Pretty Words

We were sitting in the window, and the sun filled the room. You looked so serious, so sad.

‘I don’t want any more pretty words,’ you said. And you watched me, waiting.

Then I remembered how much I had loved you: so intensely, with such intensity, that it was unreal, or misplaced. I thought there must be something wrong with me, to love so much.

I wanted to tell you, over and over. But you had the laundry to do. I had to take out the bins.

But then I realised it was not that my love was too intense, or some form of projection: it was just love, and I had never felt so much love.

In those early days I wrote you texts, emails, letters, poems, songs. I wanted to sing my love to world.

But you sat down and looked at me and said enough is enough. I don’t want any more pretty words.

So I leant forward and held you, and I held you as tight as I could.  I think that’s what you wanted.


Moth Island 1967

I’ve just read Tomas Transtromer’s poem ‘Breathing Space July’. It’s a beautiful, unfathomable poem. And there is one line I particularly like: ‘as the islands crawl like huge moths over the globe.’ Moths the size of islands.

I have a cold so am lying in bed coughing and spluttering. The moths crawl into the poem, huge, ponderous, almost mechanical. And they clatter over the surface of the globe, but they are islands.

When we lived on the island of Moth, back in the nineteen sixties, we used to think it had the most wonderful climate. It was only later we discovered the island was a huge mechanical moth operated by the poet Tomas Transtromer. He had several of them crawling across the globe. If he liked you he’d position your island so it enjoyed the sun and a breeze, maybe even a shower at night to keep the land fresh, and your coffee pot topped up.

If he didn’t like you, I imagine he situated your island in the Antarctic, or the Atacama Desert. I don’t know, I’m guessing.

We used to listen to the music of the islanders, they sang sitting up on the huge antennae, as if these were limbs of a tree, and sing their gentle songs, strumming instruments that looked like tiny harps, occasionally looking out to sea or closing their eyes to express some particular emotion.

Winter Solstice

The longest night of the year, and I haven’t slept. I haven’t slept because there is too much in my head. All that stuff, whatever it is, the labyrinths of cells and axions, of synapses busy talking about themselves, as they are now.  The cerebral cortex, with its billions of neurons, snapping away, all the stuff, popping and fizzing like a soluble aspirin. Plop. This is all part of the fizz. This. This. This. And so I can’t sleep. A silent voice, an array of images, endless activity that is neither of these, something kinaesthetic or nebulous, but I can’t sleep, and it’s the longest night of the year.

Fragments #2

You probably drink too much black coffee. You don’t smoke. You keep fit by taking the dog for long walks.

When you were small you saw a shooting star and were convinced it was for you. You tried to imagine where it landed. In a pond with a hiss. Or clattering down a rooftop a few streets away.

People never took you seriously, or seriously enough. You had the big secret and you weren’t going to tell anyone. You used to write messages in your food.

You prefer Wednesdays to Thursdays. The clouds gather over the sea. Someone has left a teabag in the sink.

I saw you in the supermarket. You seemed to be taking your time. You stopped suddenly and gazed into the middle distance, it looked as if you were concentrating on something. Perhaps you had forgotten your list.

You’re walking the dog along the front. The sea crashes against the cliffs, several homes are perilously close to the edge, a couple of bungalows and a large white detached house. They’ll have to move out soon, lose everything. Can you imagine that? You go into the kitchen to put the kettle on and there’s nothing, just the sea, and everything inside starts to slide, you try clinging on to something, a cupboard door, a table, but it’s all moving inexorably into the huge, wild, hungry, grey waves.

It was rosemary. You need to remember rosemary.

Fragments #1

There was a picture on that wall. At least I thought there was. It was a photograph of a silent movie star. I’m sure it was there, above the fireplace. Clara Bow?

Or was it an art print? A Dutch still life?

Do you think Rembrandt will be remembered in five hundred years? Or Shakespeare in  a thousand?

I haven’t been in this room for years. The sofa was there, the bookshelves along that wall.

You could hear the cathedral bells. And on summer mornings voices from the cafe, newpapers folded against the breeze.

It was a big city: Paris, or Berlin, maybe Brussels.

I can’t remember. I get so many places, voices, names muddled up. Not that they matter now.

I bought this jacket then, I still wear it. I’ve never had it cleaned. It’s stained with the juice of a prawn that exploded as I pulled it apart. Ten, fifteen years ago?

That prawn left its mark.

Binary Stars

Binary stars, forever spinning around each other. But now almost silent. Silent, but forever spinning around each other.

In orbit, we are forever falling, forever moving apart.

We fall, but we are pulled apart.

Without gravity, we would fly off into space along a straight line. With gravity we fall into each other. We are caught in a tug of war between these two states. Twin stars.

In each other’s light, never without the other, but still, so silent.

Lonely, but the other star is still here, still so present it burns a white radiance. It is impossible to see anything but the other. Everywhere the other.

In every face and in every street. In every step. In every room. In every book and every breath. In every word. Every fizzing atom.

Twin stars desperate to meet, to touch, to find each other again, to become one star.

A dance that goes on for eternity.  But it must end. It must end soon. The dance must end. And the stars, eventually, collapse, either into themselves, or into each other’s arms.

I will hold out my arms.

I will catch you.



Life is Too Long

Where are you? I cannot find you. I look for you in the kitchen, in the bathroom. Maybe you’re at work. No, this is not a house we ever shared.

Where are you? Why have you gone? Now that you are no longer here does it mean everything is lost?

Minutes ago you were here, just across the table, we were playing cards. You were drinking tea and complaining how terrible your hand was. But you are not there, and never were.

You are far away in space and already moving away from me in time. Your messages slip down my phone. You are gone.

You are still here. I am talking to you, telling you this, my idea for a story.

You are gone. ‘Life is so short,’ you would say, ‘why are we wasting it?’

But you were wrong.

Life is too long.


I love you. I am in love with you. You have a beautiful, kind face, and in every photo you radiate kindness. Your eyes shine with life and playfulness. Each smile suppresses a laugh. Your eyebrows manage to express a childlike wonder at everything. Life has not worn you down. You still believe in the world. As I do.

I love you. And I realise how stupid or naive, or childlike this can sound. I love you, and I’ve never met you. How can that be possible? You have beautiful eyes, a huge, heart warming smile. That photo of you in the big, old patterned jumper, sitting on that deserted beach, staring through the bonfire at the sea. Any man would fall in love with you.

And yet it’s not how you look that I find so adorable. I am old and wise enough to know that appearances can mislead. It’s not how you look, it’s what you’ve written. Somehow it’s left me in your spell. You have pulled me in. Snared me. I cannot escape.

I hope this doesn’t sound disingenuous. Yes, I like the look of you. You are lovely. But I’m not trying to flatter you. You are too intelligent to be taken in with empty words. (And I realise, even as I write these sentences, that you could consider them as part of my overall plan of flattery.) But honestly, I love your face, but I am in love with you because of your words. I fell in love with your words. And maybe your words have made me love your face more.

Thank you, thank you for writing back. When I didn’t hear from you last night I assumed you’d realised it was a mistake, that asking for my email address was a bad idea. But now I realise you were writing your life story. It must have taken most of the night.

It wasn’t any of the facts of your life that I fell in love with, although I love all the facts now. That your name is Japanese. That your parents are retired academics, and very eccentric and middle class. I love you not because you did well at school, or went to a prestigious university, or have had a successful career in advertising. There is something else. Something woven in there. An invisible thread.

I love that you gave up your career for your daughter. I love that you work freelance, but you’ve lost interest in the whole nasty business. There is so much that is fascinating and wonderful about who you are, but this is not why I have fallen in love with you.  Maybe its in the images you create, or the rhythm of your prose. Perhaps you’ve lured me with subliminal messages you’ve smuggled into your paragraphs. (You’d know all about that).

I’ve read and reread what you’ve written.  And even though I don’t believe this, I find it hard to accept that you are real. How could someone as beautiful, funny and clever find me interesting? And this isn’t false modesty: I am very unsure. I would go so far as to want to ask you – did you realise what you were doing? Are you aware of the power of your words?

I am washed up. I feel the best years of my life are over. ‘Washed up’ is a great expression. Washed up on the beach. Washed up and ready to be put in the cupboard. A dead whale. A coffee mug. I love that as you end one career you are immediately ready with your next project. And so exciting it sounds. But I’m a whale, or a mug, or just a random old crock, and I’m sitting alone on humanity’s beach, and from far away I see you, this lovely woman, walking the high tide, a beachcomber, I watch her collect driftwood, assemble a small fire, light it. She sits and looks through the smoke at the sea. I see the sun on her face. I want to talk to her, get to know her, but I wonder, should I begin to feel hope again. Can I risk falling in love?

Love. I was washed up, and now I might fall back in. Love is the sea. You are the beachcomber, and the beach, and the sea. You are the world surrounding me. The world you have transformed with your slate blue, oceanic eyes.

At least being washed up means being dry, and being able to think. I could spend the rest of my life just sitting, watching life. But If I am thrown back in, I wonder if I can survive the currents. Will I sink so deeply that I can’t get out?

I need to ask you this: did you write to me in such a way that you knew I’d be smitten? I counted the number of times the word ‘love’ appeared in what you’d written. Sixteen. (I have to add the ‘work’ appeared as many times.) Were you deliberately plugging into my unconscious? Because, if you were, you succeeded. Perhaps you did this consciously, or unconsciously. Does it matter? I have to accept that you are genuine. That you are who you say are. If you’re not, then maybe I’m opening up myself to a disgruntled, psychopathic adman (I discount a woman would do this) using a very feminine Japanese name to try out some crazy deception. (Well, Piers, or Marcus or Hector. Well done. It worked. I have fallen in love with the woman you’ve created. Perhaps you’ve done this for your novel or your screenplay or whatever it is you are writing in your spare time to get out of that monstrous industry.)

Now I’ve put that to one side, and I don’t really think that anyone with the amount of sophistication to create this incredible woman (more flattery) would waste their talents on fooling someone they don’t know. But then isn’t this why intelligent hackers create viruses?  To cause havoc in an unsuspecting and unknown victim?

Unless, of course, you are someone I know pretending to be you. Who would do that? It makes no sense. I have to believe in you. You are real. I am in love.

Sorry. Ignore all this. You must be real. I feel very vulnerable. I need to be certain I am not being fooled, or being led into some sort of trap.

The link to your website, your memories, just the whole concept of you, it hangs together so beautifully. You have to be real. You are real.

I want you to be real, so much. I want you to be the person you are. The person I have constructed from the photos and the facts and the words and the images the words create, the rhythms of your prose, the little asides and the wit.

In many ways, it’s me who has made you up. You have given me ingredients and I have put them together. All my longing and hope and desire. So it’s not that someone else has created you. I have.

How much of the world is really out there and how much is our own invention?

I love you.

Who am I?

Who are you?

What is ‘love’?

I have to stop this introspective nonsense or I will drive you away. I should just tell you my story, give you my facts, or you’ll read all this and think I sit here ruminating over every word, every possibility. No, it’s not like that at all. I just want to know, before I leap back in, that I will won’t be hurt.

But I can’t expect you to answer that. If you are genuine, then you don’t know either. And I realise that you are probably asking the same questions about me. Perhaps my own fears of being unlovable are yours too. You could, of course, be wondering whether I am all I say I am, or all you think I am. But I’m ready to risk everything.  Life is all risk. I just have to hold my breath and jump. And I think I already have, long before I started writing this. It’s already to late. I am falling, I have fallen, I am deeply in love. It’s ridiculous. It’s wonderful. It’s true.

I’ve said your name over and over again.

Kiku, chrysanthemum. Golden flower.

I fall through a sky filled with petals into the warm blue ocean of your eyes.

What has made me fall? How has this happened?  What is it about you, or your life, or your words that has made me fall?

The description of your time in Norway, and then later, the years you spent in Orkney, it was all so powerfully romantic. Bleak, and yes, sometimes harrowing, all so Wagnerian. But nevertheless, romantic.

Like Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’. There I am, standing alone, above a landscape, looking out. Everything is below and beyond is so alluring and yet there is almost nothing to be seen. A few grey peaks push through the swirl of fog. The figure must be looking north, into the thrilling but indeterminate future, as I do now.  The figure has to create the landscape from those few hints. It is you, it is the future.

Orkney sounds beautiful, if austere. (How you kept going in that huge, isolated old house on the island, I don’t know). That house, and the loneliness, and the cold. The life you led, almost ideal, yet in reality utterly miserable, but nevertheless as you described it, you drew me north, into some sort of dream, a Norse saga. I saw the sunlight on shallow seas, felt my eyes dancing over the waves. You have taken me through the narrow lanes of Stromness, I have walked with you across the heath to the stones of Brodgar. And even further north, you showed me.the cherry tree orchards on the slopes of the Hardangerfjord.

And I am drawn north by those pale, slate blue Nordic eyes. A sense of destiny, or fate, or longing. There is something here that is beyond my understanding. It’s impossible to consider in any depth. And I daren’t mention this to anyone. I hear the words ‘projection’ or ‘transference’ and even ‘mid life crisis’ or more likely ‘pathetic’ and just ‘sad’. But they (the voices in my head) can say what they like. Friends would be envious, if I told them. I can’t. Not yet.

Kiku, golden flower. No invented woman would be given that name without some sort of back story. Your mother wandered across Japan when she was a teenager, only fifteen years after the end of the second world war, after Hiroshima, Nagasaki. A sort of Zen pilgrimage. She was the original dharma bum.  While those beat poets and novelists were making money from their books, she was doing what they were preaching. Looking for some alternative way to live, and perhaps, I wonder, some sort of forgiveness.  You describe her adventures in just a few sentences, drop in the names of a few of the places she stayed, and somehow I’m there, with her, before you were born, sitting in a silence of a stone garden in Kyoto, just as you sit on the beach on a small island in the Hebrides, so far away. So far away.

Do you know the essays of Hazlitt? There’s one I particularly love. ‘Why Distant Objects Please’. Distant objects please, he says, because ‘we clothe them with the indistinct and airy colours of fancy’.  Things distant in place and in time. ‘We drink the air before us, and borrow a more refined existence from objects that hover on the brink of nothing.’  This can be a pleasant experience, and I’m sure it’s one reason we love climbing mountains and panoramic views. But it can also deceive, of course. The quiet hamlet nestling in the hills is more likely to be a deserted collection of holiday homes of city bankers.

But, nevertheless, distance is alluring. But your words are right here in front of me, and they conjure up a person I can’t stop thinking about. The world seems so different today.

I see a different sky. And after what you wrote about your love of the stars, everything scintillates. I see constellations of dew in the morning grass, last night there were glowworms in the old cemetery at the bottom of the lane, now the sun sparkles on the northern oceans. This wonder, this love, it’s what you’ve given me. Life is beginning again.

A Beginning of Things

When I was fourteen or fifteen I decided I wanted to find out everything and somehow write it all down. I imagined a complex, detailed, annotated diagram ordering the universe, every object, every human activity. I stuck a huge piece of paper to my bedroom wall and began.

Or rather I tried to begin.

I could classify most of the natural world according to conventional sciences: physics, chemistry, geology, geography, biology and so on. But as soon as I began to reflect a little more, to consider, for example, what went on in my head as I went about trying to organise this system, I realised it was impossible.

How the Earth came to be, how mountains rose, how oceans formed, how life itself originated, these are all infinitely fascinating. But we can only appreciate any of this through our senses and interpret them through language and however it is our brains organise thoughts.

No sooner had I started trying to understand everything in the universe than I realised I needed to understand understanding itself. So what began as a diagram in which I naively thought everything would somehow balance – that is the physical world of stars and planets, rocks and rivers, sitting on one side, then the living world of plants, animals and humans on the other, I realised the internal universe of the human mind, of my mind, would take a disproportionately huge amount of time and space to map, or describe, or illustrate. It was an impossible task.

Furthermore, there is infinite regression. For every material thing I considered cataloguing then there would be a complex sequence of thoughts which accompanied that process of cataloguing which would need to be included too. And if I were to include these thoughts, then the cataloguing of these would require further reflection and consideration. This, too, would have to go on my wallchart.

Thought itself had to be excluded from my system or the system would create a feedback loop of explosive proportions. There would be no wall, no building, no mountain big enough on which it could be set out. But the exclusion of thought had to mean the exclusion of perceptions. Weren’t perceptions experienced as thoughts? If this were true it meant to exclude thought meant shutting out the world completely.

Even if I somehow managed to exclude thought processes and concentrate on what we would naively assume to be the real world of things, I discovered another problem. That of scale.

Imagine yourself as infinitesimally small. Smaller than atoms, smaller than the constituent parts. The universe you inhabitant is distinctly different from the universe of human beings. Objects merge with their surroundings, their outlines are blurred. As you shrink smaller, so there is more empty space, less solid matter, more currents of weird energy. Take a ride on a neutrino, you can fly through solid matter. So is this the real world? Now imagine yourself infinitely huge. Your hands can cup galaxies. You float through a universe which is as different again. Our human scale determines the way we see the universe. It is particular to our physical constraints.  The idea that we can be objective is laughable. Go on, laugh. It’s hilariously funny.

It’s funny because we have to assume that what is out there is real or we could not survive. We would go mad. You’re on a walk with some friends and one says ‘Look! What a beautiful yellow flower!’ But there is no beauty out there. There is no colour out there. And, remembering that scale determines the universe we perceive, then maybe there is no flower, just a heap of interactions. The universe is not made of things, it is a series of processes. If you lived for a billion years maybe trees flash up through the soil like lightning. Mountains surge like waves. Or think of your existence lasting only a matter of nanoseconds. Then lightning lasts almost all of your lifetime. Lightning exists in your nanosecond sky as the Sun does in human time.  Lightning in that universe looks less like something happening than a solid object. Just as the Sun looks to us: an object not a process.

My desire to describe the universe collapsed in on itself. I felt limited and ensnared. How could my system include everything if everything keeps growing? How could I begin to understand the human world and everything beyond if I couldn’t come to terms with the nature of objectivity itself? My idea for a system disintegrated into a million fragments.

And from then on, I suppose, I became wary of certainty. If I was an adherent of any belief system at all, it was to scepticism. I went to art school. I drank now and then. I fell in love a few times. I wanted to be Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce or Philip Glass. Art, literature, music. This is where I realised I belonged. With artists, writers and musicians, Many of them fascinating, wise people who had given up the quest to know, or even to understand. Somehow they grasped their own limits and by doing so could explore that enclosed terrain. They were like scientists of their own invented universes. But unlike scientists few of them made any claims about absolute truth. Outside of the art school I met plenty of people who were certain of the world beyond their heads and felt no need to question it. They were like a different species. I envied them, and still do.

Rain on the Shed Roof

I’m in the shed trying to fix a broken coffee bean grinder. In a shed in Amsterdam, three hundred and sixty odd years ago, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza ground glass into lenses. I grind beans into coffee. It isn’t as specialised as working with glass, but the end result is similar. Spinoza’s lenses helped people see. What were they able to see that they couldn’t see before? Perhaps they were writers who couldn’t write, or readers who couldn’t read, or surgeons who couldn’t surge.

Coffee helps me see clearly. I need coffee to focus. I’m the in the shed trying to free up the grinder’s trigger mechanism. It’s stuck in the on position. As soon as I plug it in, the thing starts to grind. If, absent mindedly, I fill the grinder with beans, as I would do before its malfunction, plug it in and switch it on at the wall, the beans are launched into a shiny brown whirling fountain. It’s quite beautiful. But it can take hours to clear up afterwards. The beans go everywhere. The lid of the grinder, when pressed down, should trigger the on switch. But this trigger has become stuck. Hence why I’m in the shed trying to free up the mechanism. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not practical. I can’t even change a fuse on a bicycle.

I can hear the rain on the roof. It sounds like tiny beans. Somewhere a giant has switched on an enormous coffee grinder and forgotten that the trigger mechanism is stuck. I look up at the shed roof as if I should be able to see the beans, the rain, each bean, each raindrop a moment of clarity, but I cannot see. I can hear it fall, but can only imagine each drop falling, hitting the roof, then bouncing. There’s a clarity of percussive sound, almost tuned, like pizzicato. Like the sound of the koto, every note nuanced and rediscovered.

Sometimes I think western music is too interested in form, in the whole rather than the individual parts. Japanese music, and perhaps Chinese music, does the opposite. Each note is a concentration of the player’s decades of learning. And this is an irony, because we think of the west as being more individualistic. The Chinese see the aquarium, not the fish. But maybe this is racist twaddle. Surely I am as free from cultural brainwashing as any Chinaman. I am not a product of my society, and if I am not, why should someone born and raised in China? But then I am a writer, perhaps I am more reflective. Perhaps I look harder than most people. I have been described as ‘too intense’ by less intense people. So I may not be a typical member of western society. I try to weave my way through the dominant social perspective. Maybe Chinese artists and writers are as aware and therefore less susceptible to their culture. Therefore it may be safe to generalise without being thought of as racist. That most Chinese people believe that the needs of society should come before the needs of the individual.  I don’t know. Maybe I need to go to China and find out.

This aesthetic, listening to the individual notes, reminds me a little of that recent panacea, ‘mindfulness’. It’s not surprising that it reminds me, really, as mindfulness originates in Buddhism. Zen tea masters ask the participants to focus on the cup, on its glaze or on its appropriateness. You are asked to voice your opinion, but in no more than a few words. When you take a mouthful of tea, wipe the cup, pass it on. Notice the wall hanging, the dessicated flowers drooping in the vase. If music were playing, it would probably be the koto, or a solitary flute. The grandeur of a symphony would be completely incongruous. We in the west want huge statements. We want to dominate the universe, not observe the dewdrop on the leaf. Who has time for that? Get out there and build a city. Create an empire.

Coffee beans rain down on the shed roof. They shatter and spill into gutters which now gush with coffee. It’s a beautiful black rain. Insects, spiders, mice and birds feed on this newly fallen fruit. The caffeine startles them, gives them a new power to reflect. Coffee gives them consciousness. They are suddenly aware, awake, they bristle with indignation. They want greater freedom. They want what they believe is rightfully theirs. The insects want habitats free of threat from birds and farmers. The spiders demand the wind stop battering their webs. Mice want cats to wear bells. Birds want to be more appreciated for their song. But more than any of these demands, what all of them want is simple: more coffee.

And I want more coffee. I need to fix the machine. Rain pours down on the shed.