Literary reviews & academic assessments
of David Heidenstam's writings.

A range of David Heidenstam’s writings have now appeared in print. Microfictions, in Tales for my dog. A theatre script, in In the beginning… And poetry in the journals Acumen, Agenda, Ambit, en blocThe Frogmore Papers, The Journal, Orbis, Pennine Platform, and Prole (UK), Two Thirds North (Sweden), and the American Journal of Poetry, Blue Unicorn, and Cold Mountain Review (USA), and in Faber, Carcanet, and other anthologies – and, now, in his collected short poems, Fault Lines. As a result, the first assessments are beginning to appear, either as literary reviews or academic mentions.

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Academic mention of Tales for My Dog

Tales for My Dog is one of the most impressive collections of microfictions that I’ve ever read. Its range of genre, subject and feeling is remarkable. Among the many little gems in Heidenstam’s book are pieces that resemble aphorisms, parables and beast fables, as well as miniature second-person narratives. Heidenstam expertly combines the realist, the funny and the absurd in a way that resembles short shorts by some of the greatest practitioners of the genre, such as Robert Coover, Lydia Davis and Dan Rhodes. At times, his writing has a beautiful meditative quality, as when he closes a piece with the words: “There are too many people in this world, and you can’t tell anything about their lives.” For me, the volume provides conclusive evidence that microfiction has a much greater range and affective potential than is commonly believed.

Dr Wojciech Drąg, Assistant Professor, Institute of English Studies, University of Wrocław; co-editor of The Poetics of Fragmentation in Contemporary British and American Fiction (2019) and author of Collage in Twenty-First-Century Literature: Art of Crisis (2020).

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Review of In the Beginning…

In the Beginning… reimagines the first chapters of the book of Genesis with wry humor. While our laughter is tinged with bitterness, anger, and above all sadness, in the end, perhaps we see the Fall of Man as a triumph.

The familiar Christian notion is that we fell from a perfect state of grace when we ate the apple. Heidenstam puts that state of grace a bit earlier, before the universe began: God, Satan, and all of creation existed together in perfect harmony. Then, God broke it to pieces, separating Himself from Satan and creating everything. No one in Heidenstam’s Eden feels this loss more than Satan himself; the playwright evokes sympathy for the Devil with a clever combination of naturalistic action, humor, and engaging, thoughtful dialogue.

God and Satan are very human in this play. In the first act, Satan has a sneezing fit; God, the harried creator, gets discombobulated while naming all the marsupials; the pair get drunk over a game of chess; and Satan gets shit on by a bird. But just when we are disarmed and laughing, we begin to understand Satan’s plight: He has been divorced from his brother and forced to play a role he does not want. Satan bemoans, “your world rejects me. Wherever I go I am a stranger.” Satan is without love. He begs God, “Let me be loved. You are loved. Let me be loved.”

Satan has not chosen this; he is as God has created him. Love is out of reach. Eve sees this, and her compassion for Satan turns the moment when she and Adam eat the apple from humanity’s greatest failure to a moment of triumph. In Heidenstam’s telling, Eve is not tricked; rather, she makes a moral choice.

This deceptively simple play is well worth a read. Like the Biblical story it is based on, it confounds in the most pleasurable manner and promises a feast of challenging ideas for those who are willing to taste of it.

Bryon Reiger, Rain Taxi, Volume 25 Number 2 Summer 2020 (#98).

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Review of Tales for my Dog

This collection begins with a warning to the reader not to dip in at will, but read the tales consecutively. I did both. It’s true, taking a linear path through the pages does lead you to certain recurring themes; in particular, a sense of alienation and confusion, as attempts are made to navigate the world. In every section, you find characters unsure of their identity, suddenly developing theories of mind in inanimate objects, at the most inconvenient time or location. Heidenstam is keen on giving us stories from differing points of view, his and hers, subject and object, what might have been, what never can be. His tales may be of the commonplace, in which case his treatment of it is bizarre; or completely surreal, and told plainly. (“He was a miser, and so didn’t buy any clothes….most people were very glad they had their clothes, as they felt that with clothes they could deceive people into loving them.”) There’s a touch of Aesop and allegory about many of these microfictions, with the experiences of animals – and in particular, of course, dogs – being plumbed for morals and meaning. I particularly enjoyed the “Four tales for younger dogs” section, which beautifully encapsulates childhood’s terrors – the dawning knowledge of how little you understand, and the desperate anxiety your ignorance provokes. Childlike at times, but never childish, with a sophisticated wit and dry telling observations, often shocking, always entertaining, with never a single wasted word.

Melissa Todd (@MelissaRTodd), in The Journal (UK), #68 (#78), February 2023.

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David Heidenstam

David’s background is English and Irish on one side, Scottish, Welsh, Swedish, and Greek on the other. His mother’s family: London tradesmen who became merchants on Grimsby fish docks. His father’s: wanderers who transited from the Swedish diplomatic service to the British colonial, via a spell working for the Ottoman empire.

       David grew up in England in the 1950s, and ended university with an MA in “political science” – which by then even he had realised was nonsense. Turning down a PhD grant, he became a labourer, security guard, and hitch-hiker, before getting drawn, thanks to an old girlfriend, into the world of popularised encyclopaedias. This involved summarising the official Olympic rules of clay-pigeon shooting, and then becoming expert on all the gambling games of the world.

       Jumped up to “editor” at £2 an hour because there wasn’t anyone else, he then had to write, for a US publisher, Man’s Body: an owner’s manual – in five months with a couple of researchers waiting to go to university, Ruth Berenbaum and Jefferson Cann. This went into 16 languages, sold over a million copies, was a US Book of the Month prime selection, and in many cultures (Catholic, Asian, Muslim, parts of rural USA) was the first time ordinary people had easy access to health and body information. He’d added a final section, “Woman’s body: a non-owner’s guide”, which he hoped did some good. Then contributed to the Woman’s Body book itself (edited by Ann Kramer), writing the chapters on gynaecology and on ageing.

       With the proceeds, he bought a half-terrace of three houses for £2000, in a village in the Forest of Dean. The empty one should have taken six months to do up. Him it took four years, so he became village postman. Eventually escaping to Ireland, he ran backpackers’ hostels, then got taken on as a sailboat-delivery cook/crewman. They only realised after they’d left Ireland that they might have asked more carefully about both his sailing and his cooking skills.

       Earlier, the hitch-hiking had taken him through Iraq just after the Ba’ath party had come to power (including resting up for a few days in the family home of one of their government ministers), and twice to Morocco – where he stayed for a while on a kif farm in the Rif mountains (the first European they’d ever met who had absolutely no interest in drugs), and then, without even a green belt, ended up teaching karate in a village down south. The sailing led to a couple of Atlantic crossings, an enforced dismasted stay in the Azores, travels in the Caribbean and USA, and a spell of owning his own boat in the Canary Islands – a wooden-hulled Hungarian-built bilge keeler with a Welsh name.

       Back in the UK he did a bit more editing, then returned to Norwich to keep his father company after his mother died. Couldn’t take him travelling at first, the authorities wouldn’t give his father a new passport, they’d decided he wasn’t British any more. But eventually the two of them got away, to Tunisia, Morocco, India, Egypt, eastern Europe, in the last years of his father’s life.

       David now mostly splits his time between Great Yarmouth and Vietnam, sits in cafés scribbling or cheap hotel rooms on his computer, and is one of just four surviving male members of the senior branch of the von Heidenstam family, with his own entry in the Svensk Adelskalender. His poetry has been published in journals and anthologies in the UK, USA, India, and Sweden, and his microfictions in Tales for my dog.

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Travels with my father…

In memory of Felix Heidenstam, 1918-2011

A sort of retrospective blog

In memory of my parents
who had to suffer the consequences
of having a wayward son

An eclectic, eccentric, non-chronological mix…

Some work and hitch-hiking experiences written in retrospect.
Most other entries written at the time.

The strands include:
The Modern Characters
The Great Bicycle Walk
Letters Home

The Modern Characters mostly date from the late 1960s and early 70s.

The Bicycle Walk entries date from 1990, when I walked for a while through south-eastern England pushing a bicycle over-laden with camping kit and with its pedals detached… The slow progress had the intended effect in opportunities for observation and conversation.

A range of stuff to kick this off…

Incidentally, please remember that I am writing British English (the British black community would be understandably insulted if mis-called ‘African-American’). And, where occasionally necessary for verisimilitude, reproducing the language of many years ago (e.g. the use of ‘girl’ for young woman normal, while ‘gay’ for sexual orientation effectively unknown).

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Cottam, May 1968. Nine deaths per power station, on average. Not a remarkable figure. Bert sees today's. The man's up on scaffolding, high inside the blockhouse. Slipping, he twists hard in the air, trying to catch hold. Then hits a projecting pole and gives up. Custom is, take the day off, or work it for the widow. That's among the unionised. In your little un-unionised gang – breaking into others’ bothies at night to eat your mid-shift meal – the only debate is: night off or work on.
Gang members at Cottam, Drax, Longannet. Jeff, foreman at — : young, black glasses, greasy black hair, feet that stink out his billet, son of the family who control – – docks. Phil, his brother, older than the rest of you, former owner of a night-club, just out of prison. Ray, the ex-boxer with the broken nose. Sid, his humorous sidekick. John, black guy who rarely speaks. Bert, homosexual with creased face and rough Beatles’ haircut, who wanders the site off-shift looking to find someone to chat up. Hank, the diminutive alcoholic.
“Don’t stand there picking your nose,” says Sid to Hank. “You’ll lose weight.”
Two jobs on the power stations: tubing condensers, and concrete grinding. Tubing is hard work; concrete grinding not, but a bit unhealthy. You polish little patches of concrete, till they’re utterly flat, smooth, level. For metal blocks, about eight centimetres by 40, on which heavy machinery will sit. Your tools are pneumatic grinders, sample blocks, spirit levels, engineers’ blue. You get the patch level, but there’s a wobble; you get the wobble out, and the level’s gone. You get wobble out and level right – but the blue shows your block’s only resting on a few high places. Your masks against the concrete dust are cotton wool pads in little frames over mouth and nostrils. Within minutes they’re sodden with saliva and snot. But you each get a free pint of milk a day, to help wash the dust down into stomach instead of lungs. More immediately lethal is when an air hose detaches from a grinder. The metal end thrashes viciously through the air while you all duck and scatter, till someone gets to the compressor and switches off.
Meanwhile in the sleeping huts the billet walls are thin.
“I find it difficult to make conversation.”
“Mm.”
“When I’m driving, I hardly ever talk,”
“Mm.”
“When I'm driving, I hardly ever talk. Even when there's someone with me, I hardly ever talk.”

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(With apologies to Thoreau.)
Most men lead lives of quiet perspiration.

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(From The Modern Characters.)

Archie exhibits that common trait among human beings: of worrying most about the good opinion of those he respects least.

For Bernadette, living on the edge of a racial ghetto – having all that poverty and misery only just down the road – really satisfies her social conscience.

Charles has an ideal vision of what he wants from a woman – and avoids any who might begin to match his dreams. After all, when he is hoping for so much, there's always a danger they might be hoping for something too.

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Sweden, June ’64. Hitch-hiking from Göteborg to Norway and back over a long weekend, you stick out your thumb at an approaching car. A little upmarket, but one has to try. As it gets nearer, you finally see – the decorations – the uniformed chauffeur – and the newly married bride and groom in the back.

(Posted 30 May, 2018.)

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Tenerife, Jan. to June '86. Los Cristianos boat yard: sample people. Danny the English football fan, who's trying to get a lift to the Caribbean in time for the World Cup. Tove the Californian girl, who lives by theft and drug running and dress design. Old John, who was in Las Palmas two years back, now with a fishing boat in place of his little sailboat and trying to keep going doing a cheap illegal ferry service for the German backpackers heading to the next island. The nameless German hippy who wanders round playing a flute wearing only glasses and a fur jockstrap. Lars, the businessman who had to leave Sweden in a hurry and has since sailed twice round the world without passport or boom. Heidi, the Aryan blonde, whose boat, when it's lifted out, is clustered thickly round with men with offers of help. Greg, the American, who used to tend missile silo computers and now mends autopilots. Tony, the retired N. Ireland businessman with half a million pounds worth of new yacht, who having just cruised down from the Channel Islands has already got bored and decided to go into property investment instead, and in one week has bought 31 apartments, a parrot, and a mountain top. Dee, his wife, whose baby bursts into tears every time it sees you. Roger, the ex-expensive-private-school alcoholic with the ex-Francis Chichester boat. John, who used to be an art lecturer in England and emigrated to Tasmania to be a fisherman. Paul, who claims he's already crossed the Atlantic once in a barrel kitted out with sail and keel, and is now planning to do it again, only this time just drifting, and meanwhile is keeping alive going round the shops with an old paint tin with a slot cut in the top and a label saying “Research for survival at sea”. And Bo, the Swedish girl, who's been staying with her baby on Tony and Dee's boat ever since her husband decided to try to set out (again) (in Old John's ex boat) for the Caribbean, and she was found still huddled on the quayside in the morning muttering “I just couldn't take any more of the sailing…….”

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(From The Modern Characters.)

Donal's marriage immediately fills him with disappointment. Edith will always claim that it was love at first sight. Donal had assumed that loving someone would include being kind to them.

Frank is sufficiently self-aware to notice that signs of sadness in a woman’s face provoke in him flickers of desire. But he’s uncertain if this is because he has a longing to alleviate unhappiness – or because he’s reassured that the damage he’s going to do has already been done.

George has energy when Helen is low, is low when she has energy. As if there was only so much to go between them. Though that, of course, is not the reason.


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Upper Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj, May 1987; Tibetan and travellers' India. Fourteen days of rain. Not the monsoon, just freak spring weather. You hide in the cafés and eye the drizzles and downpours outside. At dusk, lightning jolts along the ridges, filling the rooms with blue light. Fellow travellers talk of Tibet, Buddhism, meditation, travel. Rest stomachs from curries and psyches from India. Sit over chow meins and pancakes, Tibetan mo-mos and milk shakes, spinach quiches and German sourdough bread. Outside is Tibet in exile: monastery, library, hospital, temple. “Medical and Astro Institute”. Dalai Lama's “Security and Passport Office”. Children's Village with 1,400 charges. Jerry-built houses, earthquake cracks, adjacent runs of bare bent water pipe and open sewer. Hundred-mile views southwards into India. Kids in tiny gumboots playing marbles in the mud.

(Posted 23 June, 2018.)

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Summer '85. Glenmalure, County Wicklow. The smallest youth hostel in Ireland. Only open summers. No piped water, no electricity, no telephone, no showers, no sewers, quite often no hostellers, and not much sunshine. Twenty-five mile round trip to the nearest carton of milk; eight mile round trip to the nearest Guinness. Three previous wardens have: i) resigned after two weeks; ii) come down for a summer's painting and been found at the end of it with an odd gleam in the eye and canvases covered entirely in dark brooding conifers; iii) disappeared, and been found back at the family home hiding under the bedclothes. You, today, have got up, fetched water from the river, burnt a sack of rubbish, emptied the contents of the chemical toilets into a hole in the ground, had a sponge and bucket bath in the woodshed, had breakfast, put the finishing touches to the month's accounts, and put your laundry to soak. Also checked for one hosteller if there'll be shooting today on the army range in the next glen, and for another whether she's recovered yet from going out to the women's toilets last night in the dark and bumping into an Irish corporal in battledress and blackened face sitting on the loo having a quiet smoke. Then you've locked all the metal shutters against the kids' gangs from Dublin (who so far this summer have smashed up one hostel, pinched bikes from a second, and camped to waylay and rob outside a third), and headed off down the track on the 25-mile round trip to town, to pay in and buy a toothbrush; past the overgrown remnants of the house where Synge set the plot of a play, across the picnic carpark where 405 years ago Fiach MacHugh's men killed 900 English in half an hour, past the rubbish bin where you sometimes find empty cartons with vouchers for that free film processing offer, down the glen to the sounds of chainsaws and sheep, past its three farms where before the Famine 150 families lived, past the waterfall foaming like wool, past the stone for Michael O'Dwyer who finally surrendered in 1800 and ended up in Australia as a policeman, to, after an hour, the crossroads, and the pub, and the red warning army sign, and the old ruined British barracks, and maybe the chance, if you've timed it right, of bumming a lift from the local postman.

Letters Home

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(From The Modern Characters.)

Ivor was always critical of Julie for being 'bourgeois' and 'conservative'. Recently, of her own accord, Julie has become a socialist and a dropout. Ivor is, of course, even less happy with this.

Ken claims that the reason he doesn't attract more women is that most of them are masochists. He just doesn't look like he'll treat them badly enough. In fact most women, meeting him, see rather deeper – and decide that perhaps they're not feeling quite so masochistic as that.

Luke is restless, always moving on. Though he understands very well that, if we don’t love ourselves, we are never where we want to be.


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On weekend security shift in London, in the Kuwait Oil offices, walking among the tables of the basement canteen, and reaching up and flicking with finger and thumb each lampshade as it goes by, leaving behind a succession of clear notes, each one different.

(Notebooks, August 1970)

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(Posted 27 August, 2018.)

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Retrospective, 1963. The North Sea from 9,000ft: black with white fumes of waves looking like miniature clouds. 
Your second trip abroad. Your first is at 16, to improve your French, 30 or so schoolkids from around the UK. The accommodation looks like a chateau from outside, a prison inside. It gets worse as you go up floor to floor. No hot water, and you can't criticise the food because you don't know what you're eating. Was that dog they gave us for dinner last night? And this – is it a sauce? a pudding? ah, no, it's potato. But you go to a rugby international, and Chartres, and Montmartre, and fancy the most fanciable girl among you, and send postcards home, and don't meet any young French women, but do accidentally say “tu” to a cinema usherette.
And now, in the plane, the others eye you uncertainly. You don't look like a deck officer or an engineering officer – which is what they are. Relief officers for a 50,000 ton cargo ship, on its European turnround. But you, 6'8″ tall, thin, with wiry curls of ginger hair and thick National Health glasses? Looking – as an affable American comments a few years later, seeing your old passport photo – like a 15-year-old chess-playing nuclear physicist who's just defected to the Russians? No, they decide – you discover later – you must be the guy who sits peering into the Decca Navigator.
In fact you're just a passenger. You'd wanted to work your passage somewhere, in the time between school and university. Inheriting a dream from your father. But it's all unionised now, it can't be done any more. Still, thanks to his contacts, you're on board for this two-week trip. A Palm Lines boat on turnround from its Africa run; off-loading and on-loading; Rotterdam, Bremen, Hamburg, Antwerp, Rotterdam. Flown over to join it; paying 10 shillings [50p] a day for food. Driving you down to the airfield, your father blurts out, at the last minute, “Wear a condom”. It's the only piece of advice about life he's ever given you. It hadn't actually occurred to you you could pay some lady to terminate your virginity. You'd be far too shy to buy the condom anyway.
Earlier that summer, like everyone else, you've been reading Catch-22. But at school, you took French, not English. You haven't read Chaucer, Marlowe, Blake, Jane Austen, James Joyce. You have, Corneille, Molière, Racine; Lamartine, Vigny, de Musset; La Rochefoucauld's Maximes and La Bruyère's Les Caractères. Oh yes, you know what literature should look like. In the sixth-form library, you come across a quotation from a medieval Christian scholastic, and its translation: “Omnis ardentior amator propriae uxoris adulter est. – All passionate love, even for a man's own wife, is also adultery” (Peter Lombard, De excusiatone coitus.) Utter ignorance of life, love, interpersonal sex, and religious feeling, and only a junior observer's knowledge of marriage, do not, unfortunately, prevent you from attempting a first aphorism in reply: “The only true adultery”, you write, “is that which derives its pleasure from its illicit nature.”

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(Obiter dicta, Notebooks 2010s)

Life is God’s experimental mode of time travel.

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(Posted 9 October, 2018.)

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December 1968, Turkey. Sitting in a lorry cab, crossing the ancient rolling slopes of the Anatolian plateau. To the left, a line of telegraph poles, then low green hills. To the right, the great expanse of Tuz Gölü: its mudflat edges alongside the road, then the motionless salt lake itself. Beyond it, the opposite shore dark purple, with the dying sun making the sky orange and the clouds deep blue above. Not a living thing to be seen, not even a bird. A road and a line of telegraph poles, cutting through bare nature.
Then the first sign of life: a large flock of sheep, clustered below the hills on the left and scattered up their slopes, and with them a dark-coated shepherd. Then a low stone hut. Then a dwelling cottage, brown render on stone, roof of branches and dried mud.
Two days later you’re riding into Mardin, standing on the mud- and manure-covered floor of an open truck, a pullover tied round your head in a makeshift headdress, your back to the wind and the rain. Two Turkish peasants in the cab, in the truck bed with you an old mule, on its way to become mule stew.

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Summer 1972. Coming back to England with L. from Morocco, you find X. – a good friend, the same age as your parents – starting to break under the strains of his life. He has an appointment with the NHS for psychiatric assessment, asks you to go along. He’s presented with a questionnaire. Five hundred and sixty-six questions… and a masterpiece of stupidity. Because many assume that the respondent is at ease with the double negative – and in a condition to cope with it. “I don’t usually [whatever]” – tick yes or no. When he disagrees, X. wants to tick yes. Thinking, despite the breadth of his intelligence, that this will mean “Oh yes I do”. One wonders how many treatments, policies, papers, will be based on the resulting false data. Dostoevsky in The Devils has Shatov say to the effect: ‘The life force is beyond the analysis of science and reason, and negates their attempts to describe and control life.’ (An issue that academics try to ringfence, with a nod to self-denying hypotheses.) But sometimes, in our ‘social sciences’, the problem is a bit less fundamental than that…

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On a train going out of London, the line runs for a moment alongside a small reservoir. At the next table, a young boy leaps in his seat, presses against the window. “Oh mum, there it is – Water!… Water…”

(Notebooks, 1970s)

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(Posted 31 December, 2018.)

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March, 1973. You’re back in Morocco, alone this time, escaping a labouring job in the English winter. The bus from the frontier takes you to Tetuan, but that’s not a town to stay in, and your body is desperate for exercise. Putting your pack on your back you start walking, west then south, through the shallows under the Rif mountains. It’s already late afternoon, and as dusk falls the dogs start barking, sensing a stranger. When it’s dark they start coming down at you, but only one at a time. Each time you shine your torch to show a hand picking up a stone, and they stop at a distance. There’ll be rabies around, but these are sane enough, just dogs defending their territory. After a time an Arab falls into step alongside you, coming suddenly out of the dark, a tall figure in a hooded djellaba. You don’t react, and in a while he disappears.
You walk for a few miles, then it’s time to find somewhere to sleep. There’s a junction, with a small road going off to the left, and a single-storey house where the roads meet. Over the yard wall you can see a light. There’s a gate like a door set in the wall, and you knock on it, and after a moment the light moves towards the gate. The light lifts, a lantern appears, and a face looks at you over the top of the wall, above the tangle of thorns. Then the lantern lowers, and the gate opens to let you in. You sit on the floor of the house, drinking the mint tea they’ve passed to you. The man, his wife, a daughter, a young boy. They’re not the poorest, to have a light burning; but there’s something wrong with the boy. You have no language; your French is ok, but here in the north it’s Spanish that’s the third language, and they’ll be speaking Berber or Arabic. You should be carrying postcards of home, or photos of family. Instead you can only show your passport and your maps. You point to where they are on the Morocco map, and your route down across France and Spain; but you don’t know if it means much. You’re offered bread, which you accept, and after a bit they fetch out some butter. You take a little, not to offend, but you know this is something for special days. As soon as possible, you refuse any more. The man presses you, gesturing that it’s good, but you smile and gesture that you’re full. Then it’s time to sleep. The man takes you back out into the yard and into an outbuilding. With the raised lantern he shows you straw to bed on, and you thank him. In the morning maybe you’ll offer money, but you’re afraid of offending, hospitality’s sacrosanct, and you won’t know how hard to press. He leaves you, and you fetch your sleeping bag out of your pack, unroll it on the straw, and clamber in. There’s the sound of another animal in there with you in the dark, but you fall asleep soon enough.

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(Posted 27 January, 2020.)

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Winter 1991, east London. You’re back to being a security guard again, after 20 years. You’re thinking of trying to get a mortgage; but for that, you need to show a steady job. Meantime you’re back too to primitive bedsit digs, to match your paypacket. Just down the stairs is a young Irishman, not long over, and he’s always got full-blast soundtrack spilling from his room. After you complain a second time, he says – Well, which is it, the music or the TV? He’s got both on together, turned up full, in opposite corners of the room.
Another time, when you’re chatting, you mention you know someone who’s a film double. A body double?, he says, with interest. You laugh. No, just an ordinary double. He looks puzzled. He doesn’t know what that means. And yet he’s the one who realises what the German guy on the ground floor is up to. He brings women into the house, and, yes, men come and visit them. But visiting the women seems to be free. You barely notice: you go out, do your 10 hours plus travel, come back, eat, sleep. It wouldn’t be the first time you’d accidentally ended up living in a brothel. There was that cheap hotel in the back streets of Las Palmas, while you taught English and worked on your sailboat. But here it’s the young Irish guy who works out the economics – not you with your PPE degree. It’s drugs where the German makes his money. The girls say something like – You know, this would be even nicer with a bit of a hit. So the client passes over the cash to get some in. The girls get free fixes, and probably commission, and maybe a gift. The client’s been drawn in, reckons he’s had free sex, just paid for shared sociability. It’s a creative solution to the mores of the market. The young landlord couple hear something about the drugs, but shrug it off. It’s only a bit of hash, they say. No it’s not.
Meanwhile, at work, you’re guarding a different end of the economy – an empty multi-million office block in Canary Wharf. There’s nothing to do; your partner guard, Vic, sits reading the tabloid Sun. Today there’s a front-page pic of a young woman at a ball, a titled baroness, caught wearing no knickers. Scratching her rump, and inadvertently showing, as the Victorian poet put it, a bright backside. Look at that, Vic says: the dirty tramp. He’s genuinely shocked. He belongs to an era when one’s betters were supposed to behave better. Ah, you wouldn't worry, Vic, you say; you'd give her a quick cha-cha. He does an instant switch to po-faced wit. Well, I wouldn't mind, he says; only I’ve got a headache coming on.

*

There are two temptations: to think the moral life is a seamless web; and to think that it is not. The first appeals to our slackness of intellect; the second to our slackness of virtue.

(Notebooks, 1980s)

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The Great Bicycle Walk, 1990: East Anglian signs. Outside pub: “Mad wife sells homemade food.” Signpost to villages: “The Deals” – comprising, no doubt, Big Deal, Little Deal, and Raw Deal. Streetname in Alburgh: “Pagan Terrace”. Official notice: “Warning, sludge lagoons” (bureaucracy happily enlisting words in ways that confound our emotional expectations). “Dead Lane” – appropriately home to a farm owned by a well-known pharmaceutical company. And elsewhere, the possibly unappealing: “Lonely Farm, camping and caravan site.”
Meanwhile the sun shines off the first shoots of wheat as sharp as off wet pebbles.

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(Posted 2 February, 2020.)

*  *  *

1984, Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. You’re working on your newly purchased old Hungarian wooden sailboat in the “sports harbour” of the city, living alongside the expatriate yacht dwellers, Scandinavian tourists, South American businessmen, Indian duty-free shop owners, Korean and Arab and Japanese fishermen, Russian and Romanian and Cuban seamen, and assorted local waiters, bartenders, beachboys, 8-year-old pickpockets, strippers, transvestites, bar girls, language students, and old men playing chess. Plus Lola, the vast and intermittently amiable landlady at your hotel in the back streets, Oystein and Torstein, the permanently drunk Norwegians on the adjacent boat who are supposed to be renovating it for their money-earning co-owners back home, assorted busy single-minded and technically adept French yachtsmen, your friend Graham the schizophrenic Buddhist who lives in a cave along the coast, Romido who lives on the old white catamaran and is according to choice either a rich bum or a gun runner or a police spy or some combination of these, Fernando, the only one of your students to have a sister who was Miss Spain, and your Korean Consul conversation student, with his love of Gibbon and Disraeli, his vast impractical English vocabulary, and his tendency to start the lesson articulate and sober and end it mute and boozed. Spending your time cleaning your bilges, picking discarded batteries that might still be sort-of ok out of the harbour dumpster, smoking cheap cigars, and pretending to teach English. Plus ransacking the battered haphazard contents of the local library's 'foreign books' section, and, among the old American 1950s college textbooks and copies of James Bond in Dutch, coming up with an unbalanced diet of Nietzsche and Margery Allingham thrillers – though your favourite find is an old English University Library edition of “Teach Yourself English for Swahili Speakers”.

Letters Home

*

(From The Modern Characters.)

Michael is temperamentally suited to making plans, and temperamentally unsuited to keeping them. But then what is resolution, but a sign that something is not going to be done?

*

What was revolutionary about Lawrence was that he was the first English novelist of the human spirit. He writes about people transported beyond themselves. Thackeray, Trollope, Dickens, Wells, Bennett, saw only people locked within themselves. In this sense, he is an American novelist – as Henry James was not. It's also why he had trouble writing novels. Trouble, at least, once he'd left his roots – and perhaps why, of necessity, he had to leave them. English novels are about social worlds; not about lone psychological growth. American novels are about the journey.

(Notebooks, 1970s)

*

For our own failings, we have endless compassion.

(Notebooks, undated)

* *

(Posted 6 February, 2020.)

*  *  *

London, summer 1987. Nelson's Column has been scaffolded and screened for cleaning. The repetitive neat oblongs of canvas make it look like a miniature high-rise or a squared-off Post Office Tower; a diminutive model for some future eyesore. Nelson's hat peeks ludicrously out the top; the lions peek solemnly and warily over the four corners of the hoarding below, as if making a last-ditch stand against all comers. It could be a stage set for an unsubtle satire on loss of empire. No-one takes much notice, not even the pigeons – who know they're better off down on the pavement, and are by far the most animate life-form around. They swirl, scatter, flutter, group and re-group; full of energy, being busy with life. The rest of us stand, sit, sometimes amble listlessly – are generally nonplussed – having nothing to do but enjoy ourselves. Only their cameras give the humans a bit of a high – and much more in the taking than the being taken. As if the kick isn't the communion, or the future photo (though that'll no doubt make it all seem ‘real’), but simply something to do, something done.
Down in the Embankment gardens it's the pigeons that are somnolent. Here the humans are vociferous, energetic, jokey – not being on holidays but only snatched lunch-hours – so quite safe from getting oppressed by any lack of necessity.

*

(From The Modern Characters.)

Nigel dislikes people because he's afraid of them. If he sees them put at a disadvantage, then he unexpectedly finds himself quite fond of them.

For all her independence, Olive is the most determinedly submissive of women – desperately repulsing all attempts
to treat her as an equal.

One sign of Paul's neuroses is that when the natural impulse should be to give, he finds it hard to do so. Only when nothing is expected is he able to act as he would wish.

*

Srinagar, Kashmir, late May; Moslem – and more central Asia than India. When you ask a local which cricket team he cheers for, he grins and says “Pakistan”. On the Dal Lake, the water level's eight feet above normal, lakeside living shacks are under water, the waters lap over the boulevard and soak the shoes of Hindus up on holiday or honeymoon from the hot south. Out in the countryside, entire crops have been lost. At night on the houseboats you hear the calls to prayer from the city mosques. But not the clear human beauty of a lone muezzin’s song. Whether it's the water, or just the weird overlapping, as the calls come amplified and unsynchronized, but the effect is unearthly, unnerving, fading and rising, unutterably strange. Exactly like the soundtrack of some Hollywood horror, where a choir of the undead cries into the night.

(Notebooks, 1980s)

* *

(Posted 15 March, 2020.)

*  *  *

1970, London. You’ve got a room in a mews flat just off Notting Hill Gate. There’s a spare room, it’s the route to the loo, but it’s ok for putting people up. Mostly Australian backpackers, young women, that your flatmate has chatted up, hoping to find a solution to his virginity. But your brother visits too, and a friend from school days. Your friend’s stayed on longer at university, choosing to take the academic path; and in the process he’s become a Marxist. There weren’t many in the quiet cathedral city where you both grew up. He’s taken up a university post abroad, and asks if you can receive mail redirected from his old address, and forward it on. This arrangement not to be mentioned to his parents, should they be in touch. And if anyone should phone asking for information, you are to offer the codeword “Clarissa”. To which the correct answer is, “she has gone on holiday to Hong Kong”…
Anyway, he departs, and nothing much happens, though there now seem to be odd clickings on the phone line. And some people claiming to be communists from Finchley come calling, but fail to respond to passwords of any kind. But then one morning there’s a knock on the front door, and you go down the stairs to the cobbled mews, and there’s a uniformed policewoman standing there. You’ve only just come off night shift as a security guard, still in uniform, so don’t exactly look like a rabid revolutionary, which possibly throws her a bit. Anyway, she comes out with a stumbling story about inquiring about a stolen car. Which could be quite convincing, in this mews of ground-floor garages; only, when you ask what make of car, she can’t remember. So after that you realise you’re now in the Special Branch book for operating a subversive left-wing cell. Which is ironic, because you’ve paid your dues in American style ‘political science’ – whose ideology is to strip you of ideology by focusing on testable trivia – and so now have no noticeable political beliefs of any kind. But no further amusement comes of this, except for just one item in the post for possible forwarding, a duplicated ‘pamphlet’, published by the Marxist-Leninist Organisation of Britain. Which attacks a Mr. Robert Archbold for his own pamphlet, “The ‘Marxist-Leninist’ Organisation of Britain is a Trotskyite and Counter-Revolutionary Gang Hiding Behind Red Flags.” You can’t remember if your friend decides he wants this forwarded on.
A couple of years later, back from Morocco with your girlfriend, you’re staying in Notting Hill itself, still then a semi-ghetto of West Indians and Irish and the disgruntled young. Your trip abroad has lost you the mews flat, but you’ve got this one, through a dropout friend, a big bare white room that your girlfriend brightens with her clothes. No police-people come visiting. Yet this place, you discover after a while, is connected to a protest group who’ve been conducting small bombings. Against property, and political and cultural symbols; thankfully, as they indeed intended, almost no-one has been hurt. But there’s a big trial coming up, that will end in long prison sentences. You happen to meet one of their minor followers. And him, your German girlfriend is wry about after, with the clear human sight that you love her for. “Patrick,” she comments, “is really proud that he has to report to the police every week”…
And at the same time of course, everywhere, in every way, people do indeed suffer the inequalities of power. And some try to fight it, in their quiet ways, who don’t have to. There’s no intrinsic merit in your footloose dispassion. And perhaps Marx was wrong, when he said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Perhaps, thanks to our humanity, it is always, simultaneously, both.

*

Summer ’87. In far northern India, in a shop, a Tibetan kid is wrapping bread for a long-haired traveller. He starts to wrap it in one sheet of newspaper, stops, peers closely at the sheet, sees it's the one with the local cinema times, thinks, changes his mind, and chooses another. The new one is the front page. “Oh yeah”, says the traveller, “that's better, the front page, eh? What's it say? – Eighteen dead in the Punjab? Fantastic – you wrap it in that.”

(Notebooks, 1980s)

*

(Obiter dicta, 2013.)

One is forced to conclude, looking at the world, that God’s sense of humour is even broader than our own.

* *

(Posted 15 September, 2020.)

*  *  *

1984. Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic. You get glimpses of expat life. J. runs a bar in Colonial Town with another American. J.’s from Colorado, ex circus clown, ex many things. Tells the story of an incident in El Rincon – a late night bar people go to when everywhere else has closed. (Two women expats comment that it’s one of the few places they’d think twice about going to alone.) J. had been drunk, and fallen asleep at the bar. A prostitute tried to pick his wallet. The barman saw her, drew a knife. She smashed a bottle to defend herself. At which point J. woke up. That was what was wonderful here, he said; how good your friends like that barman were. What a really kind thing it had been.
Meanwhile, early one Sunday morning, there’s a minor earth tremor in the city. Afterwards, you clearly remember: just waking enough, you decide you’re only a few months old and someone’s rocking your cradle, and quietly go to sleep again.
That evening you find a colony of ants, probably disturbed by some shift in the wall bricks, trying to set up home under your pillow. You relocate them unsympathetically to a nearby crevice. There are rules to observe. Ants have walls, cockroaches floors; the bed is for you and the mosquitoes.

*

Socialising: a process in which human beings flock together in the hope of finding love or of forgetting that they haven't.

In the tension between love and need – that is where the world lives.

(Notebooks, 1970s)

*

Autumn, 1972; a building site in Notting Hill. The sky is magnificent. The sky itself, and the line where the sky meets London, all around. You only have to lift your eyes, and there it is. Airliners cross it, looking huge as they drift down towards Heathrow. In the morning, going to work, when everything is silent, you can catch one from the top edge of your eye, and for a moment, before you see it properly, it seems completely motionless; as if some great chunk of metal is sitting over the city in the sky.

* *

(Posted 27 September, 2020.)

*  *  *

December 1968. You arrive in Kuwait with sixpence in your pocket. Maybe you’ll find work but it’s doubtful. Besides, everything’s closed for three days: tomorrow’s the first day of Eid, then it’s Christmas – they fall together this year. At the consulate, the guard puts a call through to the consul in his home. He’s pessimistic about work, talks of English travellers selling their bodies on the streets of Tehran. But agrees to what you say – book into a hotel, surrender your passport. He’ll ask the Foreign Office to phone your family, give them a message to telegraph money out. He speaks to the guard, gets him to take you to a suitably cheap hotel. They look at you, look at your passport, say ok. You don’t ask, just need to sleep. Later you get up, ask. No, they don’t do food. Of course they don’t, the cheap ones never do.
A bit more experience, and you’d ask them to get stuff in, add it to the bill. But the Moslem code of hospitality comes to your rescue. An Egyptian staying in the hotel brings you a kebab, a young Arab shares bread and jam. Each day your body gets weaker, but you get by without selling it. In the heat of the day you lie on the bed, reading Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Through the window, part of the street shows, hazed by mosquito net. On the opposite roof, as evening comes on, the painted bulbs of a café appear, above the shop lights and the neon. The sounds came across, recorded music among the voices, and the sharp crack of backgammon counters, wood on wood.
In the relative cool you get up and go out. Go up the street, stepping among the people and the cars. Visitors jam the shops, faded American sedans nose between the pavements. Out on the main road, sounds flatten beneath the width of sky, and the dark shine of newer cars takes up the shoplights. Students go by, red and white headscarves above suits, hands clutching chocolate boxes. You think you can see how far people have come to buy: beards that belong in Syria or the Lebanon; styles of dress from North Africa. In the shop windows, record players and tape recorders – German, Swedish – polished wood and metal, bright knobs and dials. Endless shops of Swiss watches. Down the back streets, on the stalls, are the cheap counterparts, among the rolls of cloth and the paste jewellery. Cardboard boxes of watches. Clusters of plastic radios.
You come out of the souk and find yourself by the old harbour; go along the breakwater looking at the dhows. Then turn, and walk down the huge quiet avenue, back towards the centre, wandering slowly among the flowerbeds. Near the hotel, by the main street, the line of shoe-cleaners, crouched on the pavement, see the dirt on your shoes, and begin beating their boxes to catch your attention, each joining in turn as you go by. And you think of how life might be, back in England: getting a flat, and lining it with books, and putting people up in it.

*

Always postponed – the moment when we think we start to live.

*

(From The Modern Characters.)

All Quentin’s acts are meant to save his freedom: freedom from need, freedom from duty, freedom from devotion. And so, of course, all his dreams are of ways to lose that freedom. Determined and alone, he cowers in a corner of empty space, staring out at the dense blocked maze of his mind.

*

November, 1991. Heading across London in the tube: “Now I know what a baked bean feels like,” says an old lady, as even more passengers crowd on at Bond Street. One kid starts shouting across the carriage in the crush, calling out the names of hated foods, trying to get his friends to be sick in the crowd. “Kidneys.” “Rhubarb.” “Liver.” “Cabbage.” Each offering is greeted with cries of nauseous delight. At Oxford Circus they get off, but more people push on. A child wails resentfully, the parent mutters something reassuring. Only to get another wail back: “But I don't want to go home!”

*

The eye of the social scientist; the eye of the politician; the eye of the painter; the eye of the poet; the eye of the novelist; the eye of the child.

* *

(Posted 16 October, 2020.)

*  *  *

The Great Bicycle Walk, 1990. Rural Suffolk in summer. Sun shining, birds singing, wheat growing. Plenty of trees, no cars. Bits of land left to unproductive uses. Dandelions and daisies and brambles by the roadside. Nineteenth-century farm buildings, with those old wrought-iron ‘S’ shapes on the walls where the tie-bars end. Ivy-covered remains of an abandoned house.
Must put a bit more padding on the handlebars.
Moving from delight to effort to delight. That being the only way to be fully human.
You and your two-wheeled donkey.
Come to a crossroads, go to pub for directions. No-one behind bar, but three people sitting in front of it: woman, man, younger woman. Wait for one of the bar staff to appear, meanwhile the woman’s nattering on about you – “he’s tall isn’t he, he’d get you to shut up”. You play dumb, so she turns her attention back to the man. “I don’t believe you,” she says. “Well,” he says, “two of them said so, and they’ve both got medical training.” “I’ll shout it round the pub, shall I,” she says. “Alan’s got..”; and stops. “Alan’s got..”; and stops. “I don’t believe it,” she says; “you bath every week, same as everyone else.” “Every day,” says Alan, a little hurt.

*

We’re all bits of god, trying to get back.

(Notebooks, 1990s)

*

Notting Hill, 1970. Children in Talbot Road, playing game with empty bottle – standing in circle, and throwing it from one to another. One drops it, but it doesn't break. Someone suggests they change it for a milk bottle, but someone else doesn't like that. Then, as you walk away, there is the sound of the bottle smashing on the road, with a little explosion, and you turn to see them preoccupied with gathering up their belongings and wandering away.

* *

(Posted 23 August, 2021.)

*  *  *

Allahabad, March 1987. A pilgrim town on the Ganges – but, unlike Benares/Varanasi, not a tourist destination. Instead the other visitors are mostly lawyers, come to argue cases at the state high court. You, you’re here for a bit of acupuncture from the ‘President of the International Acupuncture Association’ – who turns out to be a self-styled ‘professor’ with a shabby office down a side street, and whose usual clients are wealthy Saudi Arabians searching cures for infertility or impotence. Still, he introduces you to a local poet/journalist, who introduces you to the organiser of the about-to-happen Allahabad All-India Conference on Reincarnation. So – since you are not unsympathetic to the subject – you get a large garish rosette proclaiming you a Delegate, and get to listen to presentations that reinforce your doubts about the spoken word as a medium for intellectual inquiry.
Your poet/journalist friend writes for The Pioneer, the paper where Kipling worked, and for which Churchill was war correspondent. During your stay, he unearths dubious goings-on in the personal finances of the – already harassed – Minister of Defence. Thanks to stories of this kind, the local police are supposed to give him 24-hours-a-day protection. But in his left-wing youth, other writing incurred a different police interest. He’d sent one of his English-language poems to the North Vietnamese – who liked it so much they dropped it in thousands over the war zone. Fortunately for him, this was a little before Indira Gandhi declared the 1975-77 “Emergency”. So when the police came round, he was able to show them a letter from the same Mrs Gandhi, expressing her thanks and appreciation for the copy he'd sent…
It’s not long since Holi, the festival when coloured dyes get thrown around. Unfortunately, he tells you, not the only thing that gets thrown, round here. Since moving to his present house, he's witnessed at least two murders a year, on the busy junction outside. And not the knifings or even shootings you might expect, for the purely personal, non-political affairs that they were, but bombings that left unlucky passers-by dead or maimed; using readily available home-made devices selling for 1 rupee 25 (say 6p) each. That’s pretty cheap. At one rupee, a newspaper is somewhat cheaper than a bomb. On the other hand, a ballpoint pen costs around 2 or 3 bombs; so the relative economics of pen and sword are unclear.

*

(Obiter dicta.)

Life’s not a bed of roses, you say. But of course it is. Only – the thorns are still attached.

*

We are all longing to give meaning to our lives; and try to do so in just two ways. One is by limiting ourselves: by disciplining acts or thoughts till they satisfy some concept of the valuable. The other is by being lifted out of ourselves – and all our hopes and dreams, studies and creations, journeys and procreations, come down to this. The first is a path of discipline – but it appeals to the ego because it enlists the ego. The second is a path of growth – but the self-forgetfulness it depends on is so easy to forget. For all its domains can equally be territories for the ego, of course; but then they’re not paths for growth.

(Notebooks, 1980s)

*

* *

(Posted 28 August, 2021.)

*  *  *

The Moonduster voyage: Punta Delgada, Azores, April 1983. Photo, by Mike or Barry: a small party. Brendan, bent over the galley, grins into the camera, his face bleached by the flash. Your chin and nose and someone's disembodied arm and a cola can all peek in stage right. A Frenchman sits on a pipe cot, legs sprawled and a beer bottle stuck halfway into his mouth, its neck bulging out one cheek. Another disembodied hand reaches down from the hatch above, and has either just let go of a small yellow globe – an orange presumably – or possibly is just reaching to pluck it from where it balances behind Brendan's left ear.
As he drinks more, Brendan starts swinging from the handrails, stomping round the cabin. And then at one o'clock in the morning, decides it's time to cook crêpes. So you're all sitting round and there's empty glasses and full glasses and empty bottles and half-full bottles, and in the middle of it all Brendan is mixing up the batter dough, and getting the cooker going, and pouring the mix in the pan, and getting it cooking, and then trying to flip these half-cooked crêpes. And each crêpe that's ready he pours brandy over it and flicks his lighter, and there's this great whoosh of flame and all this soot appears on the cabin roof. And then he serves that crêpe and starts on the next. So in the end all the dough's been cooked and all the crêpes eaten and all the drinks drunk and all the guests have gone, and you crawl into bed and say goodbye to the world for a few hours. And in the morning you wake up and – naturally – Oh my God: What day is it? What year is it? Where am I? Who am I? Where's all this crêpe dough come from??!! Every bloody where. All over the galley. All over the ceiling. All over the floor. In your bunk… What have I been sleeping with? Oh God – a pancake.

*

Maybe it would be good to have the eye and ear of an Indian hunter, dropped suddenly into civilised life. Innocent acuteness. Chronic innocence.

(Notebooks, 1970s)

*

London, 1980s. A businessman on the tube is working away on his Psion Organiser. The woman he is with turns to him: “Do you want another sweetie?”

* *

(Posted 30 August, 2021.)

*  *  *

Norwich, 1966. For the summer gap before a university course you find a job with one of the Norwich builders, and on the first day get sent to join the work on the outside of the Cathedral. The pay is about 5/6d or 5/9d an hour – 28 to 29p. Though people working right at the top of the 315ft spire get an extra 1p an hour danger money. Your job, working alone, involves drilling into the stonework further down, on the outside of the tower, so only about 120ft off the ground. The last section of access is by external scaffolding ladders, holding onto ladder with one hand and electric drill with the other. The latter being a sturdy item about 15 inches long, with a drill bit extending a further 8 or 9 inches, the whole weighing several pounds.
Having reached the relevant platform one plugs in, takes up a suitable kneeling position to apply pressure, and commences drilling. Inevitably, though, the drill bit often seizes in the stone. Causing the drill itself to revolve instead. Rapidly winding electric cable round drill head as a result…
Now this should be no problem, one just has to release the trigger. Unfortunately, there’s a little design defect. As the drill head starts to wrench viciously out of your grasp, the heel of your trigger hand can’t help hitting the trigger lock button, pushing it on. So the next step is to lurch for the side of the platform, unplug the drill with one hand, and stop oneself leaving the platform with the other… At the end of the day the foreman – an astute observer of human nature – decides that your wan countenance may indicate that you don’t have the perfect psychological profile for the job. Next morning you find yourself transferred to the building of a squash court, somewhere out in Norfolk, which is a mere two storeys high.

*

(From The Modern Characters.)

Ronald is fatal to women. They marry the next man they go out with.

All Stanley’s ventures in love and business have failed. And so of course he hesitates to give financial advice. But feels exceptionally qualified to give emotional.

Tristram suspects that, if he’d made a success of his life, he’d have been deeply unpleasant. Only his failures have saved him.

*

There was a girl you’d begun to know; and then you couldn’t see her for a few weeks. When you’d been with her, only one thing had frightened you – the hard line of her jaw, where the tough American matron showed through. In the weeks when you couldn’t see her, that jaw obliterated everything else. Her real face faded, till she was all that jaw in your head.

(Notebooks, 1970s)

* *

(Posted 31 August, 2021.)

*  *  *

Fes, Morocco, 1972. The ‘mother’ asks where L’s wedding ring is. Oh, you say, we left it behind. Too expensive to travel with.
You don’t know if the lie convinces her. But it’s enough for the proprieties.
When the bus down from Tetouan stops for mid-journey break, you and L share a single kebab stick. Which impresses the conductor so much, he invites you to stay.
Two rooms, plus corridor, kitchen, washroom. The larger, the day room, and where the women sleep at night. The smaller, where men sit and sleep, and you and L too. A little white room, about 7 feet by 7, ceiling high, paint thin and patchy. Into it, very comfortably, two covered mattresses, with pillows for sitting and a sheepskin rug, another small mattress. Plus your two rucksacks, and rolled sleeping bags.
And just now, on the black and white tiled floor, a thin shiny metal tray, covered with beaten patterns, with glasses of mint tea.
The women: Aailayal, Fatayma, Kinza, Aakaya. One who runs the household, you label her the ‘mother’. One much older. One young child, name unknown. Two late teens.
Mohammed, the conductor, twenty-one. No sign of a father, deceased you assume, so M’s family head. Other men, mostly young, come to talk, sleep. But hard to tell if they’re relatives or just friends.
The men go out, work, come back. Are in good or bad temper. Talk, as far as you can tell, of mopeds, football, radios. The older women have quiet dignity, make gentle gestures. When the ‘mother’ sends someone shopping, she takes their hand, and places the coin in it with her other, as she gives her instructions. The kindness of the gesture; how it humanises the transfer of money.
There’s shock when you do some laundry, hang it on the roof. So when L does some darning, you stand over her, pretend to give brusque instructions. L manages not to laugh.
And, in complicity, she’s wearing a dress, not jeans.
The older woman gestures, tries to tell you something; the older teenager translates to French. Says your translator is 'la femme de Sharif’, the lorry driver friend of Mohammed. 'Femme' perhaps just ‘betrothed’, since a 'femme' can still be ‘demoiselle’. Not sure why you need telling. Probably being the only man here in the day, and not family, makes you improper, dangerous. But now you can ask the girl for more. She’s the sister of Mohammed? – yes. And the old woman – the “grandmother” – is, you’re told, their mother… So not, then, the woman who runs the household – who did seem maybe too young. And the man in glasses is Mohammed's uncle? – yes. The brother of the father, or of the mother of Mohammed? Of the father and the mother….?? So things getting complicated again. Our poor mutual French? – or, like ‘femme’, the way meanings overlap? And apparently Sharif is also some kind of ‘son’ of the older woman – as well as being betrothed to the sister of Mohammed, who is also her ‘son’… So for now you retreat to your notebook, to ponder on all this. Who is this woman who runs the household? An older sister, unmarried or widowed? Or maybe the wife of the man in glasses – the electrician? Perhaps. Or is she still in fact the mother? – if, for the other, older woman, ‘mother’ may include grandmother, and ‘son’ grandson.
Outside, the walled city, the labyrinth of ancient alleys, the birds swarming and settling. The companionship of the Muslim world, within the sexes, not between: women in privacy together outside their homes, men holding hands in casual friendship as they walk, talk. The stalls, shops, in their locales: all spices here, all butchers there. A coal-seller, utterly blackened in body and clothing. In a cemetery, a grave done out in bathroom tiles. You walk back with L: “I can’t see, here,” you say. You never try speaking German with her, her English is too good. “You mean you don't get the meaning out of it?”, she says. Yes, exactly. A London scene has a thousand details that hold meaning for you, here not. The scene becomes flat and loses itself, only the bizarre – to you – remains.
Next day, the women make a big lunch. Radishes, beans in oil, tomatoes, fish. Flatbread, of course, as carbohydrate and as cutlery. One teenager divides a fish for you, the other offers it. At the end, one calls ‘garçon!’ – as if there’s a waiter somewhere, and male. Laughter. L gets the little girl to eat some more, helps clear away. The two teenagers brush their hair, one jokes with L about its length, smiles at you, hers is longer. Later she’s watching you in the mirror, to see if you’re looking at her.
You wonder if you and L should go to your room, perhaps they lie down after lunch. But then one of the teenagers gets told to pattern henna on L’s hands. She mixes it with her fingers, the mix green but leaving its orange-red stain. She’s usually surly, this girl, doesn’t like L; starts sloppily, letting the drips trail to make lines. She’s spoken to sharply, gets out a needle, uses it to touch along the edges, make them neater. And soon she’s working carefully and quickly, just her fingers again, but covering the whole palm in a complex, interesting design. Then along the backs of the fingers, a different pattern on each. Then L’s other hand, larger patterns this time. When she makes a mistake she removes the blob with a clean finger and swallows it, licking the finger. You ask her if the different patterns have meaning? – yes, she says. You ask what they are, and she reaches for the hand she did first; but only touches up a line or two, then goes back to the other without answering. Probably too complex, too instinctive to explain. But now she’s much happier, because we've become her friends, not just Mohammed's.
Your final night. Coming home, Mohammed has his tired hands and feet pressed against the floor by the woman stepping on them. Then takes you by the hand to the kitchen, to see the couscous being prepared. Later that night, as everyone’s turning in, you go to the toilet in the darkened flat. Suddenly, utterly unexpectedly, your body emits a stunning explosive fart. Like nothing you’ve ever heard. There’s a second’s silence, then bursts of laughter from the girls. Back in your room, in her sleeping bag, L’s laughing too, near hysterics. M chuckling a bit. Next morning, by the roadside, hitch-hiking, you’re both still grinning. “After all, the noise, it was incredible. It was beautiful,” L says.

(Notebooks, 1970s)

* *

(Posted 6 September, 2021.)

*  *  *

The Great Bicycle Walk, 1990. A pub somewhere in middle England, where your route crosses a main road. Some of the clientele’s local, more passing through; food is available; ‘hostelry’ would be the right word. The sign on the front door says “Beware of the cat.” Inside, the landlord is one of those who keep up a patter, function on a flow of extroversion and condescension. Someone comes in: “Yes, young man.” Now there’s a give-away, that ‘young man’, always a sign of a desperate need to put down. “A pint of AK.” That mollifies him: “A man of taste.” The mat on your table advertises “McMullen Original AK, Cask Conditioned Ale”.
The talk round the bar has been of golf expertise. “It really is a left-handed game.” “Oh yes, yes.” Your right hand shouldn't have anything to do with it.” “Just guide it.” Now it turns to the salmonella scare. “You know where Mad Cow Disease came from, don't you?” puts in the landlord. “Here?” “No, Downing Street.” General laughter. Even so – you’d still assume he voted for her.

Unsurprisingly, his persona shows ragged at the edges. He serves the pint, then emerges from the bar and goes over to a table, perhaps with the menu – you don’t see. Then, as he comes back past, you hear him muttering to himself: “Don't be so stupid.” Whether self-criticism or comment on others is unclear, but it sounds like the former. He apologises to another table for the delay in their food: “Having trouble hatching the eggs.” “Perhaps the cat's killed the chicken?” they suggest, to join in the fun. “Oh no – he only kills people who don't pay their bills.”
He brings your meal: “Don't touch the plate. It's hot. Jesus Christ, I think my wife used to work in a crematorium.” The shepherd’s pie is good. “Must be made with real shepherd,” you think. No jokes like childhood's.
Another day, a different world: a truckers' stop on another main road. Meals, bed & breakfast, tv, pool table. Egg and bacon, £1.65. The most expensive meal, gammon, egg and chips, £3.00. A poster on the wall for the “Ultimate Truckers Show” – but Easter weekend, so already over, no good being tempted. A young woman comes round, collecting dirty cups and plates from the tables by carrying round a plastic washing-up bowl, which she dumps in front of you while she fills it up. Sensible. Reminds you of the old story about the difference between Spanish and Portuguese peasants harvesting almonds. The Spanish had made a technological breakthrough: they spread a cloth on the ground under the tree before shaking it… Meanwhile two truckers come in with their travelling companions, one in a bra-style top. There are fashions that aim to intrigue you, and those that hit you with the actuality of the wearer's body. Probably the sexiest are the rarest – those that float around the body while making you desperately aware of it.

*

London, 1971. Shaun's story – selling bibles in Ireland. An old, bent woman answers the door. He shows her the expensive Bible he is selling. She holds it reverently, doesn’t open it – he’s not sure she can even read – just touches her fingers to the big cross on the beautiful binding. Then turns away to try to find the money to pay for it.

* *

(Posted 10 September, 2021.)

*  *  *

Signs, stickers, and graffiti, 1970-1987. Shop in Notting Hill: “T. Spencer and Mum”. Amersham, old sign left behind above brand-new self-service chemist: “Your old furniture taken in part exchange.” Wiltshire, painted in great white letters on side of a barn: “NOTICE. Any unauthorised person found on these premises will have steps taken against them which will utterly astonish them.” Norwich, ‘74 power crisis, on a public library door: “Closed at dusk” – technology’s failure reinstates poetry. Limerick, Ireland: health food shop – “Eats of Eden”; and church signboard, “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”, and a few doors down – “Powers' Small Profit Stores”. Bahamas, two adjacent maxims in shop window: “Christ Is The Answer”, and “Support your local police”. Sign on a take-away diner in New Orleans: “Buster Holmes – handmade fried chicken”. Official Texas road sign: “Drive friendly”. Official Indian road sign: “Careless driver Kills and die Leaves behind All to cry.” Painted on bread van in Seattle: “Drive carefully. The loaf you save may be your own.” On a car sticker in Seattle: “One hydrogen bomb can ruin your entire day.” Sign on shop in New York City: “The Music House: new and used music.” Harlem signboards: “Please curb your dog”, “Basement partially sprinkled”, “New Testament Church of Christ Inc.”, “Radio Church of God”, “Harlem Fried Chicken”, “Epidemic Cleaners”, “Church of the Meek”. University of East Anglia graffito: “Jesus saves, but Kenny Dalgleish always gets it on the rebound.” Slogan on sticker on London furcoat advertisement: “The real owner of this coat was murdered in it.” Graffito on Victoria Station toilet door: “Jesus Christ, I love you and would surely kiss you on the lips; give my regards to your Father, Brian.” And inscribed in a Piccadilly Circus toilet: “Repent! The day of the Lord is near, very near, and coming fast, it will be a day of fury, a day of trouble and distress, a day of ruin and destruction, a day of darkness and gloom, a day when the Lord shows his fury!”; and, written underneath: “That was yesterday.”

*

London, 1980s. Walking along Harrow Road, among the shoppers, when a black woman going by with child and pram looks up suddenly into your face. Your stomach turns right over, and you walk on shaking. She was not beautiful, or unusually attractive – just pleasant, and physically neat. But the feeling was quite different from the sudden impact of great beauty – or of seeing someone who fits a preconceived emotional appeal. It was purely physical, yet not sexual – unique and devastating – as if a great surge of libido or of communication had come out of her.

* *

(Posted 18 September, 2021.)

*  *  *

February-April, 1982. You travel through Egypt slowly scribbling a playscript. Travel 3rd class on trains, eat in workers’ cafés, stay in hostels. Ignore all ancient monuments and antiquities; but in Aswan go to the local fleapit, with just a tent for roof, to see Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. At night the theme music drifts across, keeps making you think someone’s keeping cockerels. Your café diet is rice and macaroni mixed with hot sauce for 5p; to clean the tables the 12-year-old waiters spray water out of their mouths. Back in Cairo, you lose a contact lens, have to stop to wait for another. A Viennese astrologer tells you, for free, that you’re in for 12 lousy years – but will spend six of them superficially successful as a universally popular entertainer. You can’t decide if this means comedian or politician. You haunt the American University enclave to use their library, and sit out at wicker tables in the sun, peering one-eyed at Egypt's most sophisticated young ladies. Go to see Verdi sung by Egyptian opera singers and Tennessee Williams acted by drama students, and a week of films in Flemish with Arabic subtitles. Head back in the evenings to your shared room in your travellers' hotel, to find, say, that the bright young New Zealand couple and ageing English homosexual have checked out, and been replaced by a pale-faced US Muslim convert in a djellaba, who gets up in the night to pray, and a nubile young Swede who lies around rubbing suntan oil into her legs. And then, eventually, with full eyesight and just one scene and a bit left to write, head back to Greece. Back from CocaCola written كوكا كولا to CocaCola written Κόκα-κόλα. Back to hot pastry filled with goats cheese for 20p. Back from 3am calls to the faithful to pornography on sale in Syntagma Square.

*

Whether in a house or in a culture – when no style reigns, every object becomes kitsch.
And ‘style’ then becomes, not code, but panache; a matter of energy, not beauty; of presenter (“he’s got style”), not presentation.
And the artist for that world is Picasso, a pirate – in the sense of buccaneer; a man to milk each movement for its zest – not himself for his truth of vision.
So if a Mondrian reflects the physical structure of an age (its neat grids of ink, of glass and concrete, of tarmac), a Picasso reflects its de-structured consciousness.

(Notebooks, 1980s)

* *

(Posted 19 September, 2021.)

*  *  *

The Moonduster voyage: Punta Delgada, Azores, April 1983. You arrive dismasted, it’s on local TV, a moment’s celebrity. The captain of the little naval boat alongside invites you all to use their hot showers. You get the welcome warm water over you, pick up the soap, place it on your stomach ready for that first downward thrust to the groin. Feel something cold and metallic on the underside, turn it over. There’s an old rusted razor blade got itself stuck to the other side.
Portuguese ladies come to visit, mostly expats from the mainland. Brendan links up with one, starts to disappear in the evenings. The rest of you settle into a round of repairs and waiting for the new mast from the States, interspersed with restaurant meals and drinks on other boats. After a time there’s a newly arrived sloop being craned out onto the hard, just 24ft, French flag, unpainted aluminium. “That's typical French,” says John. “The Dutch go in for all this steel, with the French it’s aluminium, unpainted. Put a French boat and a Dutch boat alongside each other, salt water, and poof – electrolysis – no more hulls.”
Next evening he comes aboard. Gérard's his name; nice guy; been living on his boat for five years. Lifted out now to get it ready for selling, he has to go home. Has stories of the Caribbean and Central America and Brazil. Tells about all the abandoned yachts in Baja California, Costa Rica: these Americans – spend all their lives dreaming of cruising – retire, buy, set off – get sick or bored – within five hundred miles they know it's not for them.
That night he changes your lives, shows you all the matchstick game. Claims it kept him in drinks for two years in Brazil, playing it in bars. You put matchsticks in three piles; it doesn't matter how many in each. Pick up as many matches as you like on your turn, but only from one pile. The loser's whoever has to take the last match from the last pile. “You go first or I go first, it doesn't matter,” he says. He's right; it doesn't. Gérard always wins.
Next day you bump into him on the quay, get shown round his boat. You try to pick his brains on abandoned yachts, matchstick games. On the former he's forthcoming, on the latter not. There's no trick, no rule, he claims, you just have to practise; that's his story, though you're not convinced. Back on Moonduster, you find Mike and Barry huddled over little heaps of matches. “No, look,” Barry says, “if I pick up three of them…”
A few weeks later, the mast’s ready. Being flown to the US NATO air base on the next island, courtesy of a US Admiral friend of the US millionaire buyer. You get sent over to make arrangements. The civil airport’s right next to the military one. You get in a taxi, down the exit road, up the entry one. Big signs maintain the pretence it's Portuguese, hence the Portuguese security guards. They peer in, see you're not Portuguese, you must be American, wave you through. Five minutes later you're wandering into the base operations room. Locations of all US nuclear submarines and battle fleets pinned on a map that covers an entire wall… Excuse me, you say, it’s about this mast.

*

Tangier, 1989; ‘dans la figuration’. The Sheltering Sky. It will all be cut, be different, in the final edit. But for now, once again, here in the actual street, the music begins. Once again you and the others, in your ’30s clothes or your djellabas, begin to walk and talk on the pavement. Once again the tram, as if on those fake tramlines, begins to pull away. Once again, Debra Winger appears, from behind it, and moves towards the café, slowly, as if still hypnotised by the desert. And once again she passes through the doorway. To where, in the interior, Paul Bowles will be watching from his table, as she looks for she knows not what inside.

(Notebooks, 1980s)

* *

(Posted 28 January, 2022.)

*  *  *

Notting Hill, London, autumn 1972; a building site. Up on the scaffold Mannan, the Irish labourer, unzips the front of his trousers, puts in his hand. He gropes around, pulls something out, peers down at it. “Twenty minutes to lunch”, he says. He puts the watch back, and zips up his trousers again.
Wheeling barrows of cement. Easy, except your height makes the angle wrong. But paid as hod-carriers: £56 a week. That’s riches. Four years back, before inflation, it was 14 quid a week you’d get as a farm labourer or plumber’s mate. Now that’s what you pay in tax.
Sky goes black, rain starts bucketing down. Two brickies struggle to get their work covered before they run. “Come on,” says the one. “You know I don’t know how to swim.”
You drop down a level, into a room that’s got a roof. Bare brick and concrete. Water dripping making puddles. Ground outside becoming a sea of mud.
One of the brickies sings:
Every time it rains, it rains
Pennies from Heaven…
“We'll all end up like seagulls,” someone says. “Fucking wet feet and fucking cold fucking noses.”
Mannan’s just been elected union rep. One day he tells you he’s going to the opera that night. Next day you ask how it was. He’s big, tough, utterly secure in his masculinity. “Oh, it was lovely”, he says. “It always is.”
Couple of weeks more, winter’s coming on.
“Cold today, ennit?” says one of the brickies. “Cold today.”
You didn't think so yet, but you don't have to stand in one place all day.
“Cold, ennit?”, he says. “A bastard day. A bastard cold day today.”
Pause.
“A bastard day. A bastard day, today.”
A long pause.
“Cold today, ennit?”, he says.

*

The will to live is set off by difficulty. Then worn down by it.

(Notebooks, 1970s)

*

Rather than progressing from one thought to another, most of us drift from one emotion to another. The result is an endless wanting – for whatever the generality of its cause or content, most emotion ends in the particularity of its bearer. (Wanting not to want is no exception, of course!) For thought, the solitary activity, leads to a forgetting of self; but emotion, which longs to be shared, can discover at any moment its own aloneness. Hence the mistake of the emotionalist schools of psychotherapy: by teaching people to concentrate on their emotions, they leave them more solitary than they began – having only traded in their sincere desperation for a desperate insincerity.

(Notebooks, 1980s)

* *

(Posted 2 February, 2022.)

*  *  *

The Great Bicycle Walk, 1990. Not far into your first day, you stop for water at a lone cottage. The woman talking about life there. “Oh, it’s beautiful. Mind you, it gets a bit tasty in winter, with the wind across the fields.” How you can just see Norwich at night, as a yellow haze on the horizon. But if she goes in, it’s too much – “all that pushing, babychairs banging your shins”. Comes back exhausted and covered in bruises. And how, when they moved there, they saw this 'Ruined Abb.' marked on the map. Ah, a ruined abbey – maybe they’d dig up religious relics. All they found were cow bones – it was a ruined abbatoir.
Not wanting the hassle of your tent, you beg spaces in sheds, garages. One night you sleep at a friend’s bungalow; the next, on the floor of a chicken hatchery. Hatch 25,000 a day, four days a week; for the table, not layers. Not far away there’s a growery: take 100,000 a time, slaughter in one go when big enough, clean out, start again.
Just down the road as you go, the other extreme of rural enterprise. A rough sign: “Firewood sticks, 50p a bag”.
Meanwhile, with the predictability of human association, you find yourself longing for an egg breakfast.
Poultry’s appropriate, you’re near the route of the old goose drives. Norfolk to London, a hundred miles. A thousand, sometimes two thousand, in a drove. First marched through warm tar, then sand, to give them shoes for the journey. Moving at about a mile an hour, grazing on post-harvest stubble. From August to October, till the ways got too muddy. Turkeys too, up to 200,000 or more a year – in (yes, really) tiny leather boots. Gradually ended when the railways came.

*

(From The Modern Characters.)

Ursula makes you feel like a doormat. She comes in with a muddy soul, and wipes it all over you.

Vincent keeps lists of the kind of jobs he could do, lives he could lead. He writes them in notebooks, pins them to the wall. This is, as it turns out, rather sensible of him. Since the reminder of so much possibility allows him to go on in the same old way.

Walter’s eccentricity is driven entirely by his insecurity. Others imagine he cares only for the flow of life, when in fact he’s always longing to freeze it into certainty. His poverty makes his solutions unconventional. But they loom larger over his thoughts than the conventionalities of ordinary men.

*

On a two-man security assignment, talking to R.: Came from a military family, ran away at the age of 12, joined a circus, got brought back by the police. His father disowned him, ordered him out of the house. (A serious man; when he’d been in the Military Police he’d shopped his own brother.) R went back to see him after his own first marriage, then again after his second. That time his father ordered him out again, because the new wife was German. When he heard his father had been knocked down by a car, he went to see him; his father ordered him out of the hospital. Sat up in bed, said “I don’t want him at my funeral,” lay down, and died. R paid for the funeral. Now his brothers won’t talk to him.

(Notebooks, 1970s)

* *

(Posted 3 February, 2022.)

*  *  *

For twenty years, hitchhiking is your practicality and your escape. And it covers more than nine lives. Still at school, there’s standing on the edge of your home city wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, and wealthy farmers in Jaguars picking you up. In ’80s Northern Ireland, there’s stupidly standing in the rain wearing walking kit that looks vaguely paramilitary, and no-one at all picking you up. On a first night out from England, there’s bedding down in the dark by a French roadside with your girlfriend, and waking up a couple of hours later with your sleeping bags wet with ground water, and both shaking chilled to the bone. And 36 hours later, in an empty lot on the outskirts of Madrid, there’s catching up on sleep and waking to sun so hot that heat-stroke is a real threat. There’s standing in the manure bed of a truck in southern Turkey, in company of an old donkey on its way to becoming donkey stew. And there’s being picked up for free by a long-distance bus, and the fellow passengers watching your body bucking as the blood flows back. There’s being put up by a Greek army psychologist on his psychologist’s couch, beneath his rows of reference books; and the next night sitting on the Yugoslav-Austria border eating your way through a huge bag of walnuts given by his wife. There’s being found a late bed for the night in a village on a Greek back road; and in the morning being woken by a tearful eight-year old, demanding what you’re doing in his house. There’s walking in the snow to a hopeless spot on an autobahn slip lane, and the very first lorry picking you up. And there’s the lift you turned down, all the way to Afghanistan, because you’re cold enough already, and ever after wondering how your life would have been changed. There’s the endless disappointments, and the endless kindness of strangers. And there’s, too, the only time you were glad to get out of a lift alive. Just hitching from your home town, being picked up by an old school acquaintance, and discovering his macho zest in overtaking on blind corners. And finding out a year later it had cost him his life, and his ageing parents their only child.

* *

(Posted 20 January, 2024, revised 1 February.)

*  *  *

Morocco, 1973. The foothills of the Rif. Tiring of walking, you start to stick out your thumb. That night you end up in a roadside village with just a noisy teashop. You get invited to sleep on the floor, but – in contrast to the care of the poor family the previous night – here you suspect they’re planning to rob you. Eventually you leave and a couple of people follow you, but you manage to get away. You find a house with a light but they don’t open the gate. Then you come to a fairly large farm, with a couple of lights still on, and dogs starting barking. Two farmworkers come out to find out what’s going on. There’s hushed talk of the “le patron”, and you’re offered a place by a wall under a tree, and then some straw for insulation. Then a young man turns up from the teashop who looked less grim than the others. They talk and take you into a big modern barn, and put the straw into a long feeding trough just wide enough for your sleeping bag – a concrete manger.
Next day, out early before the ‘patron’ is about, you start walking and come on a spring, channelled into a couple of troughs, and give yourself a good wash and shave, all watched by a peasant woman and a small group of adolescent Arabs. Then you stick out your thumb again, and a car stops. It’s the son from a kif farm in Ketama. On the track from the village up to the farm you pass the abandoned remains of travellers’ camper vans, traded in for a last kilo of hash. Nothing to interest you, but you appreciate the hospitality. You’re in an upper room, with a balcony onto the fields. The father and son head off each day, climbing the slope to the car on the ridge; the father fought for Franco, acts as medical attendant running the village clinic. The mother brings you meals. When you sit outside in the sun, the younger children search you out, attempt to teach you Arabic, bring you a baby goat to hold that tries to get milk from your right breast pocket button. When you make the mistake of opening the door over the inner courtyard, the older daughter scuttles under the gallery, to hide her uncovered hair.

* *

(Posted 21 January, 2024, revised 31 January.)

*  *  *

The Moonduster voyage. Crosshaven boatyard, near Cork, Ireland, Saturday 26th March, 1983. Tied up to one of the pontoons, a sailboat, a 44ft sloop by Swan of Finland, the Ron Nicholson designed 441, in the racing version. Just sold from an Irish millionaire to an American one. For delivery to Stanford, Connecticut. Above deck, extruded aluminium mast and boom, stainless-steel rod rigging, hydraulic rig regulators, digital instrumentation, a five-foot wheeled helm, a clutter of winches. Below deck, a fibreglass hull thin enough to see the sunlight in the water below the boat, a diesel engine, eight cots of stretched canvas, two sail bins ditto, and, in polished woodwork – this being a production racer, not a real one – navigation table, engine cover, galley and head. Plus, on engine cover, galley top, sink, stove, bunks, and ninety-nine hundredths of the floor, in cramped and cascading confusion, Coca Cola and cornflakes, cup-a-soup and curry powder, coffee filters and kitchen towels, baked beans and bread mix, dried milk and matches, tea and toilet paper, paté and pepper, peas and peaches, stew and sardines, oil and Ovaltine and eggs.
Plus you and a Tasmanian ladyfriend. Frantically sorting, stacking, packing, stowing, and ripping all the paper labels from the cans before they get sogged and block the bilges, and scribbling waterproof hieroglyphics in their place.
Time passes. Enter at intervals, downwards.
Brendan, 25. Cork civil engineer and sailing instructor, and Moonduster delivery crewman. Broad-chested, big-boned, open-faced.
Barry, 23. Galway business student and self-employed lorry driver and ditto ditto. Darker, more wiry, more self-contained.
Mike, 34. Ex-newspaper marketing trainee, ex-chemical cleaning technician, ex-yachting journalist; west-coast yacht charterer and coaster captain and coffee-shop proprietor; Moonduster delivery mate. Tall, black-bearded, bespectacled.
And John P, 50. American father, English mother, Parisian birth, South African upbringing, Eton schooling; now rocking-horse craftsman and Irish gentleman farmer and IYRA racing yacht rating officer for southern Ireland; Moonduster delivery skipper. Just like a younger version of the captain in the fish finger ads: little blue peaked cap, greying beard, laughter lines round the eyes.
Supernumerary and apprentice cook: you.

* *

(Posted 26 January, 2024.)

*  *  *

December 1968. You hitch through southern Turkey on the local equivalent of two shillings (10p/12cents) a day. In your money this divides neatly into three. Eight old pennies each for two meals of soup and bread. Eight old pennies for a bed for the night. In each empty village ‘hotel’ you get all your spare clothes out of your pack, wear them on top, then fetch all the duvets from the other bunk beds. In the morning you strip off and stand under the cold-water shower. Your route starts to drop off the Anatolian plateau. One day you pass a village, two groups of houses, only a couple of hundred yards apart: one with streets and white-walled buildings, one a scattered collection of brown-walled huts. Years later you realise the second half must have been Kurdish. In Mardin, in far south-eastern Turkey, you get on a bus for the train station in Nusaybin. There’s no diplomatic relations between Syria and the UK, no visas. But you can cross the tip of Syria in the train to Iraq. On the bus evening comes on, and suddenly everyone is opening bags, passing round bread. It’s 6pm, in the holy month of Ramaddan, and fasting is over for the day. On the train you meet Iraqi students going home for Id-al-Fitr from studying in Belgrade. You sit listening to the Beatles singing Hey Jude. Once into Iraq the train halts for a while near the border. Locals in dishdashas stand and watch, some come onto the train, stand in the corridors. Next day, on the skyline, the golden-domed mosque of Samarra, first sighted alongside the silver of a water tank, both glinting in the afternoon sun. When you reach Baghdad, one of the students invites you to stay with his family. The Ba’ath party has just come to power, his father is a junior minister. They feed you up, put all your clothes through the washing machine twice.

* *

(Posted 27 January, 2024.)

*  *  *

London, 1991. On the tube: the inturned faces – slack or reading, dozing. Man next to you studying typewritten sheet of initiation speeches for some masonic order. The obsessive glancing at neighbours' newspapers – the same headlines over and over again.
Above ground, the group silence gets broken more easily. Usually by unscheduled long delays. In the middle of one, an Irish voice starts up.
“Now, I'd be willing to place bets, that this train is going to start in 10 seconds. Or maybe 15 seconds.”
Hearers can't help smiling.
“One.
Two.
Three.
Four.
Eight.
Eight.
Eleven.”
A longer pause.
“Twenty-seven.”
The train starts.
At the next station, another lengthening pause.
“Now, I'd be willing to place bets that this train is going to start in half an hour.
Faites vos jeux.”
The doors start to close.
“Rien ne va plus.”
The train reaches an interchange station. Many leave. Those standing take over their seats, smirking. Some still trying to look serious. Those boarding sense an odd atmosphere, but don’t know why.
The top floors of buses are another matter. Small groups of the young quickly turn them into their own playground. On a bus to Stoke Newington, four girls of West Indian origin come upstairs, start making quite a noise: “We're so stupid. We're so rubbish.” Ironic, with pauses, just for themselves, an impromptu routine.
On another bus, well into the evening, two girls upstairs, white, both about 10, eating a Chinese takeaway, expertly, with chopsticks. An adult they know comes up: “You haven't seen us, right?”

* *

(Posted 28 January, 2024.)

*  *  *

In winter 2001, you start travelling with your father. You’d planned to before, but he couldn’t get a passport, they decided he wasn’t British any more. This arose because of the footloose nature of the last few Heidenstam generations. His grandfather born in the Swedish consulate in Thessaloniki in northern Greece, when it was still part of the Ottoman empire. His father born in British Cyprus, then becoming chief of the British colonial police on Grenada in the West Indies. That bit was fine, except it was the middle of the First World War, his name was von Heidenstam, and nobody, including himself, knew what nationality he was. So, to be on the safe side, he got naturalised British, and my father, born afterwards, was automatically British by birth. Until the Nationality Act of 1981 came along, which decided anyone born abroad of someone who’d been naturalised might have the wrong skin colour, and shouldn’t count as British any more. While my mother was alive he was still British by marriage for another fifteen years or so; but since her death he wasn’t, and if he wanted a passport he needed to get naturalised himself. Understandably annoyed, he considered becoming Granadan, but lacked suitable contacts for the referees. So eventually, after several years’ work, he was able to swear his allegiance and get a passport, and we could get away. Starting with a winter in Tunisia. This was, to be clear, not a result of wealth – neither of us had navigated our ageing financial circumstances very successfully – my father thanks to a legally dubious termination from a successful lifelong employment not long before retirement age. But, rather, of renting out his house in Norwich for the winter at a satisfactory sum (and certainly more than it would have cost to heat it). So we ended up in Tunisia, and soon migrated down south to the island of Djerba. Reputedly Homer’s island of the lotus eaters, where we ate instead the local briks – a crisp triangular pastry with a whole egg and other stuff inside – plus lunchtimes at the local workers’ eaterie. And where – it being winter – the locals sat around shivering in pullovers and hooded jackets, while the German tourists clearly thought that if the sun was out it must be perfect for stripping off.

* *

(Posted 29 January, 2024.)

*  *  *

The Moonduster voyage, north Atlantic, April 1983. You go out of Ireland straight into an unforecast Force 10. A true one not a gusting. Within hours the reefed mainsail is torn. Do we turn back? No, says John; he doesn’t do turning back. So now it’s no longer a straight crossing, it’s a matter of heading for the Azores for repairs. Meanwhile down in the galley you’re having fun. The first breakfast, the oven blows out thirteen times. The floor’s tilting you away. Each time you kneel on the floor, jam yourself into place, press your forehead hard against the front of the cooker to stop its sway on the gimbals, use one hand to hold the control knob in hard against the safety cutout, and the other to wield a match, all the time hoping that the hot fat in the frying pan above doesn’t spill onto your face. After that you split breakfast into three hob-sized servings, which with the watch change makes more sense anyway. And set about preparing meals from the ready-cooked stuff from John’s wife, stored in the dry-ice box. And, in a fit of ambition, even bake cookies – which Brendan starts scoffing while they’re still hot.
Once the storm passes, the boat, built for speed not seaworthiness, wallows towards the Azores in the heavy seas. Until, just a hundred miles from landfall, the mast comes down. The yard probably left the rod rigging too slack. Anyway now, in the middle of the night, half on deck half overboard, it needs dealing with. A hole the size of cigarette pack in your paper-thin hull will sink you in minutes. The others go up on deck and start bolt-cutting steel. You, far too tall not to be a liability with your high centre of gravity, sit under the hatch and pass tools up and down. Until it gets a bit boring, so you grab a book from the shelves and double it up with reading a thriller about northern Ireland.

* *

(Posted 29 January, 2024.)

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Morocco, 1973. A Rif wedding. You’re in the bridegroom’s convoy of cars. They drive through the foothills to an empty section of road. Are the bride’s cars there already, or do they come after? – you can’t remember. In any case, they end up about a hundred yards apart. The bride emerges, and begins to walk towards you. Halfway across, she stops, and changes her headdress, from that of an unmarried woman to a married. Then she walks on.
A few weeks later you’re down in the south, in a village by the sea. The surrounding scrubland is haunted by scorpions. The local beetles, overexcited by spring, stack up in threes, each trying to copulate with the layer below. The village, Mihrleft, used to exist under the guns of the last Spanish enclave, finally surrendered in 1969. Now the incursing foreigners are Western travellers, living a makeshift life down on the beach. Sun, Volkswagen vans, and hash. You get a room in the village in a rooftop café – and start giving karate classes. You don’t even have a green belt, but cinema has made karate a big thing in Morocco since your last visit. You enjoy the exercise, and the café is happy to collect the fees. The travellers down on the beach think you’re the local fascist. They also think you’re a journalist, because you seem to be writing, or maybe a doctor, because you stick a bit of elastoplast on a local’s arm. But they also have books that you delve into: Huxley, Leary. Attempted works on the intersections of consciousness, perception, and spirituality. Years later, travelling with your father, you go back and visit for a few hours. You bump into a local, a middle-aged fisherman, and describe your old role. “Yo”, he cries in Spanish – “I”, and grabs you for a hug. He was one of your pupils.

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(Posted 31 January, 2024.)

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England, 1990. Sadness and beauty. At work, the ‘Birds’ partwork comes to an abrupt end after only three issues. You’re planning a trip to Germany, but first need to go down to Gloucestershire, to prepare for renovating your last house there. That’s the last of the row of three you’d bought for £2,000 in 1976. It’s still got the same tenant, paying £1.50 a week, in her 80s now and cared for by her relatives next door, but happy about the renovation as long as they can do the work round her. You decide to hitchhike, set out late, don’t get to Gloucester till the last bus into the Forest of Dean has long gone. So you find a cheap hotel, where the rooms smell of damp, the wife is enduring a broken leg, and you seem to be the only guest. Next morning you wash in the shabby bathroom, suffering memories of mornings long ago in camps and damp bedsits, getting up to go labouring. Then bus into the Forest and ransack a friend’s loft, searching among all the boxes you’d dumped for old renovation plans, but can’t find them. Walk back into the local town, your mind full of reminders of times past, and phone your tenant, Mrs. Williams, and tell her you’d like to come over to measure the house; and hear her crying down the phone, saying she’s lost her son. But she insisting you go over anyway, so you take the bus, and walk down Hangerberry Hill, and see again all the beauty of the setting, the deep valley of conifers and the autumn browns and golds of the ferns. And go down the footpath to the main street, where it’s the other Lydbrook, the shabby depressing village, to use the public toilets and buy food in the shop, saying hello to people who still remember you, still call you David. And then back up to the terrace, and in to Mrs. Williams and sit and listen to her, the story of her son’s death, and her saying, “Things won’t never be the same again”, over and over.

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(Posted 2 February, 2024.)

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Crete, 1968. Agios Nikolaos. Later this place will be notorious for package tourism and a British TV drama series. But for now, the first hotel has only just been built and is still empty, the fishermen’s café is still for fishermen, the language gap makes truly interrelating with locals difficult, and the most recent fresh influx of visitors was away on the south coast, the hippie community (and Joni Mitchell) at the Matalan caves. Still, here in Agios Nikolaus a small community does gather. There’s Annie and Jimmy, residents, English teachers: Annie a Flemish Belgian, Jimmy Greek in the Socrates style of splayed flattened nose and craggy brow. They have a stunningly beautiful daughter, Ireni, aged 4; and are both Communist sympathisers. Something they need to keep very quiet, given the current Greek rule by the Colonels’ junta, or they’d certainly lose their jobs and quite possibly be transported to an internment island. There are two Canadians, Sandy and his wife Susan, here on a 6-month stay with a grant for Sandy to finish a novel. There’s Richard, also teaching English, very quiet, ex-Oxbridge, who mostly keeps to himself. There’s three American guys who arrive, full of humour, who on Thanksgiving somehow manage to produce a full-scale meal of chicken, stuffing, potatoes, salad, apple pie, and nuts, lit by flickering candlelight, the more civilised present even relinquishing jeans and sports shirts for suits or dresses. There’s Anna, a recent arrival, only 20 but already travelling in Europe for two years, kept going by worrying parents who hope she’ll use the latest donation of dollars to come home. And there’s your own chance household, in a simple villa ten minutes from the town and ten seconds from the sea. Made up of yourself (travelling inland several days a week – walking or hitchhiking or by hair-raising bus ride – to teach English in another little town, and gradually slumping from intentions to write to reading borrowed books on Freud), two English girls, and a young guy. One of the English girls, like Anna, not realising that their flirting and beyond with young locals is treated far more seriously than they intend. (Anna chased everywhere by two Greeks on a motor-scooter, one of whom considers she is engaged to him, and eventually effectively run out of town.) And the young guy, Peter, who has, according to Peter, done an incredible number of things in 26 years, including being orphaned, married, a parent, widowed, fought in Aden, studied in London and Czechoslovakia, taught in Jordan and Israel, and lived in Malaya and the Arctic. A history made a little more questionable by his showing Richard a photograph of a girl one evening, and saying it was his Czechoslovakian girl-friend, and the next making the mistake of showing the same photo to another group while Richard was also there, and saying it was his dead wife.

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(Posted 4 February, 2024.)

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My apologies

My apologies to everyone for the earlier long delay in adding to this ‘blog’. I’ve been pre-occupied over the past couple of years with putting together two poetry books – and with some of the disorders of ageing…

Meanwhile, just a reminder that my collection of microfictions, Tales for my Dog, is available worldwide on Kindle for 99p or less. And readers’ reviews of it, posted on Amazon or Goodreads, always very much appreciated. Many more needed.

A photo of the cover helps with getting reviews accepted.

Thanks! David.

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Based on the Q&A with David Heidenstam on Goodreads.

Q: What’s the best thing about being a writer?

David Heidenstam  You can do the writing anywhere. Yes, at some point you’ll probably have to type it up on a computer. But the creative part, that can be sitting at a café table with pen and paper. Or talking into a pocket recorder as you walk – or when you wake in the night.

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Q: What’s your advice for aspiring writers?

David Heidenstam  Only do it if you have to. Some can make a living from it: but that’s mostly if you’re in contract writing, or (for a successful very few) creating genre fiction, or working in some non-fiction genres – business, health, self-development. Thanks to modern self-publishing & self-promotion, you can bypass the old gatekeepers. But that doesn’t mean anyone’s going to read your stuff. So then it’s a lifestyle choice; sometimes a driven one. Which is fine if you can fit it into the corners of a life that makes you happy in other ways. But if not, you may be facing unhappy choices.

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Q: Where did you get the idea for Tales for my dog?

David Heidenstam  The individual stories came in many different ways. Some years ago, I started trying to tap the unconscious by setting out to write stories in five minutes – with no ideas beforehand… That worked. “The moondreamer” came about in that way, at a hotel café table on Djerba. One minute it didn’t exist, and I had no inkling of it; two minutes later it unalterably did.

Many of the stories in Part One happened like that. Others came deliberately, from memories I wanted to explore. Sometimes the two things came together. The title “The archipelago of the dead” came out of nowhere – and was too good to waste! At first, it seemed it would have to be some kind of fantasy about the afterlife. But then I realised how it could bring together experiences both from sailing and from childhood – with only at the end a nod to the looming consequences of age and to those who’ve gone before.

As for the overall concept, “Tales for my dog” – that started as a jokey title (and a potentially dangerous one – since people might expect them to be stories about dogs). And the justification only comes in the very last words of the last story – with the claim that most people might have had happier lives as dogs… Which then allows one to look back, and see the stories as a kind of education, for, perhaps, a canine audience, in the various strange psychologies of humans.

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Q: How would you compare your treatment of men and women in Tales for my dog?

David Heidenstam  Well, I’m clearly pretty hard on the men! Their portrayals range from old cultural distortions (the man who talks about “keeping a ‘mistress’”) to sudden violent domestic insanity. In between, there are the stupid, the naively optimistic, those ready to beat people into submission or to death, and those happy to have embarked on world conquest because it’s finally made them feel loved… The women are, I’d argue, treated with far more compassion. They’re not shown in such positions of power, because that’s still usually untrue to people’s experience, including my own. Instead they are mostly shown trying to deal with circumstances with intelligence and sensitivity – including a quiet home-maker turning the tables on someone who’s using authority to threaten them. But, to even things up a bit, there’s a woman with a very emotionless approach to marriage; and – humorously – another who tries to turn a profit from her ex-lover’s heart!

Of course, there’s always the danger that some readers may not be well attuned to satire – especially when it’s layered with British irony. E.g. in the case of the man who thinks it’s easier to keep a ‘mistress’ than a dog, because you don’t have to walk her every day… A danger heightened in microfictions, where the brevity makes it more likely that attitudes are attributed to the author rather than the character. They might like to remember Swift’s bitter satire, in A Modest Proposal – suggesting that the Irish can deal with poverty by selling their children as food to the rich… As a writer, I have to guard a carefully ambivalent attitude to ‘political correctness’. Changing what words are acceptable has clearly played a vital role in changing attitudes and behaviour. But changing what writing is acceptable can distort truth-telling. There are two overlapping dangers. One is a modern version of Victorian bowdlerisation, where some topics are censored. The other is a modern version of Stalinist literature – in which the job of the writer is distorted by the importance of presenting favourable role models.

A case in point is the story “The secret”. A certain kind of reader will ignore that – once again! – a man is being mocked, and see only that the woman is ‘just’ a home-maker, and her secret a culinary one, and condemn accordingly. But the story is a satire on the U.S. security agencies, and their willingness to turn their attention to threatening ordinary citizens. So the powerlessness of the potential victim is a vital element here – and the innocent domesticity of her ‘secret’ essential to its mockery of misused power.

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Q: What is the worst aspect of this new age of self-publishing?

David Heidenstam  The need to promote your books. So part of you has to become a salesman. It puts you in the debt of friends, family, strangers. And sits badly with the psychology of creativity. Especially for those who grew up in a traditional English culture of reticence about oneself.

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Q: How would you defend your portrayal of Christian theology, in Tales for my dog and In the Beginning…?

David Heidenstam  Oh, I don’t think I would! I happen to be religious, in the sense that I think that the material world is superficial. That consciousness is the underlying nature of the universe, not a rare result of a physical brain. But Western attitudes to religion – both favourable and critical – are grossly distorted. They are distorted by the Abrahamic tradition of God as an all-powerful person – who then has, ridiculously, to be capable of being everywhere and knowing everything. And they are distorted by Christian theology – driven into a cul-de-sac by the issues of the divinity – and parentage! – of Jesus of Nazareth. Which requires that people commit to believing unlikely things – and that they must do so by the exercise of faith. So then religion becomes something necessarily at loggerheads with science. I don’t think Westerners realise how odd Christianity is, how much of an outlier, in the spectrum of world religions. And one which clearly has nothing to do with anything that the historical Jesus actually taught. For a start, Yeshua ben Joseph – Jesus of Nazareth – was clearly a social anarchist: telling people to leave their families, not worry about the next meal. And you can’t build a structured religion on social anarchy.

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Q: How can you possibly defend the story “Keeping a dog”?!

David Heidenstam Well, yes, this one does tend to cause outrage. Some stories in Tales for my dog are meant to, for some readers. “Bargain”, for those uncritical of Christian theology. “Winning hearts”, for those enthusiastic about Western military intervention abroad to ‘promote democracy’. “Keeping a dog” is a bit different. It belongs to a valid tradition of wry jeu d’esprit; but whether that’s appropriate to the subject is another matter. The outrage arises when the speaker in the story switches from pet dogs to paid female partners… – and uses exactly the same words: “… they try to take an interest, and yawn, and don’t really have the concentration, not for your things anyway, why should they?” And for just a moment it could be taken that the reason is the same; but of course it’s not. To take the analysis further, let’s remember the joke about the man who goes to a library, and asks the librarian to tell him where he can find books about young women being attracted to much older men. (A frequent theme in Hollywood movies a few years back.) “Certainly,” she says. “In the fiction section.” In “Keeping a dog”, the ‘voice’ of the story is clearly both older and fairly wealthy. “Keeping a ‘mistress’” is an old-fashioned phrase. And it implies inequality of wealth, like any long-term monetised sexual relationship – whether it is a rich man gaining a trophy wife, or a young woman deciding that accepting a ‘sugar daddy’ is a bearable solution to paying off iniquitous education costs. And in all this context, the ‘voice’ of the story is actually refreshingly honest – within his limits. He doesn’t imagine that the woman is going to love him, or even share his interests. He uses the exact words he did about keeping a dog – but now the issue is not mental capacity, but the unlikelihood of a younger poorer woman being unflaggingly interested in the day-to-day perceptions and preoccupations of an older man who’s bought her companionship. But the provocative transition allows the man a conclusion that is simultaneously practical, psychologically acute, and somewhat thoughtful: “But you know they’ve got plenty of other lives they don’t tell you about, so you don’t feel guilty about it. Not like you would if they were a dog.”

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80 microfictions from humour to horror

No, NOT – mostly – tales ABOUT dogs

“brutally distilled observations of the human condition…” (Amazon reviewer)

Learning about being human – one microfiction at a time…

SPR Award - Tales for my dog

 

“Probably my favorite book of the contest, in terms of heart and talent…” / “a hugely enjoyable read – intelligent and ironic and deftly crafted…” / “amusing, poetic, evocative, strange…” SPR Book Award judges 

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It was in the dark before dawn that he saw the woman walking across the water…

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I had a misunderstanding the other day. I thought I was a pastry cook, but then realised I was Chief of Police…

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I was disappointed when I found out I’d been lying to myself…

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The house was at the end of the world, where the land ended and the water began…

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Everybody knew about the blue jacket. You put it on, and it told you what you wanted to know…

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He folded the dragon carefully, studying how to do it from the book he had…

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There were two of them. One fat, one thin. One old, one young. One rich, one poor. One greedy, one needy…

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A long time ago – before even your father was born – there was a great debate among the animals, over who should rule the land…

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He was a miser, and so didn’t buy any clothes…

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The dog came into the pastry shop…

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 Now available in paperback and ebook.

Please click HERE for more information, reactions of readers, and purchase options.

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Occasional postings of humour.

Bad Connections.
(1997)

Hello, 999? I wish to report a murder. I’ve just strangled my wife. She’s a telephone call centre operator.

Welcome to 999 Emergency Services. If you have a star key on your telephone, please press it twice now.

Beep. Beep.

Thank you. You now have five options. For lottery numbers, please press 1. For television schedules, press 2. For fire, press 3. For police, press 4. For..

Beep.

Thank you. You are through to 999 Police Services. If you have committed a crime, please press 1. If you are in the process of committing a crime, please press 2. If you have information about a crime, please press 3. If you intend to commit a crime, but have not yet performed any illegal acts, please ring back when you have done so. Thank you.

Beep.

Thank you. To help us process your call more efficiently, we have provided direct access keys for the most common crimes. For income tax irregularities, please press 1. For murder of a family member, please press 2. For murder of call centre operators, please press 3. For..

Beep beep.

Please do not attempt to press more than one key at a time.

Beep.

Thank you. If you have previously been convicted of a crime, please enter your account number now. Otherwise, please stay on the line for an operator.

Transferring you to an operator.

I’m sorry. Due to an unusually high level of crime in your category, all our operators are busy at the moment. You are held in a queue and will be answered as soon as possible. Please hold.

We are sorry for the delay in dealing with your call. Your crime is important to us. Please continue to hold.

Please hold.

“..Hello, family murder centre.”

Ah, yes, thank you, I wish to report a murder. I’ve just strangled my wife. She’s a call centre operator.

“I’m sorry, sir, you want the call centre murder line. I’ll put you through.”

Yes but..

Please hold while we redirect your call.

“..Hello, call centre murder centre.”

Hello, yes, I wish to report a crime. I’ve just murdered my… I’ve just murdered a call centre operator.

“Thank you. Do you have a customer number or are you a new murderer?”

No, I don’t, I’m a new..

“Thank you. And did you say the murder had already taken place?”

Yes, about thirty minutes..

“I’m sorry, sir, this is 999 Emergency Services, we don’t deal with murders that have already taken place. Please phone your local police.”

But.. Oh, I see. Do you have the phone number?

“Sir, we are not Directory Enquiries. There’ll be a display ad in your local phone directory.”

I’m afraid our phone directory got badly damaged. Quite recently.

“Well then, sir, why don’t you try Talking Pages. Now, please get off the line, or you’ll be prosecuted for wasting Emergency Services time.”

..”Hello, Talking Pages, Amanda speaking, how may I help you?”

I’d like the number of my local police.

“Thank you, sir. And what town or city are you calling from?”

Well, um, London, I suppose, but..

“Could you spell that, please, sir?”

L-O-N-D-O-N. But..

“Would that be Little London in Oxfordshire?”

No, just London, but..

“I’m afraid we have no listing for London, sir. Is there a nearby town or city we could search under?”

Yes, look, try under Hackney.

“Thank you, sir. Looking for you now. Yes, we have three police services advertising for the Hackney area. There’s the British Transport Police, ‘crimes investigated, public transport a speciality’, their number is..”

No, I don’t think so, thank you. What others so you have?

“The Ministry of Defence Police, and the UK Atomic Energy Constabulary.”

The Ministry of Defence Police?

“I’m sorry, sir, that advertiser’s number is ex-directory.”

No, I mean, don’t you have the Metropolitan Police?

“Not among our advertisers, sir, but they may be in our other listings. Yes, here we are, sir, the Metropolitan Police, Hackney.”

Ah, thank you.

“Here’s your number now.”

..Hello, Hackney Police?

“No, this is the British Police Central Switchboard in Aberdeen. Hold on, I’ll put you through.”

Hello, Hackney Police?

“No, this is the Metropolitan Police Central Switchboard in the Faroe Islands. Hold on, I’ll put you through.”

Hello, Hackney Police?

This is the Hackney Police..

Thank goodness..

..Call Centre in the Falkland Islands. We’re sorry no-one can take your call at the moment. Please leave a message after the beep. For urgent calls, please dial 999. For telephone-related crime, please call the National Call-Centres-Crime Call Centre on….

Hello, this is the National Call-Centres-Crime Call Centre. If you have a touchtone telephone, please throw it at the wall now.

Thank you. We hope you feel better already. However, our stress recognition software is transferring you automatically to the National Call Centres Suicide Helpline. Please hold.

Please hold.

Please hold.

Your suicide is important to us. Please hold.

Hello, this is the National Call Centres Suicide Helpline. If you have already committed suicide, please press 1…

(Posted 30 May, 2018.)

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The height of fame.
(2008)

The height of fame, he decided, was to have a salad named after you. I mean, who’d have heard of Caesar, if it wasn’t for his salad? Invading Gaul, crossing the Rubicon – that was just for guys who read books. But an entry on a menu – that was universal fame. Then there was the Waldorf. Ok, so that might have been a great hotel, may still be for all he knew. But you didn’t have thousands of people talking about that every day. But turn it into a mixture of apple and walnuts and mayonnaise, and there it was, all around the world. What do you fancy today, honey? Oh the Waldorf’ll do me. Even Russia. Ok now, no denying, Russia had quite a bit going for it anyway, what with czars and commissars and cold wars and Siberia. But having a salad as well – well, it didn’t do any harm, did it? So he was sure the salad was the thing, and it was the ingredients that mattered. Put together something that tasted great, and then call it a salad, so it sounded healthy. And there you were: immortality. Will you have the steak tonight, dear? Oh no, you know I’m on a diet. I’ll just have the pizza and ice cream salad. You know, the Tony Blair.

(Posted 3 February, 2022.)

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A few previously published poems

“The hands are useful objects..”

The hands are useful objects – prime evolutionary tools.
Consider:
The fingertips encourage people to convict burglars;
The nails, painted, may excite lust or love;
Knuckles can be broken with excruciating agony
And fingers explore private parts while wearing tokens of identification;
Also palm-lines make a practical alternative to tea leaves,
While the heels of the hands conveniently cover the eyes
Without obstructing the tear ducts.

(1972, published Ambit magazine 1992.)

(Posted 30 May, 2018.)

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“The land stands silent..”

The land stands silent in the sun:
Solid; green; encompassed; known;
Till a crow's caw sounds, like a great door opening,
And makes of the dark wood an inhabited thing.

(1975, published Agenda magazine 1988;
Carcanet 
Agenda anthology, 1994.)

Debts of gratitude here far longer than the poem. First, to Diagram (Visual Information) Ltd., then of Goswell Road in London, for allowing for a time a work arrangement that triggered an intense period of creativity. Second, to a former fellow graduate student at Essex, Chris Game, for inviting me on a day’s visit to Cliveden House (then an overseas campus of Stanford University), where this was unexpectedly written. But mostly to William Cookson of Agenda, for being the first to think there might be something publishable in my versifying. William, who’d founded Agenda as a young man under the encouragement of Ezra Pound, tried very hard to find anything else in my poetry that he could like – but never succeeded!

(Posted 23 June, 2018.)

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“By the black serpent..”

By the black serpent
Of the black tongue
In the black garden
This song sung:
My grace is power
My hope is fear
My love is evil
My home, everywhere.

(1975, published Blue Unicorn magazine 2020.)

Another, quite different, poem from the same period of part-time work (my first venture into offices). Most were written in the afternoons on, or on the journey to and from, Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath. Where I’d once worked as a park-keeper – scribbling down hitch-hiking memories in any breaks… – and which is referenced twice, anonymously, in Tales for my dog. My thanks to Blue Unicorn, of San Francisco, for recently picking up on this and a couple of other short poems that have never appealed to the prevailing aesthetic.

(Posted 26 September, 2020)

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Improbabilities

Trying to cope with a trivial pain
I lie in bed, thinking of unlikely things.
The giraffe that’s a carnivore, crunching squirrels.
The camel whose novel won the Booker prize.
(He’d kept in in his hump for years, unfinished.)
The land somewhere were everyone is happy
And only infants swear – their first words – in delight.
The colour that’s both ultra violet and darkest red.
The spectrum that reveals the state of souls,
Though the radiation levels are unacceptable.
The washing machine that washes, dries, and folds,
And tells you when your hopes are out of date.
The storms that uncover forgotten heroes,
All women, and unwilling to be called ‘heroines’.
The peak-time TV slot for failed poets.
The day that Accident & Emergency phoned,
Saying they wanted to put the tonsils back.
The year the club won everything:
Cup, league, UNESCO heritage, and two Nobels.
The children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren.
The worldwide fame for anything.
The hour that beauty smiled in the street.
The time Jesus came back; or even you perhaps.

(2019, published Orbis magazine #190, 2019.)

A bit of light verse, written in Gt Yarmouth in 2019. Published in Orbis, and voted by readers joint-first of the poems in that issue – which was probably a bit unfair to those who’d contributed rather more serious stuff…

(Posted 14 August, 2021)

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Two scripts available

In the Beginning…

**“…the whole gamut of human experience is here… loneliness, sexuality, morality, hierarchy, wit and hypocrisy.” Review by Roger Kohn in Virginia Water Magazine.**

A stage play set in the Garden of Eden.
A four-hander (God, Satan, Adam, Eve) with quite simple staging requirements.

Written 1978-82. Well received by script readers, but never produced, apart from a rehearsed reading at the Sheffield Crucible under the direction of the late Clare Venables.

Reactions to the original 1980s script:-

– “a lovely play..”
Michael Fox of Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre Company.

– “one of the most arresting openings I can remember for some time..”
Alan Strachan of the Greenwich Theatre.

– “a funny, fluently written and well-constructed play..”
Graham Whybrow of the Royal Court.

– “The staging of this play would be a challenge, and director and designer would accept with glee. It is imaginative, intelligent and vastly amusing… The sound person would have a glorious time making up the appropriate tapes… God’s smugness is riveting and Satan, wary, enigmatic and sceptical, is obviously the centre of the play… Eve.. is sharply defined, clever and very much in control… a play with tremendous potential.”
Reader’s report for the New Playwrights Trust.

And a recent review:-

– “…reimagines the first chapters of the book of Genesis with wry humor… [It] evokes sympathy for the Devil with a clever combination of naturalistic action, humor, and engaging, thoughtful dialogue… [Eve’s] compassion for Satan turns the moment when she and Adam eat the apple from humanity’s greatest failure… In Heidenstam’s telling, Eve is not tricked; rather, she makes a moral choice… A feast of challenging ideas for those who are willing to taste of it.”
Bryon Reiger in Rain Taxi, issue 98.

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“Eve leads humanity from mythology into morality. In reaching that decision, she has already had to take on the knowledge of good and evil. But, inevitably, she cannot foresee all the consequences.”
David Heidenstam.

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Please click HERE for purchase links to Amazon – but also available free to theatres and drama groups. Please send a message via the form on the Contact page

SATAN: No, well I’m not as good in the mornings as you are…

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One day

A short script written in about 1971 for possible television production as a ‘silent comedy’ – a kind of combination of silent movie and “Monty Python” comic sketch.

But it might have been better conceived as a short animated film, using plasticine characters and sets, in the style (if they’d been around at the time) of “Wallace and Gromit”.

Indeed, the atmosphere, of class-bound 1950’s conventionalism and repression, is very close to that of “Wallace and Gromit” – though not so affectionately remembered!

It could also make a short stage production – a combination of mime and slapstick that might appeal to amateur drama groups.

It’s a script – never intended for ordinary reading. But it’s available as a free pdf to anyone interested in using it. Please send a message via the form on the Contact page and mention what you have in mind.

(Permission to use will be free in the case of amateur drama production, and by agreement for animation.)

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