Thursday, 28 June 2012

Novel: Baby Marxist.

I didn't know I was allergic to rabbits. The inside corner of my right eye felt as if it was on fire. It was just about possible to avoid reaching up to scratch it if I concentrated the whole of my willpower on resisting, but if I was distracted for a moment, as inevitably happened with all the commotion going on around me, my hand would sneak up to my eye involuntarily. Then there would be a moment of ecstatic relief followed by an explosion of sneezing that carried on for about five minutes. It was not so much sneezing as being sneezed, and once it was over I hardly knew where I was any more.
     'Bless you,' someone said for the seventh or eighth time that evening.
     I was sitting on one of the square cushions;I remembered now that it had fallen vacant just as I was making my way past it, the previous occupant getting up to refill her glass, and I had sunk on to it, glad of the chance to stop my aimless wandering from room to room. I had not seen the rabbit till too late, or the lanky girl who was inseparable from it, even though I had been trying to get away from them all evening.
     'Have you got a cold?' she said,and there was something in her voice that made it sound like an accusation.
     'It's your rabbit.'
     'My birthday present,' she said. 'Her name's Rosa. Unless she's a boy, in which case her name's Leon. They - waving her curly head in a circular motion to indicate her surroundings - 'wanted to dye her blue, but I wasn't having it.' Rosa looked blue anyway in the submarine light, but there was a luminous brilliance to her blueness that suggested her fur was really blue. Or not really, I remembered. There was no really, especially, for some reason, where colours were concerned. She was turning round and round in the girl's lap, snuffling at it as if trying to make a nest for herself in the unyielding denim. There were damp snippets of a blue-green material all round her, which I recognized as half-chewed lettuce. 'You don't like rabbits,' the girl said, accusingly again. 'They've got a right to exist, same as anyone else.'
     'I've got nothing against them. They just make me sneeze. Or this one does, anyway. It must be an allergy.'
     'You're not sneezing now.'
     'That's because I have nothing left to sneeze with.'
     'That's OK then. There are no allergies anyway. They're all in the mind.'
     'You can't sneeze in the mind.'
     'Oh, you can, though. You can do anything in the mind. That's where most things happen, after all.'
     I looked at her: very thin, her sweatshirt, which was probably red in normal circumstances, hanging loose from the points of her shoulders. A small, pale face. She looked like an overgrown child.'What birthday?' I asked.
     'Twenty.'
     Twenty! I felt sick suddenly. She was a baby. Probably a baby Marxist, judging by the names she chose for her rabbit, but still a baby. And to think I had been thinking... never mind.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Novel: Kind of Blue

Most of the food was blue. They had put quite a lot of effort into it - there were Ritz crackers spread with a number of blue pastes (cream cheese, and possibly guacamole, but I didn't recognize the others), and dry-roasted peanuts now wet with a smeary blue food colouring that came off on your fingers; the surface of the baked potatoes was bluish and there was a blue cheese dressing to go on them, its natural blueness boosted by artificial means). They were served with a bowl of a stringy indigo substance that turned out to be braised red cabbage. 'There you are, you see,' Rob said, taking a swig of blue wine. 'This is what I mean about language and colour. There is probably only one really blue food in the world, and we call it red.'
     'It is red, isn't it?' I said, lifting up a forkful or it. It was hard to be sure in the blue light.
     'Not when it's cooked. Cooked red cabbage is definitely blue, and since it's usually cooked when you eat it, it's at least as appropriate to call it blue cabbage. If we called it blue cabbage that might conceivably help you to see it as it really is.'
     'I thought it wasn't really anything. Isn't that essentialism?'
     Rob shrugged. I didn't hear his reply. The room was dark and very crowded, and there were currents of people moving all round me, which made it hard to stand still for long. Even though I was managing that more or less, people kept getting in the way and I found I was being turned slowly until in the end I was facing in the wrong direction. There was a bass-heavy music coming from another room. We were somewhere in the North Slope (Rob had just followed the bass vibrations to get here), in a little arrangement of four rooms and a kitchen opening off a corridor. This was the kitchen, though it had been glamourized for the occasion by hanging blue cloths over the lights. The food and wine was laid out on the work surfaces on both sides of the room, so that you couldn't see all of it at once, and sometimes you couldn't see any of it at all, depending on the flow of people. I had half a blue potato plus the blue cabbage and blue dressing on a blue paper plate that buckled beneath them, and was trying to eat them with a blue plastic fork while holding a glass of the blue wine in my fork hand.
     'Blue Nun,' a female voice said somewhere underneath my right armpit.
     'Oh yes, very good.' But I never got to see who I was talking to, and perhaps the remark hadn't been addressed to me in the first place.
     I realized I was very hungry, but eating was impossible. The fork wouldn't penetrate the potato even when I had room to move it, and the plate was in danger of collapsing every time I tried. I gave up and made an lunge for one of the work surfaces to put the plate down, but it just got further away, and before I could stop myself I was out of the door and standing uncomfortably in the corridor between two rows of people seated on cushions with their backs pressed against the wall and their knees drawn up. The cushions were of the large square chair-seat variety and there was only about six inches of institutional crewcut carpet between them. There was no light here except the blue glow from the open doorways of the other rooms, and it would have been difficult to make my way between the knees and feet and cushions even if dozens of other people had not been trying to do the same thing. What was I going to do when I got rid of the potato? Talk, dance, listen to the music? There seemed to be rooms for each of them, but no one to do any of them with. It was as if fifty or sixty people, with their eating, drinking, love-lives and conversations had been broken into fragments and the challenge was to put at least one of them together again in the blue, throbbing maelstrom.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Notes: Dream Books

Nearly a month since my last Starling City update. Anyone involved in academia will understand why: it's been the marking season, when all our undergraduates produce end-of-year work at the same time, and lecturers can't think of anything else. I finished my marking yesterday. Ahead is the season of meetings, when all the admin connected with that marking has to be got through, but, while that's not the most exciting thing in the world, it doesn't take over your brain in quite the same way. Already I'm thinking of the summer, when I hope to spend quite a lot of time in the National Library of Wales, working on a critical book. Maybe I'll write some poetry, too.

The less time I have to write, the more I fantasize about writing. And it tends to be dream books, rather than projects that are actually under way. In the last few days, I have dreamed up two novels, a collection of poems and a collection of linked short stories. Maybe one or more of them will actually be written some day. Most of the books I have written started off as daydreams - I remember, for example, going over Mandeville in my head for years before I actually sat down to write it. I kept repeating to myself the following unpromising opening:
My name is Sir John Mandeville.
The world is a T in an O.
(The reference being to the shape of the world as depicted in medieval maps.) I knew this sounded terrible, and that the implied form of a ballad would be wrong for the book, but it continued to nag at me anyway. It was a sort of writer's block in itself, an unshakable pattern in my head that prevented me from seeing the possibility of any other form or opening for the book. In the same way, some of the other dream books I carry round with me have fixed patterns or preconceptions associated with them that I can't shake and that are the main reason that I can't actually write them. Sometimes a dream book becomes a project at the moment I rid myself of one of those preconceptions.

Starling City, on the other hand, didn't really have one of those dream existences; I started it because I had a bit of time to fill before teaching started and my other projects were either finished (a book of poems) or hadn't worked out (a novel), and it seemed a practical thing to try. Unlike most of my other projects, successful or otherwise, it didn't start from a Big Idea. It isn't the kind of book you can describe to someone who hasn't read it and still sound impressive: 'Well, it's set in a fictional version of Brighton in the early 80s, and I think his friend dies.' The only Big Idea was doing it in blog form. The fact that it sounds so ordinary makes it hard for me to continue to believe in it - it doesn't sound like something that will win the Booker or allow me to retire on the proceeds, the kind of fantasy outcomes that have sustained my other writing over the years. But then maybe I've been too much in thrall to the Big Idea and the fantasy outcome. Perhaps I should just write and hope that the writing comes through on its own. The blog form, by getting rid of the normal obstacles that prevent writers getting through to their readers, makes it seem less necessary to shout and wave your arms.

At one point during the marking, I did start a new posting. I was trying to get Rob and Daniel to a party, largely so I could introduce some other characters, because it has been bothering me that the novel so far is mostly two people talking to each other. They got as far as the Adorno Arms on campus, which proved to be deserted. And then I couldn't think how to get them any further, nor did I want to continue the conversation. Even if I could get them to a party, what would happen? I had no idea, and in my stressed state I knew there wasn't much point racking my brains. Now, however, my mind is clearer, and the answer seems obvious. I've remembered the small episode from my life which was the main reason I wanted to write about Rob in the first place. I've been holding it back, as I tend to, waiting for the right moment to introduce it, and even managed to forget all about it for a while. Tomorrow I'll get back to the novel (minus the non-event of the Adorno Arms, I think) and get things moving at last. This novel needs some love interest.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Novel: No Such Thing as Snow

By the time we boarded the train it was already dark. It felt wrong to be going to university at this hour instead of coming from it. I was used to the train being full of undergraduates with dyed hair and Oxfam-shop coats. Now it was largely empty except for a few returning commuters and middle-aged county women going home to the tame countryside north of Fulmar. Rob and I sat opposite each other, each holding a bottle of red Piat d'Or. 'Anyone will let you in,' he had told me, 'so long as you have a bottle of this stuff with you. No, I don't know where we're going, and it doesn't matter. Have faith, Daniel, have faith.'
     The non-sequiturs of the afternoon had faded, leaving behind a dull continuous unpleasantness behind my eyes that was either a mild headache or just the rubbing my thoughts made going through my brain. I probably felt this all the time without being aware of it. I had tried telling Rob I didn't feel up to going, but he said a party would take me out of myself, and I had to agree that that was what I needed. Now, as the train moved off, he continued to talk cheerfully about literary theory, ignoring my sullenness. I would rather have gone to sleep, but it was probably just as well he didn't let me, as the journey was only about twenty minutes.
     'I thought I was ignorant,' Rob said, 'but you take the biscuit. And you're supposed to be doing a PhD. Personally I'd kill to do one of those.' He picked up the copy of The Maximus Poems from the seat beside him and leafed through it again. 'It all comes down to language, doesn't it?'
     'Well, of course,' I said, 'I know that .'
     'It's not just the unconscious that's structured like a language, it's the whole bloody universe. And when I say structured like a language, I mean it is a language, because when you come to think of it, Daniel, there isn't any difference between being structured like something and being something, is there? Not that being is the right word, I suppose. Not that something is the right word either. I'm just trying to make it simpler for you.'
     'Don't bother,' I said. We had reached the first stop, Blackburn Circus. A startled looking man in a grey suit squeezed out between Rob's legs and mine, banging me on the knee with the corner of one of those hard plastic briefcases. He had to open the window to get at the door handle on the outside, and it remained open thereafter. He was the only passenger to get out, but the train was in no hurry to move off, and I stared at the Illuminated stretch of concrete with lights dotted behind it like stars. My walks had never taken me as far as Blackburn Circus, and I didn't know anyone who lived there. I had a sudden sense of vertigo, perhaps triggered by the fact that Rob had just been talking about the universe. We moved off again.
     '...because the fact that they have a hundred words for snow,' Rob was saying, 'means that there is, ultimately, no such thing as snow at all.'
     'I thought it was fifty words for snow.'
     'Fifty words, a hundred words, who's counting? Who can count, come to that? The point is that there is no automatic correspondence between the number of words they use and the thing, whatever it is, that the words are supposed to signify. The word tree is not a tree.'
     'I never thought it was.'
     'And colours, as well. If you were Welsh, for example, you would think the tree was blue instead of green. Or rather you'd think it was blue as well as green, because they only have one word for what we think of as two colours. I can't believe I'm having to tell you all this, Daniel. So if you were Welsh a tree would be the same colour as the sky.'
     I shook my head, which was still feeling uncomfortable. 'About this snow thing...'
     'Yes?'
     'Do you think I should put it into my thesis in some way? Snow comes into Polar texts, and I think, on the whole they just call it snow. Scott and Shackleton, and so on. Some of them went north, and came into contact with the Inuit, but I haven't read much about them yet. I don't know whether they said anything about Inuit words for it.'
     'You are so literal minded,' Rob said. 'It could be fifty words for anything, any number of words for anything. Who cares about snow, anyway? This is Helmston. It hardly ever snows here.'
     At that moment, as if to contradict him, a sign slid past the open window bearing the word FULMAR. A kind of seabird, I remembered - I'd never really thought about the oddity of naming a village after a bird. If you could call it a village - there was nothing there, except the station, the underpass, the university and the sign that unified them all under the unlikely emblem of a creature best known for its habit of spitting a foul-smelling oil over anyone that came too close. There were little dancing flecks under the station lights that looked at first like insects. It was not until I got out and they started to flick at my face and the backs of my hands that I realized it actually was snowing.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Novel: Non-Sequiturs

Afternoons, according to Rob, were not much good for anything. Just when lunchtime had worked up a head of steam and seemed to be well on the way to evening, it suddenly stopped, leaving you with this continuation of daylight which was, frankly, unnecessary. 'I mean, why is there so much daylight? What's it for? You can see perfectly well at night. Daylight just seems exaggerated, a bit literal-minded, if you know what I mean, Daniel.'
     I decided he was drunk, though he was still speaking clearly enough, and striding down Gosling Rise so fast I could hardly keep up with him. Ahead of us, the sea was a chilly pale blue that made it look further away than it actually was. 'I don't feel that at all. I don't like the dark.'
     'That's because you're the sort of well-behaved person who has nothing very much to gain from the darkness, Daniel. Three beers and three women and you're happy. You can go back to your Arctic and your corned beef, what was it?'
     'Three and a half,' I said, running a few strides to catch up, 'beers, I mean.'
     'Oh, so you're extra happy now, are you? You don't look it, just your usual studious self. So what do you do with your afternoons, read Derrida?'
     The hiccup had come back in a more solid form, a fist-sized lump of peanut-mulch in my gullet. I only had time to breathe every two or three steps, and when I did the frosty air tasted of peanuts. 'I walk. And go to, go to bookshops.'
     'That sounds very intellectual. I fancy that. And then we can get on the train to Fulmar and go to the party.'
     'What, what party is this, Rob? I don't remember any party.'
     He had stopped and was appraising the streets and shops round about, which caused me to career right past, finding it difficult to adjust my pace on the steep hill. When I came back, Rob was staring into a window-display of trusses, incontinence pads and prosthetic limbs, all pink plastic, beige canvas, straps and buckles. 'So this is Helmston,' he said, as if he had never been here before. 'Remarkable. Why do you think they put this place on a hill? Must be a bit of a poser for the customers. Why are you in such a hurry, Daniel? We've got the afternoon ahead of us, haven't we?'
     'I don't... remember... party.'
     'There's always a party if you look hard enough. It's a university, isn't it? But why am I telling you this, Daniel? You're the student.'
     That afternoon was a series of non-sequiturs. Sometimes we were in bookshops, sometimes walking. At one time we were in a cafe because Rob had told me he was worried about my condition, and I needed to sober up. 'I can't understand it,' he said, 'unless you'd been drinking before I arrived. Have the hot chocolate with whipped cream. You need something on your stomach. Which is more - ' patting his own stomach - 'than I do. But I never eat anything, so it's hardly my fault.' Another time we were crunching along the beach, Rob still talking all the time, though I could hardly hear him for the wind and the grinding of the waves. He had bought a copy of Charles Olson's Maximus poems, an outsize yellow hardback, in one of the bookshops and was reading me bits of it as he walked. 'Projective verse, Daniel. What do you think?' He put the book on one of the drier mounds of shingle, picked up a stone and ran with it into the shallows, the water drenching his socks, before launching it into the waves and turning to me with a mock-triumphant look. 'Seven bounces, what you do think of that?'
     I felt a sort of shadow pass over me, inside my head or outside it, I wasn't sure. I put my hand up to my forehead, as if to wipe it away.
     'You know, Daniel, I like you. You're so easy to talk to. But you don't do much, do you?' He looked at me curiously, the way he had looked at the trusses. 'Are you sure you're all right?'
     'It's the starlings,' I said. Or maybe I didn't. He didn't seem to hear me, anyway.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Novel: What did I do?

'It's undeniably crap,' Rob said, looking down at his plate, which supported a canvassy pancake rolled round a filling that was mostly chunks of carrot. 'That is a given. And all right, I admit it, I'd rather be eating a steak. But you don't eat steak in Helmston, do you?'
     'What do you mean? Of course you do. They have every kind of restaurant you can think of.' I took a sip of my beer, only a half this time, much to Rob's disgust.
     'You can get it, Daniel, I grant you that, but you don't eat it. It's just for the tourists, along with the fake Indian and the fake Chinese and the fake Italian, and the fake, God knows, Mongolian or Romanian or what have you. Even you don't eat steak, and you're hardly a typical Helmstonian - I believe that's the word - hardly a typical Helmstonian, are you?'
     'I don't know what you mean.' Somewhere in the exhausting climb up Gosling Rise between the Shakespeare's Head and Wholesomeness, my hiccup had disappeared and been replaced by an all-over burning sensation that was either a symptom of a dangerous illness or a sort of exhilarating rage. I no longer cared about having to explain my sex-life to Rob; I would lie or tell him to mind his own business - it didn't matter which. Who was he, anyway? An overweight, married, part-time market researcher, from Kent of all places. 'I'm not a tourist, I live here.'
     Rob leaned forward across the table. 'You don't come from here, though, do you? Nobody really comes from here, I've noticed that.'
     I shook my head. 'You talk some utter, I mean some unmitigated...'
     'What's that you're eating?' He gestured at my plate.
     'It seems to be mostly peanuts.'
     'See, you could have had peanuts at the pub, and I wouldn't have had to suffer the carrot pancake. Anyway - ' he took a long gulp of his beer as a sign that he was changing the subject - 'you were going to tell about your lovers. I just have so much to learn.' Rob's habitually ironic mode of speaking cancelled itself out, I decided. Coming from anyone else, the way he had said that last phrase would have been insulting, but there was something innocent about Rob's irony.
     'I don't really have any,' I said. Or rather it was said for me - I seemed to have reached that stage.'
     'Yes, well, I can see that. But you have had, the three women you mentioned.'
     'They weren't really - it was nothing much. I mean I don't think I'm very good at... relationships.'
     Rob nodded, weightily. 'Understood, Daniel. Who is? Not me, anyway.'
     I wondered for a moment if I found that reassuring. There were degrees of not being good, just as there were degrees of frustration, the nine-hundred and ninety-ninth degree and the rest. But, to be honest, I wasn't even on the chart yet. 'You? But you're married.'
     He gave a sigh, or was it a laugh? 'I know. Embarrassing, isn't it? You want to see a picture? I might as well do the whole bourgeois thing.'
     She was tall with a Mediterranean tan, high cheekbones, and long dark hair, holding the baby awkwardly at shoulder-height as though she wasn't sure what to do with it, with her. Beautiful? Yes, probably. The main thing I thought, though was that she seemed grown-up. I wasn't sure why that should surprise me - Rob was hardly a child, after all. Come to think of it, the baby looked exactly like him, minus the beard and earring, a small plump-faced Rob in a pink tracksuit of the kind they favoured for babies these days. 'What did I do? Rob said, shaking his head. 'What did I do?' I waited for the end of the question, but there didn't seem to be one.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Novel: Hiccup

'Three?' Rob said, adjusting his body on the chair to work his fingers into the pocket of his jeans and draw out the squashed packets of Rizlas and Golden Virginia in preparation for the finciky process of making one of his roll-ups. '(I have to be Imogen for the moment, seeing as she's not here. Want one of these? No? You really have to smoke, Daniel, if you want to be a proper student.) Three. That's very restrained of you.'
     'Yes, well,' I said, 'I'm... choosy.' Never in all the times I had fielded that question had I come up with a remark like that; it could only have been the three pints. I looked defiantly at Rob, but he had his head down over the table and was rearranging individual strands of tobacco. It wasn't clear for a while whether or not he had heard me.
     'Hm,' he said finally, holding the finished cigarette up to the light as if to see whether it was transparent. 'And were they worth it?'
     'What?'
     'These three women you put so much deliberation into. I hope they were worth it? Were the relationships satisfying?'
     'Um.' There was something stuck in the back of my throat that felt like an unfinished hiccup. I couldn't swallow it again, and was concentrating most of my forces on trying to make it emerge in a controlled and discreet way. 'I think I need to eat, Rob. It's almost two o'clock, and I'm not used to drinking so much at lunchtime.'
     'Why this obsession with eating all the time? All right, how about some peanuts?'
     'I was thinking more of lunch.'
     'I can get lunch back home,' Rob said. 'All right, let me finish my cigarette, and we'll go somewhere. I want to hear abut the three women.'
     In between struggling with the hiccup, I was trying to make my mind move in a straight line, but it kept doubling back on itself. It's just language, I kept thinking; if I had slept with a thousand women, like, I don't know, Eric Clapton, Julio Iglesias, Frank Sinatra - they're all musicians, aren't they? Is there something about music and sex? Like Eric Clapton, Julio Iglesias... Who is Julio Iglesias, anyway? I'm pretty sure he isn't cool, and not a name I ought to be dropping even if he has slept with a thousand women. Is it always exactly a thousand, I wonder, or do they not count after the first thousand? It must be so frustrating to get to, say, nine hundred and ninety-nine, and then you can't manage the thousandth for some reason, they all start saying no for some reason. A different level of frustrating, of course. Eric Clapton... Pull yourself together, Daniel. Even if I had slept with a thousand women, I would have no way of conveying that experience to Rob because it's only language, whatever I say is only language, signifiers without signifieds, because the women aren't here, he can't see them or talk to them, they would just be names, words, language, there's no way of what's the word? No way of reality testing. He doesn't know, I can make up anything I like, because it's only words. As far as words are concerned I am Julio Iglesias. Or three one-thousandths of Julio Iglesias which is a nice conservative, normal thing to be. Only don't mention the name because he isn't cool. Three one-thousandths of, erm, Eric...
     'Are you all right, Daniel?' Rob said. 'You look a bit pale. Perhaps you do need to eat, come to think of it. We can go to that veggie place, Wholesomeness.'
     'I'm OK. I've just got a bit of, of the hiccups.'
     He looked at me, puzzled. 'Are you sure? I haven't actually noticed you hiccuping.'
     'It's just one hiccup,' I told him, 'and it won't move. It's stuck in my throat.'
     He nodded wisely. 'Oh, one of those. Come on, Daniel. We'll go to Wholesomeness and you can tell me about your lovers.'

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Novel: Three Women

The answer to the eternal question was three. It was not really an eternal question, but one that had appeared when I entered the sixth form at Blackfriars School, and had recurred all through the two years of sixth form, the after-school gap year, the three years at Cambridge, and the after-university gap year. The wording changed a bit over this period, from girls to women, from done it with, to screwed, fucked, had sex with, but the gist was the same. The questioner was always male, and the conversation usually took place late at night, after a party or a night at the pub, though in the sixth form we must have been sitting on top of the desks in Room 23A after teaching hours. The tone was usually hushed and earnest in the early days, but later it became slightly mocking, even challenging: 'OK, Daniel, so how many...?' And the answer was -
     - not alway three, of course. In the early days it was an embarrassed smile, a shake of the head and a sort of gasp that was trying, not very successfully, to disguise itself as a laugh. And, and, and, the mind working frantically to try and deduce what answer was expected. Should I have slept with any girls / women by now, and if so how many? I didn't even know any, or at least none that I wasn't related to. Come to think of it, I knew my sister's friends, too, but not to sleep with - they were her friends, not mine, and I hardly even talked to them. Now it appeared I should have been using my passing encounters with them, in the hall while one of us was going in and the other going out, or on the landing when one was waiting for the loo and the other leaving it, to some kind of advantage. How many had I even looked at?
     But I got better at answering. There were girls, even at Cambridge (most of them nurses from Addenbrooke's). I went out with some of them, took one to a May Ball. I had my first kiss upside-down, leaning over the back of a chair to attach myself to the lips of a girl who had kissed every other male in the room that evening, in my eagerness to make sure I didn't miss my chance. And the answer to the question went, overnight, from a shrugging none to a shrugging three, because I had reached the age when three was a modest, sensible, unshocking answer.
     That was the answer I gave to Rob in the Shakespeare's Head one Wednesday lunchtime. He had called at the Squirrels just after I had got up; I had nibbled at a bit of cold corned beef hash, drunk some coffee and was about to wander out and tour the bookshops. The door was open and I heard him galumphing up the stairs; I could tell instantly it was him, not only from the heaviness of the tread but from the faint wheezing that went with it, and my first thought was: how does he know where I live? Then I remembered I had told him about the Squirrels, in one of the quieter moments of one of our Tuesday drinking sessions, made a joke out of the name and the decor: my glitter palace. I still didn't want him to see it. Nobody had visited me here since I had been at Southdown, only Marjorie asking if she could make the bed.
     'Morning, Daniel,' Rob said, stooping slighly as he reached the landing, 'how about a cup of coffee? Or any drugs, if you happen to have any?' A couple of hours later, we were sitting in the Shakespeare's Head (large, grubby and sour-smelling in the daytime), and Rob was asking me, not mockingly but in a spirit of theoretical inquiry that seemed appropriate to my new, scholarly existence, how many women I had slept with. I felt almost confident in the answer by now, perhaps because it was the same as the number of pints I had just drunk. The answer was three.

Monday, 26 March 2012

SUCSOC

Many of the societies at Southdown put weekly or monthly bulletins on the noticeboards, and they weren't all political. But SUCSOC seemed to come from a different dimension. Who were these people who spent their university days cultivating cacti and succulents? One was called Tim and another Julian. Every bulletin ended with the words: If you'd like to know more about SUCSOC, please see Tim or Julian. There were no surnames or other contact details. From other entries in the bulletins I guessed that one was the secretary, the other the chair, and they were both science students of some kind, as there were occasional mentions of the labs. Next week Julian will be showing us slides of his holiday in Malta was followed by Unfotunately Julian was not able to show us slides of his holiday in Malta, due to an attack of the "dreaded lurgi"!! Many thanks to Wing Commander Jimmy Woods of the Easthaven Succulent Club, who gallantly stepped into the breach with a repeat of his popular talk on "My Favourite Succulents". And so it continued, page after scrappily photocopied page: A mamillaria table, Next Tuesday is Propagation Evening - make sure you turn up at the lab in plenty of time!!, Little known uses of opuntia, 33 things you didn't know about epiphytes, At last, the long awaited showing of Julian's holday slides! And then the report the next week: due to a malfunction of the heat lamps we were unable to hold our propagation evening... many thanks to Wing Commander Jimmy Woods. We hope Julian will be feeling better next week.
     'It's a front,' Rob said, when I asked him about in the pub one evening. 'I imagine if you looked up the various species you'd find that most of them are being cultivated for their psychotropic properties.'
     'But what about Jimmy Woods? He doesn't sound like the sort of person who'd have anything to do with drugs.'
     'That's the front, Daniel. They put him in to dupe the Drug Squad, so that no one will find out about what's going on under the heat lamps in the labs. He doesn't exist, of course.'
     'Who doesn't exist?' Imogen said, looking up from the cigarette she was rolling.
     'I don't think any of it exists,' I said. 'They don't sound real. I mean, can you imagine, week after week, whatever they're doing gets cancelled and replaced by a talk from Jimmy Woods of the Easthaven Club? The same talk? Wouldn't they stop turning up at some point?'
     'What I want to know,' Rob continued, his concentration apparently entirely taken up with a beermat that he kept resting on the edge of the table so that he could flip it into the air with the backs of his fingers and then catch it with the same hand, 'is do you ever listen when Linda Fiske talks about literary theory? Because it's all there, Daniel, the play of the signifier, the death of the author, indeterminacy, and so on and so forth. There is nothing outside the text, Daniel, not Jimmy Woods, not the Easthaven Club or SUCSOC or Tim and Julian, nothing. First of all - ' flip, catch - 'first of all, Daniel, you have to get your head round that, and then you have to go one further. My glass is empty, has anyone noticed? There must be something that can be done about that. First you get your head round the fact that the SUCSOC bulletins are a signifier without a signified, a purely fictive text if you like, and then you go one further and say after all maybe they are at least as real as you are. Because I haven't been doing this subject long, but as far as I can see the main point of it is that there is no reality. There's certainly no beer.'
     'That's a metonymy,' Imogen said. 'Or is it a synecdoche. The container for the thing contained.'
     'Where beer is concerned,' Rob said, 'I seem to be an essentialist.'

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Novel: What to Do If You Get Conscripted

I didn't so much attend the university as haunt it. Even on days when I didn't have to go in for the Tuesday seminars or my meetings with Linda, I often felt a compulsion to get the train to Fulmar and cross the underpass where I had found my five-leaf clover to the campus, whose boundary was marked by a deconstructed moat of rectangular concrete ponds of different sizes arranged in some pattern I couldn't quite work out. ('It's fractal, Daniel,' Rob said when I asked him once, giggling under his breath in the knowledge that he was only puzzling me further.) The ponds were shallow and almost completely lifeless: only the largest had a small cluster of waterlilies that never flowered, as well as a sediment of copper coins glittering on the flagstones of the bottom. Undergraduates were said to fall into them from time to time, or to throw each other in - the nearest building to the ponds was one of the Students' Union bars, known as the Adorno Arms. There was nothing to keep me in the ponds area, and I would walk on through a succession of Modernist courtyards separated by glass-doored barnlike buildings which were only there to be passed through, as far as I was concerned. I still hardly knew which was which, Culture and Community Studies, Development Studies, Social Sciences, all of them called by hard-to-pronounce acronyms that made them sound like Eastern European intelligence agencies. After these, I would arrive in an open space, with a grass covered bank on the left-hand side surmounted by the library. Even though it was winter, there were always clusters of students sitting our lying on the bank, muffled in their thick Oxfam-shop overcoats. Most of the rest of the space was lawn, with paths snaking across it in no clear direction. Physical Sciences, Earth Sciences and Biological Sciences were great fortifications on the right, each on its own hill, served by their own roads and carparks. Just in front of them was a smaller building known only as the Occupation: I never found out what had gone on there before it was occupied. It was almost as if the University had laid it on specially for AgitProp training. On the other side of the lawn was a set of communal buildings including a refectory, a launderette and a general store run by the Union. Further away still, almost buried in the downs, were the residential areas of The Village and North Slope, the former giving way to the woodland where Pete the Animal and his customers operated, the latter backing on to the playing fields and the sports pavilion.
     By the time I got as far as the Central Lawn I had already come too far, at least if I wanted to go to English; it was in the last of the barnlike of the barnlike buildings, behind me. But perhaps I wanted to go to the library, or the coffee shop - on these days, I never exactly knew. Sometimes I would walk around the snakelike paths for an hour at a time - the layout made it easy not to get anywhere without consciously changing direction. And not to get anywhere seemed to be what I wanted.
     Days went by like this: a couple of hours in the library reading bits of books on polar exploration and literary theory, an hour in the coffee shop, a walk to The Village and back, a browse in the University bookshop, and the whole cycle all over again. Once I was there I found it impossible to leave until it got dark even when I had nothing to do. More than once I arrived on a Sunday without even realizing it, to find most of the buildings shut and the campus deserted. More than once I was the last person in the English Common room, standing among the shin-high furniture reading the notices pinned to the pillars in the half-dark and the smell of coffee,cigarette ash and whatever it was the farmers put on the surrounding fields.
     The FREE THE SHROVEDEAN THIRTEEN posters were looking tatty now; perhaps the Shrovedean Thirteen had already been freed - in any case, it was no longer a fashionable cause. Even the posters about what to do if you got busted, along with Rock against Racism, Vegetarians against the Nazis and SUPPORT THE OCCUPATION were hardly visible any more, not taken down (which hardly ever happened) but buried under new layers of warnings and bulletins. The Women's Centre were still holding their own, along with the Lesbian and Gay Social Club and the Das Kapital Reading Group. But most of the new posters were about Afghanistan: March for Peace, CND, What to Do if You Get Conscripted. I had read the last one many times, trying to decide whether I was a pacifist, a believer in the concept of a just war, or just someone who didn't want to be killed. The last option had no legislative basis according to the poster; besides, it didn't make much sense, since, as Imogen argued, we would all be killed whether we joined the army or not. The most convincing defence I could think of was that any army desperate enough to need me in its ranks had no chance of winning anyway, but I didn't fancy my chances of making that understood over the sound of It's a Long Way to Tipperary.
     I was becoming obsessed with the Cactus and Succulent Society, SUCSOC, as obsessed as I was with the starlings.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Novel: Tipperary

I don't know whether Rob ate anything on Tuesday evenings, apart from the dry roasted peanuts. After a couple of pints I always found myself getting light-headed and hungry, but it was no good suggesting going to a restaurant, even if we could have found one that served unpolished grains for Imogen - as far as Rob was concerned, Tuesday evenings were for drinking. So I got into the habit of slipping out for a hamburger. There was a shop on the corner of Shrovedean Road where no one but me ever went, full of dirty light from a buzzing fluorescent tube that, even in winter, attracted a few flies that must have thought it was an odd-looking member of their own species. It was run by an elderly man in slippers.
     'Coleslaw burger, is it?'
     I found it comforting that he knew my order (not that he had any others to remember); even the slippers were a homely touch. I would eat the burger walking up the frosty road, and be back at the Shakespeare's Head before anyone noticed I was missing.
     One night as I was waiting for my order, two old men came into the shop, very drunk, singing It's a Long Way to Tipperary. They were standing between me and the door, arms round each other's shoulders, looking at me in a way I construed as threatening. Every now and then one of them would stop singing, and the other would shake him and sing louder to egg him on to start again. They took it in turns to stop and start in this way. They were both short and fat, their jowls covered in white bristles.
     The hamburger man had obviously decided they were trouble rather than potential customers - perhaps he knew them already. 'Get out of it, you two.' He must have been a whole generation younger.
     'You look a fit young lad,' one of them said. ('Sweetest girl I know...' his friend was singing.) 'How old you? About twenty-one?'
     'Twenty-two.' I wasn't sure what I was afraid of: they probably couldn't overpower me, even if they wanted to, except through the sheer force of embarrassment.
     'Leave the poor lad alone,' the man in slippers said. 'Here you are, mate, coleslaw burger.'
     'Twenty-two, George.' ('Farewell, Leicester Square.') We could do with a few strong young chaps like him. Ever done any fighting, lad?'
     I shook my head, smiling desperately. 'Excuse me.'
     'Here,' George said. He was the taller and fatter of the two, wearing a blue open-necked shirt despite the cold. His neck was brown and strong-looking, as if it belonged to a much younger man, 'do you know that song we're singing?'
     The friend sputtered, filling the air with beery vapours. 'You'd better, lad. You're going to be singing it soon. Everybody is.'
     By the time I got back to the Shakespeare's Head with coleslaw repeating on me and an obscure feeling of cowardice and rage in my stomach, Rob and Imogen were discussing the next war. 'It's not true,' Imogen was saying, 'not with a bang but a whimper. It's going to be a bang first, and a bloody great whimper afterwards.'
     'We've been through all this before, Imogen,' Rob said. 'You don't remember, but I do. I was eleven when Cuba happened. They cancelled all the lessons at school and made us pray. But believe me - ' his wheezing way of speaking was particularly noticeable on E sounds, bel-eeeve mee - 'there is only so much praying you can do in a day at the age of eleven, eeven if the world is going to end before you get home. It was bloody boring, actually. Oh, hallo, Daniel, where did you get to?'
     'Supper,' I muttered.
     'You smell strange,' Imogen said. 'Doesn't he smell strange, Rob?'
     'Coleslaw,' I said. 'I met two old men. They wanted me to join the army.'
     'An army's going to be no use to anybody,' Imogen said. 'Fuck the army. It's all be over in a few agonizing weeks.'
     'Oh, I don't know,' Rob said. 'Most probably it'll be just another European land war.'

Notes: The Story So Far

Not feeling at my most creative today after a weekend of marking, so it seems a good time to assess how I think the project is going. First of all, how much have I actually written? I haven't been keeping track as I've been going on, but had a vague feeling it might be about 5000 words. I've just counted, and it's about 7000, so that's encouraging. The sections are rather shorter than I was anticipating - I originally said 1000 - 1500 words each, but they are more like 500 - 1000. One reason for this is that I am deliberately not putting pressure on myself. Once you start getting up beyond 1000 it feels like hard work because you have to sustain a mood, a narrative, an argument, beyond the initial impetus that led you to write it down. It can be hard work for the reader, too, work that we are used to putting into the books we read but not when reading on a screen in the knowledge that lots of fascinating sites are just a couple of mouse-clicks away. So the second reason I am not writing long sections is the nature of the medium I'm initially writing for. Rather to my surprise there are a few people reading this, and I have had some positive feedback. Whether it eventually works as a novel or not, I have some hope is that it is working as a blog, and that seems to dictate shorter sections.

In other respects, it is much as I expected. I said it would begin as a process of getting to know the characters and the fictional environment and that not much would happen in the early stages. This is how it has turned out. Apart from Daniel himself there are only two other main characters so far, Rob and Imogen, and neither of them is much more than a sketch at present - it's not yet clear what influence they will have in Daniel's story. I know a little more about this than the reader does, but not much. There are also several other characters who are briefly sketched and who may or may not play a part in the story: Martin, Linda, Elaine, Bill the Landlord. I suspect that the first two will have a bigger part to play, while the second two are just part of the scenery. All are based to some extent on people I knew in my Brighton days, sometimes on more than one person. The underlying reality, the remembered past, is already beginning to shift a bit, to become the imagined world of the novel. The girl on the skateboard, for example, comes from a period two years after my brief stay in The Squirrels - she used to whizz round a different, much quieter corner. Helmston itself (now without a final E) is changing in my mind: I am beginning to see it as full of the sea-mists of Aberystwyth rather than the clear light I associate with Brighton.

One other thing that may surprise some readers - it's fairly light and humorous, despite all my initial comments about the misery I was going through at the time. This was not exactly planned, but it tends to happen when I write autobiographically. A certain defensive irony creeps in, keeping me at a distance from the material. This seems to be psychologically necessary for me - I remember that it happened when I wrote my first short story, 'American Fugue', which, as I have mentioned, came directly out of the breakdown I suffered when I was living in Brighton, but which is one of my most humorous stories. It could be argued that there is something dishonest about this approach, but I'm not sure - comedy is always present where there is a mismatch between the individual and the community. I may have been unhappy a lot of the time, but there was a lot of laughter, too. It seems to be my way of understanding these events, and I find it much more attractive than a wallow in remembered suffering.

What I enjoy about this project is the combination of instant and delayed gratification. The novel can be postponed for as long as I like, and yet in a sense it already exists, and is being read. Thinking of it as a blog allows me to forget about difficult things like plot - my only challenge is to write 500 - 1000 words that are reasonably interesting in their own right. What influence will this process of composition have on the final novel? It's impossible to say. I like the thought that it will retain a lot of the traces of its original composition. I enjoy novels in short sections, like Calvino's Invisible Cities, and it may be in any case that the novel of the future will have to take account of shortened attention spans by using shorter chapters and composing its fictional world jigsaw-fashion. Or it may be that the novel of the future will be in blog form rather than a book - why do I actually need to publish Starling City at all? I am working on other books of a more traditional nature, so I probably have my academic duty to publish covered.

So there is a thought to end with - the blovel as a genre in its own right, available to anyone who wants to write one, the kind of democratic art form that various internet prophets have been proclaiming for some time. It costs nothing to publish, and, if it doesn't make any profit either, that is almost true of the traditional genres I work in, poetry, criticism, the short story, the 'literary' novel. I could sell advertising space, I suppose, or, as I suggested in one of the comments to a previous entry, charge people a fee for appearing in it as characters. At any rate, I think writing this may well change my approach to writing fiction in general, and that is an exciting thought.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Novel: Disprin Moon

It was never really dark in my room at night. The curtains were off-white cotton and didn't meet in the middle, so there was always an orange glow from the streetlamps outside, and the occasional flash of headlamps would throw furniture-shaped shadows onto the walls, too brief for me to decide which bits of furniture they were shadows of, wardrobe, chair, dressing-table mirror. This only happened sporadically, as The Squirrels was down a sidestreet off the Shrovedean Road, but it was the unpredictability that made me lie in my vast bed, my head propped uncomfortably on one of the chilly, overstuffed pillows, for hours every night, waiting for it. A flash, a whoosh of engine, and then, I thought, I would be able to get to sleep before it happened again. But then I would find myself listening to the other sounds: the continuous commotion of traffic on the main road, the similar, though wetter, commotion of the sea in the other direction, the coming and going of footsteps and their attendant drunken talking, singing, shouting, scuffles. Most nights about 1.30 there was a roaring scrape just outside the window that sounded like someone sanding the inside of my skull with a Black and Decker, startling me into the awareness that I had been either asleep or something very close to it. By the time could prise myself out of the bedclothes and cross the freezing room in my pyjamas the noise had faded and there was nothing to be seen. After a couple of months of this, I took to putting on my dressing-gown over my dead uncle's sweater and sitting in wait at the window, drinking a mug of my DIY malted milk to make me feel less cold and foolish. It was not till the third night, as I was nursing the dark smear of undissolved malt extract at the bottom of the mug and thinking of going back to bed, that I finally saw her, a small, hunched female figure on a skateboard, dreadlocked hair streaming behind her as she rounded the corner of Shrovedean Road and screeched down the middle of the street towards the black blur of the sea. I saw her face quite clearly as she passed in front of the window: old, about thirty, with an aquiline nose and eyes screwed up in concentration. I suspected the dreadlocks were dyed, though it was impossible to be sure in the sodium light.
     Now I found that even the moon could keep me awake. I had never given much thought to it before, but after Christmas its presence became intrusive. When it was within a few days of the full the glow in my room changed from orange to silver, reflecting icily off the mirrors (dressing-table and wardrobe) and counterpane, so that my bed became a sort of life-raft in an Arctic Ocean. Again, I took to getting up and putting myself through all the palaver of dressing-gown, uncle and slippers to see what was causing all the disturbance. The moon was a few feet, so it seemed, above the rooftops on the far side of the street; it was disappointingly small and a bright chemical white going fuzzy round the edges. It reminded me of a Disprin, though it was more likely to cause a headache than cure one. I had the same feeling about it that I had about the starlings. It was somehow personal, a moon that had it in for me. I could see now why some there were always more suicides on nights of the full moon. Not that I was sure whether it was full or not. There was perhaps a sliver missing on the left hand side?
     Since Christmas everyone had been afraid.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Novel: The Mirror Stage

I was not well equipped to do a PhD, being incapable of reading a book from beginning to end. I had a pile of books on the dressing table in front of my huge mirror: The Worst Journey in the World, Farthest North, South, Home of the Blizzard, In the Land of the White Death. I hadn't read any of them, not even The Worst Journey, which was my reason for wanting to do a PhD in the first place. I had started them all, then found myself compelled to skip, first, a few pages, then a whole chapter, then several chapters, then, finally, to put the book down and pick up one of the others and do the same with that. I didn't think my head was big enough to contain a whole book. Even if I did succeed in finishing one, I knew it would start to evaporate from my brain the moment I put it down again - worse, the beginning would already have evaporated by the time I reached the end. The more I thought about reading the more convinced I became that it wasn't actually possible, or at least not for me. One of my reasons for signing up for the PhD was simply to force myself to confront this problem: I could no longer claim that I didn't read books all through because I didn't have the time now that reading was the only thing I was actually supposed to do. That and writing. There was a jumble of index cards on the desk beside the books, on which I had written extracts from them, each one marked with a page reference and an abbreviation indicating which of the books it came from:
For me it was a very bad night: a succession of shivering fits which I was quite unable to stop, and which took possession of my body for many minutes at a time until I thought my back would break, such was the strain placed upon it. They talk of chattering teeth: but when your body chatters you may call yourself cold. I can only compare the strain to that which I have been unfortunate enough to see in a case of lock-jaw. WJW, p. 237.
I was never sure which bits I ought to be copying, and what use I would be able to make of them afterwards. Perhaps I ought to copy the whole of each book, in index-card-sized chunks. And then what? Since they were index cards, I needed to apply some kind of index to help me find them when they were needed. I had written lockjaw and teeth, chattering at the top of this one. It was the only one of all my index cards that had either of those keywords, and indeed, sifting through the pile I could hardly find any keyword that was used more than once. Penguin, snow, and frostbite were the main exceptions. 'What do you want to say about Polar exploration?' Linda used to ask me. (She had been assigned as my supervisor, though I was beginning to suspect that she knew nothing about the subject.) I just muttered something about courage, endurance, testing yourself to the limit.
     'That's what those guys would have said, too,' Linda told me, 'Scott, Shackleton, Cherry-Garrard, all those guys. That's a phallogocentric, liberal humanist position. You need to be looking to beyond that, seeking to deconstruct them. The North Pole is a metaphor, Daniel, and your role is to discover what the signified is.'
     'The South Pole,' I told her pedantically, since it was The Worst Journey we were talking about that day.
     'The South Pole is a metaphor, too. In fact you should be trying to abolish the difference between them. The first task of the deconstructionist is to abolish the binary opposition between polarities. And if the North Pole and the South Pole aren't opposing polarities, then, then..' Her eyes went vague and she scratched her right breast.
     'Sorry,' I said, not sure if I was apologizing or trying to get her to finish the sentence.
     She shook her head and gave a little inward-looking smile as if at something she could see that I couldn't. '...then where are you, Daniel?'
     Linda's influence was responsible for the second pile of books on the dressing-table: Of Grammatology, A Theory of Literary Production, S/Z, Critical Practice, above all, a selection from Lacan's Écrits with a shiny silver cover so reflective I could hold it up in front of my mirror and produce a shimmery approximation of those reflections-of-reflections-of-reflections effects which had fascinated me since I was a child, the Hall of Mirrors, as I used to call it. The cover, of course, was a metaphor, too, and its signified was the Mirror Stage, which was the only bit of Lacan I sometimes thought I might possibly understand. Apparently the moment a child first recognized itself in the mirror was a crucial stage in the development of the sense of self. From now on he (it had to be a he, apparently, though I wasn't sure why), had entered into the Symbolic Order, or possibly the Imaginary Order. Having had this childhood fascination with mirrors, I thought I could relate to that. The child sees himself and understands that it is him there, and yet it isn't: it's a version that's whole, three-dimensional, can be seen from the outside, me and he at the same time. I wasn't sure I had ever got past the mirror stage, and it wasn't helping that I was doing all my reading in front of one.
     I put down my book, halfway through 'The Mirror Stage' for the third or fourth time. I was always halfway through 'The Mirror Stage'. There was my room on the other side of the silver barrier, perfectly simulated in every detail except that the writing on all the books was back to front and the me that was sitting there staring back, short, skinny, with dark hair and freckles that should never have existed in someone of that colouring, wearing a shapeless outsize polo-neck sweater inherited from a dead uncle, a me I couldn't see any other way. And those light-brown eyes, hypnotic, fascinating, malignant. I stared at them until I was no longer sure which of the two I was. Maybe I was going through the mirror stage backwards, becoming an infant again. I shook my head the way Linda did, and was momentarily surprised to see my reflection imitating me (not altogether convincingly, I thought). Those eyes - they were slightly sanpaku perhaps. But when I sat up a bit straighter so that my mirror self was exactly level, the little crescent of white under the pupil disappeared.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Novel: JFK's Eyes

There was something disorientating about that room. Partly it was the punctuated darkness. Every now and then someone would come in and switch on a light, and Imogen, without pausing in her conversation, would get up and switch it off again. No one ever objected to this, or even seemed to notice it. Imogen must have seen me looking at her quizzically over the macrobiotic book, though, because after the third or fourth time this had happened, she said, 'I hate artificial light.'
     The only permanent artificial light in the room came from the television, which was a very small black-and-white one, with a picture so fuzzy that when I turned round from the dining table to look at it, I couldn't tell what was on: people-shaped blurs roared across the screen from time-to-time, the noise of electrical fuzz almost completely drowning out whatever they had to say. There was a plain white candle guttering in a saucer on the table, and another one resting precariously on one of the convex arms of the sofa. And everyone in the room, apart from me, was smoking. Just as she did in the Shakespeare's Head, Imogen rolled cigarettes all the time, and handed them out without comment. She never offered me one, so I supposed she had noticed I didn't smoke.
     'It seems inconsistent,' I said.
     'What does?'
     'Smoking. When you go in for all this healthy eating.'
     'I don't go in for healthy eating. What an expression! I couldn't give a toss about healthy eating. Anyway, cigarettes are vegetarian. Read your book, Daniel.'
     It wasn't easy to make out the words in the variable light, grey from the television, yellow from the candles, reddish from the cigarettes. The author was an American journalist who suffered from agonies from piles until he discovered the macrobiotic diet, which involved eating nothing but unpolished grains. Even vegetables, it turned out, were a trap; when a hostess gave him some rice with a tomato and lemon sauce it caused days of bleeding. Finding the details a bit offputting (I was still trying to eat my bulgur wheat, which had gone cold by now), I turned a few pages, and started reading about President Kennedy's eyes.
     Imogen was reading over my shoulder. 'Did you know that about JFK's eyes? Look at that picture. It's a really clear case.'
     I looked at the suited figure, his short, parted hair, the classic symmetrical face gone slightly pudgy with middle age, and noticed, for the first time a crescent of white under each pupil. Now she drew my attention to it, I could see that it was quite unattractive, almost as if the eyes were upside-down. The book called it sanpaku.
     'See, Daniel, that's what you get from eating red meat and processed food. Or both at once in your case. Corned beef, whatever that is. It probably means they put some kind of processed wheat or maize flour in it. And sooner or later it will kill you, like it did with JFK.'
     I was half-way through my second glass of Piat d'Or by now, but felt drunk from all the shifting lights and people. 'Hang on, Imogen. He was shot, wasn't he?'
     'Well, of course he was shot, Daniel. But would he have been, if his diet had been better? That's what we have to ask. Turn round, let me look at your eyes. I think you're a bit sanpaku yourself. Have you looked at your eyes lately?'
     'I see my eyes a lot,' I said. 'My room is almost all mirror. I've never noticed anything much wrong with my eyes.' As soon as she said it, I had a feeling there was something wrong with my eyes after all. The fact was that I found my dressing-table mirror disconcerting and avoided looking in it as much as possible. 'But I still don't get it about JFK. How did having the wrong kind of eyes lead to him getting shot?'
     'It's all in the book, Daniel. Read the book.' But seeing I had put it down when she started staring into my eyes, she carried on, 'I don't know, I can't remember the details. But it was the sixties, in America, and he was probably eating all sorts of hamburgers and hot dogs and T-bone steaks like they did then, and his whole metabolism was fouled up with them. It's pretty certain he would have died of cancer anyway if he hadn't been shot. And then when he was shot there was, what was it? Eight seconds or something between the first bullet and the second. If his system hadn't been so sluggish with the cancer and the hamburgers, he would have reacted in time and got out of the way.'
     'I think it's the angle of the photograph,' I said. 'Probably everyone has sanpaku eyes if you look at them from a certain angle. I mean, you're smaller than me, so you look up to me.'
     'I don't,' she said quickly, and we both laughed. I would definitely look at my eyes in the dressing-table mirror when I got back to the Squirrels.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Novel: Bulgur Wheat

Imogen lived the way students were supposed to live, in a big Victorian house on the edge of Halifax Park, with three housemates and a constantly changing cast of temporary residents - friends, boyfriends, people crashing on the sofa or the carpets. It smelt the way student houses were supposed to, of Golden Virginia, sandalwood joss-sticks, damp, garlic and spilled soy sauce. There was a sort of communal room with a television in one corner and a long refectory table along one wall, so that you could only sit one side of it, with your back to the television, which was always on, though usually with the sound turned down. There was at least one person eating there at any time of the day or night, which made the atmosphere in the room like an endlessly extended dinner party. Most of the rest of the room was taken up with a sofa covered in what looked like navy-blue corduroy; the cover was fastened with the longest zip I had ever seen, the kind Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have designed if he'd gone in for zips. It ran the length of the sofa at the point where the seat and the back met, then along and round both arms, and got lost somewhere behind. It was a two-way zip, the two metal tags meeting in the middle, and no one could sit in that area without feeling the urge to play with them. It was not really a temptation, Imogen said, more a responsibility, because the sofa needed to eat like anyone else. What this meant was that it absorbed cushions. It was certainly the most uncomfortable piece of furniture I had ever sat on, even lower than the chairs in the English Department Common Room, and getting lower and more emaciated all the time. When it got too much to bear, someone would throw a cushion from the floor to whoever was sitting in the middle of the sofa, and that person would open the zip and stuff a cushion inside. The sofa never looked any plumper for this feeding, or the floor any barer of cushions, though it was possible, of course, that Imogen or one of the other housemates took all the cushions out of its interior occasionally, and put them back on the floor. Under its scattering of cushions, the lounge floor was polished boards with three oriental rugs, very faded and worn so thin that mats seemed a more appropriate word. It was dangerous to step on them, especially if you were carrying a mug of coffee or a bowl of rice. There was a bead curtain rather than a door between this room and the kitchen; Imogen came through it with a bowl in each hand.
     'This is great,' I said, trying to put warmth into my voice. I wasn't sure what to make of Imogen's invitation. She had told me she had a boyfriend, and besides it had never occurred to me to fancy her. She was small and slim with short boyish-looking hair and pale blue far-apart eyes. The wide mouth was her most interesting feature - it always gave her a sardonic look. I found myself looking at her now and readjusting my mind to see if it might have room for at least a few fantasies.
     'It's bulgur wheat,' Imogen said. 'I thought you needed something sustaining.' Seeing me looking suspiciously at the rubble in the bowl, she laughed. 'It's not that bad, Daniel. What sort of stuff do you eat normally? Apart from hot dogs?'
     'Corned beef hash.'
     'I don't know what that is. What is that? It involves meat, obviously.'
     'It's corned beef, and onions, and potatoes, fried. and a panful of it lasts me two days. Hot with brown sauce, cold with coleslaw.'
     'I remember brown sauce,' someone called up from the sofa. 'You mean HP sauce, or Daddy's? That brings back so many happy memories.' He was a boyfriend of one of the housemates, I thought. I had a vague impression of a thin young man with frizzy hair and glasses somewhere behind me.
     'It's not the HP sauce that's your main problem,' Imogen said. 'That's not going to make you so much worse than you are already. It would be bad for me, but as far as you're concerned we have to make allowances. I don't like the fried aspect.'
     'That's the recipe. It has to be fried.'
     'Throw away your frying pan, Daniel. A frying pan is bad news from the spiritual point of view. There's nothing you can fry that wouldn't be better boiled, or better still steamed.'
     'I don't think you can steam corned beef hash.'
     'Too right you can't steam it,' the boyfriend said from the sofa,
     'But it's the corned beef that's the real killer,' Imogen continued. 'I mean, it's not just beef, is it? Beef would be bad enough. Oh no, Daniel, it has to be corned.'
     It sounds as though Imogen was lecturing me, but she really wasn't. She spoke in a bantering way, always with a smile, which made me feel that she actually liked me for my reprehensible diet. When she noticed the trouble I was having making my way through the bulgur wheat (which was just that, a bowl of hot, slightly soiled-looking grains, without even salt on them) she started plying me with extras - soy sauce, a glass of the wine I'd brought, a slice of bread cut from a bricklike loaf she'd baked, and described approvingly as 'really cakey', even some butter. She didn't have any of these things herself. 'I'm having a macrobiotic week,' she said.
     When I asked her to explain, she got up from the table and went over to the far wall where there was an improvised bookshelf against the skirting board made of bricks and planks. 'Here,' she said, read this.'
     I read while she came and went, explaining bits from time to time between several conversations she was having with other people. More people came in and sat at the table to eat. There was a housemate called Monica with rich dark hair and brown eyes behind brown-rimmed glasses, who spoke very fast in a squeaky voice that gave me a strange feeling inside. My mind started readjusting again. 'What the party needs,' the boyfriend was saying from the sofa (Monica's boyfriend? Imogen's?) 'is more intellectuals.'
     'Oh we don't!' Monica said. 'We've got far too many intellectuals already. We've got a million intellectuals, and only one worker.'

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Novel: Shakespeare's Head

'There are only three things,' Rob said, 'that our age will be remembered for. Space Invaders, the Pentel and the dry-roasted peanut. And the greatest of these, in my own opinion, is the peanut.' He had bought half a dozen packets and was tearing them open one by one along the middle of the packet, so that the contents were laid open on the table in front of him for anyone to take. We had pulled three tables together, and most of the students from the seminar group were there.
     'The peanuts are amazing, aren't they?' Imogen said, not looking up from the cigarette she was rolling. 'You must save yourself so many calories from all the oil they don't have on them. It must be like five calories a peanut. Why didn't anybody think of it earlier?'
     'Oh,at least,' Rob said, 'maybe even ten calories. But you're missing the point, Imogen. The point is that they are fabulously dry. They absorb all the beer you've drunk, leaving you completely sober, More sober than when you started, actually, which means you have to drink more beer just to reach your starting position.'
     'I don't know,' Martin said. 'I don't know about the Space Invaders. I think they're a bit iffy, ideologically speaking.' He took the roll-up Imogen passed him. 'I mean, they're not ideologically neutral, are they? Look at those faces they have. I'm not sure what they're saying culturally or,or...'
     'Semiotically,' Imogen said.
     'Or semiotically,'Martin said, picking up Rob's lighter from beside the peanuts. 'I mean what do those faces represent? OK,admittedly they're white, but there's clearly an otherness there. Look at the way they move.' He put the cigarette down and gestured with both arms, up, down, up down. 'It's a war dance, isn't it? The racist subtext is scary when you think about it.'
     Imogen was rolling another cigarette, this time for Alice. She pinched the tobacco carefully into a line and gave one of her wide-mouthed smiles which didn't show her teeth. 'I prefer to think of them as the return of the repressed,' she said.
     These evenings in the Shakespeare's Head were always difficult for me. They were like a continuation of the seminar only with added background noise, which made it impossible to hear what the people furthest away were saying. Instead I got bits of conversations, and had to deduce some kind of context in which they made sense, which got harder and harder the more beer I'd drunk. So I would shout a reply and hope it was appropriate, or at least, if it wasn't, that the person I was talking to was as lost as I was and wouldn't realize that the fault lay with me. The topics of conversation were the same as in the seminar, but flavoured with an irony that also increased with the alcohol levels. I was never sure how ironic we were being at any particular stage. I already guessed that most of these -isms, Marxism, Freudianism , post-structuralism, were things you didn't actually believe, but didn't disbelieve either.You flourished them in conversation in a way I had not fully grasped. It wouldn't do to say I hadn't read Lacan and Derrida; that would be like admitting to being a liberal humanist. I wasn't even sure what that was, but you didn't admit to it, anyway.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Novel: Any Drugs?

The first thing Rob would say to me on a Tuesday afternoon was, 'Any drugs, Daniel?' Always with that baritone giggle, and when I shook my head he would sigh loudly and ironically. He was a tall, heavily built man in his late twenties with a bushy black beard and small pointed teeth with gaps in between; he looked as if he should be wearing a bandanna and ear-ring. He was only there Tuesday to Thursday, which he called his midweek weekend. On Thursday evenings he would take the train back to Kent where he had a wife, a baby daughter and a part-time job. The question about drugs was meant to embarrass me, I suppose, in front of all the younger and cooler members of the seminar group. I was the only PhD student there, and felt out of place enough as it was. 'It's a university, isn't it,' Rob would say. 'Where are all the drugs?' And the younger, cooler students would smile and go on talking about Lacan and Derrida.
     The drugs were being grown on sunny windowsills in North Slope and the Village, the residential areas on campus; they were being synthesized at night in locked chemistry labs in the great glass towers of PhySci on the edge of campus, or in Nissen huts in the nearby woods by graduate dropouts called Pete the Animal and Pharma Steve; they were being smoked and snorted and dropped by undergraduates in North Slope and by married postgrads in the Village, and by the everchanging occupants of the Occupied Buildings, and by dwellers in the labyrinthine hostel of Dunwich House in Helmston, and perhaps even by the Shrovedean 13. There were notices pinned to pillars in the English Common Room, alongside the Occupation Newsletter and the warnings about the imminent introduction of conscription and the bulletins of the Southdown University Cactus and Succulent Society (SUCSOC): What to do if you get busted. The drugs were everywhere I wasn't. But it was all part of Rob's act: he had cast me in the role of university insider because I was the only PhD student in the group, and therefore I had to know everything. Then he could be disappointed when I didn't, and complain about me in his urbane wheeze: 'I don't know what students are coming to these days, do you, Imogen?'
     These conversations took place in the Common Room before the literary theory seminar, all of us sitting on low chairs with our knees level with our chins, polystyrene cups of coffee on even lower tables in front of us. We were due in Linda Fiske's office at 3.00, but it wasn't cool to be early. The trick was to drag the preliminary get-together out for as long as possible without actually provoking her so far that she came into the ECR and shouted at us. Linda was small, dark and when she was not shouting she talked very fast in a New York accent. There were no real sentences in her speech, but she used mysterious smiles directed at the ceiling as a form of punctuation. At times she seemed not to remember she was in a room full of people, and she had a habit of scratching one breast, which always caused Rob to try and catch my eye to make sure I had seen it. Rob was quite open about fancying Linda, and couldn't understand why I said she was too old. 'What is she, Daniel? About forty? That's a perfect age for a woman, I would say.'
     Lacan and Derrida. One of the phrases Linda used to throw into her conversation was 'Lacan and Derrida', but because she never finished the sentences, I had no idea what she actually thought about them. It was, 'you know, Lacan, Derrida...' and then she would be on to something else. The truth was that I had never read either of them. And it was impossible to understand polar exploration without them - I knew that much.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Novel: Five-Leaf Clover, Take 2

Going down the steps into the underpass that led from the station to the university, I found a five-leaf clover.
     The university was a small town on the A361, four and a half miles north of Helmston. There were fields all round it, and on those days when I stayed on campus till after dark, the air smelled strongly of field, a mixture of smells I couldn't identify, though it was obvious that at least some of them were intestinal. The overall effect was of sourness and bitterness at the same time. When I asked Rob once what the smell was, he gave that baritone giggle of his that always sounded as if he was about to choke, and said, 'Oh, didn't you know, Daniel? They put chicken guts on the fields.'
     'Where do they get the chicken guts from?'
     'From the biology labs. After they've vivisected the chickens, they give the guts and anything else they have left over to the farmers, to put on the fields.'
     It was impossible to tell when Rob was joking, and a waste of time trying to find out. (Besides, as I'd discovered in the course of several maddening conversations, that was what he wanted me to do.) As for me, I could never decide whether I liked the smell of the fields or not. Sometimes during a supervision or seminar, or sitting in the bar, it was like another presence in the room with us: the evidence of some animal atrocity or just some poorly understood agricultural tradition. It seemed strongest in cold weather.
     The clover was growing on campus among the grass and weeds outside the station on the other side of the Helmston road. I didn't see it till I was half way down the steps and the cluster of leaves was level with my head. It was longer and more straggly than the plant I remembered on the lawn in my Surrey childhood, but it was certainly the real thing, and every stalk but one had three leaves on the end. The stalk leaned right over the brick wall of the underpass, and brushed my face as I stepped down. It had the usual three leaves in the familiar pattern of the Clubs in a pack of cards, but there were an additional two hanging down underneath it. They were partially fused to the stalk, and a paler colour than the upper leaves. Someone pushed into my back as I stopped to think about it, and cursed under his breath. I reached up and snapped off the stalk.
     On an impulse I showed it to Imogen when we were having lunch in the English Department Common Room, a hot dog bought at the counter for me, a tupperware box of brown rice and seaweed for her. 'That's really nice, Daniel,' she said. 'What is it?'
     'A five-leaf clover.'
     She shook her head. 'Clovers are smaller than that. And they only have three leaves.'
     'Look, this one was growing next to it. See, three leaves.'
     'So what are you trying to say?'
     'I picked the three-leaf one to show you, to show anyone, that it really is a clover, except that this one has five leaves, meaning it's lucky.'
     'Four-leaf clovers are lucky. I've never even heard of a five-leaf one.'

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Notes: Blanks and Blocks

I've just posted the paragraph I've written today. I spent a fair time getting it right, then moved on to another couple, both of which I deleted. Then I stared at the screen for a long time, played a couple of games of internet chess, went back to the paragraph, stared at it again. I'm stuck.

Sometimes I quite enjoy being stuck. That's especially true with poems, when I can go into a trancelike state, going over the possible word-choices again and again and at the same time examining a sort of space inside my head which the word must fit. It's a process of getting to know the poem before you've written it, when there are still thousands of potential poems it might become - I almost don't want it to be finished, not for a while anyway. This stuckness, though, is not like that. It's the kind that comes with all sorts of doubts and negative thoughts. It feels like a deep depression, with added guilt.

Of course, that bad mood may be a sign that the novel is the wrong one, that I ought to be writing something else (or even that I am not a writer at all and ought not to be writing anything - but I'm pretty good at keeping that idea at bay). In the past, I have generally worked on this assumption, and probably saved myself from some disastrous projects in the process. It may well be the right approach to take when writing poems, when there are always a number of other projects to hand, big and small, light and serious, that might work out better. Most of them have probably been abandoned at some time in the past, then taken up again - just because you drop something for now it doesn't mean the idea is gone forever. That's also true with stories, a lot of which I've tried many times over a period of years before finally getting them right. But with a novel, you need to demonstrate a bit more staying power, knowing that you are not going to get it anywhere near right first time. My failure to do this is the main reason I've achieved so little in a genre I am besotted with - and I speak as someone with a 60,000-word draft of a fantasy novel on my computer that I have no idea what to do with. (Thanks, NaNoWriMo!>

There is an intriguing relationship between writer's block and the epiphany I wrote about in an earlier post. What, after all, is epiphany but another name for that old writer's obsession, inspiration? It can't be willed into being, but I still can't help wanting it to arrive spontaneously and transform my work. Maybe things would run more smoothly if I forgot all about it and just got on with what I was doing anyway, but somehow the expectation of epiphany / inspiration is hard-wired into me, as I'm sure it is to most writers I know. Those epiphanies can take the form of a sudden idea for a different novel, or for a complete rewrite of this one. They can be completely, wonderfully, startlingly right - but most of the time they are deceptions.

Anyway I had a mini-epiphany over my writer's block this time: why not try to blog my way out of it? A bit more constructive than playing chess, anyway. (Which has, believe it or not, sometimes worked for me in the past.) When I was writing the first five posts for this blog, the preliminary notes for the novel, the ideas flowed out of me - then, as soon as the novel itself started, things slowed to a crawl. The point of this blog is that by making the writing process a self-conscious everyday thing I should be able to get round the inhibitions that cause writer's block. So let's look at what I was writing when I got stuck.

My aim when I sat down was to write a section (1000 words or so) introducing the university campus where some of the novel is to be set. (Based, roughly, on the University of Sussex at Falmer.) I was going to do a straight description, but then I thought that was a rather dull approach, and I should take the opportunity to dramatize it a bit by introducing some personal details right away. So I wrote the paragraph about finding the five-leaf clover. It's all true, and I kept the pressed clover for years, though I doubt if I still have it.

I started the novel with one symbol, the starlings, and now here I am introducing a second one. The significance of the clover to me at the time was that I was desperately unhappy, and hoped it was an omen that my luck was going to change. At the same time, as I say in the description, I wasn't at all sure that a five-leaf clover was supposed to be lucky as a four-leaf one is, and I wasn't even 100% sure it was a clover anyway. There is potential here for some comedy, I think, and the clover might be worked into another scene or two. But at the moment it has to be left hanging. The novel needs to get on and describe the campus.

Now that I think about it, the writer's block that struck then doesn't seem all that mysterious. I described it as feeling like a depression, and what can be more depressing than thinking about your own unhappiness even if it was thirty years ago? More than that, there is something pathetic about clinging on to this quite unmagical piece of vegetation when I wasn't even superstitious. That's how desperate I was: it is not a comforting thought.

So that paragraph was full of emotion for me. But like a good creative writing tutor, I didn't spell most of the emotions out: show, don't tell. That precept is normally meant to avoid being over-obvious when the action and description should be doing the work for you. But the reader has no idea yet how unhappy the narrator is, and is probably wondering what the paragraph is doing there at all. I either have to make more of the symbol or leave it out (at least till later).

Conclusion: I think that paragraph was a wrong direction. But I won't cut it now because that's not how this blog works. I'll have another go later. At least I have resisted the temptation to start a completely different novel.

Novel: Five-Leaf Clover

Going down the steps into the underpass that led from the station to the university, I found a five-leaf clover. The grass and weeds grew right up to the steps, and I was far enough down that my head was level with them. The clover was longer and more straggly than the plant I remembered on the lawn in my Surrey childhood, but it was certainly the real thing, and every stalk but one had three leaves on the end. The stalk leaned right over the brick wall of the underpass, and brushed my face as I stepped down. It had the usual three leaves in the familiar pattern of the Clubs in a pack of cards, but there were an additional two hanging down underneath it. They were partially fused to the stalk, and a paler colour than the upper leaves. It was obviously some kind of mutation. As a boy, I would spend hours on end sitting on the grass, examining every plant for a four-leaf clover; it was all of a piece with my longing for a wishing-well and the way I would examine every old penny to see if I had one of the pricelessly rare 1933s. Now at last I had been singled out - but by a clover with five leaves rather than four. Did the extra leaf make it even luckier, or cancel out the good luck, perhaps even reverse it? Someone pushed into my back as I stopped to think about it, and cursed under his breath. I reached up and snapped off the stalk, then, as an afterthought, broke off a normal one from the verge, a control specimen for purposes of comparison. I had the vague idea that its status would be disputed, and I wanted to be able to prove what it was. This happened in the summer. I wrapped the two clover stems in tissue and pressed them between the pages of the Gideon Bible on my bedside table at the Squirrels. Now every time I went down the underpass I would look at the weeds in the verge half-hoping, half-fearing to find another. I still didn't know whether it had brought me luck or cursed me.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Novel: Corned Beef Hash

The university had been unable to provide me with any accommodation. They had more students than usual that year, and couldn't even provide places on campus for all their first-year undergraduates. Thirteen of them had been sent out to a hall of residence in Shrovedean, five miles from Helmston and almost ten from the university itself. There were posters up all over campus saying FREE THE SHROVEDEAN 13! So I had to squeeze into the Squirrels with my belongings, most of them inherited from a recently deceased uncle. My sweaters and jackets, so big that my shoulders disappeared when I wore them, were crammed into a small fitted wardrobe whose hangers were draped in polythene. Getting them into and out of their covers was always a problem, but I wasn't sure how Bill and Marjorie would react if I removed the covers altogether and stowed them under the bed in the space already taken up by my shoes, suitcase and those of my books and files (actually shoeboxes filled with index cards) that were not on the dressing table being used for the current chapter of my thesis. I would eat at the dressing table, too, clearing a space for my plate and mug among the piles of books, papers and cards. I have never been so familiar with my own appearance as I was in the months I was living at the Squirrels - it was almost like having a room-mate, especially as the figure in the mirror was not one that I remembered from my previous life. I was growing a beard, and used to study my face while I ate, trying to work out if it was finished - did I look like a bearded man yet, or just a fuzzier version of myself?
     Except at mealtimes, there was no space in my room for anything to do with food. My pans and casseroles, crusted with the baked-on grease of my uncle's twenty years as a widower in Swanage, were piled under a table on the landing, beside a cardboard box filled with crockery and cutlery. I cooked in the dim space, peeling potatoes and chopping onions on the table and making frequent trips to the bathroom to wash up in the handbasin. If there were guests staying in the hotel, they would have to squeeze by me as I cooked, on their way to the rooms on the second floor.
     It was always corned beef hash. Not that it was the only thing I could cook, or even the simplest option, since it involved using two pans, but I could keep cooking to a minimum by making a large one that would last for two days: hot with brown sauce, cold with coleslaw. Sometimes I had cold baked beans, too - I preferred them that way because they didn't have the sludginess of hot ones. Apart from the hash, the only other thing I used my landing space for was preparing hot drinks. There was a kettle for coffee, and I also had a 2lb jar of malt extract I had bought out of curiosity, which I was slowly getting through in the evenings, a dessertspoonful at a time dissolved in hot milk.
     Apart from the doors to my room and the bathroom, there was one other door off the landing, which was at the far end, next to the flight of stairs that led to the second floor. Sometimes the door to this would open and a woman about my own age would come out. Her name was Elaine, she was a nurse, and was the only other long-term guest in the hotel. Apart from these facts I knew nothing at all about her; we only ever met on the landing, and our relationship consisted entirely of compliments, She would tell me my cooking smelled nice, and I would tell her she was looking glamorous tonight. When she was not in uniform she would be sparkling all over, not just her clothes but a sprinkle of glitter on her cheeks, arms and thighs as well. I used to wonder where she was going and who with; like me, she never seemed to bring anyone back.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Novel: The Starlings

This is the kind of thing I used to think in those days: what if the starlings don't really exist? What if they're only in my head? To be fair, they were a lot more like a state of mind than birds usually are. I always had the impression that I felt them before I saw them, a dark wave passing across my thoughts like interference on a television screen. A familiar coldness would come over me, and I would think something like: here we go again. I don't know how to describe the emotion that went with that thought - can something be eerie and comforting at the same time? I would look up and see them, the first small cloud of birds that preceded the much bigger flocks that would pass over towards sunset. They flew almost as one, but there were always a couple of stragglers slightly out of sync with the rest trying to catch up. Then they'd be gone, over the rooftops towards the sea, and I would stare into the space where they had been, and notice the light had changed: a touch of gold in it now, irrevocable.
     I could think logically about these things. The approach of evening was responsible for the passage of the starlings, not the other way around. And if I had any doubts at all about their objective existence, it would be easy enough to point them out, to Rob or anyone else I happened to be with at the time, making up some kind of comment that would elicit a confirmation: starling time already! But that would have seemed like an admission that was something wrong with me, perhaps even a symptom in its own right. A bit needy, in any case - if you had to have someone else to confirm every passing flock of birds, where would it end?
     One reason I was so starling-conscious was that I was usually out of doors in the afternoon. On days when I didn't have to go in to the university I would wake around noon, eat a cold Sainsbury's chicken-and-bacon pie and a tub of coleslaw, and then wander out into the streets till it got dark. I had a circuit of secondhand bookshops I did regularly, reading sometimes for an hour at a time in the half-darkness among the piles of warped paperbacks and softening hardbacks, though I seldom bought anything, having made a rule that I could only buy books I needed for my studies, which meant either literary theory or polar exploration. There were also a couple of shops that sold new paperbacks in glaring primary colours on psychoanalysis, feminism, gay and lesbian studies, Marxism, anarchism, environmental issues - the essential modern heresies according to a sign in one of the shops. On my non-bookshop days I would just walk, either along the seafront or up the hill into the northern part of town.
     It sounds aimless, but there was a purpose behind it. I was learning Helmston by heart. I had a strong feeling that none of these places - the stately hotels on the promenade, the Regency crescents and three-sided squares each framing a vista of steely blue sea, the curving glass-roofed station with its buffers that marked the end of the line, the little jewellers and antique shops in the Royal Mews, the shabbier shops further out that sold joss-sticks and bongs and Indian silk scarves and army surplus clothes - they were all going to be gone soon, and it was necessary to memorize them before it happened. Sometimes I thought they were gone already, and what I was seeing was only a simulacrum imposed on blank space.
     I must have been quite fit. Some of those North Helmston hills are steep, and I would walk for miles, often ending up in one of the residential districts where Helmston became just like anywhere else, with little parks and playgrounds schools and ordinary shops like co-ops and subpostoffices. But always, just as I thought I was back in the real world, I'd catch a glimpse of the sea in the space between two houses and realize I was still in Helmston after all. And then another wave of starlings would fly over.
     Each wave was a bit bigger than the one before, and as the waves grew bigger so they were more broken, not with individual stragglers any more but little groups of birds broken off from the main body, and sometimes trailing quite a way behind. They called constantly as they flew, a squeaking so high-pitched that it seemed to be inside my head, which must have been one of the reasons I knew when they were about to pass. The noise also disturbed the seagulls, which reeled away from the passing flock with their own, louder, cries. It takes a lot to panic a seagull, but panic was what it looked like.
     It was the first time since childhood I had been afraid of the onset of darkness, and I didn't really know why. It was like a pressure in my head, like the sky closing in. Those waves of birds told me it was time to get back to the seafront, to the strange little room I had in the Squirrels Hotel (basically just a double bed with a gold counterpane and a dressing-table with a huge mirror); I could probably just make it before it got dark, I thought, but I never did. More waves would pass over till the sky was full of them, and by the time I reached the curving road that led to the station, the lights would be coming on in all the shops, and assistants would be standing in the doorways to discourage more customers from coming in while they prepared to lock up. It was suddenly much colder and the town looked Christmassy with all its lights on, even though Christmas was over. By the time I reached the Squirrels I was half-running. I would let myself in, and walk, trying not to pant, past the bar where Bill the landlord would often be standing alone, waiting to serve his non-existent customers, to the dark staricase. I would climb to the dark landing with its little electric hotplate and miniature fridge, open the door to my room and put the light on. Then I would stare round the room, with its little row of books in one corner, its single dining-room chair where I had to work sitting at the dressing-table, the pile of notes doubled by the mirror. My palace of glitter.