In the Times of Paper

I wake slowly . . . my thoughts entangled. Soft grey light seeps round the edges of the shutters into this wide and cluttered space, outlining the shrouded furniture and feeding my struggling consciousness as though it were a growing shoot struggling out of the clinging clay.

— Iain Banks, The Bridge (1986)

. . . in the chilly chapel . . . the slick material of the blouse trembling in the light from the translucent panes overhead, black silk hanging in folds of shade from her breasts, quivering.

— Iain Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

She was a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies. Men looked at her and wanted to fill her up with babies right away.

— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5 (1969)

Twenty years or so ago I collected such offerings as I considered delicate, or striking, though didn’t attribute them to their authors. I kept them in a small notebook bought with my final Deutschmarks in the pre-Euro west of Germany. These snippets would be like pressed flowers, slowly desiccating in between the dark pages. However, they would, I felt sure, retain all their flavour all the more if the author wasn’t marked alongside them. When I creaked open that notebook, I needed to know who had written these flavourings. I had inklings, but I needed to be sure.

We didn’t have the world wondrous web back when notebooks and pens and paper were alive and well. Now we can find what we need instantly. I wasn’t at all surprised to find that Banks had written the former offerings. There is a poetic resonance to these words which, all this time in the dark, I find still taste of something rich and smooth. Vonnegut, on the other hand, struck me from the pages of a recent reading: he wrote in times of paper and how things just were, it seemed.

In the time of paper amazing seeds were being sown, I found: did I have some unconscious attachment to certain ideas inside me all along, or is it just co-incidence to find threads of plots or themes or scraps of thinking from twenty years in the dark manifesting in the more mature writing of now? Either way, I find that a little disconcerting, eerie, spooky. Maybe some writing takes all the time between the necessary closing and the necessary opening of a notebook to be. If we believe in such things, when the notebook urges itself to be opened this is the time when everything is ready . . .

What did the writer of twenty years ago know? Still nascent loves and early wanderings of the world could only fold out into words in ragged ways. What does the writer of now know? Love and form and knowing how to see may well have evolved, but his words are just as ready for the pressing into dark pages as scraps of twenty years ago were. One day, when the time of paper will return for sure, something unknown and unknowable will blink out into the early morning light, slowly, as though it were a growing shoot struggling out of the clinging clay.

Chalk Marks of the Mind


Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.

He says.

— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5 (1969)

It’s 1995 or 1996, or thereabouts: I don’t remember for sure. Time has that way of just leaving chalk marks on the mind. I’m standing on a beach some way up the Danish coast. I’m here now, though I don’t know what this place is called. I’m looking out over the water and I can see the Swedish coastline. I’m thinking of the Latvian girl I’ve met here. That night, in the Copenhagen banqueting hall, she knew the games she played.

So I stand here, unstuck in time, and I’m thinking about how time doesn’t unravel in the ways we think it does. We can travel back and forth, but it all gets mixed up. It all stews and bubbles and, when it’s all strained through the holes, what’s left over is thick and slimy, lumpy, persisting in us. It is this to stain the inner skin. It won’t wipe clean.

I turn my face to the wind coming off the sea and here I am some four or five years later. I’m on a beach on the other side of the world, staring out over the Atlantic. I’m north of Salem, Massachusetts. I’m just empty of anything, except the strange idea of trying to peer out over the bend of the planet, three thousand miles eastwards, towards home. It feels odd and unreal being here. The world is small and huge.

A massive wave crashes against a massive rock and diverts my attention. It’s gone dark and then the string of blurry orange lights start to pock the immediate skyline. It’s been raining, I can smell it, and I see the rough lines of the old stone walls of Rhodes Town and the minaret out towards the edge of the harbour. It’s some year or so later. I’m standing on the stones at the lip of the island. There’s a Maltese liner docked nearby. I don’t know where it’s going and I don’t know how we’re going to get home.

Driving by the light of the moon, I’m overcome by tiredness, and I’m woken by the bark of a dog in 1993. It’s Celie, and it’s winter in Dangast, northern Germany. She’s hopping around on the wide empty grey beach, the stiff breeze cutting at my eyes. She must be young. We all must be young. What I still can’t express is what I never knew the first time round: how we would grow, how things would turn out for all of us. Celie’s still with us, and she’s happy in her youth.

I wipe my eyes with the flats of my fingers. It’s 2012 and I’m standing on the grass by the stony beach in Malmö, Sweden. I’m looking out at the long thin Øresund Bridge and at the coastline of Denmark in the distance. Somewhere out there, up the coast, I know I’m looking back at myself from 1995 or 1996, or thereabouts.

Time swills around me, stewing and bubbling, smoothing and blurring away precisions. I strain it through the holes of me, and it leaves just the chalk mark stories on my mind and on my inner skin.

Scatterlings and Short Thoughts: Abundance Seen to Unseen

You can survive as a writer on hustle: you get paid very little for each piece, but you write a lot of pieces. Christ, I did book reviews — I did anything. It was $85 here, $110 there — I was like Molly Bloom: ‘Yes I will, yes I will, yes.’ Whatever anybody wanted done, I did it.

— Kurt Vonnegut

I’m thinking about writers of the past: those with talent and initiative — what would they have made of today’s publishing opportunities? Here’s Vonnegut, secretly offering up praise because he thinks he doesn’t have to poke around any more. Unfortunately for him there are also all the other writers piling in like ghosts. A lot have plenty to say. Some should never have been published at all and are found out. Would they then run away and hide?


Medicine is my lawful wife. Literature is my mistress.

— Anton Chekhov

I will run away with you, printed on my skin, because you’re rare. I have looked for you for so long. Perhaps you’re not perfect, this you, this time, this incarnation; perhaps you’re perfect enough for now. Does everyone have such mistresses? If I abandoned you, and if all of us who have you and your kind here with us do likewise, where would that leave the state of the nation, without consideration and wonder in words?


A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavours and odours like butter in a refrigerator.

— John Steinbeck

How will the stories you’ve written transform when translated into a different language? Languages are curious. There are some languages that have words that can’t be translated into English, some whose certain words sparkle in their combinations in a way that English words might not; there are some languages that just strip a beautiful English phrase to its bare bones and bleach it with a simple inelegant wash; there are languages that look quite identical on the page but, when examined closely, show up scratch marks to the reading eye of the writer of the original piece. I read, somewhere, how an American reader disliked the way an English or British writer might write ‘whilst’ instead of ‘while’, or ‘learnt’ instead of ‘learned’; this English writer is often similarly set off-kilter by the American ‘oftentimes’ and by the use of ‘likely’ instead of ‘probably’ or ‘probable’.

I write English, by the way, because I’m not British, as such, in much the same way as my Scottish and Welsh friends may well view themselves as such before British.

I wonder how my words might transform when written in different languages. If I consider a line to be beautiful, will it stay that way? If I consider a line inadequate, just lacking in some degree, can it be improved in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese? It is all dark to me.


I put a piece of paper under my pillow, and when I could not sleep I wrote in the dark.

— Henry David Thoreau

Writers always write in the dark.