Take This Walk with Me

As of 1 October, I no longer live in the Forest of Dean. I’ve secured a job, and a room, and I’ve gone away. Before I went, on 29 September, I took the two dogs for a walk, along with my brother Jim. I wanted to go around the Forest as a sort of ‘goodbye’ to the place.[1] Thanks to his reminder, I took a few pictures. It was a lovely day, the kind of crisp end of September day that, but for the chill, wouldn’t be out of place in the heart of summer.

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As we walked, I reflected that it would be nearly a year to the day since I properly moved back in with my parents; I’d had to arrange collect my things about six weeks after leaving Salisbury. I never came to love living in the country-side but I did come to appreciate the forest itself. Each day I would take a short run through it as part of my exercise regimen. Slightly less frequently, we would take the two dogs for a long or short walk depending on the weather and our mood.

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In Sky’s death, I mentioned that I used to walk with her and it helped me by giving me time to myself, outside of the house, to think. It remained as that, a location removed from the dreariness of life where I could think freely. When walking the dogs with Jim, we’d discuss what we were writing, or thinking of writing or, most recently, my plans for a theoretical 13th Age game.

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One half of the help of the forest came from getting away, but the other half was undoubtedly these chats with Jim. I think, with all sincerity, I would be in a much worse state if he had not been around to talk to.[2] I’m genuinely grateful for his friendship in what has been a properly difficult time of life for me.

The struggle to be front dog

The struggle to be front dog

Most days, to properly exercise the dogs, we’d take hour-long walks. The Forest is well traversed, with paths marked out with stones. Around you, thick limbed trees give the false impression of the periphery of an untouched wilderness. You can see marks on the earth, there are stacks of uneven stone, and if you are lucky you might encounter a deer or a wild boar.[3]

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We went off of the usual paths, opting to take a detour on this last trip, to make it a last adventure. A muddy path, which he soon diverged from, took us across a shallow bit of marsh, past disturbed earth, and all the way to a tiny road running through the forest. It turned out to be a non-starter, and we went back around to where we had begun. Pointless but absolutely worthwhile.

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Otherwise, much of the forest looks like much else of the forest. That’s neither here nor there, good nor bad, it’s just something that is. Still, I’m glad I took the time for this last walk.

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[1] Also, to Freya and Daisy or Thuggle and Doozer as I think of them. It’s a contrast between cats and dogs that I hadn’t thought of before – I have never gotten to say goodbye to a cat.

[2] And, it should be noted, drive me around the country in pursuit of employment, lodging, and a more fulfilling scotch egg.

[3] I once ran in to a jet black deer with a white tale. I’ve seen a young stag, his antler’s bright in the summer air. One late evening, Jim and I were startled by a sow and her piglets. It was rather exciting.

Jump

This week was one of many ticks on many clocks: My mum celebrated her birthday, my youngest brother came to visit, and another had his final day in the Forest before heading off on adventures new. Alongside a tea-party for my mum, we went to an activity centre to throw ourselves off a cliff. It was rather fun.

Of the people who went over the edge, three of us suffer a terrible fear of heights: Liam, Jim, and me. I think I’m not being too bold when I say mine is the worst: as we were walking up to the jump point, I found myself concerned that my dad and Jim, the brother who is leaving (now left), were walking too close to the edge of the path. They were a good six feet from it! There’s no helping being a scaredy-cat.

As there were seven people jumping, and the set-up only allows for pairs or solo jumps, one of us had to go alone. I was that lucky fellow, having resolved the matter with Jim in a quick game of Rock Paper Scissors. Because, as I said, I have peculiar obsessions, I can remember my strategy for my second draw which went: ‘Because I have gone scissors, Jim will not be expecting scissors again. Because he will not be expecting scissors, and will expect that I expect scissors, he will expect for me to go rock, so he will use paper, so I will remain with scissors.’ We both know of the Monty Haul problem, even if neither of us is proficient enough at maths to truly grasp it. The point was, I was jumping alone, and that meant I was jumping first.

At the embarkation point, we handed over both our entrant rubber bands, and our waivers to confirm that we were willing to accept injury and death were our own responsibility. The attendants helped me in to my harness – though they were reluctant to loop ties through anyone’s legs, a moment of modesty that felt a little absurd in the circumstances – and then I got in to line. Ahead of me were two boys, children, who had that air that children always have when they are doing something that might be dangerous, and so that danger makes it feel illicit. The rest of the crew came through. Dad danced a little to the Bob Marley that was playing. He may have been nervous; he’d never say.

I was. Liam reflected later that it would be easy to mistake me for a tough guy. In my combats and vest top, I certainly looked like I was trying for that role. I stood at the point of no return as the attendant tied me in to the harness. I made weak jokes which, no doubt having both heard them all and grown tired of them being repeated, he paid no attention to. It was probably for the best. “Lift your knees up when I ask you to” was all he said, as absurd out of context as not wishing to risk improperly groping my legs was within it.

I stood. “You can hold on to the rope if it helps you,” the attendant, finished tying me in, said. I did so, but it didn’t help. Inside, I reached for something to help me relax, to not take me away from the height but allow me to embrace it. And I thought: There is no emotion, there is peace. You can’t help but smile at yourself as, when confronted by your terrors, you find comfort in the dorkiest thing. But my name is Luke Spry, and if you think I haven’t heard a thousand iterations on Sprywalker then I don’t know what to say. I was named not for an apostle or a god, but a space farm boy from a film with a magic sword. I’ve been bought lightsabres regularly for much of my life. I was baked a Death Star cake for my birthday once. My Dad, when not dancing to Bob Marley, does tell me he is my father. Perhaps it is that, because it is fictional, there is nothing guilty about reaching for the Jedi.

There is no death, there is only the Force, I thought as I went over the edge. The wind buoyed me like a new invisible organ, a sense that carried the rattling wire through the rope I held on to. Then, I let it go. I reached out my hands, first left, then right, then both. I soared over blue waters and under blue skies. It is only seconds, but I am primed for time losing all meaning so it became a perfect and eternal moment, all just mine. I drifted, alone and at peace, arms out. One and the same and no longer there.

Paper Boats in a River

25 January 2015 marked six months of unemployment. It also marks the point at which I had assumed my time in Salisbury, such that I had, would be up. It wasn’t perhaps a fair benchmark to place for myself but it seemed rational. Six months and I would gather up my things and get gone. Obviously, it would prove that I did not have even that much. All my ‘what ifs’ are small, fragile things; paper boats thrown into a raging river. What if I had stayed in Nottingham? What if I had got the job in Basingstoke? I would much prefer to ask what if it was me bitten by a radioactive spider and granted great power and by extension great responsibility. As I have reflected before, being poor excludes you from a lot of society; there’s even an article about it in the graun so unfortunately it lends a certain paucity to what I can write about. Reflecting on the past is an automatic reaction, but it feels a bit like spinning wheels in muck. Impulse gives me momentum, but lack of access robs traction. So this update is going to be a little bitty, looking at things I’ve done the past few weeks in less depth than I normally would. Quantity has a quality all its own, as no-one’s friend Joseph Stalin would say.

Over Christmas I was loaned a copy of Robert Rankin’s Necrophenia. It’s a sort of shaggy dog story about a young man who almost saves the world. It came highly praised, which is always a bit dangerous. Nothing can live up to the hype, and Necrophenia was no exception. It was pretty dull. The bit I did like was the bit I was expected to like, that being the switch in tone between narrators (Tyler and Lazlo) which was achieved with a comedic flourish. I think a major impediment to my enjoyment was the particular stylistic repetition. It slowed the pace of the book to a crawl.

I watched Luc Besson’s 2013 film ‘Lucy.’ While the premise (10% of your brains!) is daft and counter-scientific, I was willing to give it a shot because I like some of Besson’s other work, I think Scarlett Johansson is a pretty good actor, and I like superheroes and science fiction. Sadly, the film doesn’t really deliver, my comment as the film rolled was that its reach exceeded its grasp. It’s a shame, as I think Johansson put in a good performance, showing an interesting progression as her emotional range reduced, even if that was something that annoyed me, reproducing an intellectual hierarchy with STEM at the top. A shame.

If you have the opportunity, take a look at BBC4’s two-part series on the Inca. It is telling me a lot of things I did not know and I really enjoy it. I do wonder at naming your child Jago when you are British, but that rather deplorable observation aside, it is an interesting looking at a system of empire unfamiliar to a Eurocentric point of view. I thought that the first episode’s decision to focus on the Inca’s foundation in roads, in food and in their predecessors was very good. Obviously, it roots the Inca in their location, but it also nicely introduces a history other than the one we might be familiar with. It could be too easy to talk about the Inca in isolation; this way we encouraged to remember that the Incas were exceptional in their time but not unique in their place. I liked that the program took the time to focus on the fact that this history is very much alive in the people of Peru etc., in practical ways such as the rope bridge as well as the magnificent like Machu Picchu. While watching Incas, I was minded of a time when a young man from South America told me that the Spanish had not engaged in Empire like the other European powers. It’s odd but people from all over, in all walks of life forget empire; forget that it was a thing that while enriching some, hurt many, many more.

Presently I am reading Moby Dick as part of research for another project; not the one I am working on, but in preparation for the future. Moby Dick is really excellently written; my previous experience of it is as something of an artefact among fellow literature studying types, a ponderous tome that many crack open only to be thwarted half-way through. I hunt the white whale as avidly as Ishmael and Ahab, revelling in the beautiful prose that you would perhaps not be able to find today; the language is luxurious even as it dwells on harpoons and rope, whale blubber and the chaotic vicissitudes of the sea. At this stage, one third through a difficult book it would be easy to declare intent to pursue to the bitter end this book but also foolish; Moby Dick’s greatest feat is perhaps to become itself what it is telling you of, a terrible thing that demands you exhaust yourself to its end. I would be remiss, having mentioned in the previous paragraph that these things often go forgotten, that Moby Dick is a book of its time, and the racism is at times breath-taking. It also has a musical section that runs for 4 chapters; no doubt the inspiration that led to some inspired soul setting the whole thing to music.

The waters of life rise up again, lifting my ship and carrying me along to sight of something on the horizon. I briefly stayed over in Nottingham for a job interview but they weren’t impressed, my heart was not in it. Put everything else aside, and I had wanted to leave the city for some time; I stayed longer than I wanted and I don’t have the heart in me to go back. I got to spend time with my brother and his wife, playing a game called Cards Against Humanity. Seeing them was splendid; CAH was, on reflection, a bit uneven. I think it suffers for having no clearly demarked end-point and relying on humour overmuch. For comedians comedy is a premeditated act but for the rest of us it emerges in context. CAH relies on a funny two hours and, as my sister-in-law observed, it is very much a game for middle-class white people to scandalise their own sense of propriety. Monday saw me boarding a train to a city I have never been to. I’m excited at the possibility of something new dawning, perhaps safe harbourage to my lost ship. Alas, I don’t think it was to be. During the interview I was starkly confronted with how much my self-confidence has waned as I floundered in the face of questioning. I still write and hope; 45,000 words buoying me up.

All These Moments in Time

Years ago, I told my brother Liam an expression that gives him heart in his darkest days, the story of a king who holds a ring and inscribed within are the words ‘This too shall pass.’ My life, four months after having moved it, three months after having had to go collect it, remains mostly in boxes; a sort of last stand against the creeping fear of the end of the line. On the door my suit hangs, clean and ready to be worn as the need arises. It’s been put on twice this year and now it waits, like a shell; a shell-suit, the shell of a man. 2014 was not a good year for me; as above, so below, I guess. I lived at or around the poverty line for most of it, and slipped over the edge in the latter half.

The best times were already over by the time it had begun; that ‘best time’ period probably terminating with a visit to the Cirque Du Soleil in November 2013, which I paid for when money was less tight. A word that has gained some traction describes, more or less, the position I found myself in in January 2014: Precariat. I did not fully fit the term, as my work was not casualised and was on the basis of a permanent full-time contract with a major company (however, events after I left would prove how little ‘permanent’ means any more). I was poor, supporting two people on a sub-£20k wage, and all expenses were big. As the year wore on, clothes would wear out and I would not have the money to replace them, that sort of thing. I took refuge in computer games and history books; I have plenty of both. I watched films to be transported to other worlds than this one.

Living on the edge of employment was hard. Being unemployed is that much worse. For much of the latter half this year unemployed, living with my parents and looking for work. I blogged a little bit about my experiences signing on: the employment services in the UK are at best tone deaf to the needs of their users, at worse indifferent to anything that does not meet their criteria. I was, at peak, applying for five jobs each day and yet needed to check the newspaper each week ‘because.’ I am insanely fortunate in that I have parents who can support me, and I am genuinely grateful for their support.  Life unemployed erodes context, it erodes connection and, with enough passage of it, begins to erode time. I apply for jobs in a weirdly mechanical, faux-personalised way. The search for employment takes on an Orwellian character, an exercise in Double-think where you are asked to be honest, to lie and to believe it is the truth. The words “Why do you want to work for us?” begin to fill you with a creeping dread as they emerge on application forms and are uttered at interviews. The honest answer: “Because I think I can do this job and I would like to be paid for it” are, of course, in the rule of double-speak the truth that you should believe in to being a lie. A better question is “Why do you think you can do this job?” but it becomes equally pointless, as the whole application process is answering that question. Yet even without any pressure but the internal, the drive to find employment forces another form, five, dozen through your hands because having no job finds you in the same non-person territory that poverty puts you in. Nobody stamps your forehead or puts you in a different queue (yet) but admission to society carries a charge.

I used to believe stoicism was a virtue but I am starting to think it’s not. Silence creates the void that other, more insistent, voices speak in to and create a myth of ‘noble scrimping’ or that you are ok with ‘this’, ‘this’ being interminable lack. In the world above, politicians use the quietude of people acclimated to their impoverished conditions to push an agenda of austerity; below, people assume you are ok when you don’t complain. The last time I was ‘ok’ was living and sharing a budget with my brother Liam; I could afford to save and afford stuff. Not stuff as in things, but as in the whole experience of life: museums, theatre, amusement parks, holidays, time with friends. I remember lamenting that nobody else ever wanted to do anything; now I realise it wasn’t lack of desire, but lack of means. It is all too easy, with the modes of communication absolutely dominated by a particular middle-class lifestyle, to forget how much poverty excludes people from all aspects of life, and in Britain this is only increasing as public amenities are closed.

It is impossible to talk about 2014 without talking about the end of my relationship, but at the same time I don’t want to talk about it too much, or in great detail. That is not because I have nothing to say, but rather I have too much. The world intrudes; I belong to one of the most privileged groups in human history and I am socialised to believe two things: 1. That I have something worth saying; 2. That people should listen to what I have to say. As I have commented before I am a person who plays games, so I was on the side-lines when the campaign of harassment against a female game developer by the name of Zoe Quinn was carried out on behalf of her disgruntled ex. It is recorded in detail across the internet, and while it taps in to deeper roots of male entitlement, the spark that started it all was one man’s unwillingness to let go, or at least to seek help with his emotional hurt with something like restraint or moderation. Looking at what was going on in the wider world, reflecting on how it reflected on my own feelings, I realised that that my urge to speak, to shout out my anger and pain was based in a very entitled notion of the value of my speech. I loved Suzie very much, I followed her when she asked me to, and in my awkward way I was stumbling towards asking to follow her around always but it didn’t pan out like that. The extent to which I internalised all this is reflected in my unconscious insisting things will pick up when she graduates; when I awake I remind myself she did, and is gone.

It’s not all sad clowns at dawn. Since University my reading time had slimmed and slimmed to almost nothing. This year I got back in the saddle and started reading again. It started with Xenophon’s ‘Hellenika’, which was amazing and assures me that some things are timeless; Xenophon was a cavalryman and elitist, and his history reflects that. The Landmark editions are great and I continue through Herodotus ‘Histories.’ I read the Hunger Games (good) and Divergent (not so good); I tried out styles of books I’m not familiar with (My Sad Cat, Nelson Mandela: A Life Reported) which is something I’d not done since University. Reading teaches us empathy; it also sets us free. It might seem a little strange that I comment so little on my reading on this blog. I am trying to amend that a little but, unlike films, computer games or this little thing called life, I actually pride myself on knowing what I’m talking about with books so, if I am going to say something, I want to say it right. The best book I read this year was ‘The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters’ by Adam Nicolson. Over the years I have found myself reading more and more non-fiction and TMD is a great example of the form. Part literary analysis, part historiographical survey, it is entirely a love letter to Homer’s epics. It transported me through time to the strange world of transitioned, transgressed boundaries that the Achaean Greeks were living in, a changing world where the familiar and the new clashed and synergised in to something now. Nicolson’s writing was educational, persuasive and beautiful, in itself endowing the reader with the same affection the author feels for the subject matter. He builds an interesting case that, as an amateur of history, I couldn’t comment on beyond it tells a great story and breathes life in to the characters of Iliad and Odyssey, tragic epic barbarian kings victorious in a world passing them by.

I took part in the wedding of my younger brother Liam and the Artist Formerly Known as Jasper. I was there at the beginning; it’s my fondest wish that they outlive my end. The whole wedding was a sort of cypher for them: a series of catastrophes that in the whole ended up as something splendid. I may grizzle about a lot of things but they are two of my favourite people and that they actually went through with the whole thing is amazing. I’m glad I got to play a small part in it; when Liam asked me in his ever so gruff manner if it wouldn’t be too much of an imposition to maybe say a few words, I was very flattered. I get a lot of praise for the speech I delivered; I’m just full of praise for that crazy pair. Here’s another toast to their yellow mountain.

I live by the Forest of Dean; it’s a beautiful piece of the world that is tranquil, peaceful and provokes thought. It’s a little sad that being unemployed and directionless robs me of the beauty of this place. If I chose to be here, I think I would like to learn more about the free miners, about the strange liminal life of the ‘forest folk’ that my parents talk about with such esteem. As it is, I like to run in the forest with the dog, flinging my thoughts far from here, across time and space to things that could be. There are worse cages than green leaves and boughs and some days I wake up, look out the window and see the thin faces of the trees all wrapped up in the mist and I am struck by the beauty of it, which moves me to imagine other worlds than this.

My writing continues, and I continue thanks to it. This Grave Kingdom did not open to riotous applause; I’m not a twit and I never expected it to, but I received a positive review (4-stars on Amazon!) from someone I do not know, and that lifted my spirits. Selling books was never going to change my life, certainly not in those small quantities, but it’s nice when people like your stuff. You don’t have to reach everyone, but to reach someone with words you have written is a rare gift. I’ve submitted to more thunderous rejection, with positive and polite feedback but rejection nonetheless, but I am not letting that stop me. I am working on another long piece that I am proud of. It is, in the relatively bland expanse of my present situation, a wonderful riddle to which I am committed: A young woman returns home to bury her father, to find his death is not what it appears to be. The first draft will be done very soon; then it is in the fridge for a month before rewrites.

So on its hook my suit rests, and in boxes my life stays. I don’t wish to end on a down note, to make any reader worry for my sanity or my health. I am cared for by people who love me and my writing benefits from that most precious of all commodities: time. I’m going to a New Year’s party soon, which should be quite fun. I am doing my best to look forward to good things in 2015. I will get a job and a place of my own; doing what I don’t know and where I’m not going to presume to guess. I’m quite a slow writer but The Mountain’s Shadow should be finished in a few months – first draft is almost done, then it is in the fridge for a month before revisions. I began with a saying I passed on to my brother that gives him strength, I will now pass on to you one that helps me: “I am a pessimist because of intellect; I am an optimist because of will.”

Nottingham: Places, Faces & Shadows

For the week leading up to Halloween, I visited my friends in Nottingham. It was the first time I had been back since moving away at the beginning of August. Not a long time but a great deal had happened in the interim. When I was planning my move, I had intended to go around to all the places that had had some meaningful presence in my life there and take a photo of them. I wanted to compile something to commemorate my seven years in the city, first as student then as resident, and this seemed a good way to do it. I had no time to do so. However, leading up to my visit I had managed to injure my foot while running; hobbling around the city wasn’t on the menu.

I went to Nottingham as a student at Nottingham Trent University. The funny thing is, the memory of university that I most strongly retain isn’t the campus but rather a particular part of my route to university, probably because I didn’t have that great a time there.. I lived about an hour’s walk, on the wrong side of the river Trent from Clifton campus. I would walk there (until I discovered the Sutton Bonnington hopper put on by the other University, the one with all the money) and at about the half-way point I would go over Clifton Bridge stop and look at the Trent, and on to university. Sometimes I’d think about going back, sometimes I’d think about what was ahead. Mostly it was just a brief pause before trudging tiredly on. Unfortunately I either lost or, more likely, never took a photo of the one time the Trent froze over. It was quite impressive.

In my seven years in Nottingham I lived in six different places, circumstance necessitating I move roughly once each year. This has instilled in me a deep distrust of and loathing for the rentier scheme. From my first land-lord who seemed to have some sort of manic behaviour pattern I would associate with drug abuse, to the last with my hyperacusic neighbour who would inexplicably listen to the radio/television at 3am, there has been nowhere without problems. Bank Apartments probably takes the prize for sheer blood-mindedness of the landlords though. The flat was billed as a modern apartment for young professionals. I lived there with my brother, and at first glance it seemed ideal. There were some things that we probably should have seen at the get-go, like the complete lack of double-glazing but then there were the hidden things, things like being signed on with Spark energy. Things like not a single telephone or aerial fixture being connected to anything. We had a BT engineer come to fit our services and test everything. He ended up having to drill through the wall. It was an absolute disgrace! My brother jokes, or rather joked, about my living habits in Nottingham. It can be summed up as, for me, there was no area that did not begin with postal code ‘NG7.’ It’s very true. I suppose we all have our tortoise moments, things where we poke our head back in our shell, and this was (one of) mine.

I stayed over with Robert and Liam while visiting. We are all rather big nerds, game players through and through. With TafkaJ and Poppy, we played a bunch of games; sadly Rob has lost Arkham Horror, or lent it out, or it has returned to the netherworld. Or, now I think of it, he was being obtuse because he really, really wanted to play Battlestar Galactica. Which we did. I was Gaius Baltar and I was a Cylon. An important part of the BSG experience is being able to pretend and I knew as soon as I realised what was going on that I would be awful at this game. I can’t keep a secret for the life of me. However, I managed to turn things around so that, while no-one was convinced I wasn’t a Cylon, they weren’t sure I was. Then I blasted off and damaged the ship, like a boss. Unfortunately, it was a long-arse game which we didn’t finish despite playing for several hours. The other game was 13th Age, which I was massively impressed with how smooth it ran. It brought out the best in everyone there; Liam was man-of-the-match with his Goth Drow Sorcerer, but Poppy’s roller-blading hobbit deserves honourable mention. It was a Halloween game, so everyone went the way of all flesh by the end, but we also had a good time. At some point I might try and write a little more about it, but for now it is enough to say that 13th Age is a great game, and if you enjoy RPGs at all, you should give it a look.

After University I worked for RBS in their Nottingham Collections Centre for (nearly) four years. It’s an ugly ass building, and the cash-machine outside was always being smeared with… well with a bunch of things. Inside it was either too hot, too cold. The less said about the third floor men’s restrooms the better. I originally didn’t think I’d make it past Christmas; I remember putting a recurring appointment with myself to mark each anniversary. I also remember when I was offered the job, and I was absolutely certain that the agency were selling me up the river for call-centre work. Thankfully it didn’t turn out like that. In the lead-up to visiting I had put out a notice when I would be there; the only respondent was an old work colleague, Keith. We met in the Wetherspoons around the corner from where I worked. It was a pleasant surprise as a group of old colleagues came with him. We all chatted for a bit about life in the forest, job hunting and wild boars. It was very nice to see them all. They’re currently dealing with their own troubles and worries, which I commiserated with them over before the end of the lunch hour. I also shilled This Grave Kingdom a bit, because they asked!

As more frequent readers will note, I am something of a cinephile, and the majority of my leisure time in Nottingham was taken up by going to the cinema. I like to do other things as well, but because in Nottingham (the year and a bit I lived with my brother notwithstanding) I was very poor and, relative to other things one can do, Cinema trips are good value for money, especially with things like Cineworlds membership passes. However, while I probably went to the Cineworld more than anywhere else, it’s the Broadway Cinema that sticks in my mind. I saw some damned fine films there, and also enjoyed them with a variety of friends – the Broadway offers very nice concessionary rates. It’s also right across from Lee Rosy’s; a ridiculously cheap, if hipster-trendy, tea shop and a good place to get some writing done.

While visiting Nottingham, I also went to the new ‘Assault’; I’ve had something of a funny relationship with nightclubs in Nottingham. Perhaps it’s just my age showing, things were rawer, more compelling when my mind was ten years younger. This was the first time I’d been to the new venue, and the first time I had been to Assault in two years. I’d stopped going because both money and friends ran out. But back to the location! The PA system is good, the lack of dance floor is bad. Alright, there is an area in front of the dj booth that is probably ‘the dancefloor’ but I digress. Perhaps it is selection bias but as I get older it seems club venues are shrinking. The fun came in the form of seeing old friends and getting to catch up with them. I didn’t get to spend as much time chatting with the people as I might hope, but it was good to see them; good to see the changes and the samenesses, the way time stretches out and changes us. Andy’s now a wrestler, Lisa’s got a job. I also met new people but a nightclub is never a place for conversations or even first impressions. As it was Halloween I also got to see some impressive costumes. I went as a ninja, but forgot my mask.

I spent a lot of the time this week, during the day, sitting in cafés, drinking tea and writing in Beeston. Much like my trip to Cheltenham, my trip to Nottingham was one of time-travel. I used to go shopping in Beeston and, during the trip, would stop for a coffee in Nero as a treat; my last day in Nottingham I spent in a Nero before my train came in. Nottingham is a city full of shadows, and htat made a tough week. In the main, our identity is the kind of gestalt of the stories we tell of our past, the total of all the things we remember doing, and a projection in to the future of what we hope to be. Our memories don’t stay the same, they change based on further events in our lives, reflecting back on the happiness and the sorrows. It’s easy to come unstuck in time without anchors to now, but the opportunity to renew ties with far away friends was, is, something to be treasured. It was a good week.

The Day I Honoured My Ancestors

On 29 September 2014 I was very busy helping out on the land my brother works on, helping him to fix up a cow shed. My entire adult life I have done little, if any, manual labour. It was probably the most rewarding work I have ever done, outside of my writing. As I come from a working class background, with a long line of working men behind me, it was a big deal that I was not comically inept.

The day starts not precisely early, at about 7.00am. For actual workers in the Trades this is a lie in. My father, who is the manliest man to ever father six sons, used to get up and out at about 4.00am. Now he ‘sleeps in’ until about 6.00am. I have worked in an office for the past four years, was at University before that, and then more offices going all the way back another six or seven years. Suffice to say, for me seven is early. I got up, got in to some baggy track-suit trousers and steel-toed trainers and waited for my ride.

An aside: The matter of food. My family are all big men (and my tiny mum) who have been involved in manual trades for some or much of their lives. They eat big. To contrast, while I’m pretty tall I’m a slim pale bugger more inclined to salads than pies. Before work my tiny mum loaded me down with some sausage rolls, some fruit, crisps, biscuits, a slice of pie and two door-stopper sandwiches. I though the sandwiches were overdoing it, so I put one back. HOW WRONG I WAS!

My brother picks me up at 8.30am. I needed the ride because, due to poor life decision skills on my part, I’ve never learned to drive. Once you get out of cities, you realize exactly how poor an idea it is to go on holiday instead of getting your license. I understand that some country-folk think nothing of strolling the six miles or whatever to the next village, but I point once more to my urban lifestyle which has not adequately prepared me for this.

In the car, he observes that it has been nearly exactly fifteen years since I was last on site with him. I did my school work experience. I made a weak joke about hoping not to be so useless this time, and he laughs along. I don’t have books this time, and we laugh some more.

We reach his house and unpack ourselves to get ready for the day. It wasn’t quite clocking on time so we had another cup of coffee and my brother showed me some things on a computer game. A digression, but it is entirely my fault that my broad-shouldered, burly workman brother loves to spend his time playing space-men on computers. Years back I introduced him to World of Warcraft. He doesn’t play that any more (neither do I) but to his wife all I can say is I am sorry. On balance, though, he doesn’t go around doing murders and instead gets it out of his system on the computer, which I think is a good thing.

Things seen and bits and bobs gathered, we head down to the cowshed in the jeep. Jeeps are cool and my brother offers to show me how to use the bloody thing. I laugh but don’t mention I’m deathly afraid of running over one of the cows. We reach the site.

Now, I know nothing about: cows; cowsheds; manual labour; country-life in general. So my impression of the cowshed is completely uninformed, but ‘post-apoc wasteland’ springs to mind. My brother explains what I am going to be doing to start with.

Sweeping and shovelling poop. You might think at this point that I’d be a bit put out. The evidence would certainly favour that impression, given my unwillingness to work for minimum wage as an office coffee-maker. You would be wrong. My over-riding concern as I am handed a broom and a shovel is that I am going to fuck up this simplest of tasks and, true to form, as I start sweeping my brother kindly explains that I should probably hold the broom the other way around. I’m just glad for the point as, no surprises, it works out.

I sweep and shovel, kicking out wood to get at poop. My brother pulls out an angle-grinder and tells me to stay at least one stall back at all times, which I do. I pause to look over at what he is doing. He’s got the ‘grinder in hand and white-hot sparks are flying. I think surrounded by technology we forget sometimes that we’re holding the toys of the gods in our hands. There’s something distinctly Hephaestan about this giant of a man intently labouring over metal. I go back to my job. Sweep and shovel, sweep and shovel. It’s a stupid thing to be pleased with, but I get the technique and I’m making good time. I manage to get everything done a little faster than I think the plan was, so I’m given a new job.

A hammer and iron bar are put in my hands after I am given a demonstration of knocking bolts through timbers. That’s what the angle grinding cutting has preparing the way for. I set to; I’m slower than my brother but with two of us the work is going quicker. We break. How wrong I was about the food. I’m ravenous and demolish my whole lunch. We chat with my brother’s wife about colleges and theatre and whatnot, then back to work. I have a frustrating time with bolts. My brother pours me a cup of coffee and tells me while he was going to take over the hammering stuff to help me, he thinks it is better I do it on my own. He’s right. I do.

Another aside, but jokes are made about tea-drinking builders. I am a decorator’s son (and very proud of it too!) so I’ve never made those jokes. Having done even a day of actual labour I can say those breaks for tea are very much needed. White collar occupations don’t know what tired is!

The day progresses and I’ve managed to remove all the bolts, safely placing all the washers as I’ve been told we need to keep them all (I will drop one in the cow basin, much later). Now I have a pry bar and I need to remove all those rotten planks. I set to with gusto.

Then I get shown how to drill. I used to own a drill, a very nice drill, but I’ve never done drilling. Here I am a bit inept as I nearly break the thing but I get it. I say to my brother I feel like I can claim a man-card now.

At about 3.00pm my Dad arrives. He has finished his job for the day and has come along to see how we are doing. My brother is just about to start measuring wood to hang and Dad shows him a trick, cutting time in half.

My Dad and my brother are both very, very good at their jobs and they just set to. Cutting, hanging, drilling. Doing. A lot of ink has been spilled by very posh men, and then by posh sons of working men, about the stature of these kind of men. There is something quasi-divine about the no-nonsense way in which the two of them get to work. There’s none of the banter that defines masculinity-in-crisis; there is just the work. It is awesome to see, mythical and spiritual. There’s a magic to craft, the alchemy of muscle and sweat taking something old and battered and making it strong, whole again. I may be peripheral but at no point do I feel useless.

We clean up, I put away the tools. My brother’s congratulates me on a job well done. I ask my Dad to take a picture of the cow-shed, at what feels like the first honest day’s work I’ve ever done. Back at my brother’s house we share a beer, then I go home warmed by the glow of honest work. I’m not the apprentice, I barely rank at a brush-boy, but I’m proud of my work today. I sleep like a log, having connected myself to a tradition I’m only ever half aware of.

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