random thoughts

Cryptic notes of a time-strapped writer

In amongst the day job and household life I get brainwaves, flashes of inspiration and insight that I can’t let go but don’t have time to act on. So I write myself a note, on a corner of scrap paper or in a draft email, and later on when I’ve got more time I read the note. And wonder what the blazes it means.

Northern King. Hefting. Rebanks.

Individually I know what all the components of that note mean. The Northern King is my semi-rural fantasy novel. James Rebanks is a shepherd who wrote a great book about Cumbrian hill-farming, which I don’t have a copy of and therefore can’t look anything up in. If I recall correctly, hefted is how you describe sheep who are so used to a particular fell that they won’t stray. Can I tell you what was in my mind when I wrote these crucial words down? No, I can’t. I could guess at an analogy between my main character John (a former shepherd) and the hefted sheep, but exactly what I was driving at I couldn’t say. The significance of this moment of clarity is lost.

All Points North, Ch1. Rules.

A few weeks after I’ve scribbled this in the margin of a notebook I can clearly recall reading the first section of All Points North by Simon Armitage and being hit by something I needed to say, related to a line he’d written that was about rules. This note has done its job. I pull the paperback from the shelf and flick through the first few pages. The only instance of the word ‘rules’ that jumps out at me is connected to train fares: “There are also rules against travelling on Fridays and travelling north at teatime,” it begins. I read it a few times, wondering what was so important about it. A political point to make? A story set in a world where you’re not allowed to travel north at teatime? Had it jogged a memory of some other tangentially related passage, perhaps in a travel-related piece by Stuart Maconie or JB Priestley? I can’t remember and doubt I ever will, though I’m sure it will periodically resurface to taunt me.

I could, I suppose, learn to let go. If an idea arises while I’m wrestling with a database at the office I get paid to turn up at, let it float on by. Give a mental shrug, get back to the SQL and trust that if it was important it will come back around later. Like the word ‘Walt’ and a flash of a memory related to Walt Whitman, that resurfaced as I was typing this. It’s crucial, I know it is, and the story it relates to is almost graspable at the back of my mind.

I remember walking from the station to the office one morning last week and the next part of that story writing itself as I walked along. I remember being frustrated that I didn’t have the time (or paper) to write it down before I arrived, and making a conscious effort to hang the whole thing on a key word. Walt, I thought, if I keep saying Walt to myself it’ll cement the thought and I can retrieve it later. Indeed, that afternoon in a meeting at which a colleague named Walter sent his apologies the whole idea flashed into my mind again. Fantastic, I thought, this is really working. Since then, it’s gone. It’ll come to me. It’s something really crucial to the next part of a half-written story, and it vaguely relates to Walt Whitman.

Brexit and the collapse of planning

The quagmire of negotiations, the dangerous farce that is the Irish border question, every day we’re told of new and apparently unexpected complications of Brexit. Each time, a chorus of people ask what Leave voters were thinking – didn’t they work through all the knock-on effects in their imaginations, like mental chess? Didn’t they think ahead and realise how complicated it would be, what a bad idea, how practically impossible? This chorus doesn’t appear to be asking what David Cameron was playing at, or why there were no detailed plans in place for what would happen in the event of a vote to leave the EU. They don’t ask how on earth our political systems managed to let the referendum happen when there was no plan for one of the two outcomes, or how come Cameron was allowed to abdicate responsibility as soon as he’d landed the country in the soup.

There are several scenarios I can think of, to cover David Cameron’s disregard for consequences:

  1. Knows that we can’t/won’t leave the EU, but poses the question anyway. No planning required; even if Leave wins, we won’t be leaving. But Remain will win anyway, so no need to worry about what to do if public opinion shows a leaning towards Leave.
  2. Intends to leave the EU if the vote goes that way, but doggedly believes it won’t as he has never met anyone except a few cranks in his own party that would vote Leave. Arrogantly (and incorrectly) assumes no planning required, simply because the messy and complicated reality of leaving the EU won’t arise.
  3. Doesn’t seriously consider the question of whether we’d leave the EU or not. The vote will go the right way, and life will continue as before. No planning desired, as it’s a waste of time.

Given the eventual outcome (narrow victory to Leave), any one of those positions would have left him in shock on results morning. In the first, he’d have to face a hostile public and tell them that despite the vote, we’d be staying put. Who knows what uproar there’d be, it’s not as if we never have riots in this country. In the third scenario he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place: stay put despite the vote (see scenario 1) or leave the EU, which he hasn’t planned for and didn’t think (judging by his personal campaigning) was a good idea.

Scenario 2, which is the one Theresa May’s government has behaved as though we were in, seems to me the scariest and most chaotic. That would be like me asking my friends and family if I should go on a sponsored walk or blindfold myself and throw knives at OneMonkey from across the room, to raise money for charity. If by some fluke they selected the latter, they’d be shocked if I said I was going to do it (because I’d promised) but I’ve never thrown a knife before and didn’t know whether I could get OneMonkey any protective gear in time. If I was perplexed at why they’d choose that option when they must be able to spot some pitfalls, I think they’d be justified in turning round and telling me they didn’t think I was stupid enough to suggest it if I didn’t know what I was doing.

You may believe all voters should avail themselves of all the facts and check out all claims made by politicians before voting, but you must know in practice it doesn’t happen that way in any UK election. Protest votes, party loyalty, the least worst option – I’ve voted based on each of those myself. Then there’s image and spin, some last-minute interview or soundbite that catches a voter’s imagination and sways them one way or another. There’s gut feeling, some idea you haven’t seen conclusive evidence for or against but that you hold onto nevertheless. There’s the complicated battle when a voter has too much information, weighing up the bits they do and don’t agree with or stand for, to see which aspect seems the most important; I don’t even agree with all of Labour’s policies and I’m a member of the party.

During the referendum campaign it wasn’t easy to get hold of facts anyway. Both sides, from all parties, seemed to be falling back on the usual meaningless soundbites and overinflated claims. The £350m written on the bus was clearly tripe and although I’m not saying 100% of the electorate spotted that, I don’t know anyone who believed it (Leave voters included). Remainers seemed to base all their arguments on how rosy it was already and why we’d be fools to give that up, which doesn’t work if the people you’re addressing don’t believe it’s rosy now. Very few people engaged in proper debate (a general problem in modern life) and I don’t remember any politicians giving serious thought to what the country would look like afterwards, whether the vote went their way or not. If they did, they didn’t share it with us.

Planning for an eventuality seems to have become synonymous with expecting it to happen, with all the resulting public hysteria. I would rather live under a government that had plans for what to do in the event of nuclear war, famine, an energy crisis, even if with hindsight it’s seen as (thankfully) a waste of time and money. I would argue it’s rarely a waste anyway because it gets you looking at resources and reliance, gaps in infrastructure etc that you wouldn’t otherwise focus on. But when it’s a situation of your own creation I don’t just think it’d be nice to have a plan, I think it’s damned irresponsible not to.

Maybe if someone had sat down with a pencil and a used envelope and had a ten-minute brainstorm about, say, possibilities for the Irish border should a referendum come out in favour of Leave, we’d have been spared the whole sorry episode.

Chambers Book of Days

The other day I was reminded that in a box under the window-seat I have a tatty 2-volume book from 1866 called The Book of Days: a Miscellany of Popular Antiquities. It’s a collection of sayings, biographies, folklore and anything else that could be connected to a particular day or month, and is a rich store of randomness for a blog such as this. In July, it says, ‘We feel the harness chafe in which we have hitherto so willingly worked, amid the ‘fever and the fret’ of the busy city, and pine to get away to some place where we can hear the murmur of the sea, or what is nearest the sound – the rustle of the summer leaves’; some things don’t change, even if the sheep-shearing festivals it goes on to describe aren’t as common now. Expect some choice morsels over the next year.

The two volumes of The Book of Days