to confessional singer-songwriter stuff - Tom Waits, Ryan Adams, Joanna Newsom, Kurt Vile and Agnes Obel all came after; Crowded House's Temple of Lo Men, an unashamedly commercial album, marked the start of my predilection/obsession for guitars and melodic choruses - the likes of Shack, Ash, Foo Fighters, Kooks, Honeyblood and Bad Moves all followed... and without The Lilac Time I would never have figured out who Nick Drake was, let alone discovered James Blackshaw, Anais Mitchell or The Wood Brothers.
So there you go. Try it yourself, this is a good lockdown game folks...
I’d not normally need any virtual assistance in the twice-weekly process of buckling down and getting some writing done. Far from bunking off, I’m usually I’m thinking too much about my latest project. In any normal week I’ve driven my family to distraction by Wednesday, my tendency towards a thousand-yard stare during normal conversation a sure sign I’m off in another world, present but not really present.
Nowadays though, when I’m not home-schooling the kid and I’m trying to get some writing done… things are different. Emails are pinging in, WhatsApp groups are chattering, mates at a loose end are sending me cat videos and news updates are either imminent, in progress or, having just finished, are the subject of immediate and endless analysis.
I’ve had to turn to the App Store for help. I’d heard others recommend a swathe of internet-blocking tools, Freedom most prominent among them, but what had recently caught my attention was a recent attendee at a Storycraft creative writing session tell me about Forest.
Forest has got me sorted. It’s not a blocker, as such – you can leave the app to check email and surf the web anytime you want – but if you do, your tree dies. You read that right. Your TREE DIES, people; the lovely little thumbnail of growth you’re nurturing, paradoxically through your inattention. (If only home-schooling were as easy, right?)
You select a period of time for uninterrupted tree-growth and the app plays rainforest sounds in your ears for the duration. Every time to pick the phone up, it encourages you gently back to work. It’s the second-best thing that’s happened this week, behind my timely delivery of lockdown Rioja.
Only problem? It doesn’t monitor what it is you’re doing. It has no idea how you’re spending your away-from-the-phone time.
Like, say I was writing a quick blog-post instead of assiduously plotting the re-write of the second act of this thriller I should be working on. Let’s just say. Well, if I was, Forest would never know. Shhh. Don’t tell.
p.s. The Storycraft session went well:
I once visited a school so posh it had won Tatler's Restaurant of the Year in the Education category. I had salmon with samphire for lunch that day.
My recent visit to Shrewsbury School was equally as impressive. The food was great of course and the campus utopian; there were swimming pools, lecture halls, strange courts for a game called fives, acres of manicured sports field, a school chapel. But the library - guys the library. It had a Turner painting hanging on the wall. Behind toughened glass was a first edition of Origin of Species. Signed. Charles Darwin was an alumni so there were hand-written scribbles made by the man himself in his own textbooks.
The staff were lovely, the students terrific; clever, thoughtful, funny. I spoke to one who had their own ski-instructor. A great start to WBD week. Thanks so much to all the terrific folk who bought a book and everyone who helped make the talks and workshops such a success!
Listen. I'm not going to apologise for starting my reading year with Dungeons and Dragons, Art and Arcana even if you come round my place with a tooled-up crew of rabid heavies. I am who I am, and now Stranger Things has legitimised me. At least until season three when they all get into girls and the gang splits up and only that sad wizard-kid is left DM-ing in a basement on his own but you know what I mean.
It's been the usual mix of MG, YA, thrillers and fantasy this year, with the emphasis heavily on the thriller since I'm 75,000 words into one of my own. Here's hoping there's 2020 news on that but it's way too soon to say.
Later on in the year it looks like this:
In the MG space I loved Malamander, and in the land of Gatsby-esque YA, Lockhart's We Were Liars is of course a masterpiece and I was a fool not to notice when I read the first half three years ago, before I subsequently forgot to renew it, paying a hefty fine and moving on to other things. I'm a top-draw dunderhead and I don't deserve your patronage.
You might have seen a previous post called Six Thrillers; they accounted for a sunny month towards the end of the summer. Two I loved but you have to guess which. Others: Jane Harper’s The Lost Man was an intense and stifling whodunnit set under the relentless Antipodean sun. Dark Pines and An English Murder were chilly European equivalents. Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party is shipping bucketloads from bookstore table-tops and for good reason: better, for me, than Moriarty’s Big Little Lies because despite a similar cast of vile and self-obsessed characters, Foley’s structure foregrounds the murder and we time-hop as well as head-hop. The two-day running time condenses action and ratchets tension very nicely.
Aany-way. Book of the year for me:
It's a raw, visceral and scary fictionalised account of the Donner party's disastrous attempted crossing of the Sierra Nevada in 1846. Spoilers: things turn bad and people get bit. Turn back or you will all die is plastered across the cover.
Hopefully that's not a comment on our foolish country's current trajectory, eh.