‘As I write’ is 38 columns old today. I had thought of letting it amble along until it was 100 columns, and then wipe it out – possibly, in an apocalyptic short story, involving a nuclear war and the resurrection of a 7-foot white rabbit called Harvey (no relation). Or, I might just say: “That’s all folks!” Then, I’d shut the whole website down and become a recluse, reading and chuckling away to myself in a garden somewhere, as Isobel potters around growing things and occasionally shaking her head and rolling her eyes at the retired muppet she so foolishly married in a bookshop-cafe. (The ‘bookshop-cafe’ bit is true: we were married in Madigan’s, in Dundee).
I’ve decided to make this the last column of ‘As I write’. “No, no, no” I hear a few wise souls cry. A bit more oomph in the ‘no’s’ would have been good! Yet, as the public alarm system in the Overgate Shopping Centre sometimes announces: “There is no cause for alarm”. I’ll take a couple of weeks off from blogging; and then I will return with a new column (the name to be decided). The new column will also be every Saturday, and it will contain the same Harveyesque mix of serious, frivolous and downright weird bits of writing.
One thing I have enjoyed, and want to do more of, is trying to write so simply and honestly about the world around me that the words become a small gift to any reader who happens to stumble upon them. From the first column, I’ve tried to do that:
‘It is very quiet where I sit and type these words. Apart from the sound of rain and the soft swish of occasional cars passing by on the road outside, there’s only the sound of my breathing and I only notice that because I’m listening to this world. And, because I am listening, I notice – from somewhere high above this small block of flats, the very faint and vastly magical honks of geese flying in great V shapes to warmer lands. They are following a call from deep inside to go where they need to go. There’s no choice: they have to move forward.’
These kinds of moments: ordinary moments full of wonder are always around us, but often we do not notice them. Life’s worries get in the way. We think of our worries and therefore cannot see – a green park, or a blue sky, or a blend of red and auburn leaves painting the immediacy of one autumn and the memory of all autumns. It is good to remind ourselves of the joy of simply being alive: looking, listening, wondering.
And, of course, I have written in this column about another side of the world: the struggles of people to make it a better place. The waves – not of the ocean, but of History.
‘People reading these words may not know that the man writing them was once a fighter who fought in some of the largest political battles of our times. Sometimes, I was simply an activist collecting money for strikers and their families. Other times, I helped to lead battles. If we could go back to the miner’s strike of 1984, a young version of me could be seen collecting money in buckets with Fife miners in the centre of Dundee. The unforgettable sight of an old woman, a pensioner who had very little money, dropping a ten-pound note into the bucket, and saying: “We’ll no let them starve.” And later, in 1993, I stood on the Timex picket line for a year alongside workers fighting for their right to a have a job with a decent wage. And there were so many other battles: fighting fascists (physically) on the streets of Dundee, Glasgow, and London; battling for years to defeat the poll tax – speaking at dozens of meetings, standing defending the homes of people threatened by sheriff officers – who took one look at our massed ranks and drove on by. I stood in elections, wrote articles, marched and hoped, celebrated the fall of Thatcher, and much later challenged another high Tory to debate his lies with me in Dundee. That was ten years ago, and Iain Duncan Smith is still in hiding.’
Sometimes, our old stories of struggles can help us to know what to do when new struggles arrive in our lives. It’s all very well writing about cats or squirrels or gardens, but you sometimes have to leave peace and quiet behind and look into the eyes of fellow souls who are suffering and help as much as you can. From handing out food to the hungry, as my daughter Rachel does every week; to becoming hope in the lives of struggling families, as my wife Isobel does every week; to asking as many people as you can to support the brave struggle of Debora Kayembe. There’s always a need for words of help and more than words.
And, of course, I wouldn’t be me if I had never read books. Those strange objects which kept me going through years of – working in a factory; being a single parent in a multi in Dundee; growing as a human being (well, not growing much in height, but you know what I mean); and, sometimes trying to write about reading.
‘I love watching people read. A giant with a pink, sweating face is holding a fat paperback Lord of the Rings, and his gaze is so deeply into the story that I wonder if he’ll notice his station when it arrives. Maybe, he has already missed it. Others around him, fellow London Underground commuters, are equally engrossed in their own reading. Books, Kindles, magazines, newspapers, and phones. One boy or girl is a hazy ghost-reflection in the opposite window. He or she is holding a hardback of Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. A blurred dark tunnel whizzes through the reflection of his or her long red hair and almost-skeletal fingers. Then, blindingly bright lines whizz through him or her as we arrive at another station. The pig-squealing brakes jolt most people. Only the sweating, reading giant pays no attention. There are no trains in Middle Earth.’
That quote was from an entry in my blog, shortly before ‘As I write’ began. It reminds me that I have written other things too. I’m still waiting for word back from a publisher and a competition about my book ‘Hunted like a Fox’. I’m currently writing a 120,000 words follow-up, called ‘Based on a True Story’. And, I still write poems and other stuff.
In the future, I will always be writing something. It is for me a way of talking to people. It’s easier for me than talking in person, which I’ve never been great at. Yet, I love to listen to people. And I hope you have enjoyed listening to me, waffling on and on, in ‘As I write’.
See you in a couple of weeks, in the new weekly column.