This past weekend, I’ve been ghosting around the streets of Brussels. Wandering, wandering, wandering... I saw a big black W on a sign, so I did what any book lover would do and went to investigate. Imagine that... a Waterstones in the middle of Brussels. Imagine also that the entire stock was books in English - not what I expected at all. Imagine also that the store manager was a Welshman who got to choose his own stock.
i know about fifty bookshops back here that could learn a lot from a trip out there. It’s easily the best bookshop I’ve been in for years. There was a huge stash of books I could have walked out with but alas, I had things to do and my plans to head back and make another Welshman very happy were derailed by that old nugget of running out of time.
The moral of the story is... out in the world there are people who care, who are discerning, who want to sell you good books based not on an algorithm, nor a publishers need to shift copies of certain titles but based on knowledge and taste.
2018. It’s easy to forget how things used to be before it was all about money.
It’s also easy to forget that art can be fun:
...and then, when I got home, I watched the last episode of The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair with my mouth open. One of the finest shows I’ve seen in a long time. I wish I’d read the damn book now.
Meanwhile, in Brussels and back home, it’s been raining like Noah’s in town and three days ago, somebody left their boots out in the garden.
Fish now live in my boots.
Why has it taken me so long to watch this? Strictly speaking, it’s a no brainer and I should have been first in the queue at the cinema but I wasn’t. Maybe I was away.
It's times like these I wish I had a TV the size of The Hanging Gardens Of Babylon.
I love del Toro. He’s made some of my favourite films - The Devil’s Backbone answers to nobody - but this is in a different league. It may have drifted into the public eye as a ‘fairytale love story’ kind of thing, but it’s not really. What it’s getting at is how The Monster Is Not Really The Monster In The Monster Movie. All of my favourite films are about that, whether there are monster-looking creatures in the movie or not - and that probably says more about my psyche than I care to dig into.
Footnote. Somebody asked me just a few days ago what my songs were about and I couldn’t explain them very well at all... but now I’ve written this, there’s my very succinct answer to all of it: They’re about The Monster Not Really Being The Monster...
Hey, that’s as close as we’re going to get right now.
It Is Done.
Scenes From The Coffee House will be released on November 30 and damn, it feels good. I’ll post properly about it a little closer to the time, a newsletter will come out and ummm… whatever else needs doing, but for now, I am satisfied that this book is ready to roll.
Which means I am now free of everything I ever had planned and can stare at 2019 with a blank slate and a little piece of chalk in my hand.
Whenever a book reaches this critical mass, I’m always left feeling like I should release them into the wild more often but if you’ve ever tried such a thing, you’ll know why writers don’t.
Anyway, with that in the system, I’m free to turn my attention to some other soul food.
The idea of releasing some songs is proving more difficult than I thought. Not so much the songs - they are fine, growing and bedding themselves into my head with every passing day. It’s the demo process that’s cloudy. It’s about as frustrating as somebody like me saying ‘if you’re going to release a book yourself, you have to do it with InDesign or it will look amateur’, when that somebody like me has lived with InDesign for about fifteen years and doesn’t feel sick when they sit in front of it.
I know GarageBand can do what I want it to, it’s the bit in the middle I’m struggling with - the bit between me sitting here staring at it and a finished song - but I guess it will come with time and patience. It’s easy to overthink these things and I blame myself… there’s this guy called Dan Tedesco (I may have posted about his album a while back) who recorded his self-titled album on an iPad. That’s red rag to a bull stuff for people like me.
File under: it can be done and it can sound good.
I mean, we’re talking demo tracks here not Led Zep remasters and if I can get into the guts of it, that means I’ll be able to turn up at the machine and do it a lot in the future.
Honestly… how hard can it be!
I guess the more you care, the harder you make it. I’m just happy to be looking at an empty December to make solid attempts at nailing it to the floor.
I didn’t post anything last week and some of you thought the Saturday Morning Club Type Thing was broken. One person asked if I was dead. Nope - neither of those things.
I have almost not posted anything this week either but figured I would at least turn up at the keyboard today so that something will happen tomorrow morning. Let’s see where it takes me:
I’ve been reading the collected letters of Sylvia Plath this week and have become enthralled over how often she would write to her mother, friends and various others in a way that is not unlike blogging. If blogging had been around, Sylvia Plath would have blogged for sure. The letters are nothing but a giant emptying of her head with very little editing and it’s brilliant.
I’ve always like Ted Hughes - which is I came to be reading about Plath - The Iron Man (or The Iron Giant if you happen to have come late to the party) is one of my all time favourites (and is the reason I wrote The Eternity Ring which will appear in its entirety in the hardback edition of Scenes From The Coffee House which will be along anytime now).
What I didn’t know until I started reading these letters by Plath was that Hughes had also written a book called The Iron Woman in 1993 as some kind of sequel to The Iron Man. I went out to find a copy and after digging around in the dirt found this cover was available for it:
…and while it’s pretty neat and fits with the similar cover of The Iron Man, this other version strikes hard at the heart of what the book is really about:
If there was ever book that needed a renaissance in today’s world, it’s this.
But more than anything, it’s a crying shame how little has changed in 25 years - and when I say ‘little’, I probably mean ‘nothing’.
Great book though. The world should not forget Ted Hughes… not that it has, but when people like me rattle on about American poets more than those closer to home, it's easy to see how that might happen.
Is that all I got? Hmm. Maybe. There’s something else that’s gotten under my skin this week. I read this article that challenged my perception of myself as a writer. Amongst all of it was this:
“There is much to be said for our responsibility as creators and consumers of that constant dynamic interaction we call culture — which side of the fault line between catering and creating are we to stand on? The commercial enterprise is conditioning us to believe that the road to success is paved with catering to existing demands — give the people cat GIFs, the narrative goes, because cat GIFs are what the people want. But E.B. White, one of our last great idealists, was eternally right when he asserted half a century ago that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down” — a role each of us is called to with increasing urgency, whatever cog we may be in the machinery of society. Supply creates its own demand. Only by consistently supplying it can we hope to increase the demand for the substantive over the superficial — in our individual lives and in the collective dream called culture.”
I read that and big-ass alarm bells went off in my head.
How could I have been so dumb as to not think of this myself? My job as a writer really is to lift people up. Not that I ever purposely lowered them down but if I think I may have been guilty of it, then maybe I was. That E.B. White dude, he banged the nail right on the head with this:
“Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”
Otherwise, what the hell is the point in sitting down with your pencil and your brain free-falling through your soul (which is on fire) in front of a sheet of paper?
If I haven’t got that going on, I might as well send cat GIFs out into the world… but no… I’m a dog person.
I want to shape life not kick it to death.
My eldest daughter recently lost her job when the place she was working at shut down for a refurb. Sadly, the people in charge have had so many food and drink-based meetings about the refurb, there’s no money left to actually do it.
Thus, she did what anybody related to me would - she took her redundancy money and went to Majorca for a week.
Every now and again, she sends me links or screen grabs of ridiculous things modern employers think are a good idea when they’re looking for staff. Superdry, for instance, think it’s smart to make you fill in something like thirty pages of junk online just so that you can stand around in one of their stores looking like you’re waiting for life-threatening blood test results for something like £6 an hour under the guise of being a professional t-shirt seller.
I’ve been buying t-shirts for years and can’t recall one instance when I ever needed help… particularly from somebody who was so desperate for a job that they actually made it all the way to the end of the magical psych-hoops SuperDry want you to jump through.
If you think I exaggerate, go see for yourself right here.
Anyway, in this infrequent series called Show Me How To Live which I just made up because it’s not a series yet but it might be, (aka: I have nothing to write about today but the Blog On A Saturday Morning Coffee and DoughNuts Cardiac Arrest Club will be disappointed if I don’t at least look like I’m making an effort) I will be dispensing Life Coaching Advice that is useful. Life Coaches charge thousands for things like this but I’m giving this stuff away for free because I love you.
Here, I’ve borrowed a list of 15 of the Best Job Interview Questions To Ask Candidates from HubSpot where they are full of useful advice if your idea of a life well lived is standing around a chrome plated kettle that costs more than my car wondering who had the audacity to leave a yoghurt in the work fridge over the weekend.
Let’s get some dirty realism under the belt here:
Tell me about a time you set difficult goals.
A few years ago, I had a great idea for a novel. I worked out that a reasonably large novel had around 70 chapters and if I wrote 1000 words a day, I would have a 70,000 word novel in just over two months. In theory, it sounded easy. All it needed was a commitment from me. That was in 2004. Turn The Lamp Down Low remains unfinished because I am sometimes stupid…
Tell me about the relationships you've had with the people you've worked with.
They fall into two camps. Camp One are friends to the end. Camp Two, I slammed the door forever on. Camp One I will never write about. Camp Two are fair game. Some things are sacred. Some not so much.
What project would you consider your most significant career accomplishment to date?
Talking an old boss down from a ledge one New Year’s Eve. A real ledge. True story. Best not repeated. He was an asshole but you know…
What have you done professionally that is not an experience you'd want to repeat?
Slept under the post-sacks after breaking into an office I used to work at to make sure I could get to work on time the next morning after catching the very last Lords of the New Church show. Hessian is a poor material for a bed and spandex is not suitable work attire. Apparently.
Is it better to be perfect and late, or good and on time?
This really is a good question. If you’re in a real life job interview situation, there is no correct answer to this because if you choose one, they’ll ask you why you didn’t choose the other. If anybody does ever ask you this, I would quote Jim Morrison and say “How can you be late for your own show?”. You won’t get the job but if they do ask this question, they have been looking for questions on HubSpot aka: they can’t think for themselves. It will save you from a world of hurt and will make a funny story later.
In five minutes, could you explain something to me that is complicated but you know well?
What is your definition of hard work?
If I were to poll everyone you've worked with, what percentage would not be a fan of yours?
1%. I know his name, I know where he lives and he had best stay far away from me. You know who you are motherfucker.
Tell me about a time you screwed up.
Just the one? The person who never screwed up, never did anything.
Who is the smartest person you know personally? Why?
Hector. Yep, he counts as a person. He knows what time he goes out but doesn’t own a watch. He knows the route and who he might meet. He knows where the gravy bone jar is. He doesn’t care if his hair is perfect nor if it’s raining or Christmas Day - every day is another opportunity to bark at the moon. He is Hector. He does what Hector wants to do with the days he has been given. Everything else is just noise.
What is something you'd be happy doing every single day for the rest of your career?
See previous answer.
If you had $40,000 to build your own business, what would you do?
Buy a Triumph GT6 in black and tell everybody I had just sold The Family Of Noise to Tom Hanks’ production company. Fake it ‘til you make it right?
What's the biggest decision you've had to make in the past year? Why was it so big?
Gretsch or Hagstrom. If you know what they are, you know why.
What has surprised you about this interview process so far?
”How much faith you put in the actual process when really, you knew whether or not you wanted to employ me the second I walked through the door”. There is a lot of truth in this if you happen to be an employer - think about it. It’s your own time you're wasting.
Do you have any questions for me?
”Yes. What did you really want to do with your life before you found yourself surfing around HubSpot to look clever and took your eye off the ball?”
Life huh. It comes and it goes. Figure out what’s important today because there might not be a tomorrow… but there probably will be a tomorrow, so you have to kind of balance it without being a dick.
Oh … and don’t let the past define you. It ain’t coming back. If the past was so great, how come it’s not still here?
STANLEY MORGAN: 1929 - 2018
I’ll take a vague stab in the dark that you’ve never crossed paths with Stan.
It was very much a time and a place thing. Stanley Morgan was a writer. He wrote many books but he is best known for a series featuring Russ Tobin. Russ was just a guy from the North West of England trying his best to get by and, across eighteen books (I think), pretty much slept his way around the world like some working class James Bond with a brilliant sense of humour.
I was maybe 14 (1982/83) when I discovered him in a used bookshop called (I think) Bridge Books in my old hometown. It was packed to the roof with all kinds of treasure for about 10p a copy and run by some guy who looked like he had eaten nothing but acid since 1960.
Technically speaking, it wasn’t me that made the discovery - that would have been my good buddy John because my mission in that shop was Ed McBain books, Conan books, old airport paperback copies of MAD and anything I could lay my hands on that was vaguely occult-like. They were good times. You could get a lot of books every week for not much money, but this find by John was a serious game changer.
It was this:
By the end of the week we had both read it, fallen head over heels in love with the idea of being Russ Tobin and over the next few weeks, we pounded the hell out of those bookshop shelves looking for more. Some were easy to come by, some were like gold-dust and in the days before the internet, it was impossible to know how many titles there actually were but we kept looking all the same.
I think John made the final discovery some ten years later (long after we should have given up) in another abandoned Welsh bookshop but by then it was too late. We had both been long sunk by the Tobin boat. I even made a career out of it. When I ran out of things to do or be back home, I just did what Russ had done and moved to London to see what would happen next.
Now there’s a truth I’ve never said out loud before.
It’s not right that a man (ie: me) should take on board the traits of a fictional character but it’s probably what I’ve done my whole life when there have been precious other resources for figuring out how to grow up and who to be.
Actually, there’s no ‘probably’ about it. For good or ill, I figured Tobin was a nice guy - somebody I wanted to be like when I grew up and… I don’t know if I made it or not.
Anyway, fast forward twenty years or so to 2004/2005. I discovered somebody had created a fan-site for Stanley Morgan, Russ Tobin and all of his other creations. It was a real blast to discover his fans were a million strong out there (well, quite a few anyway) so I dropped Stan a note through the site to say more or less what I’ve just said above and to thank him for his work because damnit, Russ Tobin got me through some real bad times at home. He made me laugh. He gave me something attainable to be that wasn’t plastered in greasepaint. He brought John and me closer together in a massive dumb-ass book hunting competition that never really ended. You know… things that fucking matter.
I’ve probably left out a lot of other reasons too but some things are still sacred around here.
When I saw Stan was writing another Tobin book, I guess I must have offered to design the cover for him because that’s exactly what I did. We chatted back and forth and I came up with some covers that were dead-ringers for the classic Mayflower series. Come the print-day, they didn’t get used because he didn't want his new book to be ‘tainted as soft-porn’ as all of his Mayfower releases were by reviewers in the past. He wanted to go more ‘comic’ - so that’s what he did with an illustration. Totally cool. I was just stoked to be talking about this stuff when I’d never really expected him to reply in the first place.
I have copy of that book - Tobin Goes Cuckoo - right here on the shelf not three feet from my hands. It’s dedicated to me in both biro ink and type.
Fourteen year old me would have gone insane overnight if he had known such things were possible back in 1983.
As it is, fifty year old me just shed a tear and plugged the hole with a cigarette (I believe those are Russ Tobin’s fault too) for the loss of somebody I didn’t really know at all, yet managed to have more input into the man I came to be than both of my parents.
Like Chris Cornell, I didn’t know I felt like this until it happened and now I feel like a part of me has ended too - maybe that’s how these things work. I know it’s just an emotional reaction and it won’t last forever but you know what… if one of my books ever means as much to somebody as Stanley Morgan’s did to me, I’ll take that as a major win.
Thanks Stan. You changed a world.
Yesterday, I read an article on writing by one of my favourite writers - Joan Didion - and I’m going to steal chunks of it here because I think it’s important. It was for me, but maybe it will resonate with you too. Here goes:
Like many writers I have only this one “subject,” this one “area”: the act of writing. I can bring you no reports from any other front. I may have other interests: I am “interested,” for example, in marine biology, but I don’t flatter myself that you would come out to hear me talk about it.
Sometime later, she hits The Nail really hard in the face with The Hammer:
In short my attention was always on the periphery on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.
Which was a writer.
By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?
That section in bold is the one that swung it for me:
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.
When I had read this over and over because I was captivated by what it meant, I realised she was talking to me.
I figured that what people respond to most is when I write about life. Anyone - (well, maybe not anyone) - can write a 'story' but only I can see through my eyes and colour it with all the filters that already exist in my head. I see no other reason to have accumulated so much junk in there and held onto it for so long. Thus, on this fine day, I have decided not to write certain types of things anymore - ie: fiction, though I do have a few scraps around here that I'll finish just because I should.
There simply comes a time when you must decide what you're going to talk about around here - and that time is now.
It sits well. Maybe I need a photograph of myself that makes me look like the kind of writer I think I am. Here's a picture of Joan (from Vogue I think) that says more than any biography could. Once you know she's a writer, this photograph says everything else there ever was to say - in fact, you don't even have to know she's a writer for it to speak to you:
I will more than likely steal this idea very soon. I don't think Joan will mind.
Later that same day, I went over to the bookstore looking for magic and found zero magic happening. No crime novels from any country at all jumped out at me, no music bios to speak of, no art books of earth shattering essentiality. I guess it could be me at fault but I'm not 100% convinced about that.
Determined not to leave empty handed, I dug deep and found this:
Which is more or less about the lost art of finding your way around the place using your natural gyroscopes of intuition and feeling. Here's how Tristan explains it:
"A sixth sense outdoors is not something mystical or new age. It is expert intuition.
When we practice noticing certain patterns, signs and clues outdoors, there comes a moment when our brain will take a shortcut. When this happens we sense something without consciously thinking about it.
I call the signs that allow us to redevelop this ability the 'keys' as they help unlock this ancient skill.
This sense may not be mystical, but it can feel magical when we experience it for ourselves."
If nothing else, it's out of my normal scope of reading and that can only be a good thing. Maybe I'll even test it out.
I got a newsletter in today from the very cool Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company. I've only been there once and it was a long time ago too so it's high time I went back. With one eye on my last post about things not being as relevant/cool/important as they once were, I'm going to steal their first paragraph here and tell myself it's OK because if you're not on their mailing list, you can fix that by going to that link and filling in the box on the top right of the page.
It goes like this:
For almost three years in the late 1960s, Shakespeare and Company was barred from selling books. This was due to a bureaucratic imbroglio attributed variously to CIA influence, to the Paris Préfecture’s “Operation Anti-Beatnik,” and to simple bad luck in business. Undeterred, George Whitman kept the space open as the “Free University of Paris,” hosting discussions, concerts and readings, including one with poets Langston Hughes and Ted Joans. In May ’68, when the quartier famously erupted in clashes between students and riot police, the bookshop was perfectly situated to become a refuge, intellectual as well as physical. As Molotov cocktails flew across rue Saint-Jacques, the shop sheltered people fleeing riot police, and stayed open all night to host political debates. In our history book, the poet Christopher Cook Gilmore describes hiding out in the bookshop one night, watching from the upstairs window as students unfurled a huge red flag from the top of Notre-Dame. Standing next to him, George said: “Isn’t this the greatest moment of your entire life?”
Which says a lot about the bookstore, its owner, beatniks and the French. This is why Shakespeare is still open, still highly regarded and still on my radar when hundreds of others are a distant memory of averageness. If I ever get around to making a video series like Old Weird America (see same previous post as mentioned before) this is where I'll begin... because a man needs an excuse to go to Paris like he needs an excuse to buy another Gretsch.