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Month: December 2018

Sorting Books and Existential Dread.


It started about a month ago. One of those breezy, well-intentioned statements of commitment which was well wrapped in the ‘sometime in the future’ mantra.

It had got to the stage that not only were there piles of books everywhere but the piles were collapsing. On the odd occasions when I went looking for a book I couldn’t find it. More usually I’d be picking up books near at hand, those lapping on my armchair island, those books carried in by tides of daily impulsive purchases. I’d be reading bits of maybe six books each day. Meanwhile, the volume of unread books grew physically, and so did a gnawing and persistent unease.

I was disrespecting books. The puritan minimalist in me envied the reader who sits in a superbly organised library while enjoying the riches of one book at a time. So, a month ago, I ordered yet another bookcase which currently joins the book piles, forgotten, unassembled.

DISASTER!

This morning I was subject to disaster. Yesterday, among the books delivered to me was the Penguin hardback version of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I already have paperback editions – somewhere – but felt Marcus deserved special treatment. The Penguin version is what a book should be, beautifully made and printed. I spent a moment smelling it then placed it on the pile to the left of my armchair which is next to a bookshelf I use for not only books but varieties of detritus such as elastic bands, old pens, and where I place my drinks. Thus it was that I contrived to knock over and spill a full mug of tea.

That did it. I’ve been three hours now sorting books in my main room. I’ve got some empty boxes somewhere so I have made a big pile for the charity shops, maybe 50 books, most of which I haven’t read. Each title reminds me of a time maybe a month, maybe a year ago when I developed an inexplicable interest in subjects I knew nothing about. Sorting the titles I was seized with recognising an underlying manic and possibly Faustian desire to swallow every item of knowledge and thought contained in the universe. Oddly, I haven’t found my book about octopuses which I think is the only non-fiction text I read in 2018 with devoted attention and fascination. Perhaps there is more than a little of the octopus in myself. Or my multi-tentacled selves.

The largest transitory pile contains subjects to which I do profess an interest. Technology and culture, mental health, psychology, philosophy, theology. Too much. One reason I ended up with so many books is that I was beguiled by ones I’d read to follow a footnote or reference to read authors I’d not come across. Every field of human study bifurcates continuously into labyrinthine mazes, fractals. An academic may devote years of their life to researching a tiny aspect of a tiny aspect of a subject. Yet here is me trying to bypass disciplines and wallow in the easy joy of superficial understanding. Well, that last sentence is one aspect of my existential anxiety regarding my reading habits. Another is that such foolish reading habits remind me of something a teacher of mine once said in dismissing a writer: ‘He chewed far more than he could bite off.’

Still, the areas mentioned above are deeply important to me in a very broad sense. A few of the titles will go on the shelf, the rest in a box, a storage space, a dusty archive. I think many of us have a precognition, valid or not, that something may come in use at a future time. (It rarely does, of course: it’s simply forgotten).

Poetry’s easier because such is the high status of poetry in literary culture I don’t bother to separate periods, schools or – God help us! – ‘types’ of poetry. I take the easy way out. If it’s poems it goes in the poetry section. I feel a bit happier now, getting all the poets together. It’s been a while since I’ve browsed and chosen one to enjoy. There’s only one book not going on the poetry shelves – T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets which is now on a shelf just to my left next to some Vedic selections.

Fiction’s easy to classify too. I don’t even bother to stop my pulp crime fiction from sidling up the ‘literary’ geniuses. This is symbolic, not just lazy. The crude distinction between the highbrow elite and the lowbrow masses is rarer these days but it still retains its offensive implications. Let’s be glad that Shakespeare wasn’t pressured into writing only for the galleries.

The most depressing pile of books, happily not too big, contains those How to… tomes. How to reach a million twitter followers. How to set up and run a successful business repairing umbrellas (I joke). How to self-publish. How to become an author-entrepreneur. How to master SEO – the 100% proven and easy way. How to market your book. All I can say is I was duped! One thing I have learned from such books is that they represent a huge part of the reading market. If you follow the fairly obvious advice to use the right keywords and categories, price your book correctly and have an attractive cover you’re 75% on the way to selling your How God can Make You a Millionaire. I’ve also learned that all that book marketing is not for me. Apart from the waste of many hours, and subscribing to a certain attitude of mind which is totally inimical to mine, you have to beware of mixing with the sort of people who, in many modern tragedies, were travelling salesmen.

Then, as the temporary piles begin to collapse and books I love but seem unclassifiable come from the recesses of memory, I find a space for those titles which I need for my writing projects. And there are only three of them! To think that if I spent my time writing I would hardly ever have to read again – an exhilarating yet terrifying thought experiment. And yet, the mess, the arbitrary collection of my books library is one way of looking at my mind. It’s disorganised, disconnected, in bits and forever adding jewels and junk. I should have the physical side of things sorted in the next few days, albeit that will mostly result in tidy-looking chaos. Psychically, from the very start of 2019 I shall be engaged in that strange thing writers seem able to do – to make everything seem so simple. If you want to think mud and Lotos Flowers, please do!

Anyway, that’s enough for today. And don’t get me started on my Kindle library. Somewhere in there are three books I’ve promised to read and review.

Ah, no longer finished finishing when the doorbell rings. A sweet delivery of the Everyman’s Complete Works of Michel de Montaigne

Alone at Christmas

Alone at Christmas? Yes, to my delight. Fully planned while my partner is on a fortnight’s retreat.

The ‘plan’ included doing nothing, much harder than it sounds. Ideas for books – fiction and non-fiction – keep filling the sky, often with flying machines from another planet. Yet, apart from watching a truly dreadful film, I have not only managed to do nothing, I have also – in doing nothing – allowed the creation of crumbs, dirty dishes, a slow diminishment of personal hygiene, books picked up then thrown to join their company in piles or not even that neat, abandoment to the God of Cheese, and many other affronts to health and respectability. Have I enjoyed it? No.

I fervently look forward to resuming work. I don’t think ‘relaxation’ is to be taken lightly, something that’s like getting drunk or feeling morally free to glut. I doubt I’d be writing this if I’d gone the way of mere hedonism.

Rest or relaxation are crucial to the writer. A writer, this is something so often forgotten, is first a human being. Truly, a human being can write copy for advertising or sentences for bestselling fiction in the same way that a politician can use stock phrases, penny-in-the-slot sentimental ideas, to control the masses. Such would be best advised never to rest, never to remotely consider what they do.

But a writer who is soul-body-creation and writes almost as a holy calling. also needs rest, retreat. To write with everyhting you have, all that you love and believe crucial is very hard and very lonely. The ideal rest, as opposed to the muddier one I described above. entails a discipline itself. To go away for a month ‘to rest’or ‘to recollect’ is pointless without discipline.

However we discover and shape rest, it is vital. Seneca reminds us:

The mind should not be kept continuously at the same pitch of concentration, but given amusing diversions… Our minds must relax: they will rise better and keener after a rest. Just as you must not force fertile farmland, as uninterrupted productivity will soon exhaust it, so constant effort will sap our mental vigor, while a short period of rest and relaxation will restore our powers. Unremitting effort leads to a kind of mental dullness and lethargy. Nor would men’s wishes move so much in this direction if sport and play did not involve a sort of natural pleasure; though repeated indulgence in these will destroy all the gravity and force of our minds. After all, sleep too is essential as a restorative, but if you prolong it constantly day and night it will be death. There is a big difference between slackening your hold on something and severing the link…

Well, that’s something that came my way yesterday via my friends who tal about Stoicism (something that interests me, not something I intend to purchase).

In an interesting article about the philosopher David Hume, Julian Baggini notes that

… in AnEnquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748): ‘The mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry.’ Philosophy matters, but it is not all that matters, and although it is a good thing, one can have too much of it. ‘Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit,’ says Hume, ‘and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you.’ The life ‘most suitable to the human race’ is a ‘mixed kind’ in which play, pleasure and diversion matter as well as what are thought of as the ‘higher’ pursuits. ‘Be a philosopher,’ advised Hume, ‘but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.’

I think that as writers we have first of all to be men and women, fully human and alive in the many worlds of society. To be fully alive is to look after ourselves and rest, to spare a salutary smile in acknowledgement that our writing life is a lovely dewdrop on being’s profundity. But then, so is football, David Hume and Seneca.

A Bleak Unhappy Christmas Story

A bleak unhappy Christmas story? How could I?

Well, you don’t have to read it! After all, I wouldn’t tell a child that there’s no Father Christmas. And I don’t mean to upset anyone who is already in the Christmas spirit, or getting pickled in Christmas spirits. So be warned. The writer makes Scrooge before his epiphany seem positively magnaminous.

Here’s a link to the story, The Big Wheel . It’s one of a forthcoming collection of stories around the theme of addiction.

I’ve no intention of ‘defending’ the story or commenting on its content and style per se but it raises some points for me in general that may be of interest to other writers.

Firstly, the invisible author (no, he’s not the Spirit of Christmas!) is not me, the guy who’ll doubtless be going a-waissaling and merry-making  over the ‘festive season’. It’s true that parts of ‘me’ are as bitter and twisted as the next depressive realist but the story is not a personal rant. As with a first person narration in which the narrator is a character not to be identified with the writer, so too an author can adopt an omniscient perspective and ‘voice’ peculiar to a ghostly character, an ‘imagined writer’.

Secondly, in fiction generally the ‘acid bath of cynicism’ approach can dissolve a lot of mawkish sentimentality leaving intact only what may to the reader be metals (or mettles) of basic value. In doing so a writer has often observed and distilled aspects of his or her own life and others, and hopes readers may identify or recognise themselves and others.

Finally, most important of all, it’s taken for granted that each reader will complete the story in their own way. Whatever the writer means or intends is not relevant here. A story has to be taken ‘as you like it’ (or as you don’t like it).

Anyway, enough of this solemnity. Best wishes and HO HO HO!

I’ve a Favour to Ask

I’ve a favour to ask. First of all, thank you to all the lovely people who have read my novel and given me such positive feedback in messages on social media. It is so encouraging and gives me the motivation to coninue writing. If you have time, it would be wonderful if you could leave a short review on Amazon. A single sentence is enough, some more detail if you have time. Reviews are just one of the ways to help other people find the book. Even if you haven’t finished reading you can still write a review. All sales proceeds are going to charity so your review will help there too.

Of course, if you haven’t read the book I would be delighted if you did. Me and a million other authors! But whether you do read it or not, whether you leave a review or not, may I take this opportunity to wish everybody a peaceful Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

Writers with severe mental health problems

We all know of famous writers with severe mental health problems. Any creative type is usually hit with some neurosis or worse, the myth would have it. That is a myth, of course. Most creative people are sane. And most people with severe mental problems are sane too.

However. Writers like me are people first. People with a diagnosis are people first. I’m an elderly person. I have a diagnosis of moderate to severe and incurable bipolar disorder. And I’m a writer and a man and a football fan. I’m an old male writer with bipolar who likes football and wears a big watch with a skull on the face.

Right now I am down. Tired all the time, flat, weary. The list of things to do after getting up from 12 hours of sleep is terrifying. Coffee, Shave. Clean teeth, If I have cereal I have to wash a dish. The big one: I have to walk the five minutes to the shops to buy bread. Then the giant I’ve hidden from for weeks: I need to print out a returns label, pack a faulty item and walk all the way to the post office to post the parcel. Many of you will recognise this state. Add to it a visceral anxiety in my solar plexus. In my head a buzzing I cannot hear, a flickering I cannot see. It’s little, a minor annoyance. There are genuine agonies by the millions out there.

Humour and Irony

Don’t worry. This is normal for me, has been all my life. I have no desire to add to the literature of depression – or the memoirs about alcohol, a substance which until about fifteen years ago was destroying me.

I’m not a miserable person. Shy and introverted, I’ll never be the life and soul of a gathering but I enjoy company. I like to laugh and talk. That’s because the human urge to socialise is healthy in me.

The thing is, having accepted my depression and its not infrequent twin, high octane mania, I think I’ve learned to adapt. And it’s the basis of my creativity. While I am ‘in reality’ a pleasant, unassertive guy, my writing seems to pour from something like deep anger. Something ‘like’ I stress; I’m not aware of being angry about anything. Something like a furnace. My writing seems to have a life of its own. It’s often cynical but dancing with dark humour and irony.

Sometimes, I can’t write but just twitter and flutter and potter about. Most times though I do write. I enjoy the gravity of it, occasionally an epiphany that this writing stuff is a miracle, language is miraculous, being rather than not being is enough to head off any danger of wanderings to search for more than what is here. As Wallace Stevens wrote, ‘Let be be finale of seem’. That poet had his own finale and knew that ‘Death is the mother of beauty’.

You may have guessed rightly that I find solace in those beautiful voices over the centuries that resonate with the wonderful resonance of Death. I mean, I don’t expect Shakespeare anticipated people rolling in the aisles with laughter while watching Hamlet. My favourite reading is dark, dark, dark, much deeper and truer than the bright illusions which in the ‘real world’ sustain us.

Acting Normal

The great psychologist, William James, observed, correctly I think, that ‘the sick soul’ sees reality more truly than the healthy. I think the ‘depressive realism’ of ‘sick souls’ makes it impossible for them to fully join in with what passes for ‘normality’, though they certainly have enough acting skills to pursue the various roles we all must play to be accepted as ‘normal’, to hide in the light. The writers who gift us a vision of our psychic foundations help us grow, become more solidly human. Yet such writers and artists by and large cannot be spotted in ‘real life’. Contrary to the idea of creators being weird people, they largely live like any of us – with families, mortgages, suits from Marks and Spencer. But their real ‘real life’ that they gift us through the page lies often too deep for them to see or know with perspicuity.

Having queried the myth of creativity and ‘madness’, it shouldn’t be ignored that writers, in particular, do have among them more than their share of hard drinkers, alcoholics, drug addicts, depressives, suicides. But, to repeat, I think most writers are, like me, boringly ‘normal’ (I greatly hope nobody is puzzled about how somebody with a serious mental health problem can be boringly normal).

Anyway, let’s end with a little poem from a man who, very sadly, was not able to adapt to this Vale of Tears. From Edgar Allan Poe found feverish, probably drunken and in despair just before his death:

Alone

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring—
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone—
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone—
Then—in my childhood—in the dawn
Of a most stormy life—was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still—
From the torrent, or the fountain—
From the red cliff of the mountain—
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold—
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by—
From the thunder, and the storm—
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view—