I quit smoking a bit over a year ago. In the meantime, I’ve picked up a few new habits, not all of them good, and I’ve managed to only smoke one cigarette.
I smoked one cigarette because I was drunk and I really wanted one. It is true what they say: when you quit smoking, you get your sense of smell back, and your sense of taste. You can really appreciate scents and flavours again. This is part of why you gain weight. It’s not just the oral fixation, it’s the fact that some facet of living is good and worthwhile again. However, caveat smoker. Having your senses of smell and taste back means that you can appreciate just how fucking good cigarettes smell and taste. I can’t speak for everyone, but part of what drew me to smoking in the first place was that I liked the smell, and I liked the taste. It wasn’t some horrible thing I forced myself to get used to for some silly reason. No dear, that’s what happens when you get into whisky. No, cigarettes always smelled good, always tasted good, and it was a kind of sad paradox that smoking meant I couldn’t appreciate how nice smoking really was. When I smoked that drunken cigarette after ten or so months of not touching one, I remembered why I started in the first place. It tasted great, smelt great, felt great.
How could I ever have hastily chucked one of these away, half smoked, because a bus was coming?
Well, I wanted to smoke that cigarette, but I didn’t want to start smoking again, if you know what I mean. I could have said fuck it and smoked a whole pack after I had that one cigarette, and I wanted to, but I made myself not to do it. I read somewhere that 90% of people who quit smoking and then smoke “just one” cigarette, end up back with their old habit. I was determined not to undo all my good (painful, horrifying), work, determined not to be a statistic. So, I haven’t had a cigarette in the two months since my last one, and I still think of myself as having “quit” a bit over a year ago, because people who smoke one cigarette and stop aren’t smokers, and that’s what I did.
(Of fucking course I still want one. And I became a statistic anyway, because I quit just before the government implemented plain packaging laws and mandated that you had to buy at least 30g of rolling tobacco at a time. That’s too rich for my blood.)
As to other bad habits I picked up, I started playing with my ears. I know it sounds odd. I just fidget with them. Fold them over themselves, make the cartilage click, and so on. It annoys people, but it could be worse. I mean, I used to smoke, you know? I got a fidget cube for my birthday last year and suppose I should be more fastidious in using it.
I also started walking a lot more. Not just as a way to get places, but as an end in itself, for the sake of itself. I had already been making efforts to walk more often, because exercise is good for you and good for your mental health. Allegedly. Not that I’ve noticed much difference, but it helps just to feel like you’re doing something, sometimes. And so it helped me when I was in the throes of nicotine withdrawal, or should I say, it got me out of the house so that the people I was living with didn’t have to bear the brunt of me turning into a monster.
I am mostly (I think) over it, now. (I still want a cigarette. Give me a cigarette.) But all the same, I continue to walk. I don’t think it is as helpful or as healthy to me, at least in my present situation, as it might be to other people. You see, I’m 27 years old. I am old enough to know my youth is not coming back, and young enough to remember it very vividly. And here I live, in the same place I’ve always lived.
I’ve known every street, road, and alleyway here for a long time. That means that something has happened to me, or I have happened to someone, along every path, around every corner, in this place. It is suffused with memories. I wrote a novel in my early twenties about trying to escape from those memories, and this place. Now they’re all I have left of a lot of people. I go out for walks past houses where people I used to know used to live, and I think about where they are, and I miss them, and I feel sad. It would probably be sadder if they were still in those houses, like I am still in mine, but that is small comfort to me. I am assured that this is a natural feeling. I suppose it is. What is more natural or inevitable than loss, whether it be of a habit or a friend?
I and my body are glad for the exercise, and we are glad for the space it affords our thoughts, but we cannot pretend this has been an entirely pleasant experience.
Living with other people is nice, and it’s something that I’ve always done, out of necessity more than anything, but what can you do? Something you don’t often think about when you live with other people is that, in all likelihood, somebody always knows where you are. Or at least has an idea. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s just what happens when someone else’s routine is so tightly wound around yours. What I enjoy about going for walks, the likes of which I did yesterday, is that it is a break in those windings. All of a sudden, you are like an unobserved electron. Nobody knows where you are. You might run into somebody you know, or you might take some pictures, or maybe somebody will ask what you’re up to. But unless you tell people, in whatever way, the moments you experience are your secret forever, and they are entirely yours in a way nothing else in your life will ever be.
I live near a nature reserve that I have spent many lonely, silent, secret hours in, and I am blessed that it has been a part of my life. I went for a walk there yesterday because it was snowing, and I rarely get an opportunity to see those woods, fields, and the River Nene, during that kind of weather. It was absolutely beautiful, and I am truly thankful that something like that is completely free, and only a twenty minute walk from where I live.
I first experienced this feeling, without knowing what it was, when I was a teenager. I would have been about fifteen or sixteen. I suffered from insomnia then as I do now. Sometimes, when it was around five in the morning and light out, and I knew that sleep was impossible, I would steal out of the house quietly, careful not to wake up my mother or my sister. I always left a note explaining where I was; these secret things are delicate and you should be completely willing to let them go, to give of them. In the end, I was always back before anyone else woke up; before anyone could find out where I had been.
One time sticks in my mind. As usual, it was about 5am. It was during the summer, I was off school, and I couldn’t sleep. My youth is typified by long stretches of, not loneliness as such, but definitely feeling alone. I got to Nene Park at about 5am. The golden glow of the early sun was just starting to reach over the treetops, but it hadn’t yet intensified enough to burn the mists off the lakes. It looked like something out of Lord of the Rings. I only saw one other person that morning, and it was someone I didn’t recognise. He was taking pictures of the lakes. I wonder if anyone knew where he was. I suppose they’d know when they see the photographs.
I was thinking about all this because when I went for my walk yesterday, nobody knew where I was, and there was nobody with me. All my experiences would be my own secret little moments. Like when I decided to take a different path, through what’s called Bluebell Wood, because it was largely untrodden, and it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember ever following that path before. That is something of what I try and do when I go out on my solitary walks; I often try and look at my everyday environment and think of a place in it I haven’t been before, even something as small as an alleyway, or a cul-de-sac I’ve never had a reason to go to the end of.
I’ve come to really enjoy going for walks. I started doing it more often when I quit smoking, because I saw a guide that suggested it’s good for you, and that exercise helps stop cravings. Of course, exercise is good for you anyway. I am particularly interested because it does help my mental health to make sure I go for walks regularly, and I am trying to take my mental health more seriously.
I see these things, and no one will ever know I’ve seen them. Unless I tell you about it. Or show you some pictures.
If you don’t have my collection of short stories yet, then now is the perfect time to get your copy. The print edition is now only £3.50, and the Kindle edition is still only 99p.
And if you already have my book, please don’t forget to tell your friends 🙂
I am the kind of person who is happy to read a novel with weak characters and a weak plot if the ideas are still interesting. They don’t have to be fully realised or focused, but they have to be interesting in the first place. This means I love Philip K. Dick and am always willing to forgive his weaknesses and limitations; I am always so damn intrigued to find out what odd ideas he’s had this time and how they’re going to play out. This capacity of mine to forgive him was tested to its limit when I read The Simulacra, which I had to force my way through because it failed to engage me, either emotionally or intellectually. It was a mish-mash of half backed Dickian wrapped around a cast of characters whose fundamental dramas fall flat.
The Simulacra is definitely one of Dick’s weaker works, but its lack of focus means that I will probably end up forgetting it in a way that I have not forgotten some of Dick’s other lesser novels. Take Cantata-140 (otherwise known as The Crack in Space). Not one of Dick’s best regarded novels and not often spoken about; it’s a typical Dickian tale of political intrigue set against a background of social unrest, and a mixed cast of the powerful scheming for more power, and working stiffs scheming for any power at all. This all hinges around an idea: the earth is overpopulated, and we’ve been dealing with it by freezing people and shoving them in warehouses. The crisis that this precipitates means that the idea and its implications play out in an interesting way.
The Simulacra, by contrast, is all over the place. There is a way in which this could be good. The Man in the High Castle felt very similar to this while I was reading it, but that novel, as its reputation might suggest, dovetails all those stories in an incredible way. That is what Dick can do at his best. You leave the novel with a pretty clear view of what kind of crisis has just happened, and how it has effected all these characters. The Simulacra does not end that way. Multiple undeveloped plot points peter to indefinite ends, and you are left wondering just what the point was. Big reveals fall flat. The ending focuses on a small subplot that only features a couple of times. The most interesting character, Richard Kongrosian, pretty much becomes a God and then does… not much. The neo-Nazi leader secretly running the United States is a pretty cool idea, but this gets revealed and then he gets killed. Is Dick making a point about the complicity between political power and political violence? Maybe, but it’s a stretch, and the point is dropped shortly after being introduced. Any of these ideas, if spun larger, might have led to a great SF novel, but as it is its likes Dick threw all the ideas he didn’t know what to do with, together.
It’s still not bad. Dick, even at his worst (which this might not be, I haven’t read *everything*), is worth reading. That being said, The Simulacra is probably one for the fully paid up Dick-head, as they are the likeliest people to look at this tangle of threads and see the kind of novel Dick was trying to write, and was in the habit of writing.
It’s the 23rd of January and I haven’t finished a book yet this year. I need to get my ass moving, because I normally end up sandbagging December (because December every year is an unparalleled psychodrama). I can’t afford to sandbag January too.
I shouldn’t worry. I have done some reading this month, and I have gotten some work done. Just not as much as I’d like. But I never do as much as I want of what I want to do, so.
I’ve been slowly making my way through Philip K. Dick’s The Simulacra. As you probably already know, I really love PKD, and this means I have already read most of his major works. This leaves me with some of the weaker, lesser-known stuff. The Simulacra is still unmistakably PKD. It’s set in an SF future where the president is an automaton and the real ruler is the first lady (who doesn’t age???), and psychoanalysis has been outlawed to force people to take medications for their mental illnesses, and time travel is a thing. Oh, and people are buying one-shot one-way rockets so they can emigrate to Mars. And there are mind controlling robots. And there’s a Neo-Nazi movement in the USA? Well, this scattering of SF concepts and lack of focus is what typifies this novel as weaker PKD, but he scatters so many ideas that some of them are bound to take off in the imagination, and some of them are bound to have happened (see; Neo-Nazi movement). The criss-crossing narrative taking in struggling working people and the very highest echelons of power, and how they are affected by that mish-mash of weird ideas, is what typifies this as a PKD novel despite its weakness. It still has that human focus. Unfortunately, none of these people have really grabbed me this time around, and the mish-mash of ideas is confusing me a bit. I will finish it, and I will say I enjoyed it, but I dunno how long it will take me.
I’ve also been trudging along with Bleak House. I’ve never done very well with fuck-off big Victorian novels and this is no different. Unfortunately for me I’d still like to try get a grasp of the classics, and that includes reading more Dickens. I am sure when I get through some more of it and the plot threads start coming together it will pick up pace and interest me more. I did finish Great Expectations last year and I enjoyed that (and it was a damn sight thinner).
Speaking of Victoria, I’ve been reading Lytton Strachey’s biography of her to my girlfriend to help her sleep. It’s been working and I am enjoying it, besides. Strachey is so even handed in his outlook and so clear and cool with his prose that I can’t help but find myself pleasantly interested in much the same way as I was when I read Eminent Victorians last year. I am not greatly interested in any of the subjects he’s interested in, but as always, I’d like a greater knowledge of the classics. I’ve certainly had worse experiences getting through something because I felt like I ought to.
(I have 15% left of Northanger Abbey and I doubt I will ever finish it. It is just so fucking boring. It’s fine for nothing to happen if you have the style to make up for it. If you’re not going to have a style, then things better happen. I think it’s considered her weakest “major” novel, so maybe I should just forgive it. I did like Pride and Prejudice.)
As a last note, I just received a copy of The Honourable Schoolboy as a belated birthday gift from my sister. Last year I got in to le Carré in a big way, and I blew through Tinker Tailor in a couple of sittings. I found a copy of Smiley’s People shortly after that but haven’t ever come across a used copy of The Honourable Schoolboy, and I didn’t want to read the Karla trilogy out of order, so I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. I am sure I will let you know what I think of it.
I’ve been reading Marcus Aurelius; I mean, why not take Hannibal Lecter’s advice? I won’t pretend that I am getting every nuance, because I am sure I’m not. My knowledge of the historical context is scanty and my knowledge of the Latin/Greek classics is Not Good. Which is why I am reading him. I’d like to know more.
I have a problem with him.
It’s the same problem I have with Seneca, so it’s a problem I imagine I would have with stoicism in general were I better read in it. That problem is that it asks you to be a mineral when you are, in fact, an animal.
You can’t take someone with thoughts, dreams, and desires burning inside them and tell them to just be happy with what they have, that whatever station they have is what nature fitted them for. That is a good way to make people feel unhappy, unfulfilled. You cannot look at the lack of fulfilment and ask them if they have tried limiting their horizons in an attempt to feel fulfilled. Is Aurelius telling us that we’ll never be fulfilled, so what we already have will do as well as anything? I think that’s the message, but it rings hollow coming from a king.
And the fact that it’s coming from a king is significant. I don’t know enough about the man to draw any well-reasoned historical parallels, but I will say that it has always been in the interests of a ruling class to make sure that the classes below them are happy with what they have. Who wants the working classes getting ideas above their station? Why not promote a philosophy that suggests that what you have is good enough, that if you’re enduring it, it isn’t unendurable?
In that sense, I can see why this philosophy is comforting. If I was suffering under circumstances that were truly out of my control, if there was nothing I could do about it, if I had to endure it regardless, then I might find Aurelius useful. But I suspect that we are asked to endure a lot more than we really need to.
2017 has been a long year for me. It certainly felt long. And I’m not all that sure I got much done, but I feel exhausted beyond measure. Oh well. I have more to get done in 2018 and with any luck it’ll be a bit more conductive towards the work I want to get done. On with the excuses.
If you’re reading this then you probably know already, but 2017 was the year I published my first collection of short stories, Hole in the Sky. It is available on Kindle and in paperback. You can also get it on Smashwords, if you like.
Speaking of Smashwords, I haven’t had all that much response to releasing my books on it. If you really wanna get my stuff free from the tentacles of Amazon, then please make sure to get my stuff on Smashwords, or otherwise let me know.
2017 was also the year that I decided to quit smoking. I wrote a bit about it here. I am still not smoking and I still want a cigarette, but it is getting a bit easier as time goes by.
In terms of books I read this year, here are some of the ones that had enough of an effect on me that I wanted to write about them.
I read a *lot* of John le Carré this year. He’s one of my new favourite writers. I wrote a short comparison between his works and Ian Fleming’s. We were also blessed with a new spy novel from le Carré, and I wrote about that, too.
I picked up The Martian five years after everybody else did and enjoyed it enough that I finished it in pretty much one sitting. I loved it deeply and can’t recommend it enough if you’re on the fence. It was popular enough that you’ll probably find a copy for fifty pence in any given charity shop, so have a look.
Last year was very difficult for me in a lot of ways (see; quitting smoking) but throughout it I had a companion in that difficulty, and that was Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. For those sick and sad of heart and mind, whether temporarily or otherwise, this is required reading. It won’t help, but you won’t be alone.
I also published a small piece on David Kushner’s Masters of Doom, a book I’d wanted to read ever since I was a kid and heard about it from gaming magazines. For fans of Doom and Quake, or ’90s gaming in general, it is a must.
In the same vain as my post on Joyce, I also wrote a post on Philip K. Dick, detailing where you might start if you’re new to him. We move ever further into the future he realised was coming, so now might be a good time to familiarise yourself.
Speaking of familiarising yourself, I wrote a couple of posts about all the works of literature in the public domain and how you can go about reading them. Give them a look if, like me, you start every new year thinking, “I didn’t read enough last year, next year will be different.”
Speaking of which, I read 56 books last year. My intention of gaming my Goodreads challenge worked and I am going to set my challenge this year to the same arbitrarily low 20 books.
On another tack, I did also write down a list of books that I wanted to read in 2017. Well, it’s over now, so it might be a good time to look back and think about what of that reading I did or didn’t do, and reasons why. I’ll go over this in another post.
I think that’s it. I hope you had a good new year and 2018 brings you all the things you want. As per usual I’ll be keeping you up to date with what I am doing. Make sure to follow me on Twitter and Facebook if you want to know what’s going on with my work. I am also considering starting up a mailing list, so watch this space.
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