Posted in essay

Why Do We Write?

When I was a child, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I don’t remember when or why, exactly, but given that I was a prodigious reader, it is not hard to guess that it was when reading one of my many books. I graduated from kids’ books to adults’ ones early on and the first efforts at writing that I can recall were action-packed detective stories filled with adventure and car-crashes.

Two weeks ago, I was invited to an international school here in Phuket to talk about being a writer. I was reluctant to do it because I have little to say on the matter. In fact, I have never liked talking about writing. As a child, I hid my writing and hid the very fact that I wanted to be a writer. It seemed, somehow, shameful. As a teenager and then as a university student I did the same, telling no one that I secretly wrote novels, short stories, poems, essays, and screenplays.

I agreed to the classroom visit only because my friend convinced me that her students would be really interested, and I knew that my childhood self would also have been delighted to meet with a real live writer. I prepared a few things to say, but from the moment I walked into the room I was bombarded with questions from eager twelve-year-olds. They really were curious, as my friend had said. They wanted to know everything, and for an hour and a half I answered their questions as best I could.

One girl said she was about halfway through writing a book on orcas and another boy had written a novel of some kind. I was impressed, but what interested me most was that they really wanted to know was how a writer could get enough words on paper to make a book publishable. “My book is only 73 pages,” the young novelist told me.

That made me smile and took me quickly back to my own early efforts. I remember trying to write a novel about a secret agent who lived in a refurbished plane in the Scottish highlands. I wrote and wrote and wrote… but when the story was about halfway done, it was only 10 pages long. The same issue plagued every other serious literary venture I embarked upon for most of my youth. It seemed a mystery to me how anyone could pad a story out to fill a 300-page paperback book.

My latest book, World Citizen.

Nowadays I find it harder to cut my writing down… and anyway, I don’t write much fiction. My last book was about Allen Ginsberg’s travels and before that I wrote about William S. Burroughs’ interest in Scientology. I’ve written a few other books, too, but when it comes to making up stories, I just don’t have the same imagination I did when I was young. If I do come up with a story, I can’t picture it in my head like I used to, and so I can’t put it down on paper in a way that a reader would be able to interpret. I wish I hadn’t lost all that, but maybe it will come back one day when I least expect it. For the time being, I’m happy writing literary histories and the occasional guide to English grammar.

One small girl at the front of the classroom, whom I think was younger than the others by at least a year or two, asked me an interesting question. She said, “Do you love what you do?”

From what I said at the beginning of this essay, I suppose it would seem that writing is a lifelong passion of mine. However, it is not a passion, really. It was, once upon a time, something that triggered a certain romantic feeling inside me. It was my calling in life, and maybe it would be my way of leaving my mark upon the world… Through university, I read all the great writers and learned about their often tragic lives, and it seemed that was what I was going to do. After graduation, I set out into the world pretty much in that fashion, determined to succeed as a writer.

In my early twenties, I read voluminously and wrote almost every day. I read everything I could get my hands on and tried writing in every style. My own personal writing style morphed with the influence of the writers whose work gripped me — the sparse Hemingway prose jarring me out of my long Kerouacian sentences before the vitriolic Gonzo diatribes got to me. I wrote novels and articles and did my best to get everything published. I kept nothing to myself.

Years later, when my wife left me very suddenly and my whole life fell apart, I tried to write myself out of the depression that ensued. I wrote day and night, and when I wasn’t writing, I was editing the work of other writers. Over the previous few years, I had gained some success with my first major book and a host of well-received articles and essays, and now I fired off article after article after article. From eight in the morning until five in the afternoon, I sat at a desk and just wrote. The words were not a joyous outpouring nor were they particularly healing. They were just a distraction.

At some point in the middle of this, I began writing crap articles that companies would pay me for. It was easy work but the going rate was abysmal. Fortunately, my cost of living was very low, so I was able to cover all my expenses through my various written works. For the first time in my life, I could call myself a professional writer… and for the first time in my life, I hated writing. I was competing for jobs that meant nothing alongside people who didn’t know where to place a comma, and the job more or less went to whoever would accept the lowest compensation for the most work. My writing skills, honed over two decades of practice, meant nothing because the people employing writers didn’t know what good writing was, nor did the readers or the Google algorithm which we were essentially trying to impress.

Soon after that, I stopped writing.

When that little girl asked me if I love what I do, I had to pause for a moment. I had promised myself before going into the classroom that I would not be negative about writing. I would not stand up in front of this group of eager young faces and say, “Do anything except write! Save yourself and find something that has a future! This world doesn’t respect writers!” It was not the right thing to say, even if it was reasonable advice in this climate.

Nowadays, writers are just not valued by our society unless they are writing shallow, derivative novels or sensationalist, sarcastic tripe that feeds into our outrage culture. There are so many books on sale nowadays that no one will read that novel you wrote unless you somehow get it reviewed in a major publication, and even if you get an article published somewhere, it will be forgotten in forty-eight hours, a victim of our goldfish-like, net-addled memories. Most websites don’t make enough to pay their writers now, and those that do don’t want writing; they want content. Content means a set number of words in an order that will please Google enough to bring visitors who will stay for enough seconds to ensure a higher ranking on the results page, which in turn leads to the clickbait adverts that provide the $2 per 100 words that you got paid to write that piece of shit…

So when she asked me if I love what I do, I said, “Yes… actually, I do.” The words caught me by surprised. I continued: “I don’t like writing for other people, but when I write what I want, whether it’s a page in a journal or for a book I’m working on, I really enjoy it.”

And it’s true. I do. It took me five years to write my last book, and yet I look back fondly upon the days spent in my office, my back aching as I hunched over my books and notes, researching every detail of a dead poet’s life for a book that will never be reviewed in a major publication, and which will earn royalties that, averaged out over five years of work, will never add up to more than a fraction of a percent of minimum wage. Yet I can honestly say that, for whatever perverse reason, I really and truly do get an immense kick out of writing. It is something I am driven to do, despite everything, and I am delighted to know that there are children out there who care enough to pursue it as well.

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Posted in update

New Book: World Citizen

It’s been more than 5 years since Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’ was published. I quickly began looking around for ideas for my next book, and decided to write about Allen Ginsberg, the poet who wrote “Howl” and “Kaddish” and “America”. After a few false starts, I eventually realized that I could write about his extensive travels. Amazingly, Ginsberg travelled to 66 countries, sometimes spending several years on the road. This was before Google Translate, Tripadvisor, and GPS apps…

Initially, I was interested in how and why he travelled, but as my research led me further into Allen’s world, I realized that travel really shaped who he was. In this new book, called World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller, I explore how travel shaped his poetry, politics, and personality. The book is broken into 4 sections, each covering a distinct phase of Allen’s travelling life: his first forays into the wider world, his early major journeys, the India trip that changed him forever, and his last journeys.

You can now buy World Citizen on Amazon, or go ask your local bookshop if you prefer.

You can read some related articles I have written about Ginsberg’s travels during my research for the book:

Posted in update

New Books

Although this blog has, in the past few years, become mostly a place for me to post photos, it used to be a bit more literary. I have been writing for as long as I can remember, and more than just the disjointed travel stories that now accompany my photography.

Back in 2007, I started Beatdom literary journal, which has since published 18 issues. We’re on a bit of a hiatus for now, but there’s still the occasional essay at www.beatdom.com. For those who don’t know it, Beatdom specializes in the Beat Generation.

Along the way, I’ve done various other projects, including novels and short stories. My best book was Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’, which came out 5 years ago.

Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' cover

I’ve written here about a new book I’m working on, World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. It’s more or less finished, but needs a little more work to get it just right. I expect it to be on sale in 2019.

However, I have kept quiet about a book I published a few months ago. I don’t know why. It didn’t jive with my Beatdom or photography work, and probably wasn’t of much interest to most people reading this.

Since 2010 I have been teaching IELTS, which is an exam for English students. I’ve gotten pretty good at it and in the last two years I’ve run an IELTS preparation website. To accompany the website, I wrote a grammar handbook. It covers the very basics of English grammar in a way that would help both teachers and students. It’s called Grammar for IELTS Writing.

new_cover

That book is, like most, available as a paperback or Kindle title. However, the next is only on Kindle.

Earlier this year, I travelled to India. I posted extensively about it on this blog. I travelled from Chennai to Mamallapuram, then across India via Thanjavur and Madurai, passing through some hill stations and Periyar Tiger Reserve, to Cochi and Varkala on the west coast.

While I was there, and after I got back to China, I wrote my experiences down in a different form to how I usually write here. I had been reading Bill Bryson on my travels and I tried to channel his style of wit. The result was Crossing India the Hard Way.

india book

Posted in travel

Retreating to the Hill Stations – Kodaikanal and Munnar

During the long colonial period, the various Europeans who lived in India found the summer heat oppressive and escaped to what they called “hill stations” – areas of comparatively cool climates up in the mountains. There are hill stations dotted all over India, and here in the south is one of the most famous, Kodaikanal. Although it is winter now, the more than thirty degree heat at sea level is oppressive enough, and I was eager to venture into the highlands for some decidedly cooler weather. More than that, however, I was eager to escape the crowded, polluted cities that, although they yielded much in the way of culture, were reminding me a bit too much of China.

My trip to Kodaikanal involved another agonizing series of bus rides. On the map, only a little over seventy kilometers separated my destination from Madurai, but the journey took nearly six hours as we wound slowly up perilous roads towards the plateau where Kodaikanal is located. When I arrived, I immediately felt the difference in the pleasantly cool air, and I barely broke a sweat on the thirty minute walk to my hotel.

Now that my feet were feeling better, I soon ventured out on my first hike. A very short walk through scenic – almost European – little villages on winding country roads brought me to a small waterfall in the middle of a forest. I was a little disappointed that it only took fifteen minutes to get there. After all those hellish bus rides, my sense of distance and time had evidently become completely warped.

There was little to see at the waterfall except for piles of trash other tourists had kindly deposited, but there was a group of college kids from Coimbatore who seemed eager to talk with me after I broke the silence by saying hello. Like so many people I’d met in India, they were very friendly and curious about life in other countries. They peppered me with dozens of questions until I turned the tables by asking them about themselves and their lives.

When I asked what they studied, one of them said, “What do you think? We study computer engineering like everyone else in India. Through a stone in this country and you’ll hit a computer engineer.” I hadn’t wanted to perpetuate any stereotypes, but a significant number of the people I’d met in India were indeed computer engineers.

When I asked for advice on where I could travel, they were surprisingly downbeat about their homeland. “India is boring to us. How many temples have you seen already? Too many. That’s all there is to see here – temples and more temples. And everywhere you go, there are so many people pushing and shoving to get the best selfie.”

We talked for about fifteen minutes and I was honestly quite impressed by how negative they were about India. Back in China, if you meet anyone, they’ll ask you the same series of annoying questions that always work up to the big one: “What do you like most about China?” Then they’ll tell you what they like best, which is usually one of the following:

  • The food, which is the best in the whole world
  • The culture, which is the best (and oldest) in the whole world
  • Their president, who is the best in the whole world

I suppose, being from Scotland, I have an innate distrust for anyone who lacks a capacity for self-deprecation.

Over the next two days, I continued to hike further and further from my hotel into the mountains surrounding the little tourist town of Kodaikanal. My first long hike began the next morning as I ventured west, past a number of little churches (India is much more Christian than I expected) and away from the main roads into thicker forests along progressively smaller paths. Every now and then, I would see a small group of people – usually college students – hiking and we would talk for a while before parting ways, but mostly it was peaceful. Sometimes I would see monkeys come down from the trees, and a few interesting birds. But there wasn’t much of a view as there were clouds all around. This just made the cool air even colder and more refreshing.

The further I walked, the quieter it became. I was delighted. Although India had offered up fantastic rewards, the price for these had been the crowds and traffic. Out here, I could hear only the birds and monkeys. But then another sound drifted through the forest. It was a sound that filled me with a sense of dread – the music of Jack Johnson. He is to tourist douchebags what John Williams is to Steven Spielberg movies. Soon I reached a small village of homestays and guest houses all filled with young foreign tourists. As I appeared, it seemed as though they all turned and looked at me and my Guns ‘n’ Roses t-shirt with disgust. They all had dreadlocks and nose piercings and wore Indian clothes probably made from organic cotton. The little shops that lined the narrow dirt street all advertised avocado toast.

What was this place? I wondered. I had come so far into the middle of nowhere and stumbled into some kind of hipster hell. If I wanted this kind of crap, I would have gone to Goa instead. I kept walking and soon disappeared down a tiny hiking trail that mercifully took me away from the little lost commune of assholes. I soon began to feel more comfortable. The trail led through the forest and down the side of a mountain. Occasionally, there were old men and women selling water and crisps, but mostly it was once again just me and my thoughts.

Sometimes I stopped at interesting or peaceful places but there was never much of a view because of the clouds. Occasionally they would part just enough to remind me that there was a world outside the mountain, but for the most part it looked like an old Japanese painting – more white space than actual paint. Once I stumbled upon a gaur – also known as the Indian bison. It is a dangerous but rare animal which inhabits these hills. Absolutely massive, with a large hump on its head, it looks menacing from any distance. However, I was determined to get a photo and attempted to get close to the great beast. I was confident that it would not charge me as I am quite familiar with photographing supposedly dangerous animals. It is true what they say – it is man who is the most dangerous animal. When you show other animals respect, they seldom pose any threat.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t realize was that there was a man nearby, and he chucked a rock at the gaur to scare it out of his path. The gaur rushed towards me as I dived out of the way. Thankfully, I was not gored, nor did I fall to death off the side of the mountain. But nor did I get my photo. I ran down the mountainside after the terrified animal, but it was like chasing bigfoot through the redwoods – I ended up with nothing but blurred shots of fur and trees.

*

The next day, I set out on another long hike through the hills, following a circular route that appeared on a map to be a pleasant walk in the forest. Unfortunately, I had misread my map and it was a road rather than a path that I walked along. I was also unaware that it was Independence Day and so any time I passed anything of even the faintest interest, it was obscured by twenty tour buses filled with loud Indians. Every viewpoint, every cave, and every interesting looking tree had a few hundred people crowded around. Of course, when my white face passed by, each person would turn and attempt to engage me in conversation, and then ask politely for a selfie.

“Where are you coming from, my friend?”

“Scotland.”

“Oh yes, very good police.”

I heard that about a dozen times over the course of the day. It finally dawned on me that they were referred to Scotland Yard, which is of course located in London.

When I returned to the town after twenty-five kilometers of interrupted hiking, it was to a new hotel. The first one, which was rather pleasant, had cast my out after my two night booking expired, and I was forced into a “budget hotel” that was actually far more expensive than any I’d previously stayed in. Whenever I inquired about an amenity – WiFi, hot water, bed sheets – the owner would smile and say, “No, sir. This is just a budget hotel.” I was amazed my room had a roof over it. The hotel was rather inconveniently located opposite the bus station, and all night I was treated to the loud honking that the drivers felt was necessary open entering or exiting the station, or indeed even just while staying parked. At five in the morning, I was awoken again by the sound of two Indians having a friendly conversation on the stairs outside my room. Just like the Chinese, Indians sometimes feel it is necessary to shout at the top of their voice when speaking to someone just a few feet away.

When morning came, it brought even more noise and I quickly checked out of the hotel and boarded a mini-bus for another hill station, Munnar. Located in the neighboring province of Kerala, Munnar sounded like it was more of the same – a cool, somewhat quiet retreat in the mountains. As I was sick to death of public transport, I opted for the far more expensive option of a minibus. I couldn’t bear the thought of another unnecessarily long and cramped journey.

Unfortunately, the owner of the minibus (which was actually just a large family car) had booked seven people into a car which could only hold six at most. My fellow passengers argued vociferously with him as I kept quiet. There were a few reasons for my silence. First and foremost, out of seven people, I was the only person travelling alone and therefore the most likely to be kicked out of the car. Second, I had quietly snuck into the passenger seat when the space issue first arose, and I didn’t want to give it up. And third, I am a coward and quite content to put up with unreasonable situations rather than confront anyone about the matter.

I watched in awe as an English radiologist calmly but forcefully refused to go anywhere in such a crowded vehicle, and demanded a refund if nothing was done about it. In the end, the owner backed down and two people were switched to another car. I was impressed and relieved in equal measure. We hit the road with five people in the car and plenty of legroom.

The bus ride up the mountain had been long and painful, but the ride down was entirely different. It was terrifying. I immediately began to regret sneaking into the front seat. The driver took the hairpin corners at breakneck speed, even though one wrong move would have sent us hundreds of meters down the side of the mountain. In true Indian style, he would approach a slower vehicle and beep his horn before blindly overtaking. If another car came in the other direction, it didn’t matter. Indians seem to think that the horn bestows magical powers on them. It is, in fact, a quirk of drivers all across Asia, and something that probably explains the horrendous number of deaths from car accidents across this bizarre continent.

Even though Kodaikanal and Munnar are just fifty kilometers apart, the route down one mountain and up another extends this journey so far that it took us an incredible six hours to reach our destination. Six hours of utterly reckless driving to the sound of Indian love ballads that came from the car radio. The views were probably stunning from beginning to end, but I spent most of my journey with my hands over my eyes or my head between my knees, alternating between blind terror and carsickness.

When we arrived in Munnar, I felt that my ordeal was over. I stumbled out of the car and went out to find a hotel. It seemed that every second building in Munnar was a hotel, guesthouse, or homestay. How hard could it be to find somewhere to sleep?

Four hours later, after trekking from one end of town to the other and back several times, I finally found a small and grossly overpriced hotel that had one available room. It was only double the price of the next most expensive place I’d previously stayed but by this point, even if the manager had asked me for a kidney, I wouldn’t have thought twice. I wanted to go to bed, not because I was tired but because I wanted the day to end.

Using the hotel’s mediocre WiFi, I arranged a better hotel for the following day. It was highly rated online, located in the quiet hills just outside of town, and marked down to well within my budget. I was delighted. The next morning, I set out for a short hike to some nearby tea fields and reveled in the beauty of the artificially manipulated landscape. It was a stunning sea of green – and best of all, I somehow stumbled into an area with no other people nearby so I could sit and enjoy it all in peace. Things were looking up for my stay in Munnar.

Irritatingly, when I returned to my hotel to pack my things and go, just a half hour before I was due to check in at the new hotel, I received an e-mail saying that they could no longer honor my booking. Those bastards, I said to myself. Those complete and utter bastards. I looked again online and could find absolutely nothing comparable. In the twelve hours since I’d booked, almost everything else had been taken. Instead, I booked a modest room in town and pledged to get the hell out of Munnar the next morning. Beautiful tea fields or not, Munnar could get fucked.

I angrily shoved my things into my backpack and set off on the long walk back through town to the southern end of Munnar, where my hotel was located. When I arrived, I found that my backpack hadn’t been fastened properly and I’d left a trail of clothes stretching two kilometers back along the dusty road. It was, as they say, one of those days.

After confusing the locals by slowly winding back through town, picking up dirty socks and underpants off the filthy roadside, I hunted down a small hiking trail near my hotel and climbed up through the tea fields to the top of a large mountain. It was a long climb, but I had a lot of pent up anger to get out, and the exertion felt good. When I reached the top, I was inside a cloud and there was a gentle breeze. All around me the scenery was beautiful – just the outline of the mountains were visible through the haze. From down below, you could just hear the sound of cars leaving Munnar as the Independence Day holiday drew to an end. But I didn’t care about what was down below anymore. I spent an hour climbing large boulders and scanning the landscape, before just sitting on a big rock and letting all the stress melt away in the wind.

Here’s the thing about travelling in India – it’s not easy, but you should never expect that it would be. If you want a calm, relaxing holiday in a lovely environment, there are countless places in the world to do it. And if you really want to see the best of India and avoid all the shit, you could probably pay for that, too. Instead, some of us travel the hard way in search of something we don’t even know. We chuck some things in a backpack, head for the rickety old local bus, and stay in roach-infested hotels. If you let it, this can all get you down pretty badly. But you need to learn how to rise above it, and when you do, what you find is that you emerge into a better world than anyone else could see. In Thanjavur I had witnessed a busload of fat Americans half-heartedly sticking their iPhones in the direction of incredible carvings and snapping a photo without even taking a look at what was there. They had probably seen so many temples and other historical locations that day that Brihadeshwara meant nothing to them except maybe a few likes on Facebook and Instagram. My time in India had been challenging, but when I look back on it, I will remember the highlights all the more for the effort I put into getting there.