Bloody Good Reads: All The Birds, Singing

I resisted reading this for a good long while, I’m not quite sure why. It was so enormously praised when it came out, I suppose I must have decided, in my miserly way, that it was over-hyped. Well, it wasn’t. It’s an elegantly-done thing, full of threat and beauty, but for me the best and most interesting thing about it was the structure, which flips between the now and the past, with the now stepping forward but the past receding, with each chapter moving further away until the last chapter reveals the past of the main character, Jake, with the strange scars on her back and her apparent flight from her family in Australia to a sheep farm on an unnamed British island.

It’s not a long book – barely more than 200 pages – and the story it tells is a simple one, but that just gives the story room to breathe and the words room to grow in your head after you’ve put it down, until you can almost hear those birds singing yourself. A lovely thing, and very recommended.

all the birds singing

Support group #15minutefable

I got lost on the way to the Lost Skills support group, but I had become very used to getting lost in recent weeks. My sense of direction had once been my key skill. I?d spent four years studying the Knowledge, pouring my living savings into it, and had got my req without ever getting a grade lower than a B. I?d spent three years working my living in a TX4 Elegance, the one with the classic look, until one day a Chinese guy stepped into the taxi at Canary Wharf and asked to be taken to the Angel, and off I went, but when I popped out of the end of the Limehouse Link tunnel I realised I didn?t have a clue where to go. Not the slightest idea. The map of London I carried in my head had slid right out of it. I dropped the poor guy in Wapping, and went to drink myself stupid in the Prospect of Whitby. I sold the TX4 a fortnight later, and went to work for Uber a week after that. I was miserable. I was, in all senses of the word, Lost.

I?d stumbled upon this support group (I only ever stumbled upon things these days) in a Facebook group someone had set up for London cabbies who?d fallen out of work for one reason or another. It was in the Richmond adult education centre, the one in Twickenham, but I went to the one in Richmond first. Because, as I said, I got lost.

But I found it eventually. A peeling print-out blu-tacked to the glass said Lost Skills, and in I went. A dozen or so faced turned to me.

?Sorry,? I said. ?I got lost.?

?How appropriate,? said one vinegar-faced woman. I sat down, as a man who had been speaking (I supposed) carried on.

?I used to sell things,? he said, and looking down he flicked some crumb of something off the lapel of a suit that must once have been smart. ?Now, I can?t persuade someone to give me directions.?

?I used to run,? said a small, thin woman. ?Miles and miles and miles. Then one day I fell over, and I couldn?t run anymore.?

?I used to write stories,? said a nondescript man with a large head. ?Little stories, and longer ones. But one day I found I couldn?t write endings anymore.?

Then they turned to me.

?I used to be a black cab driver,? I said. ?A good one, too. I made a fine living for three years. Then one day I lost my sense of direction. I couldn?t do it anymore.?

?Well,? said the vinegar-faced woman. ?You?ve come to the right place this time.?

The nondescript man with the large head wrote himself a note.

The fantasy writer?s fear of the meter reading #15minutefable

Frank parked the van at the end of the drive, just inside the wrought iron gates, noting the gigantic snakes that curled up the gigantic gateposts. He thought Devoured by Serpents, Anthony Robinson?s debut novel.

He walked up the curved drive, lined by thick trees, and thought It?s in the Trees, Robinson?s collaboration with Kate Bush, which had been a commercial failure but a critical success.

The house appeared – a Gothic brick affair, all chimneys and windows and astonishing angles, and Frank thought The House That Went Mad, which had been turned into a film with Colin Firth.

He was here to read the meter.

?There?s a problem,? Dave had said at the office. ?It stopped sending signals, two nights ago. Go and check it out.?

He?d protested (Frank often protested) that it didn?t matter if Robinson?s new-fangled networked power meter had gone on the blink. After all, it had been Mrs Robinson who?d wanted it installed, not her famous husband, and she?d been dead a week. He remembered putting the bloody thing in, remembered hearing them argue about it, in that way that couples who argue a lot argue – low voices, bitter tones, unresolved.

He came to the front door. It was open. He rang the bell (an oddly cheerful noise), but no-one came. He poked his head around the door.

?Hello!? he called. No-one answered, so he went inside. ?I?m here to check the meter!?

He went to the door under the stairs that led to the cellar (thinking, as he went, of Robinson?s television series, Nightmares Below the Stairs), and went down the stairs. Mrs Robinson had said she wanted a networked power meter with real-time readings, hardcore industrial stuff, and when he?d asked her why (pretty thing, she was, tall with blonde hair) all she?d said was ?They can always come back,? which had confused him at the time, but then he?d gone home and searched for it on Google and found it was an Anthony Robinson short story about reanimation.

The meter was on the wall at the far end of the cellar. He flicked on the light, and walked over to it. It was blackened and scorched, completely ruined, and he frowned at it, as if it was responsible for all the ills in his world. How in hell could that have happened? Only a massive surge of power could have done something like that.

She?d died a week ago, Mrs Robinson. Car crash. Terrible scene, the local paper said, implying salaciously that there had been massive injuries. No-one had seen Robinson since. He?d built an enormous mausoleum for her in the local cemetery. No-one was buried in the cemetery anymore. There wasn?t room. But for a man as rich as Robinson, that hadn?t been a problem. He?d been to visit it, a few days ago. An impressively sepulchral affair, with a massive iron door and a new padlock, and he?d wondered about breaking open the padlock, opening the door and stepping inside, checking just how terrible Mrs Robinson?s injuries had really been. A scoop for the paper. A bit of cash.

He heard a step on the stair, heavy and uncontrolled. Then another. Then another. He was overcome by a reluctance to turn around. He stared at Mrs Robinson?s wrecked electricity meter, and he thought about that Robinson short story she?d mentioned so bitterly on his last visit, the one he?d read the day before. About a man who could reanimate life. All he needed was a lot of power.

?Frank,? a voice said, a voice which had been female once but now sounded like sandpaper on old stone. ?Have you come to fix my meter??

The old Jag #15minutefable

When the funeral was over (he refused a wake), he hopped into the Renault and drove down to Sussex, a jerrycan on the passenger seat. The car still smelled plastic to him and was full of disturbing buttons and lights which left him feeling he didn?t know how it was being driven, or if it was being driven by him at all. It began to smell of petrol, too.

He parked the Renault alongside the row of old garages at the edge of the field, just outside Bury at the foot of the South Downs, and walked to his own unit. The ground was muddy but drying in the sun. He unlocked the old-fashioned wooden garage door, switched on the light on the inside, and there she was. The old Jag.

An XJ40, she was, built at the end of the eighties but looking like something out of the seventies, which was when they?d started developing her. Those were the days of British Leyland, when it took more than a decade to get a new car into production. She was the last Jaguar worked on by?the company?s founder William Lyons.

A Jaguar 3.6 litre engine (a version of the AJ6 inline six). It was said the engineers deliberately designed the car to prevent British Leyland sticking a Rover engine inside her, as they had planned to do, since that would have meant the end of Jaguar engine production. A car from the bad, mad old days. From his own bad, mad old days.

?You?ll need a hobby,? his friends had told him when he?d retired. ?She?ll drive you mad, if you stay at home. There?ll be jobs to do, errands to run, weeds to be dug. You won?t know whether you?re coming or going before long. Get out of the house. Get a hobby.?

So he?d bought the car, for next to nothing. And had then spent thousands of pounds and thousands of hours nursing her back to health, avoiding his wife?s domain, returning at the end of the day for meals and socialising, for television and board games, for holiday organisation and worries about the children. It had been like working, really. A new 9-to-5 to replace the old one.

He got out from under her feet, and avoided getting trampled. And now those feet were still.

He started the car up, and drove her out of the garage, down into Bury, and then up Bury Hill, through Coombe Wood, on to the old London Road and then up on the Downs. He took the old Jag off the road and into an empty car park, along a track. Mud spat onto her sides and slowed her down. He stopped, and stepped out.

So many hours spent with her, while his wife lived the life she lived while he had worked. His refuge from his wife?s world. No longer required.

He was holding the jerrycan, transferred from Renault to Jag to hand without noticing. He splashed petrol on the luxury leather seats, front and back. Then he flipped open his old lighter, unused for more than a decade. It fired up first time (British-made, 1970s, naturally). He threw it into the interior, and stepped away.

The old Jag lit up like a barge on the Ganges, and burned itself away. He thought of his wife?s little Renault, waiting patiently down by the garage. He thought of the walk down the hill. He thought of driving back home. And then he walked back to the Jag, like an old banker heading to work in 1973.

Heavy hands #15minutefable

?Ow!? said his wife as he thumped her around the back of the head in what had been an affectionate pat in front of the television. ?When did you get so clumsy??

It was a good question. He was, indeed, becoming clumsier. This wasn?t the first time his hand had collided with something with unintended force. Bottles of milk had been sent crashing at the breakfast table. The end of the gear stick had come off in his hand while driving the car. He was on his third computer keyboard in two months; the other two had been returned to the shop, their letters mashed down into the plastic surface, deserted by other letters that had come away altogether and made their escape.

And he had noticed something else, too. The sleeves of his shirts were moving up his arms. Working from home, as he did, he did not often wear shirts with unrolled sleeves, but he had attended an awards dinner two nights ago, and had found the sleeve of his formal dress shirt sticking resolutely above his watch. It used to cover half his hand.

He had not mentioned this to his wife. And she did not pursue the accusation of clumsiness – the television programme they were watching was more interesting to her than the state of his?.

Well, the state of his what? His arms? His hands? His general wellbeing? But the more he thought about it, the more his arms felt different, as if they belonged to somebody else, as if the signals he was sending them were no longer being received in the customary way.

He hadn?t written a usable word in weeks, either. Everything he put down through his poor abused keyboards was stale or obvious or just ordinarily boring. While he clattered through the house knocking things over his mind wandered over its incapacity, worrying away at it the way he might worry at a loose tooth.

?Loose tooth!? he said to himself. ?What a tired image.?

So he went to the doctor. He?d been seeing the same doctor for years, and they had become sort-of friends, in the sort-of way one can only ever be friends with one?s doctor. His friend checked his blood pressure, listened to his chest, but most of all he talked to him.

?How?s the writing going??

?Terribly. I?m in a rut.?

?Hmm. Wait there.?

The doctor went out and came back with a device about the size of a small plate, covered in a silver plate, with an LCD screen at the front.

?Isn?t that a kitchen scale??

?It is. Now, put one of your hands on it, please.?

?But that?s silly. It can?t weigh my hand accurately, because it?s supported by?.?

?Do I tell you what you can and can?t do as a writer??

?Of course you do. Everybody does.?

?Well, fair enough. But trust me. This is medical stuff.?

So he put his hand on the scale, the doctor read off the display, and nodded his head.

?Just as I thought. You?ve got heavy hands.?

?Heavy hands? What kind of condition is that??

?It?s not a condition. It?s a metaphor.?

?It?s a?. What??

?It?s a metaphor. You?ve got heavy hands. You can?t write, and you knock things over. You are clumsy, maladroit and generally incompetent around things, people and words.?

?But, how did this happen??

?Overuse of imagery, would be my first guess. That, and a general tendency to use ten words when three would do.?

?Is there a cure??

?Normally, I?d advise a course of high quality mainstream television where the dictates of art are subservient to entertainment and commercial interests. But you need something stronger. I?m putting you on a course of Elmore Leonard. Effective immediately. ?

The Home Secretary #15minutefable

The Home Secretary liked to fight crime on Thursday evenings, unless it was particularly cold or particularly wet, and then he would skip it and do some paperwork instead. But if the temperature was right and the air was dry, he would take his special outfit – black suit, black polo neck sweater, black boots and black balaclava, dropped at the dry cleaners by his wife every Friday morning – and march out into St James?s Park.

There was always some crime or another that needed his attention. There was a lot of stuff that waspetty but annoying, the type of thing that voters found irritating but not terrifying – littering, dog mess, mildly anti-social behaviour of the shoving-and-shouting kind.

But then there were the muggers, who brazenly infested the park under the eyes of the Palace itself, stepping out from behind trees and demanding wallets and phones in oddly polite voices. When he saw one of them, he would hide himself behind a different tree and wait for them to conclude their business. Then he would step up behind them and accost them, identifying himself as ?Chief of Police? (this was his crimefighter name, and it was also, in its way, the truth) in a voice so firm and terrifying that they surrendered themselves immediately.

He?d catch three or four muggers like this every Thursday night. They didn?t always surrender, and they weren?t always polite – some of them swore at him, and on one memorable evening he was forced to use his Chief of Police Stick, a kind of umbrella made especially for him by James Smith & Sons. He took this umbrella everywhere he went, to meetings at the palace and to sessions at parliament, and nobody suspected that it was in fact a kind of cudgel. So when this particular mugger swore at him in the park, he was surprised to be struck about the head with an umbrella, only realising on impact that the umbrella was heavy and solid and skull-threatening. The mugger did not get up again. Ever.

At the end of his busy night, the Home Secretary would go back to his offices and change out of his black uniform. The next morning, he would call in his special advisers, and talk about Britain?s Mugging Problem.

?It?s getting worse. Much worse. Why, I caught a half-dozen last night alone,? he said. The special advisers, all of whom had been dressed as ?muggers? the night before in the long-standing tradition of their team, looked at each other. ?I?m announcing a new initiative. Mandatory five-year terms for first offenders.?

?But, Home Secretary,? said the most senior special adviser, who had been pretending to be a mugger on Thursday evenings for three years. ?Our research shows a steep fall in crime of this type.?

?That has not been my experience,? said the Home Secretary, firmly, his special umbrella leaning against his thigh.

?But, Home Secretary, the plural of anecdote is not?.?

?You?re fired,? said the Home Secretary, and they moved on.


Mindfulness class #15minutefable

His mind was full of ?destructive thoughts? (his phrase) so he went to a mindfulness introduction course and spent five hours thinking about this. ?Give me fifteen minutes every day,? the instructor said, so he did. Fifteen minutes a day, sitting in a chair, scanning his body to shut out his destructive thoughts (?no it?s not about shutting them out, it?s about observing them in order to let them go,? his instructor said, but he struggled with the difference).

On the first day, as he scanned down his body as he?d been told to do, he noticed an odd tight feeling in a place he?d never really thought about before, above and to the right of his groin, below his stomach. Perhaps sitting in or on his pelvis somewhere. He noticed it and paid attention to it. It felt like he?d swallowed something in an odd way, sitting there below his stomach. It felt about the same size as fifteen minutes, roughly the same size as a poem by Andrew Marvell.

On the second day, the odd sensation had changed. Now, it felt about the size of half-an-hour, perhaps three or four of Shakespeare?s sonnets. It didn?t have any shape or size or visible signature at all, but it was as solid as a banana under his skin, as present as metal.

He continued with his meditating. Each day he scanned down his body, and each day he came across this growing element there within him. It grew by the same amount each day, about fifteen minutes, twisting and turning as it went, and it different times it was ?The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? and ?In Memoriam? and Macbeth and Frankenstein and Paradise Lost and The Quiet American and then one day it was more than two thousand minutes long and for a while he couldn?t identify it and then he realised it was Ulysses sitting there on his pelvis, as solid as a banana, as present as metal.

After becoming Ulysses, the feeling split into two, as if there were two bananas down there, though there was still no outward sign of what was happening to him. Ulysses was joined by a Wilfred Owen poem, an Aesop fable, a Euripides play, The Iliad.

And on it went, the shape splitting and reforming, until there was a shelf, a bookcase, a wall and then a library sitting down there, above his pelvis, as solid as a banana under his skin, as present as metal. He walked around with a canon below his navel.

But his thoughts were as quiet and still as a millpond on a summer?s night.