Here’s our story in the latest Lancaster Guardian, my local paper (we don’t get the Buenos Aires Times delivered round these parts). My wife and I are enormously lucky compared to many separated couples around the world, but it’s true to say that the demands placed on our relationship by the Covid-19 lockdown and the financial/emotional demands of the UK visa system have presented us with some of the biggest challenges of our lives. You can read our full story here and a piece in the (more famous) Guardian on how non-UK spouses have been left in limbo during the pandemic here. The latest Home Office advice for those in similar situations was updated on 8 June 2020 and suggests some flexibility when it comes to meeting financial requirements and providing documents, which is a step in the right direction.
I’ve just started Chapter 7 of my new novel and am nudging 10,000 words.
First, I should reassure guilt-wracked writers (and writers are nothing if not guilty) and guilt-free readers alike that I haven’t stuck to the 2,000-words-a-day rule. The ideas for this book, and the characters in it, had been forming in the back of my mind, and indecipherably in notepads, for several months before I opened up Word, followed the header, footer and page number protocol; changed the proofing language to UK English, and double-checked all other relevant settings (imagining myself an astronaut preparing for a mission) until I was left with no choice but to begin – with more hope than expectation, and fanfare roughly equivalent to a liberated rat fart.
Yet all this is normal, for me. Each novel I’ve written, only one of which has been published, has started more-or-less the same way – with an incubation period followed by several months of writing, shaped around other work and life commitments. What are far from normal are the circumstances in which I find myself beginning ‘Suburbanites go Loco in Lockdown: Part I of the Disinfected Masses Trilogy.’*
Fortunately for you, I don’t have much cause to moan about my situation – not yet anyway. My friends and colleagues in Hong Kong, where I’d missed SARS but heard all about it, were quick to warn me to take this virus seriously. Naturally paranoid, I did as I was told and shut myself away ASAP; even the care package from employers in my former home – containing masks and cartoon-themed stationery – was handled with plastic kid gloves when delivered by a key worker, who received my bellowed appreciation with a heroic shrug.
Okay, so I better get on with it. As returning readers will know, I don’t do concise very well and you’re unlikely to be assailed by a hail of bullet points or cluster of click-bait on these pages, but brace yourself for what passes for advice to fellow word divers round here.
(*real title infinitely more subtle, sexy and succinct, obvs)
No routine is routine
You wake up at 5am, sweaty and disorientated, wondering why you haven’t had any of the vivid dreams everyone’s talking about – what price that kind of free material? No matter, there’s no commute to stress about today. You could try to go back to sleep, but you’d probably find yourself dwelling on recent communication breakdowns with your wife who is thousands of miles away; better to brew a coffee (please drink responsibly) and return to bed with the laptop and begin.
Begin what exactly? That depends how you’ve decided to compartmentalise your days. Most of mine follow a familiar pattern: an hour of fiction in bed (not that sort), university work until lunch; freelance editing; Joe Wicks workout (who could resent him those bestsellers now?); more editing and then fiction writing until dinner with an hour or so of Netflix or iPlayer thereafter.
The days are full but imperfectly formed. Where’s the time I promised to dedicate to the books and films I’ve been meaning to tackle for years? How am I going to improve as a writer if I’m not giving myself the time to absorb the genius of others? I’m sure you’ve developed your own set of bespoke obstacles to prevent you from achieving a similarly mythical equilibrium. Perhaps like me you’ve concluded that what’s important is staying flexible enough in body and mind to take a deep breath and accept your limitations. If not, there’s always the Tibetan singing bowls.
Explore online events
Let’s face it, unless you’re a key worker or scientist working on a vaccine, there’s not much more you can do to impact on what’s happening now than staying home, looking out for neighbours and donating to appropriate charities, if you can afford to. It sounds obvious, but following the news all day is only going to make you feel more helpless than you do already. Try using the Stephen Fry approach and check in on global events twice a day, devoting the time you save to following your passion instead. For readers and writers there’s an ever-expanding resource of stimulating reassurance available via online literary events.
BookBound2020 is the first I’ve followed. If you missed it, why not dive into the diverse range of author discussions available on their YouTube channel? Consider spending what you would have on travel to a venue, drinks etc. to support the mental health charity Mind, with whom they’ve partnered. As if on cue, the first forum I entered relayed the damage inadvertently done to writers by the fiercely competitive publishing industry in pitting them against one another, when they should all be part of the kind of community BookBound2020 and others are striving for.
On Friday 8 May, the Big Book Weekend is kicking off (so to speak – as we’ve just said, the days of authors trying to knock each other’s wine-stained teeth out are to be confined to the past). Here big-hitters like Neil Gaiman and AL Kennedy will be sharing their undoubted wisdom but I’m particularly looking forward to joining my long-term writing ally Maria Roberts in watching our comrade Zoe Lambert talk about her part in the Resist anthology (Comma) on Sunday 10 May at 11am.
I was fortunate enough to launch Hong Kong Rocks with Zoe’s help in February, just before the world changed. Authors are now relying on social media platforms to catapult their babies towards a hungry readership. These online launches can be wonderfully intimate and – crucially – devoid of karaoke (my apologies to the Gregson Centre). I particularly enjoyed hearing Sarah Jasmon reading extracts from her novel You Never Told Me from her canal boat via Facebook Live.
On 6 May you can join poet Mathew Welton at the launch of his delicious-sounding Squid Squad (Carcanet). Maybe see you there?
And if you’re feeling really desperate you could always check out my YouTube channel where bitesize promo films for Hong Kong Rocks from artist and animator Ana Rebolledo nudge shoulders with a couple of semi-improvised ‘skits’ and ongoing readings from the author (i.e. me).
You might find entering a writing contest gives you a helpful timeframe in which to complete a specific project, but take care to manage expectations and go easy on yourself. Avoid high profile competitions charging £25 for the opportunity to have a story you may have dug out of your soul summarily dismissed by strangers who may be overwhelmed with entries (and money).
Literary journals could be a better bet, though some of these may also demand a submission fee. A friend with her own publication tells me a modest contribution is necessary to cover expenses, and avoid the kind of blanket spamming that can occur if you open the online floodgates. Crucially, she pays writers for their contributions, as do Orca, who are charging $3 to submit to their speculative fiction edition (deadline 1 June), encouraging those who can afford to pay to offset the 100 submissions that will avoid the charge.
This kind of thoughtful approach to a delicate business might be something to look out for amidst the increasing number of lockdown call-outs for fresh material.
Podcasts for house cats
There’s no need to prepare that banana bread in the respectful silence it deserves, plug the buds into your hairy lugholes and aim for humour: Great Big Owl is an excellent resource for original comedy/TV nostalgia – The Box of Delights, Heavy Pencil, and I am Anna Mann being amongst the standouts. Athletico Mince and Adam Buxton have deserved reputations for eliciting neighbour-bothering laugh-cries, while the eye-wateringly surreal Beef and Dairy podcast will put you off gristly, panel-based comedy for life. Should you want to discover the human/humorous side of the journalists relaying our daily grimness try From Our Own Correspondent, presented by the ever-cool Kate Adie.
Write a diary
In New York, a city stuck between an ocean and a racist POTUS with a vendetta against the urbanites who first saw through him, a writer friend is keeping it together with the help of therapeutic wordsmithery, most of which goes into his diary, and a little of which I’m privileged to sample via email. Who would have imagined 40 days ago that by May he’d be advising me to take solace in the siege of Skipton Castle, and I’d be consoling him after defeat in a fight (‘I quickly succumbed and died’) with a muscular young Korean man in one of those vivid dreams?
I won’t bore on about the benefits of writing down your daily feelings but it’s worked for me for many years. This isn’t about trying to get published; or otherwise sharing your all-important agenda, and is all the better for it. My advice would be to type one up rather than buying a pre-printed agenda full of expectant pages – some days you’ll write a sentence, other days you’ll want to vent. Let it out. Enjoy it. It’s a guilt-free gift to yourself in a world where self-care is a prerequisite to helping others.
There’s probably not a lot here you haven’t thought of for yourself already. If it’s any consolation, writing down my coping mechanisms has helped me cope with this madness for a couple of hours. If I could follow my own advice I would be in a better place mentally than I care to admit, but I guess that’s the same for all of us.
You don’t need my love or luck but here it is anyway – on a tin hat platter flecked with badly burnt banana bread crumbs (let’s not even get into my culinary/horticultural failings). Take care, and write it down. For now at least, the process of putting one word after another to form a sentence at a time, remains a fundamental way of communicating our feelings, to ourselves and to the slowly-healing world out there.
Five reasons to buy my debut novel Hong Kong Rocks during lockdown: 1) Escapism (‘the first un-put-down-able book I’ve read in ages’) 2) Excitement (‘spirals out of control like a Cohen Brothers movie’) 3) Comedy (‘the author’s distinctive wit can be felt throughout’) 4) Insight (‘parts and people of Hong Kong that only some may know’) 5) Half-price summer sale! Email email@example.com to order a signed & dated copy for just £7+P&P.
While I pine for my wife as a Christmas tree yearns to shed its needles in the furthest echelons of your living room, at this time of year it’s best we meet on her side of the equator. She needs sunshine, and here in Lancaster in December it’s hard enough to find sufficient light. After my morning stint at home I walk to the city centre, surfboard tucked under my arm, to chase a few watery rays before gloom encases the city and it becomes a romantic silhouette of itself, minus the romance. I don’t mind the melancholy so much. I might have been away for a few years, but this is the country I grew up in – I can’t say I wasn’t warned. However, it doesn’t take much for the ice in my veins to start bubbling with seasonal rage, as happened yesterday in Poundland.
Readers of my short-lived Toxic Bachelor blog will recall both my fondness for bargain stores, and my poor track record in negotiating their subtleties. But my confidence was high this week. I’d avoided slipping on the pavement beside the ice rink and paid my respects to the solitary sentinel above the chemist’s (pictured). Having stopped off at the croaky tobacconist’s therein, I’d emerged from ‘Santa’s Passage’ (last month no more than an austere shortcut into town) relatively unscathed. Charity shops scoured, I decided to stop off at Poundland on my way home – seeking something cheap and cheerful.
Unlike wedding anniversaries, the materials utilised for Christmas celebrations year on year never seem to change – plastic and chocolate. Yes, it’s time for the annual blowout; to forget the problems of the world by creating more of them. Perhaps you’re thinking this is the year I finally surrender all my worldly goods and wander the country barefoot preaching abstinence? You’re misremembering – that’s next year. Instead, grim-faced and guilt-ridden, I take my shopping to the self-service checkout seeking a quick getaway. What I get is the disembodied voice of an imposter.
‘Ho, ho, ho – unauthorised item in the bagging area!’
A schoolboy error. Rucksacks trigger alarm bells, or worse – robotic jollity. Because it seems Santa is moonlighting in place of the standard mechanical orator we all know and love. Perusing the clogged aisles, it’s clear we’ll be waiting a while. I’m content to wait in silence. The same can’t be said for Santa.
‘I think I’ll have a mince pie while we’re waiting – yum, yum!’
You have to be kidding. Not only is Santa insulting my intelligence with this little charade, but the bastard fails to offer me one. I tell him what he can do with his mince pie, under my breath, then thank the woman who comes to help before resuming scanning.
‘Ho, ho, ho – product requires age verification!’
Another schoolboy error (Santa can’t tell if I’m over 18, apparently, nor whether I’ve been a good boy – the cigarette papers suggest not).
‘I think I’ll have a mince pie while we’re waiting – yum, yum!’
This time I fail to keep my voice down when replying to Santa, allowing him to enjoy the moral victory his pompous tone suggests was never in doubt.
Heading home I detect the unmistakable scent of effluent in the moistening air – either from Santa’s passage or the drains; or perhaps the river or canal. I’ve nothing against Lancaster. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the UK. But the city’s appeal isn’t ever likely to run up and smack you in the face, like the smell of faecal matter. On plenty of days the most inspiring thing about wandering its streets is witnessing the unfussy goodness in ordinary, uncelebrated members of the public; people despised by the current government and scorned by the tabloids.
Because, despite getting my knickers in a twist in Poundland, and beginning a beef with Santa that could end badly (he has some powerful friends in the media), I couldn’t help noticing a couple of elderly people assisting a group with learning difficulties, some in wheelchairs, with their Christmas shopping. Details like these are my personal source of Christmas cheer. Long life to them. Up yours Santa.
The inventor of
The train ticket
Lived down the road:
It was his ticket
Out of here.
(All the way to Manchester
Where he died in 1851)
Can’t wait to make
Their fortune to escape;
Can’t quite raise
The fare to anywhere –
Just know they must be going.
Hiding in disabled loos
Where Edmondson rode
Upfront in topper, one imagines,
Signing stubs and visualising
Tickertape parades on Princess Street.
Where to go is moot (toot-toot!)
For our young heroes.
“Please wash your hands” (they do)
Then jump the barricades
To find a world run by
Fat controllers, grey cardinals
Entwined – demanding tickets please.
Soon they are proven to be on
The wrong side of the tracks;
Then sitting on the fence
At an erroneous angle
By blinking data readings on
Smart troops’ smart watches.
(The Internet thinks
What I type is what I want,
So up pops an ad for a
Military smart watch:
Henceforth official timer
Of this poem.)
Here the ghost of Edmondson
Decides to intervene.
“God is in everyone,”
He tells the tooled-up bureaucrats
“Not according to this,”
Comes the reply; but when they
See his pasty Quaker face and swoon
The couple are off again.
Finding a planet blighted
By splurge and gut-greed,
And while weeping over birds
In sticky deaths throes
On foamy beaches
The couple decide
To try Plan B.
The office is manned
By a man in a topper,
They ask for one-way tickets;
Edmondson requests a code
Downloaded from a website,
Then smiles: “Please permit
My little joke.” They do.
And off they go again;
You hear the engines roar
While hanging out the washing;
But don’t worry, old man,
Old woman, old ghost –
You are not compelled
To join them: your only duty
Is to let them go (ticket or no ticket).
Cashless pubs – an overdue innovation for a struggling sector, or the thin end of the wodge, as our interactions become increasingly dependent on technology, and the pinpoint precision with which it tracks our movements?
Depressing to find the pub closest to me, a fine place to drink and eat with which I have no other complaints, now only accepts card payments. Efficiency is mooted, the most overrated aspect of our current society. And, the management claim, it’s reflective of customer habits – the customers a modern pub wants to attract, anyway. No more looking down the back of the sofa for nuggets of the non-chicken variety – overnight a series of invisible signs has been propped up beside the shouty SKY SPORTS blackboard. The first to catch the eye: Buskers, Bankrupts and those of No Fixed Abode not welcome here. Indefinitely.
All this tech. All this joined up tech. It’s not that we’re necessarily being spied on now; not unless you happen to fall into an ethnic group under perpetual suspicion – we’re simply allowing the tools for a surveillance society to be put in place if/when we get an elected leader who isn’t wild about elections, as is happening in many parts of the world right now. Fortunately, we still have a minimum wage in the UK, but it doesn’t amount to enough to let you go contactless all day, tempting as that may be. Consider the bar staff deprived of those modest ‘keep the change’ gestures. Another freshly painted sign: Charming and helpful bar staff must rely on cashless customers utilising that awkward piece of pottery marked TIPS.
I can’t deny my bias. Having lived in Hong Kong; having friends in Hong Kong who have no choice but to stay there, the latest news about the Chinese governments roll-out of a yet-more intrusive, data-based monitoring system (there’s only so many times you can huff ‘Why should I worry if I’ve got nothing to hide?’ before it sounds like utter crap) gives me the fucking willies, and why wouldn’t it?
The issue may soon be out of our hands, here on our small island anyway. In Latin America, dollars are kept under the bed while local currencies fluctuate wildly. They are a safe – if galling – bet, for those who can afford to accumulate them. Ironically, my experience of the US is that the federal system won’t allow a huge amount of joined-up thinking when it comes to the technology taking hold here. Of course, that will change. In the meantime, swallow your pride, and get yourself some bucks. Just don’t expect to be able to spend them down the local, mighty dollar or not.