By Tom Cox
A new collection of writing from The Sunday Times bestselling author.
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The story of why I want to write my thirteenth book begins, appropriately enough, with some bad luck: a minor crime in Bristol almost exactly a year ago which was partly about being in the wrong place at the wrong time but for which I also blame myself and Michael Jackson. My bag was stolen from the side of a dancefloor in the room of a pub where my friend was DJing; I say “bag” but that’s a bit flattering to the dust-beaten twenty-year-old rucksack I had with me on the day. There were many other, much younger and more expensive-looking bags left in a similar spot on the night, but something made the thief take mine, and the four minute thirteen second duration of Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough - a song I will nearly always drop everything, including old crap rucksacks, to dance to - was enough for him to swipe it and escape into the night. Inside the rucksack were the following things: Lindsay Clarke’s 1989 novel The Chymical Wedding, a Lush bath bar, my car keys, a twenty two-year-old wallet containing my bank card, driving licence and £50 in cash, my phone and a journal containing almost ten months’ worth of notes.
I could live without the bath bar and rebuy the novel from an Oxfam bookshop easily enough and, while the lack of car keys, wallet and phone coupled with being stranded over a hundred miles from home made for a very stressful and expensive 24 hours, I had no emotional attachment to any of them and I knew their loss would very soon cease to sting. The notebook was different. I don’t think it was the best notebook I have kept in recent years but I also know there were some thoughts in it that I would never recover. Unusually, for me, it was a Moleskine. Unlike many writers, I’ve never favoured them, preferring floral or abstract designs - particularly the A5, fabric-covered ones Paperchase were making around 2008 - and I think my slight indifference towards the notebook itself contributed to my approach to it: my handwriting in it was inferior to the handwriting in my previous notebook, my entries more sporadic. Still, I grieved for every one of the 100 or so lost pages. The following Monday, before I’d bothered to sort a replacement phone, I purchased a new notebook, with the beautiful, psychedelic William Morris design 'Strawberry Thief' on the cover. That day, I made a firm decision: this notebook would be my best notebook ever. I would treat it with more respect than any previous notebook, use better pens to write in it, make entries in it daily, and keep it close to my person at all times. In April this year, a few weeks before I finished my latest book, Ring the Hill, I completed the notebook. I am not saying it felt like a greater achievement than finishing the manuscript, but it felt like a pretty big one. To be a commitmentphobe with notebooks - to write a few pages of good thoughts, tail off into half-written shopping lists using any old cruddy pen you happen to find, then move onto a prettier, younger notebook - is the easiest thing in the world, so to realise you have remained constant and filled one up in its entirety warms the soul.
I am not prone to regrets in life. I’m not giving myself some bollocks motivational pep talk here, or coercing myself to view it that way; I just find it hard to have a regret, because I find it hard to view most events in my life in as black and white a way as to box them as “a regret” or “definitely not a regret”. My parents, for example, sometimes say they wish they had sent me to the quite nice secondary school we lived five miles away from when I was 11, rather than the rough, apathetic secondary school we lived four miles away from, which I did go to and whose roughness and apathy becomes more lucid to me with every year that passes and every further fact I learn about the rest of the planet. They needn’t worry. It’s quite good to go to a rubbish school in lots of ways, and lots of other experiences in life serve as metaphorical rubbish schools: tough experiences you are ultimately glad you went through. However, I think I can view one thing in my life plainly as “a regret” and that is the fact that I didn’t keep journals prior to my 30s. It’s not so much the ideas I might have jotted down that are now gone forever; I would like to read these journals simply to find out what life was like then, who I was, or - perhaps more to the point - who I thought I was. The little differences in the everyday. What was it like to arrange to meet someone at 8 by the Left Lion in Nottingham Market Square, and not have any way of contacting them if they didn’t turn up, or cancelling at the last minute? What was it like to not constantly have stuff buzzing at you, and to have an attention span not run over with the microplane grater of technology? Soon, the stuff I write in my 21st Century notebooks will look old too, maybe even quaint, so I write it primarily for the future me who might view it as old, or quaint, and enjoy swimming in the detail for a bit. The ground is slowly shifting beneath your feet, all the time, and before you know it you’re in a different place. This is partly what my new book is about.
My new book will be called Notebook, because that’s what it is. It is not, however, an exact reproduction of that William Morris notebook I kept between August 2018 and April 2019, nor of any of the other notebooks I’ve been good and not so good about keeping for the last twelve or so years. There are a couple of reasons for this: a fair bit of what is in these notebooks has ended up in my actual books, and I do not want to subject anyone to any unnecessary repetition. I also want a bigger, more chaotic picture, redolent of the passage of time, restlessly eclectic, and a little ragged at the edges, in the lovely way notebooks are. So I’m not really thinking of this quite as edited notebook highlights: it won’t be quite that neat. As well as actual writing, there will be a doodle or two, the odd map, maybe even a shopping list. But at the same time, as I have gone back through my old notebooks - some of them full, some of them heartlessly abandoned - what I realise is that they contain a lot of writing I’d intended to publish one day, but not quite found the right place for. There will be a record of an encounter with some cows in a Norfolk field which I’ve been almost putting in my books since 2011. I always liked it, but it never quite slotted in anywhere. I see now that it was just waiting for its ideal space. Notebook could be seen as a collection of my misfits, but if so, that’s definitely just a small part of what it is. A strange, back and forth narrative of sorts is emerging as I piece all this together, that I wouldn’t have found if I’d tried to streamline it into a collection of humour writing. Some writing, I think, fits a note or journal format best.
When my notebook was stolen last year, a lot of people suggested to me that it would be more sensible if from now on I recorded my notes on a phone or another portable device because that way, even if the device was lost or stolen, my notes would be backed up. I listened politely to their suggestion, knowing I would ignore it. I love notebooks and I stubbornly refuse to digitally devitalise that love, even if that refusal makes my creative life more fraught with danger. I love the way a new notebook feels, and everything it promises. I will always buy too many notebooks because, no matter what experience tells me, I am always convinced the next notebook will be The One. Sure, sex is great, but have you ever cracked open a new notebook and written something on the first page with a really nice pen? I'm massively anti wasting paper and massively pro beginning fresh notebooks, and it causes me to lead a very conflicted life, but I wouldn’t change it for a thing.
I also think the very fact I’m putting pen to paper makes me write in a very different way to the way I would if I was making notes on a screen. There’s a more intense honesty to it. That’s something common to this book: it all very much happened, often on the spur of the moment, frequently with a strong rush of feeling; it’s all redolent of the real mess of life. Some of the thoughts and observations in it are better and deeper than others, but they are all real, and they sum up a moment, in a way a note on a screen never can. Paging through these old journals, I can still see the bit of river mud I smeared on a page in Devon in 2014, to mark the moment I started working on my eighth book, can still picture the weather that day, the way the pebbles felt under my feet as I waded across to a small island close to the opposite bank to write, the way my legs almost buckled due to the stealthy strength of the current, as I got halfway across. Reading some entries from 2009 and 2010, I get a better picture of the spaniel I borrowed for walks during that period: his smell, his lust for life, and death (he really liked rolling on his back on top of roadkill). You look back at notebooks in a way you don’t look back at documents saved on a laptop, just as you look back at real photos in an album in a way you will never look back at the photos you’ve saved on your hard drive. There’s an overused phrase nowadays which I dislike: “making memories”. Everyone talks about it, but we are actually doing less of it than ever. In the big rush to make the memories, we are are losing so much: something special gets expressed in an email or text to a friend, but then digital time moves on, and it is deleted forever, whereas a few decades ago it would have been preserved in ink then found in a box many years later, and poured over, yearned over, swam in. Perhaps, more than anything, what I want to do with Notebook is preserve something. Let’s call it primarily a back-up. It’s a flawed, small book, but I’m sure - if what Unbound have done with my previous three books is anything to go by - a very beautiful one. I find, though, that these days a lot of my favourite things are flawed, and small. And beautiful. I’ll be honest: I’m ultimately putting it together it for me. But I’d be delighted if you chose to read it too.
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Tom Cox is the author of twelve books, including Ring the Hill, Help The Witch and 21st Century Yokel, which Robert MacFarlane described as 'just a glorious book - funny and wry and wise, and utterly its own law maker'. It was longlisted for the Wainwright Nature Writing prize. Help the Witch was described by Ben Myers as, ''Often unnerving, frequently funny and always original, the tangled roots of these haunted stories reach into deep, dark places to unearth an alternative England."
8th April, 2018
Two visits from neighbouring animals this morning: firstly Falcon, the hen I co-own with my neighbours, to eat the wildflower seeds I've scattered, then my landlord's three-legged terrier, Cookie, for what has become her daily tummy rub. I do not think I have ever met a friendlier or more optimistic dog than Cookie, who, rather than wallowing in her disability, has turned it into a strength, powering herself around the woodland between my house and my landlord's, in the process beefing up her one front leg and giving it a comical muscularity of such that I suspect she could deck the husky next door with one casual swipe. Apparently, my landlord originally wanted to call her Eileen (I lean) before the suggestion was vetoed by his partner and children.
These people are helping to fund Notebook.
M. F. Webb
Barbara Joan Meier