Tag Archives: me

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.

Drenched in moonlight: accidental animism and The Wakeful World (Yoga Camp #3)

Yoga Camp was pitched on a gently swelling hillside with a view of Glastonbury Tor. First thing in the morning, as the sun came up, the hills across the glacial plain rose out of a sea of mist. Two thousand years before, the land around Glastonbury was marshy and prone to floods and the idea of a mystical “Lake of Avalon” is not too hard to imagine.

photo (3)

It also meant that on clear nights in late August, it could get surprisingly cold and a cold night’s sleep goes straight to the bladder of the average middle-aged camper.

So a trip to the squat toilets at two a.m. wasn’t an uncommon thing.

This particular night, I struggled out of the tent to find myself standing in a field full of silence and moonlight.

You may think of silence as an absence of something but at certain times and in certain places, silence is like a full glass with the liquid swelling right on the edge of the rounded rim. I held my breath. The moonlight and starlight were bright enough to navigate the guy-ropes webbing the field. I made my way to the main path circling the tents and listened.

Part of the world, that part of it made up of people zipped up in sleeping bags in tents and caravans, was sleeping. The rest of it was awake and listening to me. I walked through it, becoming aware of the fulness of it embracing me from all directions. It’s possible I said a prayer; not to any divinity in particular, though the sacred in various forms was walking all around me at that moment, but as a part of my immersion in the infinite interpenetrating of life with life that I suddenly found myself a part of. Sleeping humans, animals, trees, grass, earth, stone, water, wind – all held me and I was happy and grateful to be held.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a book by Emma Restall Orr called The Wakeful World. It’s a deeply thoughtful and deeply thought-through piece of work that addresses the philosophical underpinnings necessary for a coherent practice of animism. It’s a book which is proving invaluable to me at the moment in its provision of a sort of toolkit to think about these issues. In amongst careful expositions of philosophers ranging from Bergson to Empedocles and all the way back again, I find passages such as this:

Every creature, every tree and beetle, every lake and mountain, every atom and galaxy, is its own pattern of being, integrated within the community of its evolving environment. Furthermore, every being is composed of or interconnected with numerous other beings, each of these also existent within its own web of communities, while at the same time, firmly held within the fabric of nature’s universal soul. The animist key is yet again that this fabric of nature is made of interactions, internal and external. In the poetry of animism, we might d

escribe how every community is comprised of the relationships within it, those relationships making up the inner structure of every ecosystem – and, vibrant with energy, those relationships are perpetually humming with communication. (The Wakeful World, p238, Emma Restall Orr, 2012)

The challenge of experiences that can only be described as animist is to shift from the anthropocentric view of what it means to ‘experience’ the world, and to accept the fleeting nature of one’s own egocentric perception. At the sensory level, a tree perceives the world in an unimaginably complex and far-ranging way. Does the tree feel? Does the soil that the tree grows in?

I think the tree and the soil do. Not as a human feels but if human feelings are made up of chemical trails, sensory inputs and neural connections, then a tree’s are hardly less valid and a good deal more durable. Perception, accepting the breadth of possibilities that perception stands for, is the important thing. Zen, yoga, various Christian traditions of quietism and the Sufis all look to a the idea of mindfulness, of letting oneself be situated in the world. In so doing we experience what it is to be a minded being, to be purely perceiving the world. It seems to me that Orr argues that the very stuff of nature is minded – that nature is mindedness and that this mindedness enables the network of perceptions that, at various levels of intensity and complexity, forms communities, tribes and, ultimately, individuals.

Anyway, I’m putting it all very badly so you should just read her book.

What I mean to say is that for ten minutes, I had a gift of being present in the world a

nd the night and seeing it as if for the first time. Perhaps it was a kind of initiation. It was certainly a blessing.

Four views of Joseph Conrad

Four views of Joseph Conrad

A close artist friend made this for my birthday. It hangs at the bottom of our stairs so I get to contemplate it on a daily basis.

So why Joseph Conrad?

Because he wrote in English – but his first language was Polish.

Because he left his first manuscript on a train and lost another in a railway reception room.

And because, no matter how much I love his novels, I still use less adjectives per page than the perennially purple Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski.

[Yes. I edited out the sulky bit. Didn’t you know you should always edit out the sulky bits?]

Wrestling with the sacred

For quite a while now, I’ve been trying to embed a teeny-weensy sense of the sacred in the life of our family. Whilst she’d probably put it differently, supermum feels the same way. It comes from a sense of unease that we don’t properly appreciate the things we’ve been given and how fortunate we’ve been in life compared to other families.

On the other hand, I’m equally uneasy about the level of moral smugness and superiority that hovers just beyond any formal attempts to express ‘gratitude’. Also, I’m not talking about charity here. We have the direct debit with ‘Save The Children’, buy the Big Issue (which I feel guilty about not liking very much), recycle, sign petitions and go on the occasional protest march. I write to my MP about things that shock me and give money to beggars. All of this is perfectly Richard Dawkins friendly and doesn’t help. What I’m actually talking about is religion.

Now I’ve always seen my parent’s brand of Catholicism as something horrible and oppressive but as I’ve got older, I’ve begun to appreciate the stable centre it gave to lives which would otherwise have been very uncentred indeed. But returning to the church isn’t an option. For one thing, I don’t believe in an ‘interventionist God’ (I quote that line from Nick Cave an awful lot). For another, I don’t accept the bigotry, paedophilia and regressive politics that seems to go with mainstream Christianity. And I’ve zero interest in hair-shirted Presbyterianism. Quakers offer a reasonably attractive form of Christianity but there’s still that barrier of being personally redeemed by Christ. No thank you. Islam suffers from most of the issues that Christianity is dogged by (see bigotry, regressive politics etc) and I really would need a complete cultural refit to deal with Hinduism.

Meanwhile, full-on engagement with other religions that interest me has is complicated by the lack of any real scope for engaging with the family. Zen Buddhism isn’t really kid-focused and Richard and Linda Thomson have probably put me off Sufism for life. Also, supermum doesn’t do religion. It’s one of those blank spots in our relationship. Her family never had any religious involvement and she literally cannot comprehend an inner life as moulded by religion as mine has been. On the other hand, she gardens. She pays attention to the seasons. She wants to acknowledge that life is passing and things happen to us, good and bad.

This, then, leads us towards paganism. Being me, I’ve thrown myself headlong into exploring Anglo-Saxon heathenry. As a family, we’ve been poking gently at Goddess strands of paganism and encountered Starhawk, Diane Baker’s and Anne Hill’s source book for children and goddess traditions, Circle Round, which has many wonderful things in it but a fair leavening of material which makes me cringe. I’ve also been reading the rather more critical Ronald Hutton whose book Triumph of the Moon respectfully but thoroughly debunks much of the ‘ancient’ tradition surrounding Wicca and its ideologies (which has made trying to find anything we can do relating to Easter a bit of of trial, given the lack of substantial historical provenance of the goddess Eostre).

Now hang on a minute, you’re probably saying. If you’re so dead set against religion and don’t believe in God, how on earth can you so easily charge off into a world of irrational pantheism and animism?

Fair point. I suppose it comes down to seeing engaging with the sacred as a creative act. I don’t need the divine to have a concrete, verifiable existence to invite it into my life. As a writer, I do this every day with things that I evidently make up. Examining or reconstructing or recreating older/extinct/modern traditions provides a means of carving a space for stepping outside our everyday place in the world and thinking about it. Making sense of it. Or making sense of the lack of sense. We’re born, we live and we die, and the year round cycle paganism explores offers a way of creatively engaging with the mystery at the heart of this.

Hmm. That’s probably enough for now. Meanwhile, the Korean poet Ko Un notes:

Bitten by a mosquito


Wow, I’m still alive.

Scratch, scratch


When I was nearly nine, we called it second year

I don’t remember much about being nine at my primary school in a sleepy seaside town in the North West of England. There was light, generally low buildings and wide roads and an aunt and uncle around the corner. There’s a picture of me in a cowboy taken in their garden. I could ride my bike around the block and visit my best friend D who lived around the corner (I remember that his father was an electrician. My mother had three sisters and a brother and there always seemed to be relatives and cousins cousins to visit. There was a botanical garden with aviaries and maze -like rose gardens. When the tide went out, the sands ran on for miles and miles. You could see Blackpool Tower across the bay.

At school, another aunt (actually, a cousin) was my teacher but she was stricter with me than anyone else as a consequence. Everyone in the class noticed it. There were children’s parties and another girl, K, whom I had an enormous crush on. I read and read and made up my own comic books. All my pocket money went on books. Eventually, I agitated for a weekly comic like the other boys and whilst they vetoed the Beano or the Dandy (except as an occasional degenerate holiday treat) my parents approved Look And Learn. Look And Learn featured the marvelous “The Trigan Empire“, a science fiction story set in a distant galaxy of imperial intrigue and warfare.

Eventually, my father got a new job and we moved down near Liverpool.

I suspect everyone has some sort of before and after moment in their lives demarcating the border between innocence and experience and mine would be the moment of that move. The house was smaller, the accents were harder (I was branded as a ‘poof’ on my first day at my new school) and our relatives were far away. There’s more but that’s enough.

The time since that change seems recorded in high-definition video. The time before, in sunset-kissed Technicolor.

Dudelet starts year four today. He’ll be nine in January. I’m so, so glad we failed to move house outside of London, despite all of my efforts to the contrary, and that he’s still in his school, with his classmates and friends whom I know he loves. I hope he lives his life in Technicolor a little longer than I did and transitions to all the harsh, bright high contrast of HD a little more gently.