Notebook

By Tom Cox

A new collection of writing from The Sunday Times bestselling author.

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. 

28th February, 2019 

Everyone was called John this month. It’s like that, some months. I had lunch with my friend John, who isn’t driving at present, after suffering a mysterious blackout and crashing his car into a wall in late summer. When he opened his eyes after the blackout, the front half of the car was dangling precariously over a twelve foot precipice. “It was like the final scene in the Italian Job,” he said. An elderly pedestrian, who had witnessed the crash, scuttled over and sat in the back seat, behind John and John’s wife Polly, to help even the weight out until the rescue team arrived. I sold some records to my friend John in Bristol and accompanied him to a screening of a documentary about drugs which prompted me to read Aldous Huxley’s writing about drugs. My mum, visiting that week, told me about John, a family friend from Langley Mill in Derbyshire with a wrestling background, who recently witnessed a thug threatening a cafe owner in London with a knife, and calmly marched over and took the knife out of his hands. “I’ll tell you what knives are for: cutting bread,” he told the thug, then sat down and resumed eating his chips.

2nd June, 2014 

People always cite "moving house" & "divorce" as stressful life events but too often they forget "putting a duvet cover on when very tired”.

13th October, 2016

On phone to mum. Dad in background: "PASS HIM HERE. I'VE GOT SOMETHING URGENT TO SAY." Me: "Hi." Dad: "I JUST SAW A MAN SELLING CAULIFLOWER IN A FIELD."

May 29th, 2019

My friend Chloe, who lives in the Mendips, lost her hen. A neighbour telephoned to say the hen had been spotted at Wookey Hole, the subterranean tourist hotspot down the road, which, in addition to its world-famous caves and alleged witch, boasts such tourist attractions as a vintage penny arcade, an animatronic dinosaur valley and a pirate zap zone. By the time Chloe arrived, the hen had reached the crazy golf course, popularly known as Pirate Island. It was a busy bank holiday at the caves, and as Chloe chased the hen across the crazy golf course, lunging for the hen, and the hen repeatedly eluded her grasp, tourists attempted to get selfies with the hen. After much chasing between the holes – both those designed by nature, and those designed by the crazy golf course’s architects – with little help from the tourists, Chloe caught the hen, and returned it to her garden, where two weeks later it was devoured by a fox.

Feb 24th, 2013 

Crisps are the most subversive snack because they rewrite the established rules of food pricing: the cheaper you go, the better the taste. I tire of "hand-cooked" crisps. They no longer excite me. Crisps "cooked by the assured steel talons of robot hawks" - that's what I want.

9th January, 2016

ONE WINTER

One winter a legendary amount of snow fell and school was closed and the phone lines in the village came down but when we picked up the phone at our house there were sometimes strangers instantly there on the line. During the same epoch in British history adverts were broadcast during the intermissions in films and sport coverage that I stayed up late to watch that told you about phone lines where you could chat to strangers, just about stuff, nothing obviously dirty. In the adverts the strangers always seemed to be happy and having parties with balloons and fizzy drinks, and would let you join in, we were told, for a fixed rate of pence per minute. But the strangers who were on the phone when I picked it up after the snow didn’t charge you a fixed rate of pence per minute to speak to them; you didn’t even have to dial a number to get through to these strangers, and you could talk to them for free. One day after school, before my mum and dad were home from work, I picked up the phone and two girls were on the other end of the line. They said they were a year older than me and from Bulwell, seven miles east of where I lived, which at the time seemed far away without being at all exotic. I talked to the girls for around an hour and they teased me with questions that seemed advanced, even next to some of the stuff I had heard discussed by the girls in my year at school, who were what I have since realised was quite advanced themselves, in the grander context of late 20th Century adolescent sexual knowledge countrywide. The girl whose phone it was asked me if I had any nice friends because the boys in Bulwell were all shit and I said I did and she gave me her number. I told Lee about it the next day at school and he seemed excited too, even though he hadn’t met the girls and had no idea what they looked like and I had passed on minimal information about their hobbies and personalities, so I gave him the girl’s number, and both of us were on a bit of a high about it for the rest of the day, but neither of us ever did call the number. The following week in Biology I noticed that someone had scratched it into the desk with a pen, quite deep.

One winter I discovered that winter is the perfect time to listen to unvarnished British folk songs that get down to the stark bones of what it is to be human and since then in winter I have never stopped discovering the same fact.

One winter I mistimed an afternoon walk and completed the last two miles of it after the sun had vanished beneath the long edge of the land. My route took me past a Bronze Age burial mound which gave me an idea for a novel that I was not yet capable of writing.

One winter I lived in a unique house by a river which was full of dark magic and bad insulation and which, given the opportunity, I might well have lived in forever. Because of the bad insulation and the river and the height of the living room ceiling and the biting winds indelibly associated with the region I would get up at around six to light the log fire then usually keep it going for the whole day, during which I would feel palpably aware of the house’s checkered history of troubled tenants, without quite knowing it. The fire was blazing at the party I had that year and the room was warmer than I’d ever known it to be because several bodies were in it. Michael said he was going to check out the river, as there was fog rising from the ice forming on its surface, and he thought it would be good for what he called a Mystic Moment. I considered putting the song Smoke On The Water on as it would have been apt but it seemed too cheesy to do so and besides it was far from my favourite Deep Purple song: less a song and more a strong riff pulling a song behind it, in the way an expensive car pulls a cheap caravan with a broken wheel arch. Michael opened the window then stepped out into the cold foggy air, perhaps believing he could walk on water, or more likely believing he would find a supporting balcony below him, and Karl and I grabbed one of his legs each just in time to avert disaster, and not long afterwards Michael’s band went on to make their most dark and imaginative record yet, which might transpire to get its dues from a distant future generation but was far too good in its own particular way to sell a really large amount of copies upon release. 

One winter I got utterly, fantastically lost in the TV series Box Of Delights to the extent that each time an episode of it was on I forgot my name and where I lived, and spent the cosy curtained early evenings on either side of it covered in glitter making Christmas decorations and cards with my mum, never realising it was the last winter in history when I would ever still feel properly like a child.

One winter we moved from a mortgaged house my dad grew to detest on an estate where all the other houses except ours seemed to have been burgled to a rented house in the countryside that my dad loved which did get burgled. A week before we moved in my dad drove to the rented house alone in the snow with some canvas, some paint brushes and acrylic paints and sat in an upstairs room of the house with a blanket on his lap painting the white valley he could see through the window in front of him.

One winter I returned from an encounter with some emotionally cold people and couldn’t seem to get warm and get on with my day, no matter how hard I tried. I gave up and got into bed with an old hot water bottle and spent several hours reading John Irving’s novel The Hotel New Hampshire and have rarely felt more content. 

One winter I fell asleep on top of the same hot water bottle, which was by now even older, and it seriously burned my leg. The burn turned into an unsightly, furious blister and left a large scar, still clearly visible today when I am trouserless, which hints at a far more heroic backstory.

One winter I walked with Will and Mary past ice age pond-swamps and hairy cows that watched us dolefully from dark woods and we cracked the natural frosted glass skin on puddles with our heels and at the end of the walk we all admired the way the sun looked against the low white-red sky then realised it was actually the moon, not the sun.

One winter - well, actually it was spring, but it was a cold day, and felt like spring experiencing accelerated nostalgia for winter - I walked back from the pub with Pat and Rachel and Pat told us to look at the moon, which was shining amazingly brightly through the trees, and Rachel and I waited a minute or two before explaining to Pat that it was actually a streetlight, not the moon.

One winter I saw you on the path near town by the river, where I’d last seen you, in summer, when you’d smiled and said hello and, because I was talking on my mobile phone at the time to someone close to me about their hospital appointment, I’d not responded in the way I felt instantly compelled to. And now - we were heading in the opposite directions to the last time, in twice as many clothes, but in almost exactly the same spot - I did say hello, and you did too, and we both smiled and reduced our walks to slow motion for a split second as we passed and for some baffling reason, not even shyness, I didn’t stop to introduce myself and, even though I’ve decided lately that I don’t have regrets, that the experiences they normally centre around are life’s most strengthening and character-forming, ultimately rendering them redundant as a concept, I know that’s not quite true, because four days later I am an unchanged person and still regretting my decision to keep walking. 

April 9th, 2019

I’m suspicious of success. How can you not be, when you’ve been on the planet more than a few minutes? Success, as popularly defined, is when everything is going well, and that’s when you tend to announce – even if it’s only to yourself – “Everything is going well!” or “I feel great!” which is like pressing a button wired directly to the unlock function on a door, behind which a series of bad events have been sitting patiently, waiting for a reason to happen. Success is a trap. A lot of bands have made a lot of astonishingly bad records at a point in their career when they’re considered very very successful. The trick, I often think, is to stay a comfortable distance beneath success. But even then you’re not infallible. Success will lure you in with some of the stuff it promises, even if you’re not interested in the success itself.

29th March, 2018

Message from my dad: "WHEN DID YOU FIRST MOVE TO NORFOLK?"

Me: "October, 2001."

Him: "THANKS. I'M TRYING TO PUT A DATE ON ALL MY CLOTHES.”

May 25th, 2019

When you’re a househunter, what you soon start to realise is the language of house listings is one all of its own, off to the side of language used by real humans. Very little means what it says it means, and – as houses get more expensive, and the competition to live in a nice one gets stiffer – meaning gets even more drained from it. “Unique” can become another way of saying “not on an estate, and not utterly identical to all of the houses around it”. “Open plan” is stretched to describe a house that has one internal doorway where there was once a door and now isn’t. Places are sold on the strange basis that it might be appealing to hardly ever be in them, with the use of the soulless phrase “lock up and leave.” No landlord ever says “Pets welcome” even if they welcome pets. It’s always “Pets by negotiation.” This description always leads me to hypothesise about the nature of the negotiations: ”You can bring the smallest dog, but not the cockatiel. They’re all wankers. That third cat of yours looks like a right mouthy prick, so he can live outside, in a tent.” Another phrase that often comes up nowadays is “regret, no pets” which, with its mournful comma, never suggests to me that the regret is about the no pets rule, but something else that lingers in the house: that it is a building centrally characterised by a lack of animals and a strong ambience of regret.

14th June, 2012

Just drove past some youths. They gave me a look. Pretty sure it meant, "I wish I was also in that Toyota Yaris, listening to Steely Dan.”

June 29th, 2015

BOOK IDEAS

1. Baby In Face: my powerful memoir about being unable to have full conversations with friends due to babies being shoved in people's faces.

2. A Day Without Crisps: my raw, autobiographical novella based on the one day I actually managed to get through without having any crisps.

July 5th, 2019

There was a point in my life where I thought the world was evolving in a way where people would gradually talk less shit but it turns out I was wrong. Somewhere history took another turn, and to speak in sentences made up entirely of bubbles of rancid hot air became the norm. “Influencer”, “reaching out”, “networking” – these are now phrases people use with either no awareness of how grasping and unpleasant it makes them sound, or total awareness of that coupled with a hardfaced chutzpah about it. I will never reach out, I am not interested in influencing anybody to do anything other than maybe casually check out a record or book I’ve enjoyed or be nicer to animals and the environment, and if some networking is happening I will go to a quiet place where it is not happening and hide. I don’t have a network. I have some mates. My network is an old broken cobweb in my bathroom that I’m trying to rescue a moth from.

17th April, 2016

Text from my mum: “Your dad asked the plumber yesterday if there was any gossip in the village. The plumber said ‘YES! Pete Wilton’s bull got out and mounted one of John Michael’s cows and now she’s pregnant!’.”

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