“The Guest Cat”, by Takeshi Hiraide (2015)

My wife and I have lived with cats for twenty years now which is a shocking realisation. This book, an unexpected birthday present, is a meditation on how the relationships between ourselves and our cats (and neighbours) form and the ways in which we negotiate the fiddly, fussy social barriers defining the spaces and transitions between us.

A couple rent a property and find a cat begins to visit them regularly. She (the cat, Chibi), becomes more and more important as the narrator and his wife negotiate a major change in their lives, the Showa era ends and the Japanese property bubble of the late 80s begins to evaporate.

I suspect something of the flavour of this book has been lost in translation, though more through the unbreechable gap between the Western language of subject-object and that of Japanese (something the book explicitly addresses), where the distinction all but dissolves, rather than through any fault of of the translator. 

What we have, however, is still a touching mediation on loss and marriage and the kind of love that descends like snowflakes overnight. 

Milky Way

“Light is the fastest thing in the world,” announces little elf, my seven year-old daughter. I think of the Discworld where light pours over the edge of the world like Golden syrup each morning. I wonder when she’ll be old enough for the Tiffany Aching novels.

“That’s true,” I say.

“But even light can’t escape from a black hole! Did you know a black hole is a dead star?”

“Yes. I think that’s interesting – even stars die.”

She jumps conversational track slightly, the way we both do and my son and wife don’t.

“It’s a shame we can’t see our own Galaxy.”

“But we can. Mostly. It’s called the Milky Way.”

“Can we see a picture of it?”

“I don’t want to get out any screens right now.” (Because we’d never get off them.) “But I can tell you what it looks like.”

“What does it look like?”

Oops. Have I ever really seen seen it? I remember a glimpse of something on the rare night when camping, the countryside and the dark coincided with a cloudless sky.

“It’s…a sort of grey-silvery thing. You don’t realise your looking at it at first because the other stars are brighter. Then you realise there’s a kind of stream running across the sky, full of dim twinkly stars. It’s…”

She isn’t listening. I carry on trying to remember. Did I see  a stream of stars, full of myth and wonder? Or did I make it up? And does it matter? I still remember it.

Exhaustion and pattern recognition 

Exhaustion: There’s a William Gibson novel (Pattern Recognition?) where the main character wonders about whether jet lag is when your soul gets left behind you out in the middle of the Atlantic. I suspect it happens on train journeys and after long meetings. Today, I spent two hours talking and arguing and convincing and, most of all, acting, to a room of fifteen people. Work involves so much acting. To clients, to colleagues, to yourself.

Character Hauntology

I’m a character driven sort of writer. I like to plot, I like to plan, I love to build worlds but the thing that gets me to the finish line is the sense of duty I have to my characters.

It feels like that, a literal duty of care. Like every writer, I have a small stack of unfinished novels and the characters in those abandoned wrecks of stories haunt me. They want to be told. They want to have their say the way their lucky brothers and sisters in my finished manuscripts got to have theirs.

Pirandello wrote an entire play about this – Six Characters In Search Of An Author – about the nightmare an author faces when half-a-dozen untold stories come round to visit. Another Italian writer, Italo Calvino, wrote a novel called The Non-Existent Knight about a suit of armour that sustains its non-existent self through pure willpower. My characters, the ones that stick around, aren’t dissimilar. They force themselves into being and pester me. They lurk at the back of my mind prodding me to tell them into being. It’s a kind of channeling but the spirits being summoned aren’t all-powerful gods and spooks; my spirits are ordinary men, women and children who stumble into extraordinary situations. They’re individuals struggling in the morass of whatever invented history I’ve plunged them into. And I can’t help them – they have to fend for themselves.

I always start with a character, a person, set down in a situation. It goes from there. The end is up to them. I just have to keep writing until it feels true. That’s what I’m chasing – something ‘true’. 

The truth is something you have to be told. You can’t, if you follow me, make it up.

Currently, I’m pushing and poking at the beginning of a second novel in a series (optimistic, given that I haven’t sold the first one and have a previous novel to deconstruct into a more coherent trilogy if I ever manage to clone myself). All I know is that someone is on a beach and they’ve made a choice. The choice has consequences which the character will have to muddle through as best he or she can, generating more consequences and more choices…It’ll be complicated but simultaneously very simple. The character will always need to decide – do I want to be this person or that person? And the choices will need to tell the truth or, at any rate a truth. 

And that’s how I write a novel, bar the swearing and coffee.

Ulpia, 8 years and 11 months

I’m reading Guy De La Bedoyere’s “Gods With Thunderbolts: Religion In Roman Britain” (2002). It’s a clear-eyed, rigorously unspeculative text but it’s hard not to “humanise” some of the items from the archaeological record it examines.

Ulpia, whose ashes were buried at York 1800 or so years ago, was clearly loved by her parents. “8 years and 11 months” – each one of those years counted. Her other name “Felicissima”, means “Most Happy”. I wonder how many hopes and dreams were wrapped around this child.

We do our ancestors quite a mis-justice when we assume that they cared for their children less than we do. And, looking at the levels of abuse and mistreatment of children in the “modern” world, we flatter ourselves if we think we’re any better.