richard pierce

richard pierce

31 December 2016

A Different Corner

The quiet start, the build-up of notes, before that voice, low at first, then soaring through the room, through space, through my heart. The radio on, in the echoing, mouldy kitchen at 15 Harringay Road in London, down the road from Manor House tube station, bottles building piles round the never-used fireplace, and me trying to work in the cold of whatever day it was that my memory now comes from. It was way before George Michael's A Different Corner, his greatest song in my opinion, was finally released in April 1986. I can still see the breath in front of my face, my hands freezing, trying to write down notes to the words I was dictating for our typists down in Orpington to decipher when I took my pile of documents and tapes down there every Friday. It must have been halfway through January 1986, and so many things had happened to me the previous six months.

Imagine a young man (a boy, really), just freshly out of a long-distance relationship with a German girl (who had finally moved to England), a boy so full of faults he was almost inversely perfect, who'd ended up sofa-surfing for the best part of 1985, and become sick and tired of the surfing when he'd been on the sofa in that flat above a tailor's shop in Green Lanes in Harringay for just too long. The boy who started to look for somewhere permanent to live using Capital Radio's Flatshare (does that still exist?), and got an interview at the house just 5 minutes walk, if that, north, just off Green Lanes. And then he got the phone call, at work, one day, to say he'd been accepted to share the house, albeit in the smallest bedroom of the four there were.

I dumped the few things I did have on the floor of the room, threw myself onto the bed, and stared at the ceiling, wondered what it would be like here, sharing with two women and another man, all of whom had jobs of one sort or another in central London. I got up and started sticking posters up, put my toothpaste and brush on the window sill. It had to be better than not knowing where I'd be from one week to the next. It had to be better than wandering into Turkish clubs at 4 in the morning, drunk from booze and loneliness, just to back out at the sight of all those pulled knives.

That morning in that kitchen must have been only two or so weeks after I moved in with L, the girl in the house with the biggest room, and a gas heater in the room. Six days after I'd moved into the house itself. She was very different, and we'd danced in her room on her birthday. Her best friend cried at the story of how we got together, how she said she felt. And that song, on that day, after she'd gone off to work at the Galton Laboratories, and me feeling safe for the first time in a long time. How safe can love ever be?

Reading the lyrics for the first time in an age now, after George Michael's oh-so-premature death, it strikes me how oddly prescient they are in so many ways. She did bring me to my knees, told me so many different stories, and I still don't know which were true and which untrue. Maybe they were all real. I remember thinking at the time how awful it would have been if she, or I, had turned a different corner and never met. And, of course, I thought it would be forever. That's how she became Fiancée Number Two.

I remember the yellow of the paint on the kitchen walls. I remember many things I cannot say, remember the feeling of the voice, her telling me about how I was steel dressed in silk, the one poem she wrote for me, and how, in the end, her new boyfriend tried to run me down in his car in Digswell one night after our cat had died. But that was all such a long time ago. That morning, that kitchen, that emptiness filled by the sudden chords of an unknown song, a song that will stay with me forever. And I know now, leafing through the poetry books I wrote then, how much that period has formed my writing, how those lyrics have informed my writing, the going off at tangents in our lives, all those different corners we have arrived at, and made choices that have changed our lives, that eternal conundrum of how our choices have changed us.

That's only my side of the story of course. Where she is now, I don't know, and I no longer care (I used to, unhealthily), although she might have a different side of the story to tell. I found Fiancée Number Three who became my wife over 25 years ago. I became the man bereft of too many cats, I became the man I am now; middle-aged, and wanting to be young again. I became the man who still isn't satisfied with his existence. I became the man so in love he ignores whatever faults the world might see.

The song is still true, in so many ways; a combination of sounds and words that is a universal truth, however personal it may have been to George Michael, however personal it might have seemed to that boy sitting in that kitchen, that morning, that time so long ago. Love is never constant.

22 December 2016

The Perils of Parenthood; Serendipity, Irony & Christmas

Dear Ren,

20th December 2016, 09:30

As soon as I had sent you my last letter I realised that I'd made a mistake on the track listing for Not Nul Points, so enclose a corrected copy.

The sun is shining in through the kitchen window as I write this - the first sun we have had for a week. Our good neighbour cut down (or should I say cut back) the tall trees (conifers) on the border between our gardens, but we've had nothing but fog in the week since he did it, and now it's finally obvious how much more light we have as a result.


I feel so much in stasis, mainly because it's too cold for the guys to finish the house repairs, as a result of which I feel everything's at a standstill. I've always been like this; if there's one thing in my life that's not right or not finished, it throws everything else out, or stops everything else from being finished. I suppose that might just prove that men really can't multitask.

You're right - I did know about your movement teaching. Interesting you say it keeps you humble - is that because you're teaching young people who are still discovering the wonders of their bodies, or because you are still in awe of what you can do, or because you, like me, feel the waning of what we saw as immortality when we were young? I must admit my reaction to my dancing is quite different when I feel on form at our ballroom classes, especially if we're dancing Quickstep. I fear I become quite arrogant and feel so in charge of what I'm doing (so in charge, in fact, that in our last class I forgot a whole new section we'd just learned). The thing is, Quickstep is a dance you can really step out, a dance that really is proper hard work, and if you push it as you should, it's a real aerobic exercise, sweat and all. Many people who laugh at ballroom don't understand that it's real exercise, not something old people do when they can't run anymore.

I miss other adult company when I'm working from home, miss the social aspect, as a result of which I talk too much when I go see my acupuncturist, or meet someone I know in the street, or when I go to the office in London that I sometimes use when I've got gaps in between meetings. It takes me some time (half an hour maybe) to suddenly remember that, actually, those other people don't share my childish joy at being in the company of other adults. Though, of course, at the heart of it still lies the fact that I am really quite anti-social. I like my own space, like being able to choose when it's loud or when it's silent. Yes, M and the kids find this quite irritating and are probably grateful for the office I disappear into for most of the time.

You did tell me that you'd written a novel, but not what it's about. That story? That leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Do I ask myself why I want to tell a particular story? I don't think I do, or at least not exactly like that, and if I do ask myself it's only something I've started doing since I was published because I'm supposed to be thinking about my audience. But then, I think, that's crap, really, because it makes me (writers) write to pre-packaged conventions. It destroys the new. I think so, anyway. And, for me, saying writers should write in one genre (ie tell the same story over and over again) is the wrong thing to say. But we've been down this road before. The only question I really ask is whether or not the story makes sense within its own context. It doesn't really have to make sense in the context of this particular world, this specific world we live in, because this one's just one of millions.

The cultural reference thing is odd, because to be tied and yet not tied to culture (or is it fashion?) is a real contradiction. I suppose I am tied to one thing - music. That is my cultural reference. I cannot be without music, and I have to keep discovering new music. Someone once told me I was depriving my children of the most effective means of children's rebellion against their parents, because I like the same music as they do. It's getting to the stage now, though, where they are quicker than I am at finding good new music, and I'm quite envious of that. Nice to be able to be their gig-buddy, though. And they have found plenty of other ways in which to rebel against me.

21st December 2016, 20:30

The irony of my last sentence from yesterday is now not lost on me after an almost full-scale rebellion from the children on the first day that they are all on holiday (and M's last working day, and my penultimate day at work). The details themselves are unimportant, but this all makes me think that I'm about in the same camp as you - "I'm not terribly fond of children." BUT, we might not be, but we'd lay our hands in the fire for ours however badly they might treat us. Someone should have warned us - maybe that is the novel you and I should write - The Perils of Parenthood; subtitle Unconditional Love and its Life-Altering Consequences. What a read that would be.

When I was young, we always sat down to our Advent tea listening to the same record (I have inherited it, and the digital version of this will have a pic of it). That doesn't happen now - and I wonder if it's because life is too busy (even for children nowadays - because of social media in the main, but that's another story), or because they're all either agnostics or atheists (though they still like to light the Advent candles and want Christmas presents), or me just finally being a grown-up. The last time I felt safe (and I was thinking about this in the car today) was when my father was still alive and I could relax into one of those bear hugs of his, even when I was thirty. He died two weeks after O was born over 24 years ago. See, that's all that time gone.

I like that phrase - creative rationalisation (even when I spell it the English way, sorry). It chimes with my continuing refrain of "there's no such thing as coincidence; just serendipity." I suppose I add that last bit on so I don't have to argue with people about the edgy balance between fate and free will/self-determination.

And finally - I'm always glad for someone to be a much better host than me. I always reckon that if people can't accept me the way I am, the way I have my environment, well, then they're not really friends. M isn't quite like that, not at all like that, in fact. A quote from The Unrecognised, the short story I published this year, the widower talking to his dead wife - "Hey, the tidying up you'd do, mental as always. That's what killed you, you know. All this worrying about what people might think about the way you kept house, when all they were interested in was you, nothing else. You're an old fool, and I miss you." Mmm, I do worry.

And now I should close this and start typing it up. That will happen in the morning. There are so many words in my head for these letters, for my unwritten books. I will work out an unplanned plan over the holidays to make more time for all this. I find myself stultifying because I'm not writing enough.

Christmas has come just at the right time. I will be me. I promise.

Much love to you and E, and all your family. You're a part of ours (meaning you and your family).


13 December 2016

Legibility was never high on the agenda

Dear Ren,

11th December 2016, 19:42

I start this knowing that I won't finish it today, but I felt the need to start it anyway. Last night I got an unbroken 8 hours sleep, which is close to a miracle for me. It probably has something to do with the whole front of the house being covered in scaffolding and tarpaulin (still one of my favourite Norwegian words - presening) because of the repair work going on. That in itself is a long story, and one I shouldn't bore anyone with. Suffice it to say a small repair job turned into a huge one, a second mortgage, to stop the front of the house collapsing in one corner, and the choice of builder appears to have caused some old prejudices in the village to resurface. We will see. I think we're resigned to the fact that it won't be finished before Christmas because lime render needs dryness and a not-freezing temperature to cure properly. And I know I shouldn't say this, but I don't actually like sleeping so late. Maybe I'll have to start setting an alarm for Sundays, too!

12th December 2016, 13:24

I had hoped to continue this sooner, but today is already proving to be a trial, mainly on the work front, and this is the day I write emails to all those who have applied for grants telling them whether they've been successful or not. Not my favourite day, I must admit - and that's probably all I can say about my job, a job I love but which I'm probably too emotionally attached into (and that's not a typo).

While writing this, right from the beginning, I'm listening (have been listening) to the Christmas mix-CD I send every year (your copy enclosed). This is the 15th! And even though you've not been getting them from the beginning, it's dead important to me that you do get one. This is Not Nul Points XV, and they started when we first moved to Norway and I discovered there was so much unbelievably brilliant stuff coming out of a country the English made fun of for getting Nul Points at the Eurovision Song Contest. Well, we'll be seeing who'll be getting Nul Points in European foreign relations, won't we? Can't ever resist a political jibe at those against free movement of people.

Anyhow ...

I think your poetry-Instagram allusion might be a little too modern (and that's probably because I'm so very old); it's probably that poetry, more than any other medium, was the way to commit visual events to memory. Of course, there's painting, but not everyone can paint in a representative way. Ok, not everyone can write good poetry, but you get the drift; and before we could take photos there was nothing more instant than words, and, to be honest, there still isn't. Although I have to admit that I am always envious of visual artists who can just hang up the fruits of their labour and sell them if they make an instant impression. Writers don't quite have the same avenue open to them (although exhibitive writing or whatever it's called is now increasing in significance). As usual, I'm probably simplifying too much.

As I write, K is messaging me on facebook with some outstanding news. Ah, the joys of children doing/achieving what they wish for. That's a warm feeling inside.

And now you've just messaged me. This merging of our digital and written communications, because I do think of your letters to me as paper letters, is quite odd and interesting - I got to thinking about this because I know from fb about the Old Lady's injury, and your letter assumes that knowledge. This modern age is brilliant in so many ways.

What's fascinating also is that many of your cultural references aren't mine - not because you're originally from the US, but because I moved to Germany when I was 3, and as a result have almost no childhood cultural references. So I don't know anything about The Little Engine That Could. And equally I have no real German cultural references, except for celebrating Christmas on Christmas Eve, as it should be. The only other one is that I was a Karl May addict - he's a German writer who died in 1912 who wrote over 70 adventure novels, most of them in the Wild West (Old Shatterhand being one of his main characters) and in the Middle East. I have all his books (in German) but the downside is that he's said to be Hitler's favourite author. I don't know what, if anything, that says about me.

Gashed - the one painting I've sold
Lies of omission - that's opening up a whole can of worms. They do say that most successful relationships are those where secrets are kept I'm never sure I agree with that. You see, the problem is that we'll all die on our own, even if we're with someone who loves us. So why die with secrets? Unless, of course, they are ones that happened before we loved, and ones which would destroy not enhance. I suppose this is just me wanting the world to be as I wish it to be, not how it really is. It can never be the way we want it to be, because that would involve immortality, wouldn't it? And that's where we get to the moments lasting forever full circle piece - I'm not sure I could write such a short story about that, because you're right. The downs are essential so we can have the ups. And eating healthy cake would be boring in so many ways. So better to have sadness AND happiness, to have love AND lust, to have tiredness AND passion. We can still write those stories if you want, but not this year. I have another new book in my head - all these ideas are making me scream and wanting to slow down time and/or win the lottery so I can write them. Perhaps I'm just not committed enough, because I don't want to sacrifice my family time, or my fitness time I(although today I have), or my job time, to the writing. Or my sleep. Pathetic, really.

Talking of sleep, I find wine very rarely interferes with mine. Though, of course, as M will tell you, I'm not actually very good at sleeping. I slept for over 8 hours on Saturday night, which for me is a miracle. I'm guessing if we average it out over the last 25-odd years, my nightly sleep is about 5 hours. And often I thrive on it, even now, although that's becoming rarer and rarer, and I find myself cursing whoever said old people need less sleep. I just curse sleeplessness when I'm sitting naked in the kitchen at 2 a.m. eating a biscuit and drinking water. Although at 1:30 this morning I was in my boxer shorts because O is now home and likely to be up and around at that time (as he was).

I've been messing up appointments etc recently, too, and not just recently, actually; most of my adult life. I have dreams of having a Personal Assistant. Ha! More recently I do think it's because there's too much in my head, as I'm sure there's too much in yours, too. That's the price we pay for being writers - because we're always carrying our stories around with us, always turning them over in our minds, from the expanse of plots down to minutiae of single words and phrases, trying out millions of versions of the same sentence until we find the one that's right, and probably exactly at the one time when we have nothing to write on, or when we're in the middle of a conversation with someone else (and probably important or dependent).

The only two reasons I don't forget this family's birthdays and anniversaries are the fear of being killed for forgetting, and the fact that I'm the romantic, the most romantic. And so men should be.

I'm afraid of enumerating all the fears I have when it comes to thinking about the family. I never had real existential fear before we had children. I'll leave that there.

Thank you for re-reading Bee Bones, and for liking it, and for not giving its essence away. I still think it sums up much of what I'd lived up to when it was written, and probably what I've lived since. I did write a version with a different ending but didn't like it as much. Do we have to like our own writing?

My hand-writing getting ragged now - that's because I've got one eye on the clock. I swear people won't ever understand that I have two full-time jobs - the one that pays the mortgage, and the writer job. "Just because I work from home doesn't mean I don't do anything," he screams at the world. Oh well.

This probably means I should bring this to a close. You can probably only read these letters because you have a typed version of them online. Legibility was never high on the agenda for me, nor being understood.

If we don't write before Christmas, God Jul til deg og E og ungene.

Have a peaceful time.



5 December 2016

Those perfect moments you wish would last forever; and infinity

Dear Ren,

4th December 2016, 12:15

Once again, my desk is littered with all sorts of detritus; things done and things undone - and an almost overflowing ashtray, bad man that I am.
I'm writing listening to K on the radio, the sun outside already almost gone, like a summer late afternoon, and it's only just gone noon. I think Advent is a way of bringing light into our darkness, all religious connotations aside. A friend of mine said the other week that we should make a lot of noise in this time, light many candles, burn lots of incense, to drive the dark spirits away. I think she has a point. I haven't done much research on this (I'm intrinsically lazy, so I never do much research on anything - except my books where my laziness actually distracts me into research in abundance rather than doing any proper writing), but I can imagine in the days before easily accessible artificial light, people who rose and went to bed with the sun finding that their days in the last six weeks before the end of the year were just too short, and they had to find a way of burning candles that wasn't seen as an extravagant waste of resources, so they began to mark the path to Christmas and New Year with the tradition of burning candles, and, in respect to frugality, started with only one, and then had a feast of four flames at the end of the weeks of waiting for the days to lengthen again. That sounds about right to me. I wonder if anyone has ever written a book called A Feast of Flames.

Funny how most of my books have started with titles rather than content. Maybe that's the best way, the title as the seed and the book as the harvest. Oh, here I have to admit that The Failed Assassin started as 31 Days of Shade, because I did write it in response to 50 Shades, because I wanted to show that a) a man could write non-misogynist erotica, and b) that erotica could be literary fiction and not just the "oh my" pap with submissive female characters. I suppose I would say it's a really good book, wouldn't I? But I think rightly, and if I can't say it, who can or will?

There is a problem with people who know me reading, not just FA, but any of my books. Two contrasting incidences - a woman who served as a governor on the board of the local high school with me got to the first of two (or three - can't remember) sex scenes in Dead Men and told me she couldn't carry on reading because all she could see was me. I think that's a shame. I've said before, and said to her, that none of the people in my books is me. The other - a couple I know (M and I met them ballroom dancing) bought a handbound copy of FA (one of only 5 in existence), and read it to each other - and liked it, and I don't think it was to spice up their love life (and if it was, power to them anyhow), but because they wanted to read something different to each other. And when I spoke to them after they'd read it, there was no mention at all of me, just of the characters who inhabited the book's world and shaped its action. I'd love you and E to read it and tell me what you think - because you read and think. Although the sex is 95% of the book, and some of it a touch extreme, it's meant as an illustration of the human condition, not a book filled with gratuitous sex. I had thought about trying to rewrite it without the explicit sex, but it would lose all its energy. After all, sex is what drives us. I think so anyway.

By the way, I was asked by my publisher to add a sex scene into Dead Men (which I did - though kept it brief and not explicit) because they thought readers may find it odd that there was no climax (pardon the pun) to a particular scene. I find it odd (and disturbing) that many people say they can't understand why Adam in Dead Men doesn't immediately try to sleep with Birdie, and, similarly, why Nairne in Bee Bones doesn't try to go to bed with Kate the first day he meets her. Some people have even said those two men are less than hot-blooded, and so I must be like that, too. Despite what I've said about sex being our lives' main driver, what's wrong with respect? What's wrong with waiting to see if you really love someone before you sleep with them? I'm not saying it's the only way, but to say there's something wrong with a man or woman who doesn't immediately want sex is just so stupid (and pathetic, actually - there, I said it). I hope you're enjoying Bee Bones, despite Nairne being such a cold-blooded man (joke).

Funnily enough, M has started loving action movies in the last few years, which is interesting in itself. Especially ones that are slightly tongue-in-cheek. Although she's not such a huge Lord of the Rings addict as I am (in fact she isn't at all). Having said that, I love romcoms (or even just roms, although I'm sure love films aren't known as that). Yesterday I shed my first annual Christmas tears just watching a 2-minute scene of Love Actually (A was watching it on DVD to distract herself from her period pains0. I just adore any films like that - maybe that comes back to me reading all the romantic stories in my mother's women's magazines i the Seventies and Early Eighties. And maybe that's why the core of all my books is love.

And now K is playing The Smiths' There Is A Light That Never Goes Out - now there's a love song if there ever was one. I suppose I am just an incurable romantic. I often joke to M that I should have been born a woman and she a man because of my eternal romanticism - and the stereotype view that it's the woman who's more romantic than the man. And other reasons, too ...


Been splitting wood for the last 2 or so hours (hence my writing is all over the place - I use a hammer and a wood grenade on the pieces that are too big to be split with an axe - makes me realise how strong blacksmiths must be, and how much stronger Thor must be to throw that massive hammer of his around).

I don't know about writing and it coming from a desire to create a parallel life. Unless it's a manifestation of all those alternative selves we have created at each critical juncture of our lives, atoms of us splitting away with each decision we make, each fragment of us going on to lead a different life. Do you still have that short story?

Sometimes I think letter writing is the art of talking past each other, not in a negative sense, but in the sense that to actually just address precisely what your correspondent has said in the latest letter, and not to impart something new and totally unrelated, would make letter-writing a very infertile art, a very barren landscape of words.

Having said that, he reverts to addressing magical thinking. Why would that ever be narcissistic? It is quite important that we think of ourselves at times, and look after ourselves, and very often what I understand as magical thought doesn't just make things better for us, but for other people, too. And, actually, I'm a great believer in no rules - in Tettig's Jewels the time travel paradox explicitly doesn't apply. Mind you, being devil's advocate as ever, if there is a universe where there explicitly are no rules, does that make it a universe with one overriding rule, therefore proving that there do have to be rules? Something to ask O, seeing as he's the student of Philosophy.

It's dark now, of course, and the energy of the sun and the wood splitting has dissipated. I wish sometimes there was a wood burner in this small office, so I could turn the lights off and listen to the music with just the light of the flames floating around my space. I often say to M that we should sleep in the living room where our wood burner is, just so we can go to sleep to the yellow light and the crackling of the logs. It hasn't happened yet - the bed is more comfy than the floor.

I think we are all blind to our own wisdoms - and I think it's probably best that way. Maybe that is exactly what wisdom is, actually. Otherwise it is narcissism. There can be no other explanation or way. The Oracle didn't know what it was saying - and that's exactly why its opinion was valued, why its opinion mattered, why it was wise. But at least it had moral reasoning, at least it had morals. Too many modern-day oracles (read politicians) don't actually have morals, or a moral compass. And that's why we have evil knocking at our doors, and that's why we need to keep lighting those Advent candles - to ward off the evil, and to remind us that we can make the future bright. Otherwise there is no hope.

I've read East European children's tales (and I presume you meant that East rather than further afield, where I've only ever read the Kama Sutra, and some other Tantric thoughts on sex, oh, and Kahlil Gibran - my father treasured him). I tend to steer clear of ghost and horror tales (and films) because I fund real life frightening enough as it is, and much of the ghost/horror genre seems to focus on the purely evil rather than the redemptive. And, as I said, with real evil at our doors, why read fictionalised evil? This is where I shiver.

Ice Child is melancholy, for a variety of reasons, which I can't really talk about because that would give the story away. I have sort of been back to it, mainly in my head, which is where the separate strands of the story are now at last beginning to organise themselves. And those strands are quite complex, and, as with all writing, to make the complex appear simple (and even to make the writing appear simple and effortless) requires a huge amount of effort. I'm not sure how overtly political it will be, because something I try to beware of is making my fiction too preachy. I don't have that same barrier when it comes to writing poetry or outright polemic.

Looking at the number of loose sheets I've already scribbled this letter on, I should really close it soon - just one more page, I promise.

Maybe it is just that I am permanently melancholic, just sometimes more deeply. Although the despair I feel when I am down seems very real to me. But, as I've said before, whatever I have, it can't be in any way be compared to the intense pain and suffering people with real mental health issues go through (I sometimes think I just imagine mine). My real melancholia kicks in every year on 22nd June because that's when the days start getting shorter (although I've been fighting against thinking that way in the last couple of years).

Just to end, my vision of the physical universe wasn't quite as sophisticated as yours. I used to lie in bed and think the universe was bounded by a white picket fence, and no matter how often I got close to that fence in my mind, I could never make out what was on the other side of it. So I was never untethered, just curious, and perhaps not brave enough to jump over the fence. Infinity is frightening in one way (distance, loneliness), positive in another (love, life after death if you think there is one, the indestructability of matter).

We had a lovely night out to celebrate M's birthday. You know when you have those perfect moments you wish could last forever? This has been such a weekend.

And I'm glad we don't know each other's birthdays. One less burden of expectation to bear, in the best possible way.

Much love to you and E. Live well.