… I remember those late summer afternoons down the Boulevard, that flat with the concrete floor and the oil paintings done with matchsticks, Brian Clough Stood In Front Of A Waterfall, that was a favourite, the only one I kept I think, threw the rest of them away, anyhow, the one LP I remember most vividly from that golden time is the Best Of Diana Ross and The Supremes, the one with the black background and the row of microphones and red lips, I’d come in weary at the bone from slinging sacks of spuds at amateur pugilists down Holderness Road and I’d boil up a pan of water for coffee, roll a smoke and slap on the Supremes, Come See About Me, Some Things You Never Get Used To, Forever Came Today … strange gaff that, backed out onto a communal back yard and there would be music leaking from every window but the inhabitants largely invisible, just fleeting shapes behind nets, I used to doze off on the couch with the needle bumping the vinyl, woke up in a panic once, clock said ten past seven, fuck, I was getting picked up at 7:15 am, woah, overslept, overslept, that’ll teach you to go in pub on an afternoon, I pulled on the dirty jeans and trackie top and bolted out onto Hessle Road, that strange three-quarter light of late summer, the golden hour beloved of sci-fi film makers, and there’s me stood there, dumbfounded among short sleeved lads and lasses in summer frocks all waiting at bus stops, all blasts of perfume and hair twisted in wax and the fish shop light was on, the steam coming off the silver counter, a hungry queue spilling out the door, frying tonight, the other shops all iron shuttered and it dawned on me, it was evening, it was seven pm, work was not until the next day, all the days and nights melting into each other back then, and that other navy blue night when sleep paralysis was prowling the neighbourhood, me horizontal and petrified in the wee wee hours, and a stranger came a tap-tap-tapping on the back door, not the sniggering dwarf clutching a cutlass my agitated head had conjured up in half sleep, but a real person, a lad in a red and black baseball cap wanting to know if Alfonso lived here, no pal, sorry, just me and The Supremes, but stop making a row, please, they’re all asleep, don’t wake them up, took me ages to get them off ….
My people come from the sea;
they’re drawn upon,
go to work afloat, come down three days,
non-stop in Norway,
the Icelandic waters.
My people are stoic like Iroquois,
ignore the rest of the country, face away,
lips pursed, arms crossed,
never get ill;
you can’t have a tablet unless your head’s hanging off.
They absorb too much
and do not complain.
They admire America,
the America of Frank Sinatra and The Four Tops.
They’re being dragged into the light,
kicking and screaming.
People you come from,
the people you’re drawn to;
broken, human, dispossessed,
frantically gathered fragments
of the selves they had left behind as kids,
with your self indulgent gazing;
I’ve got a pad full of certificates pal …
Are these the people I go to?
I like deep waters.
My people come from deep waters.
My people are deep waters
My people are in deep water.
Memories of the gas fire on,
big toe on the Betamax button:
Paris, Texas; Harry Dean.
Eighty cigs a day.
Eighty cigs a day and a crumpled suit,
a ruffled demeanour,
The beloved outsider;
Harry Dean Stanton.
relaxed and normal,
a blind eyed monkey constantly evolving.
not frayed at the edges with a suit on.
There he goes;
walking down the road,
getting smaller …
Hospital Fragment Number One
Dear NHS, you are driving your users mad with this constant bleeping. And the lights, Jesus, how can we sleep beneath this canopy of UV? I have headphones, and at least the radio is free. Could you please play a request for Sleepless of Spring Bank, trapped in his electric blue cocoon with a clamp on his leg. Please play anything by Snorey Norey and The Throat Rattlers.
I know my name and date of birth off by heart.
The school dinners are magnificent, jugs of lukewarm water and a lofty view of distant ribboned roads that pelt with traffic even at 2am. Children of the night. Soft rock anthems filling cars. God, I hope I never become a heroin addict. What hard work that must be.
That clumsy youth who banged my wheelchair in the X-ray room …
I wonder if I could stay awake for the full twelve weeks?
I bet the sunrise looks good through that full-length window. I wonder how many times I’d have to launch myself until the glass shattered and I was falling through the air, grabbing at damp night sky, framed in a halo of tiny diamonds.
It is taking all my effort of will not to royally kick off in here.
Try to transcend petty fury and discomfort though, and arrive at calm detached tranquillity, rise to meet it, bound in white and blue sheets and entombed in trailing wires under a blazing black electric sun. Peter S told me not to use imagery like that, shards of light, I don’t like that, he said. He’s right, of course, a shard of light is a lazy crutch to lean on, some weak fumbling for a vague sense of mystic grandeur. This is why people pay good money …
I can hear a very old woman crying out in pain somewhere to the left. It looks strange, writing it down like that, using those words. Crying out in pain.
The only light in here is electricity and lack of light, lack of clarity.
I refuse to take drugs to make me go to sleep.
I am curious to hear what 3am sounds like in this box of propped up life.
I wish that cunt in the bed opposite would get some headphones.
Hospital Fragment Number Two
It is very easy to trick the brain. A nurse told me a trick – if your leg itches beneath the cast, scratch the other leg on the corresponding spot and, miraculously, it works. Your brain is fooled by this very simple move. I asked if it was OK to slide a knitting needle down there to scratch, but this was met with a mock-horror, no no no! Risk of infection. But what about risk of insanity? Harder to treat or cure. Bigger drain on the system. One of the other nurses has laryngitis, she sounds like a hollowed out toy.
Choice of three different pies for dinner. I’m gonna have to watch it in here, I’ll be going out in a wheelbarrow. Anyway, the days in here are great, a man comes round with a trolley full of newspapers and chocolates; another lady wheels a tea tray around, someone asks you your name and date of birth every twenty minutes or so, probably to remind you of your continued mortality.
Time fairly gallops.
Later on, another nurse is going to show me how to inject blood-thinning drugs into my stomach. This is a new and delightful development. Hopefully I will overcome my distaste of needles in time to get a raging smack habit to ease me through my seventies, just bang up and drift off into the arms of Jesus or Jah or Buddha, whoever will step forward first to catch the body.
This nurse, she says that her hairdresser won’t let her have her hair cut short. This is what she tells me.
I’m struggling to take this on board, I’m tired …
Hospital Fragment Number Three
Jesus and the flamingo and the lights of the city outside again.
I found a Book of Gideon in the bedside drawer. Spent most of the evening reading Bukowski On Writing, some of it interesting, some of it not. Why am I being kept in here? Blood clots?
I can hear whispering in the corridor – your daughter just rung … I can’t put the lights out just yet, I’m afraid … yes, I will do soon …
If they catch me with my illicit plug I’ll be for the chop. Pats testing requirement they said, but there’s wires hanging from every bed. The tremulous wail of the elderly and hurting. A cup of tea? Do you have sugar in your tea? This is the national medicine, Britain’s lifeblood. How about a Horlicks? Don’t tell that fella anything, he’ll write it all down and use it against you later.
I am keeping myself awake to watch a football match I have no interest in. When will I learnt to focus my energies on things that really matter? Can you feel me touching that?
Hajha came with a big bag of fruit, tons of it, enough vitamin C to rid an orphanage of scurvy. Apples and pears and oranges and bananas and blueberries and grapes.
I keep thinking about Niall. There was a passage in that Gideon Bible in Welsh =- well, in all the languages, but it was the Welsh that stuck in my eye – the bit about God so loving the world he gave it his only son. The clock swivels its hands to cover its eyes.
Verb – to glorify.
A row of children clapping their hands. Delighted children watching cartoons, kids with no Mams or Dads Louise told me about the people smugglers and the syrup they gave the children. She stood on the beach at Kos and welcomed the children into Europe.
On my TV, the news reporter holds the microphone up to the little girl.
Would you like any painkillers? Do you need any help? Sit up, I’ll do your pillows. A mug of hot chocolate. The simple things in life.
Louise said to be a poet you had to be an active witness in the world.
A future to believe in.
Pretty flamingo. Tucked my toothbrush into my waistband.
The sound of vomiting and running feet. Oh, it’s brown. I feel guilty for … I feel awful now.
To glorify – extol.
She is 87 years old.
I just heard the nurse say.
… an eraser of love … that beat, insistent, emerging, that group, the music that rattles bluetooth speakers and personal headsets and speakers in homes and cars and the like, those personal caves people retreat into. being on the radio is weird, you’re sat in an antiseptic room talking to yourself with right wing propaganda gurning silently from the corner of the room in eighteen different garish colours, predominantly blue, like an American military blue, like Sky blue, like that tattoo fixers programme that so enchants me at the moment, all that suffering for your art bollocks, fuck it, let’s have live suicides on telly. Seen all this sort of thing before, associated it with heroin and the Velvets. Don’t wanna be trapped in any particular era, especially at my time of life. Acid house, punk rock, northern soul, 2-Tone, it was all mighty at the dawn of the day. Too much musing. Too much deliberating over what gets thrown in the blender. The trick is not to think. The best NutriBullet recipe is spinach, banana, apple, lime and nuts. Your five a day in three or four gulps. Two weeks on that, you’r enlightened. That rapper, that Flat Earth Believer, I really want to stand with that guy. Obviously don’t want to wander the same meadows of lunacy, but it would be nice to have something to believe in once in a while. Can’t stop listening to Underworld. Makes me think of being in the back of a car, before I could drive, someone’s passenger or kidnap victim, tilting around corners, the windows an upside down film, the overhead lights, all the sodium and moonglow above the city, then the outskirts, the edges, the dark back country roads and the blue and green dashboard glow. Sheffield, there’s a place. Giant steel balls when you step outside the station. Why were they conjured up? This is supposed to be done in a five minute blitz, like the blades of a kitchen machine. I’m gonna get a new tattoo, a list of ingredients …
… convinced the man in the corner shop just blew me a kiss, not the classic blown from the palm of the hand sketch, more a subtle pursing of the lips. He’s new there, not the usual fella, so he’s blissfully unaware of our usual protocol over Bounty bars and wine and emergency bits of milk and matches, he did not honour the time-honoured grunted acknowledgment and muted nod. Could be a new phase. The sun peeking out from behind a factory. Anyway, my head did not get unduly turned, spinning as it was already by a workmanlike three points in the capital, the new moon over the river and the pubs packed with tiger feet dancing. And now it’s pelting down hard outside, waiting for the room to get too warm, the grape sat heavy in the glass, the wine dark sea filling the gutters outside … The Wine Dark Sea, now there’s a mighty vision of a book, one ship chasing another across the opening page. Violence under a vivid blue sky. Men sending machinery across the waves. Maybe could develop the budding paper shop flirtation in this way, escalate the tension until it’s a full-blown armed pursuit with flags unfurled and cannon shot booming off the waves. Is the rain outside ever gonna stop? Turn it off. Lee Mavers, he was tuned into the music. The rhythm of the rain. The Rain Horse, read that. Marcia and Mick in France, bet there’s blinding black sheets of rain up on that mountainside. I miss my mates. Oh January, when will you ever fuck off? You and your mate February. You are an empty cupboard raided of the last scraps of Christmas ….
I came home from Totleigh Barton with a rattle in my boot. It’s there now, if I shake my foot beneath the desk. Sounds like a stone. No idea where I picked it up. On that long uphill track out of the fields, perhaps, or that silent road down past the stream that led to two different villages. It must have lodged itself somewhere along there. I vaguely remember walking back to the farm house along that deserted track and hearing a faint rattle, fancying that it came from somewhere around me; a rural stalker perhaps, some gnarled old woodsman, dragging a lame leg behind him as he dipped in and out of the trees, watching me, cradling an axe. I’ve got a city dweller’s head and the countryside agitates the darker corners of my imagination. It’s the sudden movements in hedgerows and the bellowing beasts in distant fields. I like it, though, the countryside, its strange remoteness. Makes me feel alive, in much the same way that writing does. That same awareness of existing in the moment, the same quickening of the blood.
The Freehouse of The Imagination at Totleigh Barton is a wonderful place to write. An ancient farmhouse set down in pastures of green nothing. No TV, no radio, no Internet, the nearest phone signal a decent stride away. I was there for the Arvon Tutor Development Week, along with a dozen other fellow writers/tutors and the course leaders, the poet Peter Sansom and novelist Tiffany Murray. Fine folk all. This was the fourth time I’d been to an Arvon Centre, but the first as a course participant. I didn’t really know what to expect. The main thing I wanted to do was widen my own frame of reference. For the past five years, most of my tutoring has happened in a very specific environment and one markedly different from the rolling soft fields of Devon. Creative Writing in prison can be immensely rewarding, but as a tutor it can sometimes limit the avenues you explore. Because I generally teach through the act of mutual learning, my aim for the week at Totleigh was to find out different ways to learn. And hopefully get some writing done.
The time on the course was chopped up between morning tutorials and exercises, presentations of shared practice from our peers and one-on-one consultations with Peter and Tiff. Afternoons were for writing and evenings were for readings in the barn. As ever in an Arvon house, the food was cooked up and served between all us on a rota basis. It was a peaceful, laid back vibe. I must admit, I did feel a pang of guilt at spending a week away from the domestic whirlwind. The idle observer could be forgiven for thinking that all I did was lounge about reading James Kelman and go back for seconds of bread and butter pudding. But now, when I look in my notebook, I can see we packed an awful lot into the days and covered a huge amount of ground. I flick through the pages and see fragments of childhood, a glass staircase, the ghost of David Bowie, a severed tongue flapping on a concrete playground, an aeroplane wreck at the bottom of the ocean and a worried tortoise called Adolphus. And that was just on the Tuesday.
It would be futile to try and recreate the magic of an Arvon course here on paper. These things are best experienced first hand, and then left to marinade in the memory, so that they may nourish and strengthen you for the days ahead. Suffice to say, I came away from the Freehouse of the Imagination with some new friends, a fresh perspective, and a bagful of brand new angles that will help me grow both as a tutor and a writer.
And I’ve still got my stone, kicking about every time I set down my foot. I wonder what kind of a stone it is? Flat? Round? Smooth or jagged? Big or small? It feels like it’s a fair size, rattling around down there. It’s not uncomfortable. I can’t actually feel it against my foot. It’s trapped somewhere within the sole itself. The mystery is – how did it get in? There’s no discernible hole in the boot, no entry or exit wound. I could gouge it out with some kind of implement, I suppose, but what then? I’d only set it down somewhere for it to get tidied away or forgotten, or thrown in a bin. And I want to remember my week at Totleigh Barton. I want to preserve the magic. So I’ll leave my stone where it is for now. I don’t mind the rattling. I’ll carry it around with me and see how far we get.
Five hours on the phone to a helpful android and I wore my fist out banging on the desk, handfuls of hair on the floor and there’s not enough coffee in the world. Struck by how easy it is to spend money on the modern High Street, you put one tentative foot outside and there’s a vacuum cleaner in your pocket. New career considerations: road sweeper, funeral parlour attendant, historical guide for a northern quarter, I can read blue plaques mate. Saw Rick who told me about the Gypsy Moth and how it was fenced in the factory now, no chance of flying the machine back home, the wings unscrew, but, well … these things are never straightforward eh? The TV in the next room is telling me about the dead Russian guy, my pal the Accidental Diplomat worked on that one back in the day, why do these kind of inquests take so long? I may write mine now to save the doctor’s precious time – he pegged it due to excess modernity and industrial strength bacca, plus fingers worn down to stubs from hammering out this drivel. The bells of the old town were playing Bambury Cross this afternoon, and tonight I will be scrutinising tactics on artificial grass under artificial light. Is it too late to become the new Don Howe?
A day typing in the old town near Bill’s old house, no folk singers in the pub opposite today, unusual for a Wednesday. Bought a couple a cup of tea and heard a story about a wandering bear. People are excited about next year, about the potential. It’s good to see. They’re still tearing up half of the city centre for the statues and what not, sprucing the gaff up for when the dignitaries descend. I hope they build somewhere warm for people to sleep. Dickensian scenes in every other shop doorway, sleeping bags and cardboard, one young man cross legged on the cold concrete, blank zen gaze, just a doffed cap at his heel, turned up, expectant, no eye contact, a cold day for reverie. Me, I hand out bacon butties from Greggs and sling the occasional handful of silver, guilt money maybe, yes, perhaps, who has the answers? What do you do? You can’t use reason or pleading, these bastards in the big house are deaf to both. You’re only two missed paydays away, or so they say. Deborah who used to run the northern soul nights, she’s a good soul, gets her hands dirty with it all. The bells of the old town played wooden heart and I wrote a thing about having a stone rattling around in my boot. I can feel it now when I shake my foot beneath the table. The new Underworld tune is a glistening tower of a thing. That American woman with the shiny glasses and the hair has popped up again. Simplistic language. Like my friend the heavenly professor said, if it walks like a duck …
I believe in ghosts. I know its not a popular viewpoint among more rational members of society, but forgive me, I am a product of my upbringing. Like most fishing families in Hull, mine were steeped in superstition and held a casual credulity for the supernatural. Added to this, a friend of my mother’s was a medium and she would talk to unseen spirits whilst she was getting her hair done in our back kitchen. So I grew up with the idea that there was an unseen world happening alongside ours. It never seemed all that unusual or far-fetched to me. I’ve always thought that if you could imagine something then that made it real enough. I suppose, like most people, I try to have an open mind on most things.
I’ve never seen a ghost, although I have sometimes caught strange shapes and movements in the corner of my eye or heard odd noises where there should be none. All very normal, I suppose. The mind can play tricks, especially if you leave it wide open to suggestion. But it remains a subject that fascinates me. So I suppose it was inevitable that at some point I would try my hand at a ghost story.
The idea for “Kingdom” was borne out of illness. For most of my adult life I had not been able to breathe properly on a night, especially during the winter months. The slightest bout of the sniffles would result in a mushy head, a bed full of dampened tissues and hours of broken sleep. Sudafed would provide some brief respite, but too much of that stuff can wire you up tighter than a tour of duty in Vietnam, so I tried to keep the medicine to a minimum. Damp November nights would have me tossing and turning and trumpeting like a wounded bull elephant. No fun whatsoever.
I struggled for years with this nonsense until fatigue finally forced me to the doctors. My GP is a pragmatic fellow with a rash of bad art adorning his walls; horrific portraits of mangled faces, all hard angles and garish colours. He tells me they’re hung there to dissuade persistent malingerers. And they are truly horrible. Even the hardiest of hypochondriacs would have their stomach turned by this gallery of broken-faced ghouls. It is for this reason, among others, that I try and keep my visits there to a minimum.
But desperation drove me to his door, where he told me that I had a deviated septum. It was so deviated that I only had one functioning nostril. This was why a simple seasonal cold would reduce me to a spluttering, gasping heap. I was firing on one single barrel. So I was sent to the hospital where they put me to sleep and smashed and then re-set my septum.
Upon waking from the operation I found myself in that strange, woozy, half-awake state of existence peculiar to the after-effects of a general anaesthetic. From where I was laid I could see a sign swimming in and out of focus: NOW WASH YOUR HANDS. My brain struggled to compute this. Wash my hands? Why did I need to wash my hands? And why NOW?
I got off the trolley and took a few tentative steps towards the wall where the notice was displayed and caught sight of myself in the reflection of a window. The sickly grey pallor, the flowing white robes. I felt like I was floating.
I stood staring at myself, dumbfounded, for what seemed like an age, not knowing what to think or do, until a passing nurse took me by the arm and guided me back to my repose. I fell back to sleep and dreamt of ghosts and long white corridors.
After the post-op rest and recuperation I found that I could inhale and exhale freely through both nostrils. This was a revelation to me. All of my life I had become accustomed to impaired breathing and now, as I walked home from the pub one icy dark night, I found I could pull the world in and out, in and out, clean fresh air flooding in and out. Unbelievable! Glorious! I imagined it must have been fairly similar for a short-sighted person, putting on glasses for the very first time, being able to see tiles on rooftops and distant landmarks. After years of nocturnal gasping and snuffling, I could finally breath properly. I loved this newfound sensation. I was ecstatic, drunk on fresh air.
The book got properly into gear after another medical occasion, this time a visit to the dentist. The dentist I use is near a street of derelict houses. I parked my car up near these steel-shuttered boxes and mused on the likelihood of homeless people setting up camp there. It was the depths of winter, January or early February, remorseless biting cold. I thought about a person setting a fire in a room, and all the problems associated with that. Then I thought about a man not lighting a fire, and dying in the cold in such a place, like in the story by Jack London. I started writing a story about a man waking up in a derelict house. At this stage I didn’t know who he was or why he was there.
A few days later, the words “My name is Alistair Kingdom and I was born a ghost” arrived in my head. Of course, a ghost is an irresistible narrator, because he is potentially a witness to everything. A ghost can drift in and out of the action unchallenged and nothing is hidden or censored. I started writing the story anew.
I’d recently written a thing about a blind girl, written it in the second person with a heavy reliance on smell and listening and the sense of touch. When I started writing from the viewpoint of Alistair Kingdom, I decided to stick to visuals. If this guy was a ghost, then he couldn’t interfere or interact. There was to be no sensory perception in the narrative, save for sight. This ended up as part one of the five parts of the book.
Around three or four weeks into messing about with this, I drifted onto Facebook and found a video of a band called Wilco doing a song called “Handshake Drugs” live on the Letterman Show. I’d never heard of this band before, but I loved the song. I looked up the album. It was called “A Ghost Is Born”.
I took that as a signal and got down to the proper graft of writing. A year and a half later the book was finished and now it’s a real thing existing in the real world. It’s an odd book, but I think it’s a good one. I hope you like it.
Hull College asked me to go in and say a few things about reading. Here’s what I said.