I started writing this book in 2000. I suppose the millennium had something to do with it but more important was the fact that I had turned fifty and had begun to get that feeling of mortality. It was the second of my experimental, fragmentary autobiographical novels. I enjoyed writing them.
This one was far more philosophical than usual.
Here is an extract. I hope you like it:
Farther from the Sun
Nothing can be further from the truth or it could be the truth. The more you live the less it makes sense. Your mortality becomes apparent. You are going to die.
The only fact we know is that there are no facts.
I am locked in a darkened cell. I am alone. I can see nothing, not even my own hand in front of my face. I am alone with my thoughts. I have nothing to feed my mind.
The years roll by and my mind seeks something to occupy itself.
In my cell I talk to my imaginary friends. In the darkness it is light. I create the world out of eddies in the random optic firing of my sightless eyes – out of the sequenced firing of my brain cells seeking to form patterns – out of my thoughts and dreams.
Are my dreams more real than reality?
What is real? And where am I?
My walls may be a universe thick with the darkness of eternity.
Are we minds in infinite nothing – in space – in a universe of nothing?
You have to do something. It would drive you out of your mind.
But what if there was nowhere else to go?
I am bored.
Death seeks you out. In the sound of one mind snapping can death bring an end to the universe? Can a mind fall if there is no one there to catch it?
We are cushioned from these questions by the bodies of our forebears. They shield us from the fury of chaotic universe with their existence. Death has to get through them to reach you. Sometimes he sneaks round the edges and seizes an opportunity to grab you but you can sneer in his face with the absurd confidence of youth. Death cannot touch you.
I am a father. I am also a son, a husband, an uncle, a cousin and hold the latent potential to be a wise old grandfather. But that is of secondary importance for it is about being a father that is what is of vital importance. To spend one’s youth checking out the genes in search of the combination that will gel with your own to produce the children best suited to realise their potential. To chose a mate who will give you the Ying to meld with your Yang. What else is life about?
I laugh at your fun. I sneer at your drunken emptiness. I scoff at your sanctity. I pay respect to your creativity but know it is secondary – for I am a father.
It is only as a father that I gain perspective. I see the traps death lays to snatch us. That it is he that laughs at our stupidity. Not that he will succeed with me but he looks to snare my genes. I see the fragility.
As a father I am now exposed to the capricious torrents of the chaotic flux of the universe. We live on borrowed time. We sow our genes down the generations in long furrows of order. We chose and nurture our genetic line and pretend that the sun will never expand or go out.
As a father I am now aware of every trap put in place to stop us from achieving our potential – the warm bed, the drunken nights, and the pursuit of trivia – when we must solve the problems of controlling the galaxy and regulating sunshine.
Memory is a terrible thing. It betrays you. I can remember my father’s face clearly. He is always smiling. But then I realise that it is not his face I am remembering; it is the photographs of him that I see with my mind’s eye. He is some shadowy figure lurking in the background. But this is the man who gave me life, who stayed and looked after me until I became a man.
“Turn that music down!” I can still hear him bellowing, so, so very unreasonably.
“The 60s was a great time,” I can hear my mother saying. “All that fabulous music and excitement.” Yet she forgets she also yelled to turn it all down.
So why is it that my memories of my father have shrunk to auditory echoes and cameo snap-shots? Why, when I picture a scene I know he was in does he only smile back at me through photography? Is it because he has ceased to exist?
I will live as long as there is someone there to remember me.
When I was a young boy, about the age of six, my parents dropped in on some extremely ageing relatives. I think they were called Bob and Ada. They looked so old and wrinkly to me, stooped and with that pasty complexion and florid cheeks that comes with age, but they were cheery and friendly, obviously glad to see us.
I don’t remember much. This was visiting relatives. They beamed at me, chuckled, tousled my hair and Ada pinched and kissed my cheeks kindly. They gave us tea and biscuits in the garden.
I wandered off.
In the garden was a willow tree. It was not a weeping willow with twiggy foliage draping to the ground like a bolstered skirt. It was a large sprawling willow whose branches were out of reach. I peered up with my young keen eyes and studied the leaves avidly. I was a fanatical lepidopterist. This was just the sort of tree to find puss moths, eyed hawks or poplar hawks. Sure enough I spotted some chewed foliage and a hawk moth caterpillar – then another and another. The tree was riddled with them. This was a treasure trove. I ran back to the table where the tea was sitting.
“Come! Come quickly!” I insisted. “I’ve found some hawk moth caterpillars.”
My mum and Dad were settled and slow to get up but Ada was keen. She took my hand and let me lead her to the tree where the caterpillars were.
I pointed up to the caterpillars.
Ada, who despite her ageing stoop, was much taller than me and so much closer.
She peered at the leaves but they were small and the green bodies with thin yellow stripes made them ideally camouflaged against the small thin green blades with their yellowy veins. To the untrained eye they were difficult to pick out.
Eagerly I urged her on and eventually she found one. She plucked the leaf from the tree but was clumsy and inept and squashed the caterpillar with her thumb. Not that she noticed and handed the leaf with its ruined larva to me with satisfaction. She searched for more and I watched with horror as she squashed one after another and passed to me with a smile.
I accepted them gratefully and kept my dismay hidden.
Now I am old and Bob and Ada long gone.
It is possible that one day I will be the last person to ever remember them. Nothing of their lives will matter – their childhood, their love, the raising of their children – all their adventures, hopes and wishes – all their dreams and successes.
All that will remain of Bob and Ada will be the memory of an old lady crushing eyed hawk moth caterpillars through dim eyesight and clumsiness.
Life is like a laser beam striking a prism to create a spectrum of possibility. How the hell do we select which colour to be today?
I am immortal. Nothing has ever happened to me to shake that. Other hazy people die. When someone close to you dies it rocks your world. You are not immortal. Life will not always be like this. You will not always be young. The universe will go on without you.
It is only your brain that tells you that you are important.
It is not all spinning around you.
It is just spinning.
You are just here and aware of it for a short while.
Then you are gone.
It is only during those times when something like the death of a parent rocks your foundations that you have to look at all the things you’ve done and wonder why.
I don’t know why.
I know what I’ve done. I don’t always understand. I see a bit of it. I don’t know where it is all going.
Sometimes you peer through the haze and try to make sense of it.
What the fuck was I doing?
From this vantage point of age I have come to perspective that enables me to survey humanity. It may not be a very high vantage point, submerged as it is, but it does afford me a view over the people nearest to me. We haven’t changed. This civilisation game is stuck on to the surface. We are still tribal. We are still nomadic hunter-gatherers. Us men geared towards bonding together because our lives depend on it, buoyed by the danger and excitement of the hunt. Adrenaline junkies. Women geared towards securing the village and looking after the kids. We haven’t changed.
There are exceptions but women are never settled while there is tidying to be done. Men only want to do what they want to do when they want to do it. This is the minimum of tidying. It may involve hanging out with ones friends drinking beer, picking up stray females, or practising skills and daring, such as playing football. But it also involves writing that great novel or discovering gravity or the meaning of the universe. All these things are utterly unimportant while there is tidying to be done.
In my youth, when travelling through America by hair and thumb, there were two types of bumper stickers I noticed:
‘America – Love it or leave it!’
‘America – Love it or change it!’
I guess that sums up a dilemma.