All The Books I Am Not Writing

“Write a book,” they say. They don’t say it often and there aren’t many of them but people tell me I should. Some people, anyway. Sometimes. I have tried from time to time to sit and write more than the 800 or so words I put into most of my blog posts and it has never amounted to anything. However, we’re living in strange times so here is a brief run down of all the books am I not currently writing.

Fitness After Fags

I had the idea for this a few years ago. It’s a physical fitness programme for people who have recently stopped smoking. I wrote the introduction and the first chapter on what you need before you start a fitness programme and the second one which was a Couch to 5k plan. I even bought a website domain for the project which I renew every year just in case I ever remove my thumb from my bum and get on with it. I thought I could get other coaches to write similar chapters on swimming, cycling, what to do in the gym and make it inclusive by pointing out you don’t need to become a sporting beast to become fitter when you stop smoking. Just walking, or gardening, or vacuuming the carpet can all count. Of course, that project runs into the sand again just after I renew the website domain every year because I am fundamentally feckless.

There are other books in the Fitness After… series I am not writing or editing too. You could have books on gaining or returning to fitness after heart attack or stroke, and a very timely book would be Fitness After Covid19. Books like this would need a lot of research on rehab after insult which I am just not qualified to do. I am not prepared to give poor quality advice to vulnerable people. However, it’s a good project to take forward at some point.

John Knox: a biography

I was brought up in Haddington, John Knox’s home town and there hasn’t been a major biography of John Knox for years now. It’s a surprise given his status in the history of the Scottish Reformation. I read a short biography of him about six of seven years ago which I thought was interesting but far too brief. So, given our common background in East Lothian, I am the ideal person not to be writing a book on Knox’s life. I don’t think he would approve of me at all – a former Papist and apostate, and to be honest I’m not a huge fan of him in return. At least I’m not writing a hagiography. Or I’m not writing what wouldn’t be a hagiography. It’s easy to lose track of the progression of senses in that sentence.

A brief aside – when Pope John Paul II came to Scotland, a group of us went to hear Mass at Murrayfield. There were buses from schools all over Scotland. When we returned to it at the end of the day, the bus driver had placed a huge sign in the front of the bus saying KNOX ACADEMY. Just as well everyone else was on their best behaviour. I was fully expecting it to be covered in eggs or for bricks to crash through the windows.

Judas Iscariot: 2000 Years of Excuses

Eve is probably the most put-upon figure in the Bible. She is excuse for thousands of years of misogyny. Judas probably comes second. I never understood the loathing for him. His role in the Passion is as vital as Jesus’. I’ve never really understood the Biblical justification for anti-Semitism. Even 1,600 years ago the notion of blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus must have been bizarre since anyone involved was long dead. Poor Judas paid an awful price for his role in the capture of his friend. What happened after the most infamous kiss in history was not up to him. For his name to be attached to betrayal for the next 2,000 years appalls me. I don’t know whether the stories of the Judas goat are true. I hope they aren’t for all sorts of reasons.

I was once sitting towards the back of the top deck of a nearly empty number 16 bus, travelling through Morningside. It was a lovely, sunny day, about this time of year. I was sitting minding my own business, nose in a book, mind on walkabout, when I became aware that the bloke in the seat just ahead of me was muttering under his breath. “Judas,” he was saying, “Judas, Judas.” I looked up just as he turned in his seat. His eyes were unfocussed blue and his dark hair was longer than mine, his beard even stragglier. “Judas. You killed me, Judas. You killed me.” There is not a lot you can say in reply to that, not when the person is a complete stranger. The bell rang and cracked the moment. The bus slowed for the next stop. The man turned round a moment, and a different man turned back. “Oh, this is me. Cheerio.” I watched his head drop down the stairwell and then it bobbed along on the top of his body as it disappeared up a side street towards the Royal Edinburgh Hospital.

Spies Like Them

I did make quite a lot of progress on a comedy spy thriller about two Russian agents in Britain in the 80s until someone pointed out that it was basically the same as Spies Like Us to which I said “Oh yes, so it is” and promptly forgot about it. I wrote an absolutely stonking first scene in which a man breaks in to someone’s house, burgles it and does a big jobbie on the living room carpet before leaving. Two weeks later, I read Quite Ugly One Morning by Chris Brookmyre which has more or less the exact same opening. That was dispiriting.

All Power! Early Soviet Art & Design

This one’s been done quite a lot but I think there is room to revisit the new art created for a new society in 1920s Russia. There were innovations in graphic art which were peculiarly Russian and were set to serve a new sort of society. That’s one for when I can put aside five or six years to go through some archives doing the picture research properly before I start on anything else. It would be chuffing expensive to produce. Words are cheap and you don’t need to pay someone else for the right to use them if you mix them up in your own order. I can’t imagine getting the rights to some of the pictures I want to use would be cheap. Anyway, here is El Lissitzky.

El Lissitsky's
The text reads “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge”

Those of you of a certain age might remember the Red Wedge arts activists from the 80s. This is where they took their name and I suppose their inspiration. If you remember them then you probably know that already. I don’t remember being all that inspired by Red Wedge even when I was at my most Socialist.

Collected Worse

Bad poetry. Bad, bad, bad poetry. All my own work. Let’s just leave it there, shall we?

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Desert Island Discs

What’s the soundtrack of your life?

At school it was metal like Iron Maiden and AC/DC. There was quite a lot of hell invoked for a religious boy. It was probably part of the appeal for some of the people but not for me because first of all I didn’t really notice the lyrics so much, not when the guitar sounds and rhythms were far more exciting. Secondly, if you’ve hung around Christian people much, you soon realise that hell gets a lot more attention than heaven does. So, Hell’s Bells is my first track.

Afterwards, Leo introduced me to Talking Heads, especially Stop Making Sense. There is something that will always feel comforting about sitting in the near dark listening to that album over a pair of warmed headphones. Other people’s heads can be very warming.

I discovered The Grateful Dead at university. I would work through the night on a Thursday writing an essay due at 10:00am on a Friday morning with American Beauty playing quietly on a cassette radio so as not to disturb my flatmates. I had the room at the end of a corridor on the upper storey of our student house. Darren downstairs would either be sleeping the sleep of the dead or awake himself. The room next to mine was empty, I think. I would keep myself going by stopping every hour to light a menthol More and wait for the sun to come up before I headed in to town to hand the essay in. They weren’t good essays.

I bought two CDs before I ever bought a CD player. One was the soundtrack to Ally McBeal because… Well, I don’t really remember why except perhaps I really fancied her. The other was First of a Million Kisses. I mentioned this to Eddi Reader on Twitter once and she was kind enough to Tweet me back. She said that they’d explicitly intended it to be released on vinyl. I think she said that anyway. I was so astonished to have her reply to me at all that I may be misremembering what she’s said. Perfect is still one of my absolutely favourite songs.

I bought a CD of Kind of Blue not long after I moved in with Jane. I listened to it first one night over headphones like I did with Stop Making Sense in Leo’s bedroom 15 years before. It was late evening, dark outside and I was sitting at the dining table while my partner was watching television with her sister. I think my life changed because nothing else sounded the same after that. Nearly everything sounded too simple and not quite good enough. Thrust was all the right kind of funky though.

In order to find something interesting enough, I started to dig through J S Bach because that’s what you do. Once you’ve done the whole Toccata and Fugue in D Minor thing and got that out of your system, pretty quickly you fall into the Matthew Passion and you will never, ever climb out. You could be quite happy there for ever as well as long as someone tosses Thomas Tallis’ 40 part motet Spem in Alium in there after you.

I heard the Tallis Scholars sing that in Beverley Minster one night and I don’t think I have ever quite recovered. The moment all forty voices come in together hit me like an old girlfriend’s slap. The choristers were all around us hidden in galleries and spaces above our heads. If nobody tells you what to expect, if nobody’s there to nudge you and say, “Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it… NOW!” then you’re going to leave a changed person.

That’s a little out of sequence. It should have come after Perfect. 

My friend Alison threw parties in Oxford where as part of the evening’s entertainment she would sing Tom Lehrer’s Poisoning Pigeons in the Park with piano accompaniment by Ian. Some of the best fun I have ever had.

Last track is My Baby Just Cares For Me. Nina Simone’s song was what we played as we left the Registrar’s Office when Anne and I got married. It wasn’t strictly true that I didn’t care about cars and races but compared to Anne, even McLaren in their pomp were as mud to be scraped from the bottom of an icky, sticky shoe.

That’s nine but I’m having Nina Simone as my luxury only to play that one song and Anne’s Night’s Masque trilogy as my book. Another cheat because they are three single volumes but I’m getting a special single volume binding just for these cheating purposes. If that’s not allowed then I’ll have Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy so I can live with those characters for as long as I’m on the island.

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