Amazing what I’ve dug out during my recent hard disk clearup. Here is the beginning of a report on two days last year when I tried to escape from an escalating madness. If I’d carried on at this rate, it would have stretched to a novel by the time I’d finished, but I now realise I’m never going to, so here’s what I wrote. After this ends… I spent a dull longing night in Newscastle, had a wonderful drive to Berwick upon Tweed, via Lindesfarne, holy island, redeemed myself in Berwick, and came home again.
Everything snapped. I headed out of Sheffield, driving too fast. Damon Albarn rolled hard out of the stereo "Street’s like a jungle, so call the police. Following the herd, down to Greece… on holiday…", I skipped the herd and headed North. Out past Bradfield, faster, faster, Jah Wobble’s now underpinning some Tibetan Woman’s chants on Lam Phouthay, I spot the three humps ahead of me, the Saab takes air, bounce, bounce, bounce, scraaaaaw the sump throat-sings in agony, leaving striations on the road, that’s the way to do it!
By the time I pass Holmfirth my head is slightly clearer, my driving slightly saner, slightly safer. I start to think of end-points. North to… where? Berwick upon Tweed is still on my mind, has been since my dream and I still haven’t been there. So I make that my goal. Now I know where I’m going, I can take it easy, let the road do the work and enjoy the scenery. After picking up a sandwich, water and petrol, I skirt around Huddersfield and thread my way up to Harrogate. I’ve been in the car for a while now, and need the toilet. I cruise to a halt alongside The Stray and climb out of the car. Late afternoon sunshine coaxes perfume from the flower displays and paints everything with yellow-orange outlines. My limbs do a low-gravity bounce along the pavement, past tea shops that would like me to think they’re unchanged in the last hundred years. Mmmm… yes, that’s what I want, a cream tea. Betty’s is of course the place to go but… at ten pounds for afternoon tea (or five for a more basic cream tea) it seems a bit extravagent. I keep on walking.
Outside the Theatre are a few wobbly tables, at one a hairy surfer sips coffee from a cardboard cup. A signboard tells me to "place orders upstairs". I sneak past the box office and up the sweeping double-staircase. Upstairs, a white-haired woman dispenses tea and scones. She looks too delicate to waitress up and down that long stairway, so I happily carry my own tray back to the street. The table is at a distinct angle; my tea doesn’t seem inclined to slip off, but the slant offends my sensibilities, taunts me. I shove a copy of the Guardian under one leg. The table doesn’t look much less unstable, but I’ve done my best. The tea is already tepid, the scone crumbly. I knock them back without taking much pleasure. It fills a gap. I take the tray back upstairs, to save the old woman from risking a fall. "Is she going to think I polished off my snack too quickly?" I’m forever worrying what other people think.
It’s just gone 5pm. I have another 20 minutes on my parking ticket. I meander back through the alleys and shopping centres. My shopping instinct accidentally got itself triggered. My car is filled with books, but I still need more, I suddenly remember the
review in last week’s Guardian of the "new" Joseph Roth book I Was There. I want this book! I track down an Ottokar’s and… god but the woman behind the counter’s beautiful in a book-girl sort of way (but then… aren’t all women beautiful? At least the beautiful ones). I am sidetracked by lustful thoughts. I mumble something about Joseph Roth. As it’s an anthology of his journalism, she points me to the biography shelves, but then fires up her computer (she’s as fumbly as I am). She finds the book, but it’s a hardback edition: "published in April 2003. There should be a paperback version by now." Pause. "Hang on, I can check another system", Windows disappears from her computer screen and is replaced by black with teletext graphics. "Here it is, April 2004, it should be out now." Longer pause. "We haven’t got it, but I can order a copy for you." "No, never mind, I’m just passing through." (Forever passing through, good to have an excuse to come and see you again though).
I make as if to leave, and then an impulse drags me towards the "3 for 2" shelf by the exit. Brick Lane by Monica Ali, they’re discussing that at the Broomhill Library book club; book club–sounds scary–but (perhaps) good to meet new people and talk books. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon, I heard bits on Radio Four a while back, loved it, really want to read it to Rowan four-letter words and all. The Bookseller of Kabul by
Asne Seierstad: I dunno, it just looked interesting; tough call between this one and Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea. I tripped back to the counter and shyly purchased the three, then found myself a sunny bench on The Stray where I started to read Brick Lane.
An hour and forty-five minutes before Nazneen’s life began – began as it would proceed for quite some time, that is to say uncertainly – her mother Rupban felt an iron fist squeeze her belly.
That opening sentence was like Attar of Rushdie. The obsession with time, a fated and complicated birth prefiguring a life, it was all there. A little offputting, but gradually the novel reels me in, a lot more directly human, more down to earth, than Rushdie. I alternate in my views on the characters: at first I like them, they’re funny, comic portraits; then they grow flat, mere stereotypes; but the tiniest of extensions, additional dimensions, rescues them from, makes them human again; finally, the characters themselves pale beside their relationships, the bonds and divisions linking them.
All this reading is making me depressed. More than ever, I want to write. I want to create, I want to find a voice. But the problem is staring me in the face: I have only one voice, the one inside my head, I don’t do dialog for anyone else. I don’t listen to dialog from anyone else. I hardly ever get to talk to anyone else. I’m stuck inside the world of a functional autist, too shy too scared to get outside my head to the real world of bonds and divisions.
I’m determined to meet some real people, if only so I can mine them. Evening is drawing in, the last rays of sunlight are skimming the grass of the Stray. Berwick is a long way away, and I don’t know what I’ll find when I get there. Newcastle is closer, bigger, brimming with human life, teeming with opinion. My destination changes.
I dance through rush-hour traffic, out of Harrogate. Roadworks force a queue down the A61, at Ripley I skip off to the map’s white roads, another white-knuckle ride around blind country bends. On the stereo Arundhati Roy lectures me on the dismantling of India’s state-run facilities, Enron’s grab and squeeze on the Maharashtra state power supply. The roads reel me back in: Masham, Bedale, Northallerton, eventually I find myself on the A19, reeled in by the North. Crossing the Tees, the signs of rampant industry all around, gradually signs for the Tyne Tunnel suck me forward.