I put this website together a couple of years ago with the intention of posting regularly, adding haikus and photo essays, book reviews and opinion pieces. It was as much for my own satisfaction and record as expecting anyone to visit, although I was hoping, of course, that my words and images might get seen and give pleasure to a few people, perhaps even provide some pause for thought.
And then the novel coronavirus appeared.
It was almost exactly two years ago when the reality slowly dawned that something truly serious was overtaking the whole world. I stopped posting almost as soon as I’d begun. I found small everyday decisions assuming huge moral dimensions. Before the scale of the pandemic, my own commentary on events felt insignificant and pointless. There were already far too many opinions out there. It was simply too easy to be critical of a scandalously ill-equipped and inept government. The debate around the rights and wrongs of lockdown and masks and vaccine mandates has gone on to be incredibly divisive. Identity politics has steered us towards an identity morality, going a long way to define how each one of us draws that precarious line between personal freedom and collective responsibility. I’ve tried to listen and not preach, confident in the truth I’ve claimed for myself but unwilling to speak up too much, other than to declare my suitably boosted and complete vaccination status.
I’ve been keeping my head down.
The time has come to go public with what I’ve been doing with the time granted to me through the various degrees of lockdown. First, the obvious ones. I’ve been keeping myself fit. Encouraged by eldest son’s discovery of a love of running and racing, I’ve been enjoying something of a renaissance in my old age, keen to share this with him while I still can. The tables have now turned with a vengeance and he’s returning the grief I once gave out to him—with interest. I’ve donned an Ilkley Harriers vest again and have raced more than I have in many years, often managing to pick up my age-group prize. I honestly thought the days were gone when I’d pick up a bottle of beer at a post-race ceremony and get to glow in that warm round of applause from one’s fellow fell runners.
I’m still pursuing my daily portrait project. Despite the potential difficulties, I’ve still not missed a day with Face-by-Face. At the very beginning of lockdown, when even the moor was deserted, it seemed unlikely I’d be able to continue. It wasn’t appropriate to go hunting for people. But as it turned out, I always did meet someone out exercising, sometimes just only one person, and most were more than happy to chat, albeit at a suitable distance. Before long, it was never easier to stop strangers to talk, and grab a photograph. The project assumed a documentary aspect as my portraits were taken from further away and I recorded our need to socially distance, as I’ve also recorded our recent return to normality. It’s something I barely think about when taking a portrait now.
I can also announce that a new project has come out of lockdown, although the seeds were planted before then. I have been collaborating with poet Emma Storr on a book that combines my black and white photographs with her poetry in a celebration of Yorkshire by two offcumdens—the name we’ve given to our book. It’s been a love affair in a number of wonderful ways and the book’s official launch is next week, on Thursday, March 17th, at The Leeds Library. It’s fair to say that this is what’s bringing me out of hiding. I owe it to Emma to give our book some promotion.
Finally, as this is a kind of coming out, I’m emboldened to mention where most of my energy has gone in the last two years, happy to be able to report that I’m finding more and more available to expend. When I haven’t been out running or cycling or molesting strangers, I’ve been pouring my soul into my novel-in-progress.
Writing has been my refuge.
It was just over five years ago, on my own in Gran Canaria, when I had a spark of an idea for a short story. In the downtime between bike rides in the mountains I wrote a first draft. That story interconnected with another short story I’d written, the central protagonist turning out to be the same young woman. A much larger story began to develop inside my head. I had a novel on my hands.
Fast-forward a year and I was coerced into entering the Pitch and Pen competition at the Headingley LitFest, an event billed as a literary Dragon’s Den, a chance for writers to pitch their book concept to a panel of publishing industry professionals, all in front of a paying audience. Despite my terror, I managed to present my pitch well and ended up winning the novel section. It gave me some confidence that my weird plot device might just fly.
Progress was slow as I had to learn a new craft, honing my skills by writing short stories. I continued to be in recovery from the head injury picked up in my bike accident two years earlier, still finding it hard to focus, suffering mood swings and energy dips, struggling to come to terms with a remodelled brain. I’m now able to look back on that life-changing event as a blessing in disguise. I was not enjoying my work as a software developer. I’d fallen out of love with writing code, something that had previously given me a deep satisfaction. I was enduring way too much stress in a role where I was being called upon to solve problems that were beyond me, even before the crash.
The subsequent years have seen my energy and focus gradually return, if not my analytical skills. I find myself laughing now at my inability to process information. I’m a joke when it comes to following a simple set of instructions. Fortunately, my brain has compensated in other ways. I’m barely able to fill in a simple form without suffering brain fog, yet I’m somehow still able to spend whole days accessing the words I need to tell a story. I’ve no idea how that works, just that I’m extremely grateful. The working of my brain has always been mysterious but never more so than it is right now.
It wasn’t really until lockdown that I began to make serious progress on the novel and start to have faith that the strange story I was writing would find a satisfactory ending for itself. I’ve always needed projects in my life. Alongside the creation of Offcumdens with Emma, this time has enabled me to reinvent myself as both a photographer and a writer. I’ve been wary of using those words until recently. They frame the implication that I have something to say and it’s taken me until now to reach the point where I’m able to believe that perhaps I do.
Of course, I know only too well that unless you’re extremely talented, or famous, or very lucky—usually a combination of all three—a novelist can’t realistically expect their first work to be read by many people. It would be crazy to think otherwise. This is perhaps why I tend to keep this endeavour under wraps and not talk about it much. It can feel like the most outrageous folly. But as I near the completion of my first full draft I realise I want to go public. This manuscript will be relatively polished, having been given a thorough examination by both Gill, my critique partner, and by Emma, neither of them afraid to wield their red pens. By the end of the year, or more likely the beginning of next, after a full second pass of the manuscript, I will be looking for beta readers. Please get in touch if you’re interested.
I didn’t intend for this to be so long. I guess it has been a while. Thanks, as always, for reading.