I dislike misery memoirs. The parts of musicians, rock bands, famous writers or artists’ biographies detailing their descent into booze and substance addictions leave me cold. Open excavations of private trauma I find uncomfortable. It’s a story I’ve heard so many time and I know the ending: death or redemption. There never seemed to be anything between those two things. I found it hard to feel sorry for the people involved; if indeed I was supposed to.
I wondered about the recent popularity of fusions between classic misery memoir and nature writing; a new spin on the already New Nature Writing genre that had gained huge traction in recent years. It was Waterstones-table-friendly and made the bestseller lists. I have no real problem with this, though much of it is not to my taste. The truth is I always wanted something more from writing, from literature, something weirder, more chaotic, self-deprecating and with a black sense of humour. I wanted landscape punk, not nature writing. I wanted books that didn’t look to the natural world merely as a restorative for the damaged human being.
I wanted to know if I could write about place, nature, alternative thought, in a way that didn’t present these things as just props to our everyday lives in the late-capitalist world. Perhaps, instead, it could be something that taking an interest in created a bizarre kind of danger, or at least a compromise. This is how I felt, even as the subjects of landscape writing, weird fiction, psychogeography and the occult thrilled me.
I needed to write in how my obsession with these subjects jeopardised, at times, my real relationships in the human world. The time I sacrificed to trudge through muddy fields in search of Kentish megaliths, the rabbit-holes I went down in search of knowledge that could tell me there were other ways of being, of looking at world, anything that could provide an antidote to the stifling world I, at times, felt trapped in. The anger I had at the perceived ignorance of mainstream society and thought, rage at what we had lost as a culture and were still losing. The sense of dislocation I felt at developing interests that were at best marginal – was there anything to say about this that wasn’t bitter and resentful, the moanings of a man who felt he’d be unjustly sidelined? My lack of interest in the conversations I found myself in - house prices, fitness tracking apps, expensive cafes and the gentrification of London that everyone discussing (myself included) was part of, yet couldn’t see their own role in – tripped over into me being a smart-arse, cynical, or just downright rude. I felt there was a game I was ill-equipped to play, and at times wished I could just let all of my interests go for the sake of some stability and happiness. Of course such a thing is impossible.
All of the aforementioned interests aren’t really that odd; they’re even popular in certain circles. But at times it was an obsession. I could barely describe why I felt a constant pull to the bleak winter coasts of the Thames estuary, why I daydreamed of marsh harriers at work, why I was toying with the thought of buying Liber Null off Amazon. Why I read endless tomes of weird, dark fiction, that my girlfriend said couldn’t be good for my mental health in such quantities.
I had a fulltime job, bills to pay, a partner. I wasn’t the Lone White Male (though white and male I am) striding out alone into the wilderness to report to the lowly commuters reading my book on their journeys to work in the cities. There wasn’t even a wilderness in this country – these books were lying! Or so I thought at more cynical moments.
I looked at my own previous writing in the landscape genre and found it po-faced and overly serious, aping the writing of my heroes and the writers I thought I should try to emulate. But a few experiments stepping out of this model and introducing more unstable elements, drawing on the weirdness of folk culture, magickal thought, English esotericism, the punk underground, and my very lack of proper knowledge of the natural world (I’d lived in London for over a decade) seemed to be bearing fruit.
I wondered if those nature writing-come-misery memoirs would be as well received if the only place for the narrator to retreat to – be it for reasons of bereavement, emotional devastation or substance abuse - were the suburbs, a less turbulent part of London, the parents’ house back in the Home Counties or, in my case, the Kent coast. Not all of us – most of us – have the luxury of retreat into a rapidly dwindling nature. I have no bleak, rugged but beautiful island to escape to. Instead of ignoring this obvious problem, couldn’t it be the crux of the writing itself?
Was there a reason for feeling any of this In my days when I would have readily identified as part of the UK underground punk scene, I existed for years on a steady diet of speed, cider and MDMA. We were willing losers, freelancing or in unstable work with eyes only ever on the next weekend and the next squat party. I’ve seen people done in by cocaine addiction, saw heroin, then alcoholism, take down the younger brother of an ex-girlfriend. But to be honest, it didn’t seem that bad at the time, and those things I mention were the blips and not the default setting. Often, we had a great time, and I’m grateful for the things I saw, the things I did and the people I met.
Maybe this is a massively irresponsible attitude, but surely lying about the fact of my feelings on the matter is worse. Or maybe I shouldn’t write it down at all, but like many of the people reading this, I have the overwhelming urge to do so. We’re all narcissists, and I’ve never been great at pure fabrication – I admire writers who are – and I still stick to the creed of write what you know.
In the end, after a long time trying to work out how I could fit all the pieces together, merge my interests, my real-life experiences, my love of weird fiction, landscape, alternative histories and subculture, it all snapped into place. I wanted to get back to the coast, explore all the way from the Thames, that mad river that fed my city, down to the doomy shingle-scapes of Dungeness and beyond to places like Hastings where I’d had at least two perception-altering experiences. But you need a hook, right?
Back in 1982, my mother pregnant with me and in attendance with my father, uncle and other people I have yet to discover, my grandfather drowned in the Thames near Gravesend. I’m named after a man I never knew who drowned in the waters I am obsessed with, at the age of 45. He’d been in the Merchant Navy. My uncle hauled his already dead body out of the water. And in all the years since my family had barely talked about it. Maybe I had a misery memoir in me after all; but that wasn’t the way to approach this. These things are what they are. But I wanted to know more. What happened, the whys and wherefores, what my family felt about it all. Gravesend, the name so apt if I’d fictionalised this I’d be laughed at, seemed the natural end-point. Hastings, where I’d seen for a few minutes a world bigger and stranger than the one I thought I knew, would be the start. In between I could revisit all those places from childhood that had meant so much, the landscapes I still thought of constantly.
I’d found my subject.