Saturday, February 12, 2005

Day Twenty-nine: "Jolly Robin."

Day Twenty-nine.

Lythe and listin, gentilmen,
That be of frebore blode;
I shall you tel of a gode yeman,
His name was Robyn Hode.

(A Gest of Robyn Hode: unknown date, possibly 1450.)

Robin Hood is not a man, though many men have called his name. He is the spirit of the wildwood in its budding time. Jolly Robin in the Green, the force that makes the green shoots grow, that hisses in the foliage like love's electricity, that sizzles and crackles with the laughter of life, with the joy of the blossoming of the Earth's goodly store.

Day Twenty-eight: "Dancing with the Demons."

Day Twenty-eight.

Big Issue, March 17-23 2003

Kodan is dead. Who was he? He was a man who died before his time, of an overdose of heroin. He thought he could have one last blow-out before going into rehab. It was a blow-out all right. It blew out his life.

It’s an old story this. Anyone who has ever had dealings with junkies knows a version of this story. The junkie tries to go clean. Six months off, a year, but that old niggling urge is still there, like the voice of absolution whispering in his ear. And then one day there it is in front of him, for real, in the hands and eyes of another junkie, and he thinks, “well it can’t do any harm. Just one last time, for old time’s sake.” And the deed is done, the dose is too strong, the heart gives way and - bang! - he’s dead.

Life is cheap, they say. For a junkie it’s worth precisely ten pounds a wrap, with all the inevitable consequences: the degradation, the lies, the hurt, the betrayal of love, of friends and family, the manipulation, the theft, because to a junkie nothing really matters but junk.

It hurts to have to say this of my friend, but it’s true. In the end the person he betrayed the most was himself.

I first met him some time in the early nineties. He wasn’t really a junkie then. He was just practicing. It was late summer and the poppies were out, nodding on their stalks like little green sages with a secret message to convey. You’d be walking along with him and his neck would rise. “Pop, pop, pop,” he’d say: like that, turning his head left and right like a radar dish. “Pop, pop, pop.” And he’d leap a fence into someone’s garden and come back with all these poppy heads. And then later he would boil them up to make this awful, greeny-yellowy slop. I tried it myself once. I was sick for two days.

But I never saw any harm in Kodan’s obsession then. He was the most down-to-earth, yet the most cultured man I ever met.

We were good friends. We talked a lot, about anything and everything, about philosophy and art, about politics and religion, in the pub or at home, as we skedaddled here and there, from the far south of England, to Scotland, his home. We talked to save the world. And Kodan could listen too as well as talk. He could absorb your thoughts and play them back to you. He made you feel as if no one could understand you like he could. He was comfortable with intellectual intimacy.

So we had a bond, Kodan and I. It was only later that I discovered he had the much same bond with everyone else.

I said, “Kodan, there’s a fine line between being merely a charming person, and being a con-merchant, and sometimes you come quite close to that line.”

He said, “ah, but at least I know where the line is.”

It was also later that I discovered that that’s all the talk ever was to him: just talk.

Who knows what forces drive us this way or that: why Kodan chose to be a junkie, while I chose to be a writer? And he did choose. He worked at it, over a number of years. From poppy tea to codeine tabs, from cough linctus to “chasing the dragon”, from skin popping to, finally, the whole junkie works, the needle, the spoon and the tourniquet. To him this was all the height of romance, like dancing with the demons, like a love affair with death. It was his version of poetry.

There’s something else about junkiedom: the lure of the inevitable decline. Because all junkies follow a certain trajectory. Sooner or later, it happens to them all. They even have their own expressions for it. “I’m a scum-bag junkie.” “I’m a rob-yer-grannie junkie.” In the end the call of chemical absolution is too strong and the bonds of mere loyalty too weak. That’s the game every junkie is playing, sliding ever closer to the moment when he will betray every decent thought he ever had, every hope and every dream. Every chance of redemption.

One day Kodan was paying me a visit. I used the word “junkie”.

“We don’t use the ‘J’ word,” he said. “It’s like calling a black man a nigger or a gay man a queer. There’s as many types of heroin addict as there are people using it. We don’t all mug old ladies for their pension books you know.”

He was wrong about that.

I was also noticing something particular about his habit. It was pure self-indulgence. He didn’t score drugs to share them, like other drug users share spliffs or pints, or a line of this or that. He wasn’t concerned about how you were feeling. It was a ritual played out with himself alone. He was an S.S.S., a member of the Secret Society of Swallowers, engaged in an experiment with his own body-chemistry, in the laboratory of his blood.

I said, “there’ll come a time Kodan, when I’ll stop being your friend. You‘ll think it‘s about money or something, but it won‘t be.”

He said, “but you don‘t care about money, Chris. It‘s not important to you.”

I said, “that‘s where you‘re wrong, Kodan. Money isn‘t all that important, sure, except when it’s matter of trust. It‘s your word I care about.”

And I was right. I fell out with him in the end. He paid me a visit and he was lying to me again, from the second he walked through the door. Claiming he’d been mugged and he’d lost all his money; claiming he’d “accidentally” bumped into a friend on the way down, a dealer, and that was why he was late, and could he borrow some money, till next week? And I knew there was no accident involved and exactly where his money had gone. I asked him to leave, and I’ve never seen him since. That was last year.

When I heard he’d died I was angry with him. I was marching up and down in my living room shouting at him in my head. “You stupid big lunk,” I was saying, “you stupid bloody twat.” I was still angry at the funeral. I couldn’t believe that that was his body in there, in that coffin, lying like a 37 year old lump of meat in its box. Angry because he’d made me be there. Angry at the stupid bloody church music and the stupid bloody prayers.

It was the following day when I realised what I was really angry about. Someone showed me a picture of him from when I’d first known him, when he still had something to give. He was fresh-raced and alive. I burst into tears. I thought, “I’ve come to say goodbye to my friend.” And I knew that I was angry because I’d never see him again, because he’d died before I’d had the chance to forgive.

Because in the end I don’t care if he was a junkie. He was my friend and I loved him.


Day Twenty-seven: "Druid Fluid."

Day Twenty-seven.

I'm sitting in my little office on this gorgeous afternoon, looking out the window at the next-door neighbour's washing as it bobs playfully in the breeze. A few towels, in various pastel shades; a Laura Ashley-style printed skirt; one or two brightly-coloured items of baby-wear. But maybe I shouldn't be telling you about my neighbour's washing. Maybe it isn't polite.

I can't help looking at it though. It's all I can see. My window looks out directly over my neighbour's yard, and the only other things I can see are the lines of rickety fencing bordering an alley, and then another row of gardens behind that, which I only get sneaking glimpses into when the wind blows the bushes aside. It's a picturesque enough scene, in a peculiarly urban way. But sometimes I long for the countryside again.

A few years back I was living in a van and, instead of fences and paving slabs and lines of washing, all I could see out my windows were trees. Apple trees, as it happens. It was an orchard. And, of course - this being late Summer - the apple trees were full of apples, most of them still clinging stubbornly to the branches, looking like the brightly coloured baubles, red, green and golden, in a field full of Christmas Trees.

That was in Somerset. It was where I lived while I was writing my second book. And in between writing I did the logical thing. I went round picking up the windfalls to give to local farmer to make cider with.

Well I wasn't exactly giving them away. We'd got a deal. I'd give him the apples, and he'd give me cider. I was hoping for lots of cider to make up for all the work I was doing, bending down and picking up apples by the bucketful, and then emptying the buckets into sacks, and then loading the sacks into a trailer to take down to the farm. It was back-breaking work, but worth it. In the end the farmer gave me two gallons of rough, strong cider, about 2lb of Farmhouse Cheddar and the same of creamy Stilton, and fifty pounds in cash. That was for over two months work, and worth every minute of it. There's nothing like a plate of creamy, electric Stilton or tangy, nose-curling Cheddar with a pint of rough, wild cider to end a day of apple-picking. It's not so much a job, as a privilege under those circumstances.

In case you don't know, cider apples are small and tough. You can't eat them. They taste like parchment soaked in dish-water. But they make lovely cider. Also, you pick up every apple, no matter what the condition is. Under-ripe apples. Bruised apples. Spotted apples. Grubby apples. Half-eaten apples. Rotten apples. Under-sized apples. Over-ripe apples. Insect-ridden apples. Mouldy, brown, sloppy apples, dripping with slime and smelling of yeast. Every apple you can see. It's the mould that makes the cider brew.

So I was musing about this, as I was absent-mindedly loading this unpromising harvest into buckets, in between bouts of my writing-work. My mind was wandering. I started to think that apple-picking was a bit like writing, really. "All this dry, tasteless, grubby fruit," I thought, "all this rotten, slimy, bruised and molested material, loaded into paragraphs, then tied up in chapters, to give to the publisher to make a book with. Such an unpromising harvest. Such a heady brew."

Also - as anyone who has ever picked apples will know - you become obsessed. You dream about apples. Every time you close your eyes, you see apples. Every time you're relaxed, it's apples you're thinking about. Apples, apples, apples, dancing about before your eyes, nestled in the bushes or peeping out at you from the long grass. It's your life. You can't see an apple without wanting to grab it. You'll put your hand anywhere, into briars, and nettles and cowpats. You can't stop yourself. Even when the briars catch your flesh and the nettles sting, you just can't stop. In the end you hardly notice the pain. It's apples you want. The sight of an unpicked apple is an affront to your eyes. It belongs in the bucket, and then in the sack. It belongs in the cider press and then in the vat. It belongs in the barrel and then in your glass. Finally it belongs in your mouth.

And while you're doing it, while you're picking up those apples, breathing in the strong, sweet scent, sweating and panting slightly, there's a sense of deep satisfaction, that this process has been going on since the beginning of Time. You know you are doing something ancient and true. Thousands of generations of human beings just like me, picking up the Summer's harvest, so that it can be preserved and enjoyed in the depths of Winter. Sharp, strong cider: like the Summer Sun glowing in your glass.

Steve Andrews, my old friend (known to many of my readers) likes cider too. He calls it "the Amber Nectar" or "Druid Fluid", and he drinks it with relish (and to excess) about four or five times a year. Good, strong, West Country Cider: you can't beat it, once in a while. But, watch out. It's dangerous stuff. At 6% proof, and under 60p a pint from the farmer, it's liable to rot your brains. All the West Country farm-workers have florid faces, like mashed strawberries, and they talk in a low, incomprehensible drawl, like the burble of water over a weir. They say they were weaned on cider. And it shows.

It was an apple tree that led to the Fall, remember. Adam and Eve were idling around beneath the Tree of Knowledge, looking at the windfalls on the ground. "What can we do with these?" they wondered. Then they ate of the fruit. It tasted like parchment soaked in dishwater. "I know," they said, "we'll make cider." And the human race was never the same again.


Friday, February 11, 2005

Day Twenty-Six: "Smoking is a distraction from the distraction of wanting to smoke."

Day Twenty-six.

This is the sixth time I have written this sentence. I’ve been writing this sentence, in one form or another, on and off, for over an hour.

The first time I wrote it I had to go and lie down afterwards. The next time I wrote it, it caused me so much confusion, I had to go for a walk. The last time I wrote it, I was overcome with hot-and-cold flushes in the process, and needed a breath of air to take my mind off it.

Later, when I came back to it, the syntax was all upside-down and back-to-front, and the sentence no longer made any sense. Or maybe it was just my brain that was upside-down and back-to-front and no longer making any sense. It’s hard to tell the difference.

In fact, what’s a sentence? What’s a brain? Who am I and what am I doing here? Who are you? What am I writing about? I’ve forgotten.

In case you are wondering: I gave up smoking on Wednesday. I haven’t had a cigarette since 1.43 pm, Wednesday the ninth of February 2005.

I must admit that I am thinking about cigarettes right now. I’ve been thinking about cigarettes since 1.43 pm, Wednesday the ninth of February 2005.

I suspect I will still be thinking about cigarettes at 1.43 pm on the ninth of February 2035 - whatever day that turns out to be.

Now this is odd, because actually, despite thinking about cigarettes for the last two days, it hasn’t really worried me. It’s inevitable that I would be thinking about cigarettes. What else would I be thinking about? I’ve been thinking about them for the last thirty-odd years.

It’s only begun to be distressing since I started writing this. For some reason, since I started writing this, the thought of cigarettes has assumed a beneficent glow like all the saints in heaven were smiling down to me in the form of a little white stick full of dried leaves, that I can stick in my mouth and smoke.

Er, what was I talking about?

OK, I’ve just remembered again. That’s because, since writing that last sentence I have been over the road and bought myself a packet of Amber Leaf rolling tobacco, rolled myself a great big fat one, and smoked it. I’m smoking it now, even as I am writing.

Now this is truly absurd. I stuck a fag in my mouth, and immediately knew how to write again.

This is all very annoying and not at all pleasant to contemplate, knowing that I am an addict and likely to remain so for the rest of my life.

The worst of nicotine addiction is that it really doesn’t do anything for you. The most it does is to keep you enslaved to nicotine. Smoking is a distraction from the distraction of wanting to smoke. That‘s why I couldn‘t write. Not because smoking does anything for me particularly, but because, while I wasn‘t smoking, that‘s all I was thinking about: smoking.

Nicotine addiction is the state of being addicted to nicotine. No more, no less. It offers you no more in the way of mental and emotional enhancement than a slap in the face with the half-rotten tentacle of a giant deep-sea squid. Or rather, it’s a little like being slapped in the face with the half-rotten tentacle of a giant deep-sea squid, non-stop, all day, every day, permanently, with only the prospect of an occasional relief when you roll your next cigarette.

Well I’ve failed, yet again. I’ve just smoked another half-rotten tentacle thing. It did no more for me than the last half-rotten tentacle thing. But at least I’ve managed to finish writing this.

I’ll be giving it up again tomorrow.


Sunday, February 06, 2005

Day Twenty-five: "The spirits of wood and stone and water."

Day Twenty-five.

I took LSD, on and off, for a number of years after that. I learned how to cope with it. Sometimes it was an ecstatic experience, sometimes less so. I was always searching for something, some meaning in my life. I guess I thought acid might help me to find it. The earlier hippies had told us that acid was going to change the world. By the mid-seventies this had become holy writ. Acid was the sacrament that would bring on the New Age. It was a new evolutionary step. And - young and naive as we were - some of us believed it.

Day Twenty-four: "Picture yourself."

Day Twenty-four.

In the late sixties, of course, LSD was on everyone's mind. That was my era. I was in my teens at the time. I'd been interested in acid ever since I'd first seen Timothy Leary in a news item on TV, since seeing a picture of the Grateful Dead in the Sunday Mirror (they looked so cool, with their granny glasses and long hair), since hearing Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds from the Sergeant Pepper album down at Robert Russell's place. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds was, I was reliably informed by Robert Russell - who was an expert on such things - an elliptical reference to the LSD experience.

Day Twenty-three: "A bordello dungeon in the mansion-halls of hell."

Day Twenty-three.

I'm in the toilet, sitting on the closed lid. It's dark, though not completely. The orange glow of the streetlight outside is making a bubble-effect pattern through the frosted glass, and there's a splash of light under the door from the hall. And there's my own internal light too, of course, those geometric flashes of colour that tend to dance before your eyes whenever external light is dimmed or diminished.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Day Twenty-two: "The trouble with memories."

Day Twenty-two.