A THICK SKIN (part 1)

‘The covers of this book are too far apart.’
– Ambrose Bierce

In terms of how well I weather criticism, I have a very thin skin. I have the skin of an Antarctic krill. An Antarctic krill doesn’t have skin exactly; it has a chitinous shell from which it sometimes ejects itself to use as a decoy against predators. The krill leaves this tiny ghost self behind while it makes a getaway. This is a way of saying, um, that when someone (clearly a predator) criticises something I’ve done, I will usually fire off a decoy reaction – ‘Oh yes, good point, you are right, everything is fine’ – and then I hastily retreat, naked and small and bereft, into the depths. There, I wait for my dainty shell to re-grow.

Criticism can be very good for a person. It can be a gift. We know this. And useful criticism of creative work (and of anything, really) – whether it’s in a published review, a workshop, a conversation or email with a friend or family member, whatever – nearly always grows out of respect: respect for what someone’s work is trying to do, respect for the person who made it and how hard it might have been.

So that’s great. But also, criticism can really hurt, can lodge itself like a cursed stone in your shoe in a way that praise never really does. It can feed our worst insecurities and replay horribly in our minds, usually when we are just about to give an important presentation or go to a party. It replays even more furiously once we have made a shambles of the presentation and have fled the party at 9 o’clock, weeping. I think criticism is felt especially keenly by those of us who don’t have healthy self-esteem. Self-esteem is a tedious responsibility that we are lumbered with from birth – like owning a pet, we are duty-bound to feed this thing, keep it healthy; we can’t go anywhere happily unless it’s taken care of. I recently listened to a podcast that more aptly described self-esteem as your armour in the world: the healthier your self-esteem, the more resilient you are. Words have to be particularly sharp to break through the armour into the soft innards beneath. When we say someone has a thick skin, I think we just mean they have good self-esteem.

None of us is exempt from occasionally being told that our work is just no good and that, by extension, we are no good. None of us is exempt from being told that we should be grateful for receiving any feedback at all. But maybe we can learn something from one another in how to deal with this. Or, if not that, then find some small comfort in one another’s responses. I decided to ask some people whose work I really like – mostly they are writers, and some are performers – whether criticism is easy for them to take. I am especially interested in how they move on from it, or not.

This is the first of a two-part post.

Eamonn Marra, comedian

Most the reviews and criticism I have had have been positive. I’m not sure if this is because I deserved it, or if it’s because I come across as quite vulnerable when performing and people feel the need to protect me from bad criticism. So most the time criticism has been a positive experience.

Except for one review from comedy festival show from last year ‘Man on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’. The opening night was a mess, I was underprepared and had not rehearsed the show enough. I lost my place constantly and ended up essentially reading the show off a piece of paper. The next day I got two reviews: one was nice enough but said I needed to work on it, the other was very harsh and made me feel like the show was unworkable and I was a bad comedian, rather than underprepared and messy. I think the harsh review was more accurate of the show to be honest. The first night was not good at all but it hit me pretty hard. I spent the next day in bed feeling sad then did the show again that night and it was even worse than the first night. Then the next day I spent all day rehearsing and practising and rewriting and for the last two nights it went really well. And luckily I got a really good review and won an award from the last two nights which mostly cancelled out the shitty feeling from the first two nights.

I think if it wasn’t for the bad review I would have worked on it a day earlier rather than wallowing in sadness for a day, but then maybe I wouldn’t have worked as hard as I did to make the show better. And I don’t even really hold anything against the reviewer who gave me a bad review in the end, because I think I did deserve it because my show was shit on the first night, and he was being honest rather than trying to protect me. The only thing which I got annoyed at was in the review he compared me to Woody Allen which I would rather not be because he is a paedophile.

Morgan Bach, poet

One of my early experiences of criticism of the negative kind was in an undergraduate writing class, where something I was trying to pass off as a short story (but was really of no defined genre, though it made some kind of thematic sense as a ‘piece’, to me) got savaged. At first it was hard to take, but then I got a kind of sick pleasure out of it. The masochist in me started relishing it, and wanting more. By the time I got to an MA workshop, I was asking them to get the knives out and really hack into my work, though I feel I’ve still been treated gently to this point. Having just published a first collection, I must be slightly dreading what’s coming (in terms of reviews, etc), as the prospect of reading them from the other side of the world has held enough appeal for me to book my flight there. It’s not a particularly sustainable tactic for a writer, though, with all our cash for plane tickets.

John-Paul Young, musician and music therapist

When I had just about finished recording my second album, I sent off a rough copy to my older brother – whose opinions about music I have valued enormously since about the age of 14.

Neil responded with a very thorough and thoughtful email, going through the album track by track and dismantling each of the songs. He correctly assessed that many of the songs were half-baked and would benefit from further reworking. I should stress that this was not done in a mean or belittling way, but really trying to make the songs better.

Unfortunately the email arrived after I’d already spent hundreds of dollars and many weeks recording these apparently unfinished songs, so it was rather discouraging.

The best way to have responded would have been to follow Neil’s advice and whittle away the weaker songs until I was left with a (smallish) EP of good songs. Instead, I set about bowdlerising and butchering the songs that he had taken particular exception to – obliterating and/or replacing lyrics with bursts of feedback and guitar solos, re-recording and changing parts of songs, etc. The end result was that I lost all confidence and perspective on the songs, and turned in one of my patchiest efforts to date.

Although it was chastening experience, I am grateful that I had some honest feedback about the album. I learnt from this episode, and spent a lot more time writing and planning the songs for my third album. I didn’t go near a studio until I felt that they were as good as I could make them. This meant I felt a lot more confident during the recording process and then afterwards, when it came time to foist the album on the public.

Harry Ricketts, poet, biographer, academic

What to do about negative criticism, a bad review? Ideally, you should try to see whether the person has a point which you can learn from. Maybe that poem, novel, painting, play or song really wasn’t as wonderful as it seemed in the heat of making it. Or it is, but this reviewer or friend or whoever has quite different preferences and tastes. In practice, of course, it’s almost impossible to turn the resentment, hurt, sense of being squelched, misunderstood, under-appreciated etc. into such productive channels; the misery gnaws away. But trying to direct the misery somewhere else, to use it, is a good idea, if you can. I’ve sometimes written a lampoon or clerihew about the person. Two other things I do are talk to a sympathetic friend who knows what it’s like, and I go back to poems or pieces of writing of mine that I’m as sure as I can be are fairly good. I did it before; I can do it again (perhaps).

Tim Upperton, poet

I haven’t had many reviews, so I should be grateful for the ones I get, I suppose. But I’m not. I remember a sentence from a review of my first poetry collection: ‘Heavy poems can leave a reader with an intense grimy experience.’ I guess that means something, but what? What’s a ‘heavy poem’? Are my poems insufficiently uplifting, for his taste? I quite like ‘an intense grimy experience’, but I don’t think the reviewer does. Fuck him.

Martyn Pepperell, DJ and music writer

A few years ago I interviewed Flying Lotus. He told me that he felt like ‘Everything was on the line, all of the time.’ As someone who leans towards expecting the worst, I related to the sentiment. The flipside of expecting the worst is you tend to be pleasantly surprised by how things actually play out. Sure, while I might have a micro freak-out after clicking ‘send’ or ‘post’, the feedback that comes back is never as bad as the scenarios I can nightmare up inside my mind.

It’s nowhere nearly as easy as this sounds, but it’s just a case of objectively looking your feedback or critique over and asking yourself if any of it is worth taking on board. If it is, you’ve just been given the opportunity to develop yourself, which is pretty great really. If not, it is what it is. No matter how crushing the feedback or criticism is, it doesn’t compare to how good it feels when everything lines up smoothly. But you’re just not going to get to that place without critique, internal or external (preferably both).

Hinemoana Baker, poet and musician

I used to think of myself as quite sensitive about my writing, but 12 years in a writing group has disabused me of pretty much all vestiges of that. Now I kind of crave it. There’s very little more satisfying to me nowadays than someone telling me they don’t think a poem is working, and here’s why . . . Of course it’s way more fun if they say unequivocally that they love it and I’m a genius. But I wouldn’t believe them, anyway, if not for the fact that they can critique effectively.

It was harder earlier on. When I was doing the MA in Creative Writing I got a couple of stinging critiques, and one of them was from someone I totally idolised. It was personal, nasty and not terribly useful to me as a writer. I think if I got it nowadays I would just assume that the person had been particularly out of sorts that day. But back then, I went to bed for a couple of weeks, until Bill Manhire rang me and was kind to me down the phone. Then I got up again.

In terms of shrugging things off – well, my catch-phrase of the last few weeks is (it changes regularly) Grow the Fuck Up. Mean, I know. But there are a few areas in my life where it’s proving quite useful at the moment.

Rhodri Marsden, journalist, member of many bands

I find it quite hard to deal with the idea of having disappointed people. Whether I subsequently experience insecure misery or indignant fury depends on how good the original piece of work was, I guess, and whether the criticism was justified. Often it is; in journalism I’ll get facts wrong or write clumsily, in bands I’ll do shit gigs or make distinctly average records. And if I know I’ve not done something that’s up to scratch I think I sometimes try and hide from criticism; I won’t read the comments or the reviews and just resolve to just do better next time.

But if the criticism is based upon lazy, judgemental thinking then I’ll want to confront it – but these days I rarely bother. There was an incident a few years ago when I wrote something for The Independent about Apple’s launch of the App Store, and someone in the comments section got the wrong end of the stick (mainly due to poor phrasing on my part) and gave me a hard time. I responded in a sarcastic fashion and had a rant about it on Facebook. Next thing I know I’m featured in Private Eye; they reported the facts wrongly and it made me look not only touchy but also completely ignorant.

I think I realised at that point that you have to either swallow the criticism or, if you’re going to react at all, react politely and humbly. Otherwise bad feeling just explodes, with geyser-like force. For example, I got some stick on Twitter last year for something I wrote about Walthamstow. One bloke was being particularly vicious, and I really don’t understand that behaviour; it IS possible to criticise without being abusive, and yet abusive mode seems to be the default. Anyway, I was just persistently nice back, and after an hour or two he calmed down and invited me out for a pint to chat about it. (I didn’t go, though.)

Given that there’ll always be someone who thinks that your work is a heap of shit, and that you’re fairly likely to hear about it, you’ve got to adopt the attitude that it doesn’t really matter. Otherwise your self esteem will spiral downwards in a vortex of your own making. But at the same time, you’ve got to be attuned to the criticism that’s justified in order to improve your own work. Striking that balance isn’t easy. But I’m finding it easier. Maybe it’s to do with getting older. Or just my brain adapting to the realities of life online.

James McNaughton, novelist, poet in a former life

I find reviews incredibly distracting when I’m working. For me, writing involves a kind of balancing act – if anything breaks my focus I fall off the high wire, or can’t climb up to it. I appreciate warnings: ‘Incoming!’ so I can steel myself and keep dreaming.

But there comes a time when you have to wake up and run away from the circus. Strangely relieved, you wander with tumbleweeds. An old newspaper cartwheels past.  You grab it, because you’ll read anything. Incredibly, there’s a review of your novel! Touched and full of gratitude you read it with your utmost attention. And then you read it again. 

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Anemone

On a long-haul flight, time stretches, warps, balloons. As we fly across time zones, in and out of days and nights, time becomes a tangible substance that we move through, like dense fog, or like water. It seems to exist only in the space outside the plane. Inside the plane there is no real time, and there is no real sleep and no real waking. The air conditioning circulates the same brittle air. People communicate in nudges and murmurs. We try to sleep, lopsided in our seats, like crushed cans. It’s a strange static dimension – at first enjoyable, because there’s nothing to do but read, eat, drink, sit, and it feels like a little holiday, but soon those actions begin to wear and we long to walk into another room and talk to somebody or open a door and walk outside. On this flight, between Auckland and Los Angeles before flying on to London, I was sitting next to two young rugby players in their uniforms, and I was reading Alan Lightman’s book The Accidental Universe. It’s a collection of essays in which – very broadly – Lightman, a physicist, explores discoveries about the universe from a philosophical and emotional perspective as well as a scientific one. It’s a book I’ve read before, but I was reading it differently this time, paying closer attention, hoping that my semi-wakeness might lower my defences and help me notice more. Lightman is an unusual physicist in that he’s intensely interested in religion – particularly Buddhism – and literature and art, and in how these things widen a scientific perspective, and vice versa. He has that kind of restless, search-beaming mind that, as you follow it, seems to open up possibilities for understanding the universe, and the tiny accidental blip of human life within it, even as he arrives at more questions rather than answers. Reading this book reminds me of my first memories of flying in a plane, with my parents and my brothers JP and Neil – looking out the window and down at the town below, seeing the cars on the tiny roads, the rivers, the sheep. I was thrilled and haunted by how small all our busy-ness had become.

On my flight I read one of the essays, ‘The Temporary Universe’, a number of times. There was something in it I wanted to grasp but couldn’t. It opens with Lightman describing his daughter’s wedding, and his feeling that it’s a sort of tragedy – he wishes that she could have stayed the same, that he could have his younger daughter back, as she was at ten or twenty. (She’s only thirty in this essay, but, alright, fair enough, Lightman.) He has this irrational wish, he explains, for permanence, despite his scientific understanding that everything around us – the universe, the earth, our own bodies – is relentlessly shifting and evaporating. Nature shows us that time is constantly wearing away at what we know in this moment, and that to hope for lasting stability is futile. But in a profound contradiction, people still cling: to knackered old shoes, to photographs, to products that might make us look more like our younger selves, to a house perched on a clifftop that’s falling into the sea. This clinging is ridiculous in the face of the second law of thermodynamics – otherwise known as the arrow of time – and yet many of us can’t relinquish a desire for the people and the things that we love to never change and never leave us. ‘The universe has an infinite supply of time and can outlast any player,’ says Lightman. I was expecting him to leave it there: to tell us with a shrug and a smile, like the cobbler who can’t fix his falling-apart shoes anymore, that we have to accept this and get on with things. But then he suggests that, maybe, nature is not yet complete. Maybe it’s nature, not us, that can be found wanting. ‘Perhaps this immortal thing that we wish for exists beyond time and space.’

A few short days earlier, my brother Neil’s partner of nearly ten years, and the mother of their two small children Kiwa and Ngaire, took her own life. When I spoke to Neil on the day that it happened, a Saturday morning on the other side of the world, when paramedics and police were still in his home in Brixton, I heard a roaring sound in my ears and my whole body seemed to go numb. Then it felt like time stopped. The next morning, when it was night in London and the end of Neil’s first day living with what had happened, I walked outside. I saw a young woman pushing a pram with a toddler inside it, and a dog on a leash trotting beside them. A few cars hissed past, and a cyclist. These were indications that time was continuing to continue. Each indication felt piercing, acute, like the harshest glare of sunlight.

Neil was the one who found Jeng on the morning she died. On the first few days afterwards, in deep trauma, when numbness set in, he said that he became like a sea anemone, responding only to the environment around him in each moment. I keep picturing a sea anemone, attached to the sea bottom, its skeletonless body triggered by the slightest touch. Beneath the weight of miles of water above it, it moves around very slowly in the dark.

Lightman quickly – but with empathy, letting us down gently – dismisses the notion that a magnificent immortal substance exists in nature. It’s too preposterous to believe. And yet, like so many of us, he can’t force his mind to the dark place where he might truly accept that ‘in a few short years, my atoms will be scattered in wind and soil, my mind and thoughts gone, my pleasures and joys vanished’. In the essay’s uplifting final paragraphs, he writes that perhaps mortality grants a sort of grandeur on its own; perhaps there is something majestic in the brevity of our lives. And he writes, of course, about the night-blooming cereus, the leathery plant that blooms for only one night a year.

It is very hard to see the grandeur of brevity when a person’s life is cut short, and perhaps particularly hard when it is the person herself who cuts it short. Instead of beauty, the far stronger impression is of cruelty. When Lightman writes so vividly of the wearing effects of time, I think instead of the wearing effects of depression, with bitterness, because, whereas time outlasts us all, it’s not inevitable that depression will outlast the depressive. When he writes of the way the universe falls apart and constantly yields to disorder, and the way that the genes of some living things are subjected to random chemical storms so that, in time, they become degraded, like ‘forks with missing tines’, I think of these processes as the turmoil of depression, of what happened to Jeng in a space where nobody else could reach. In one way, this kind of thinking helps: Jeng was ill, and what happened may have been the result of a random storm of her illness, or perhaps the storm had been building for some time. In another way, it does not: if only she could have held on through this last storm. At this moment, the wish to reach into the past and hold on to someone is an even more profound futility than the futility of trying to stop time.

My seven-year-old nephew Kiwa likes to play Minecraft. The other day, my brother Neil says, Kiwa found himself stuck inside a dimension of Minecraft that he couldn’t get out of. He felt very alarmed by this and Neil had to help get him out of there, though it took some time and some trial and error. The FAQ boards providing advice on how to escape such dimensions say things like: ‘You need to set up a temporary shop by collecting leather, feather and sugarcanes, and go myst-hopping forth and back until you find one with a star fissure symbol. Temporary home, if you will.’ ‘Create a portal to the twilight forest. Once on the other side if you jump through the portal to go back home, it seems to drop you in the overworld.’ ‘Die, then escape limbo by finding the void.’

Maybe the place where his mum has gone, he said to Neil, is like the dimension in Minecraft. She has got lost, got stuck.

When I walked through Brixton the morning after I landed, on my way to Neil’s, through the morning rush to the tube, nearly every face I saw was squinting, grimacing, into bright grey sunlight, pressing forwards.

I don’t believe that we can ever consider the brevity of Jeng’s life to be in itself beautiful, to be majestic. Just over a week later, accepting that she is no longer here and will not come back is to force our minds into a dark place. Coming to terms with the inevitability of the past rather than that of the future is the impossible thing; learning to live in the reality that one terrible decision has made seems like the impossible thing. But we can consider many, many moments of her life to be beautiful, each of these accidental, shining blips within a life, within a universe: Jeng walking through the Brixton markets with shopping bags over her shoulder, Jeng riding her bike to work, Jeng making dumplings, Jeng in the countryside holding Ngaire’s hand. We can also consider the pressing-forward of those left behind to be beautiful. As my brother paces himself through the coming days, not only trying to process a deep trauma but also working his way through many grim administrative tasks, such as speaking to a coroner and closing bank accounts and explaining to many people what has happened, he moves around a little bit more, begins to make the very first movements, very slowly, upwards through the weight.

Neil, Jeng, Kiwa, Ngaire

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Your coat

A woman smiles out of a plastic coat,

its yellow turning rain to torches.

 

Light rests on a man waiting to cross,

touches the small face inside his stroller.

 

The hills pull fog around them

and push on to the sea

carrying all our houses.

 

The boat folds around you today

carrying away our silence.

 

When you ride home tomorrow around the bay

see how flowers cloak just one tree

and leave all the rest green.

 

[for Jeng, 23 May 2015]

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Dear Bob Cunis

One of the things I did when up was up in Auckland for the writers’  festival was meet my friend Donald for breakfast one morning, on K Road, just after I had fallen over while walking to meet him. It was raining and those little raised metal dots that announce a pedestrian crossing were slippery. Both of my legs shot out from underneath me like they were on model train tracks, then I was lying down on the road. It almost felt good. It’s better to be unambiguous about falling over. A wave of pedestrians came towards me with concerned faces, and that made me feel good too, in the midst of shame. Anyway, Donald was my high school music teacher in the late 90s. We’ve stayed in touch off and on, and he still plays clarinet in various orchestras and teaches music. He is a tall man with a large smiling face and he has a lot to say. He says things like: ‘Wait – I have just remembered an anecdote from my past.’ In my mind he always wears a mustard-coloured corduroy jacket – this was the jacket he always wore as my music teacher – even though he’s been wearing other sorts of jackets for the last few years.

‘I’ve been thinking about getting rid of my TV,’ said Donald. We were sitting in a cafe where rumpled, writerly-looking types were dotted around the tables. I noticed a man I had danced at aggressively at Bar Bodega, like some kind of dancing bully, about ten years ago and I took care not to catch his eye. I remember him reciprocating but reluctantly.

I can’t remember word for word what Donald said, but I have an approximation. I was lamenting the fact that I don’t give myself much time to write these days – I am always doing something else at the same time, or thinking about things I have to do, or feeling worried about spending time on it at all; this is always a banal thing to say but it also seems like an inevitable thing to say, it just comes up as soon as people start talking about their art. Donald said: ‘I’ve been thinking about getting rid of my TV. But the thing is I’ve taken to practising my clarinet in front of the TV while watching movies. This is actually how I watched the entirety of Frozen.’

I haven’t seen Donald play for a few years but I remember him being an expressive player. He sways around and bobs at the knees, and wears a deep frown on his face. I pictured Donald standing up in front of the telly while playing his clarinet. It struck me as a version of shouting at the TV. ‘But can you take in anything of what’s going on in the movie while you’re playing?’

‘Well, every now and then I’ll stop so that I can catch a bit of dialogue or something, but it’s amazing how much you can follow just by watching the action and playing the clarinet.’ Then he said: ‘I’ve just remembered something from my past. My friend once told me about the cricketer Bob Cunis, and how there was this radio commentator who was rambling nonsensically about Bob Cunis when nothing was going on in the match. He said something like, “Ah yes, there goes Cunis … Cunis, a funny sort of name; neither one thing nor the other.” And my friend said that when I’m playing my clarinet in front of the TV, I’m pulling a Bob Cunis, because it’s neither here nor there, it’s neither one thing nor the other. So that’s why I’m thinking about getting rid of my TV, because it would be better for my clarinet practise; I wouldn’t be pulling a Bob Cunis, I would just be doing one thing instead of two things.’

This story came back to me later, because I realised that I myself pulled a Bob Cunis over the weekend. On Sunday afternoon I had to read at the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize. Along with Alice Miller and Diana Bridge, I was a finalist to win twelve thousand dollars, an amount of money that seems almost limitless to me – ‘I would be set for life!’ I cried to myself derangedly – as it is vastly, vastly more money than I have ever had in my bank account, and although I told myself that I wouldn’t win, and although I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t win (it’s funny how you can ‘know in your heart’, but all of your other organs wrestle the heart to the ground to get it to shut up), there was clearly a small but stubborn part of me that was hoping I would. This part of me was losing control. It had got on a plane with the money and flown to the other side of the world. There is a lesson here. Hope is inevitable. But you can keep the hope under control by keeping it to yourself. My mistake was to talk to other people about what I might do with the money. What good literary cause should I donate some of the money to? What charity? Should I start up a fund for something? (I became obsessed with doing something very worthy with this money.) But also: should I get a new bike, and what sort? What kind of nice winter coat? All of these questions were mistakes, because when people responded, their answers gave the possibility a sharper form, and hopefulness, with its deadly bulk, began to overshadow pragmatism. From time to time I would give myself a stern talking-to. ‘You know that this is not how prizes work; you don’t win them just from hoping.’ This worked for a while, and then this other voice would say: ‘Obviously that’s true, but, you never know …’ I imagined one outcome and then the other, over and over; the two began to overlap and blur together. I was pulling a Bob Cunis, doing and believing neither one thing nor the other, and I wandered around like that for ages; like an actual cricket match it went on painfully for days and days.

The oddest – and, alright, the most pitiful – thing is looking back at the acceptance speech that I scribbled in my notebook on Sunday morning. Writing this speech, too, was a mistake, but a hard one to avoid. You tell yourself: I’m just being sensible, I must be prepared for all outcomes. But mostly what you are doing is exercising a catastrophic hope. I share a snippet of this speech here in an effort to defuse some of its woefulness. (I would like to make an anthology of unused acceptance speeches. Little unmade futures.)

Doomed acceptance speech

But, ridiculously, when all three finalists were quietly told an hour or so before the reading who had won (it was Diana Bridge, congratulations Diana), I felt extreme relief. Thank fuck! There would be no expectations. I could continue to write in the margins and no one would accuse me of being ungrateful. And I wouldn’t have to decide what to do with the money. I would not have to be responsible. I could wallow in the strange comfort of my debt once more. But I still felt disappointed, and I noticed that my hands were shaking and I felt sick. It was like experiencing a physical withdrawal from hope; and becoming, again, just one thing, instead of two things.

Just before the reading, I bumped into Greg O’Brien and said that I didn’t know where the green room was – the place where all the writers had to meet before the event. Greg linked my arm in his and cried, ‘Look, I’ll take you there!’ and escorted me down the stairs. At the bottom, he said, ‘I’m putting my money on you!’ This conviction, even if it was off-the-cuff, something to be said in between places, suddenly felt like it was enough for me. I didn’t need anything else. I said, ‘I have reservations, but I’m definitely feeling hopeful.’

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Five rides

1. The blogger Whale Oil calls cyclists ‘road maggots’. I can’t help but find this quite funny. Sometimes I think about it when I’m riding along. Does this analogy make cars blowflies?

2. On Friday, the day before Anzac Day, I rode past Memorial Park, and sidled my way past some coned-off army tanks – some of the ‘vintage World War I vehicles’  from Peter Jackson’s collection – which were to be used in the Anzac parade later that day. As I waited at the lights, I imagined one of the tanks clanking into life and nonchalantly rolling over me.

3. On my ride home at night recently, I’d stopped at a red light when four young guys came straggling across the road, all loose arms and rubbery lips, with beer cans in their hands. I thought, here we go. I looked straight ahead. I believe I looked mildly threatening.

‘HEY!’ one of the guys said. I looked at him and he said, ‘You wanna ride a different bike?’ He gestured at his crotch in case I hadn’t got it.

I told him that yes, I would like to ride a mountain bike. He ignored this, and one of the other guys shouted at me, ‘He wants to take you for a ride.’

I said loudly that I wanted a bike with disc brakes.

The first guy made a sort of confused screeching noise. Then the other guys shouted some stuff and then they straggled off, like a many-armed resurrection plant scuttling across the desert. I hope they had a nice night.

4. When I’m biking into a strong headwind, a silent space opens out in front of me. It’s a small bubble that moves with me, perched between my legs and face. I breathe into it as I would into an oxygen mask. Outside of the bubble, the wind is roaring in my ears, and no matter how many times I’ve cycled through a strong headwind, the ride is always frightening, like spadefuls of air are falling onto me, burying me and my bike. Sometimes they hit me sideways, so I swerve, or they hit me from the back so that I go surging forwards. But it feels like as long as I keep this silent bubble balanced on my lap, I’ll be alright. Like a viewfinder, it puts the world at a distance. Even as I heft my bike up onto my shoulder to walk down the steps to the flat, and wind is still squalling around and the white tail of Jerry is flagging my way, the bubble of silence seems to bob along with me.

5. Last night I dreamed that I was cycling up the hill home when I saw my boss cycling down on the other side of the road. The first thing I noticed was that he wasn’t wearing a helmet, and his hair was streaming out behind him. He was spinning the pedals furiously and he had an anxious look on his face. In the dream I thought to myself, ‘He’s making a getaway! What’s he running from?!’ Later I discovered that he was involved in some kind of illegal whaling operation, and the police had arrived and he’d been fleeing the scene.

 

Unknown photographer for the Daily Herald, via

c. 1940s, unknown photographer for the Daily Herald, via

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Lunch poem

These men are walking slowly.
They have angled their heads so they are not
looking at one another. They are wearing plum-coloured
jerseys with fresh, oxygenated shirts
pointing out their collars.
Their pants are rolling tyres.
They are moving very slowly now.
Their shoes are lead-bearing ores.
The napes of their necks, little flags.
Now their heads are lowered, forcing the men
to stare at the leaf-blowered path.
A rumble is coming. It is the rumble of large
submerged propellers
beginning to churn inside the men.
They are walking very slowly.
They are assembling a conversation.
We shall not pass them. There is no room.
One of us tries and is sucked into their propellers.
Should we call the police to make them walk faster?
‘Walk slower, walk slower,’ says the path they walk over.
‘A bit slower,’ say the windows
the men fill with plums and greys, as they go by.
The men are walking very slowly.
They are walking to the university.

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Exchanges

I met my friend to talk about work. But what we ended up talking about instead was friendship. He said he was thinking of writing a book about friendship. I told him about an essay by Vivian Gornick that I recently read and that maybe he would like. It’s mostly about Gornick’s friendship with a difficult man named Leonard. It’s a sad essay. There is a moment when Gornick has farewelled Leonard and, going up the elevator into her apartment, she starts to ‘feel on my skin the sensory effect of an eveningful of irony and negative judgement. Nothing serious, just surface damage – a thousand tiny pinpricks dotting arms, neck, chest – but somewhere within me, in a place I cannot even name, I begin to shrink from the prospect of feeling it again soon.’ I told my friend that I had recently had a falling out with another friend and that I wasn’t sure what to do about it. He said that a lot of his friends are starting to die now and he wasn’t sure what to do about that either.

I got a text from my mother to say that my aunt, my dad’s sister, died. I remember very little about her, but I do remember her face well. She had a chin-length greyish bob and drooping eyes and a quick walk. Maybe she wore soft skirts and long cardigans. The last time I saw her I was maybe eight. My father sent me a message on Facebook (that is, he wrote it on my Facebook wall) to say that at the funeral he’d sung a tribute to his sister, and his singing was very off-key, but it went down very well. ‘In fact I was mobbed like a pop star.’

I sent a book of poems to a friend who lives in Nelson. Five days later he emailed me to tell me he had received the book. ‘This morning I had a huge list. So many things undone. I considered resurrecting a Hot Cross Bun recipe for the family influx this Easter,’ he wrote. ‘But then the mailman saved me from corporeal ambitions.’

I woke up feeling angry because somehow, while sleeping, I remembered that a while back I wrote a long, enthusiastic email to answer an acquaintance’s questions to help with a project they were working on, and they never replied to say thank you. I was angry all morning, and I cleaned things furiously. Maybe there were other things feeding into the anger, but that was definitely the main thing, and it seemed to me that the lack of response represented the whole world’s general absent-mindedness in the face of all of my efforts. My many great efforts, I said to myself as I was on my hands and knees scrubbing the cat’s door. Then I remembered that, actually, the person did reply. But briefly, and not for two months after my email. Somehow, this made me angrier.

Sometimes I have a thought: ‘Other people my age have lots of friends. Why don’t I have more friends? Why don’t I have a group of friends who I see all the time?’ At first I’ll decide that it is not because I am shy, but because I am lazy. Then I begin to argue with myself. Am I truly lazy, or am I genuinely shy? Perhaps the shyness has turned into laziness, over the years. It is important to be honest with myself about this.

I decided I would stop putting friends and family into poems anymore, even though I still wanted to. It seemed selfish, in the end. I wasn’t sure whether I could stop putting them into other sorts of writing, though. Whenever I started writing anything, it was as if they all just walked in and made themselves comfortable. Sometimes the entrance was more forceful, as if they abseiled into the room or crashed through a skylight. Then stood up and dusted themselves off. Then I had no choice.

A poet came in to my work, the author of the book of poems that I sent to my friend. He said, ‘Now, here’s something I know about you – you’re a swimmer. I saw you standing outside the pool the other day, with a girlfriend. Was that you?’ I do swim, but I don’t stand around outside the pool with a girlfriend. I go to the pool by myself and when I am done I leave immediately. Suddenly this was too complicated to explain, so I said, ‘Yes.’ Then the poet said that he had three unpublished novels and that he would be quite satisfied if they all vanished so that they wouldn’t be unearthed after his death, to retrospectively destroy his career. But, these three novels. Perhaps something could be done.

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