That morning, travelling from Birmingham to De Montfort University, I thought about writing, as I often did. Specifically, as I looked out of the window at the passing land and townscapes, I thought about the superficial. Not as in the desultory, but the surface of things.
I had for some time believed the key to effective writing was less a fecund imagination and more an observational acuity. That all you needed to do was engage with the surface of the world in all its manifest absurdity. To observe and record. Furthermore, I cleaved to the idea that the reader should divine the purpose of a piece without undue authorial mediation. These were tenets I had applied to many short stories, a novella, and a memoir.
Recently however, I had started to question the value of such an approach. Living at the onset of a possible Sixth Extinction, through a war and a global pandemic, in a society where inequality threatens to become an existential crisis, and the language of what passes for our public discourse causes potentially irreparable damage to the institutions on which our functioning depends, I began to wonder if I should do more than this. If I should, perhaps, be more obviously immersed in life, more explicitly critical. Blunter. Maybe circumstances like ours need more than the baldly representational to draw out the unique truths of their car-crash lunacy. Maybe it was time for me to choose sides, respond in kind to the nature of the challenges we face, and shift from mere observer to judge, from viewer to participant.
It was a tricky question and I was none the wiser by South Wigston. As I arrived at Leicester, I had abandoned the prospect of a resolution and my contemplations were back on more prosaically quotidian territory. My work as RLF Fellow included talking to a student doing a dissertation in Advanced Biomedical Science, and assignments in Nursing and Environmental Law. The day – typically demanding, typically satisfying – came and went. The clocks had just gone back and by the time I left campus evening was closing in, I was tired, and wanted to get home.
Back at Leicester station I made the train with time to spare. I’d been sitting in my seat for ten minutes when the first announcement was made. We were unable to leave the station because of an ‘incident’ at Birmingham New Street. There was a carriage-wide fumble for news which revealed the cause of delay was a ‘suspect device’. New Street and the surrounding area had been evacuated; on Twitter, people were running. It didn’t look promising and sure enough, ten minutes later, we were advised to keep hold of our tickets and use them to travel the following day.
I looked out at the platform. It was murky and had just started to rain. I had student appointments the next day, no change of clothes or toiletries, and my response to the news was annoyance. By the time I’d walked out of the station however, my frustration had given way to anticipation. After all, I did have a half-empty notebook in my bag, and it had been a long time since I’d spent an impromptu night in an unfamiliar city, longer still since I’d had the time and headspace to actually write.
I googled a Premier Inn, made my way there through the drizzle. The Premier Inn had no space and I was told to try the Ibis. The route took me along a short stretch of one of the A roads that encircle the city centre. The Ibis was at a busy intersection. It stood in isolation at the top of an incline, on what looked like a traffic island, five Ballardian stories rising half-lit from the gloom. I booked a room.
The rain was heavier as I set off in search of what I needed for the next day. I found my way to Granby Street, where the lights from shop windows twinkled unconvincingly. By now I was wet through and bedraggled. Sweaty too, sweatier than I should have been in November. In Boots, as I looked for a toothbrush, I was followed by a shop assistant; the same thing happened in M&S as I browsed their underwear. I imagined I would be reimbursed for the price of my room but mindful of how much Ibis were charging for a generic Euro-bland bar meal, I bought a tub of up-to-its-date taramasalata, a bread roll and a banana for my tea; in Barnardo’s I plumped for a four-quid denim shirt rather than a more formal number for twice the price.
On my way back to the Ibis, I passed groups of youths loudly blocking the pavement outside fried chicken joints. There were pound shops next to South Indian restaurants, wet sleeping bags in doorways, some full of beggar. At a sawdust-floored pub called The Barley Mow, I stopped for a pint. There was a pool table. I thought about putting a coin down, playing a few racks, introducing myself to new friends and drinking partners, but the Guinness didn’t hit the spot and my university shoes-and-cords combo had attracted the attention of two blokes in Hi-Vis jackets, so I left.
I arrived back at my room, ate my food. The taramasalata had a tang. As I lay on the bed, I took out my notepad, chewed on my pen and thought about how I’d spent the last hour and a half. I was determined to make the most of the opportunity and write about the experience, but how?
At first, I thought I could see what I had to do. The evening had introduced me to the implacability, the relentlessness of things. After all, there were homeless people in Birmingham too. There were middle-class supermarkets, and charity shops, and sceptical punters in rough pubs, the weather was too hot for the time of year, and it rained. I could be intimidated, buy old fish dip. All that viewing these experiences in a different environment had done was show me that the mere observance and, by logical if creative extension, the mere recording of life, was subject to the law of diminishing returns. And that if my writing was to respond effectively to the madness of our darkening malaise, I did indeed need to do more, to dig beneath the surface of things, to immerse myself in the challenge. To choose sides. Not to say, ‘Here’s some things — what do you reckon?’ but ‘Here’s some things. They’re wrong.’
But the day had one last development, one final exquisitely superficial detail to compound my to-ings and fro-ings. One that took me back to where I’d started, to the literary beauty of the surface of things. Putting down my pen for a moment, I returned to my phone. New Street station was open again after hours of disruption. And the suspect device that had brought chaos to the centre of the UK’s second city? A cannabis grinder that had been mistaken for a grenade.