Extract from From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill a new book now breaking out 



Fireworks are synonymous with red letter day celebrations – most obviously Guy Fawkes night and New Year’s Eve. Yet with a year-round bird’s eye view of a big city and its suburbs, I soon came to realise that the truth is otherly.

Sure, the landmark celebrations manifest a popular – near blanket use of pyrotechnics – but individual celebrations light up the night sky too – and they happen all year round on any day you care to pick. New births, marriages, prison releases, sporting victories, birthdays, anniversaries.

Looking out at the world from on top of Heartbreak Hill, I see them all.

Strontium red, copper blue and barium green regularly caress the walls of my lounge, kitchen and bedroom. At this altitude, sky stuff doesn’t just flash onto the window panes. It literally enters the depth of the living space. And such as fireworks constitute a most welcome invasion.

At distance, I will see but not hear the displays. An arc of cobalt or a line of sulphur climbing gently into the black infinity will no sooner catch my eye than corrupt and fade. Devoid of noise, fireworks lose their sense of ferocity and become a majestic, silent dance. Poetic. Soft at the edges. Graceful as formation dancers in water. Furtive as Morse code messages.  Seductive as runway models.

Closer to home, I will often hear but not see the event – perhaps blocked by a building or should it be emanating from a position behind my viewpoint, implying its presence in a mute spasmodic sequence of long-fallen disco light projections or simply denying me any visual sense of itself at all. Now the fireworks encircle me with a stealthy imminent menace on a different spectrum – the electric hum of a drone of bees giving way to a frenzy of cracking and spitting – like food on oil burning in a pan.

And then on an equal number of occasions, I’ll get to enjoy audio and video combined. All these displays are on a more human scale – lasting for only a minute or two, if that, and featuring a modest armoury of technologies. Bearing witness, I am reminded of days gone by and a world where everything wasn’t taken to its logical mighty conclusion. Where audiences were local, events were unrecorded, peer pressures were anathema and vanity was but a child.


A flight of swallows. A flock of swifts. A wedge of swans. A skein of geese. Heartbreak Hill’s proximity to the docks ensures a vibrant mix of coastal and inland birds in flight. A colony of seagulls headed for the ship canal will ring in the new day – even beating the 5 am sunrise in the summer months. Each bird flies at its preferred height. A raft of ducks down on the water will break ground to form a brace before its members take off in unison and get airborne into a flock that usually only ever ascends to about one hundred feet above the earth – each bird almost touching the next to make the most compact shadow across the sky yet still way down below my homestead viewing point. Swans cruise higher. Geese higher still. The truth that birds fly in levels only gets demonstrably known by people who live in clouds.

The Canada Geese play out a delightful if arduous ceremony – the pack leader standing proudly near the water’s edge and calling its far-flung comrades down to the Central Bay at Agecroft with an intermittent bark that gradually increases in volume and urgency. Eventually, the response arrives as its brethren emerge and waddle across the grassland from under the bushes on Salford Wharf – others paddle in from waterborne positions and more still make landing out of the air. Each new arrival confirms its compliance with a nasal honk of its own such that within five or ten minutes a busy crowd of geese are reaching fever pitch. They all turn eastward in their own time and the crowd begins to surge down the landing pads, from a laborious wide-swing strut to a more purposeful forward, faster stride – all the time the noise level increasing – like a statement of intent. The gaggle takes off in a dense cloud of furiously flapping wings which deliver a whooshing, walloping thud like bedsheets beaten on a balcony or washing line. Yet once airborne, the gang swiftly turns north and flies a mile up the hill past my block before arcing off east again onto the downriver flats of the Irwell floodplain where it meets Castlefield near the city of Manchester. The collective has worked out a shortcut and simply bypasses a large meander in the river at Exchange Quay by taking a route inland.

I hear birds walking on the roof above my ceiling as I lay in bed at night. The patter of balance and patrol. Sometimes scattergun. Sometimes rhythmic like the snare drumbeat of a marching band.


High-rise audio on these old, cold and creaking, squeaking social housing blocks, or Chin Music as I call it, is like no other. This is Manchester and at these latitudes Mother Nature communicates in an Atlantic burst of original Skepta and Stormzy rants. Not platitudes.

A delightful surprise, when I first moved in, was rainfall. Not so much the sound that raindrops make when they come into contact with solid or liquid surfaces. It’s the sound that showers of water make when they pass you mid-air and continue their descent beyond earshot. It’s a con-sequence of altitude and if I stand by an open window as a light downpour sets in over Salford and Manchester this unique light bristle whoosh lends to the illusion that I am in the sky and travelling with the storm. The sensation of speed is awesome and the very volume of water contained in rainfall somehow makes itself known to me. It’s like taking a shower without getting wet. Overall, a very refreshing and uplifting experience. Humbling too, because the sky is a big place and I am in it.

If the storm is heavy these sounds will be drowned out by the crescendo pulse of rainfall crashing hard against my windows and the surfaces of the streets down below where the piercing hiss of car tyres ploughing through an aqua sheen on the converse camber of segmented tarmac roadworks rises like the wail of a banshee premonition.

Sounds travel up from the ground with astonishing efficiency – arriving at my flat with, if anything, a newly rinsed and far-flung echoing quality – their potency depending on their tone, pitch and provenance.

Acoustics, driven and pronounced by the wind, deliver a wide variety of ear candy that play tricks. I once had a neighbour who was an acoustics engineer for a music producer and he explained to me how sound ricochets off buildings in its path, turning corners on its journey. The upshot is a kind of illusion. Some everyday noises emanating from nearby – such as the beep of the pelican crossings down on the roads that encircle and lead away from the main entrance onto Heartbreak Hill. Or the airbrakes of buses making stops outside. Such inner city sound production and reverb might disappear totally for a few days and then return with crystal clarity, while long-distant sources of noise are thrown into range. Teenagers shrieking in playful delight as they walk home from a school five miles distant. A dog barking on the Littleton Road floodwater meadows – the former home of Manchester Racecourse and before that, the stunning folly of a Dublin physician’s crazy castellated manor house estate that became known as John Fitzgerald’s Castle Irwell . The pervasive drills and hammers of construction work in the adjacent city a couple of miles from here. Helicopters filming the match unfolding at United’s Old Trafford stadium or music concerts in the Cricket Ground of the same name will swing into view, silently. At other times, their blades will cut through the air like a snow blizzard yet when I look out, they are a good few miles off.

At night a bunkered promissory, wholesome emptiness hangs with me up here in the clouds, co-existing alongside a deep-seated whirring whisper born of aggregates. An essence of old solitude: the night breeze on every leaf in every tree within a ten-mile radius. The soulful sigh of ever-so-distant cars on ever-so-distant roads. The coattails of the North Wind as it banks off the foothills of the Pennine mountains and scurries across the moors and down onto the Salford meadows onto which Heartbreak Hill looks out. Giving life to all the wind farms in its path. By daylight, I get to see every step of this story playing out from my north-facing kitchen window. Yet by night a few dozen terraced street lights flicker and the footlights of churchyards and their spires tail off into black nothingness where thirty miles of rolling countryside sit. This in sharp contrast to my east-facing main windows – where the chaotic neon hedonism of city nightlife and glorious human iniquity never lets up.

The city lives and breathes and to make a home here is to sit in the centre of all its vibrancy. All sounds are distorted, emulated, garbled, contorted and coined and sheared and re-engineered to create a unique piece of music. This Cotton City Orchestra. It might come across as you read this like some big commotion but it is not as rabble-drawn as I am making out. Everything somehow softens into a mellow background murmur. To live high up in the sky is not just to enjoy the amazing light and astounding views.

Like a long, slow exhalation of breath, the air whistles in clear pockets and rings out softly in currents of hope and question.

Much like when you stand high on a hill or a cliff edge – and you catch the near silent sneer of the mighty sky. There’s a solitude born out in the fact that all sources of noise are so far away, way off down below. I am in a tent at the end of a crane. I live in the hall of the mountain king. Each springtime I hear sparrows making a nest in the outer wall of my kitchen near the extractor fan – their rattlesnake tweets as clear as if I am holding them in my hands. Our energy fields conjoined.

Darkness amplifies the sound. Charges it. Adding a sense of anticipation and emphasising the capricious, pseudo-nautical nature of my residential vantage.

I hang above the city, precariously perched. The quotidian dance of her sights and sounds become me. Inform me. Absorb, reflect and own me. I know her well yet she remains resolutely anonymous. Of all my neighbours, she’s my favourite.

An extract from From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill. A new book coming soon from Gary Knapton

Growing pains

peasholm glen
Own the process

What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferable sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree, and it is from its nature only possible as an episodic phenomenon: Freud

Nemesis, or Rhamnousia is the goddess who enacts retribution against those who display arrogance, excessive confidence or pride, known as hubris. Greek mythology

Owning melancholy

It’s OK to be unhappy. Perfectly healthy. Necessary, in fact. Character building, I’d wager.

If you never experience bouts of unhappiness – all such bouts are too long irrespective of their objective duration, it seems to the sufferer – then the unending, relentless experience of life actually received would never feature the happiness that modern people so fervently seek. No heads without tails. No night without day. No happiness without unhappiness. Just the never-ending prospect of OK-ness – which probably sounds more rainy-day Soviet than it really is.

Peace and contentment appear not to have a natural flipside in the same see-saw manner as our childish pursuit of the American constitutional mission.

I put my back out a couple of weeks ago. It is but the mild recurrence of an old serious injury. Twenty years ago I was hospitalised and could not stand up for weeks, nor could I walk for months. I am thus bound to experience an occasional very mild echo of that trauma. Once every couple of years at the most. I am ready for it and I know how to deal with it, behaviourally and psychologically. I see it off in a matter of days or weeks. Last time, in 2016, it lasted three days. This time, as I finally exit the pain tunnel and look forward to an amazing full-on and colourful spring and summer of good health and high energy, God willing, I can see that it was closer to a three-weeker. And last week at this time I could not even stand up.

The propensity of the body to heal and recover of its own accord never fails to astound me. Every morning I awake. My heart still beating. Another unearned bonus round. As if that’s not enough, the healing magic of the body should settle the case beyond doubt to all cynics that we are all lottery winners every single morning of our lives. Six numbers in a row. No purchase necessary. Save your two quid.

For so many years now, my whole life balance has centred around a daily routine of light exercise. A five mile jog in the early morning or late evening. An hour or two of light stretching and resistance on the gym floor. Perhaps a yoga class. A poolside read and a lounge in the sauna and steam room where I catch up with friends and neighbours or curl up on the marble benches facing inwards and doze lightly for a while – my body language guaranteeing privacy and shutting down my vision such that my ears attune to the fusion of water based ambient sounds which cradle me into a slumber like a chorus of fairytale mermaid lullabies.

Faucet fatigue

All of my positive outlook on life – my mental balance – and very much most of my physical state of versatility and high energy – it would seem – has become not just generated by but dependent on this routine which, like any silly human, I eventually come to take for granted and fail to appreciate. Like the magnesium-fuelled drinking water that effortlessly and infinitely tumbles from my kitchen faucet forever, my awesome sensory perception and my incomprehensible conscious awareness, I just scoff it all up and find something to whinge about. Some narrative wherein I am the victim of some slight or other.

I don’t have to resist the temptation to ease myself back into my normal swing of things anymore. I’m old enough and wise enough to have learnt how to let go of that. With all of my writing projects suddenly postponed overnight indefinitely, because my mental clarity is entirely connected to my physical capacity, it would seem, I waited until I could walk short distances and sit up straight before taking myself off to a distant coastal town where nobody knows me. The first day or two I sat in the spa and steam room of the hotel pool and tried to swim. At least nobody I knew would be asking me how I was doing.

When I am unhappy I tend to cut people down without much effort and absolutely without warranty. I can be callous and sarcastic. Impatient, suspicious and cold. I deploy intelligent wit to make people feel humiliated. I am barely aware that I am doing it. But, boy, am I doing it.

Pagan rituals

Later, I found that I could walk slowly through the dark wooded glens just before nightfall – amongst the sunken tombs of a very ancient pagan burial ground. Eery and silent and very very beautiful. Deserted and bewitching and melancholy. An environ that suited my mood and therefore, in doing so, that partially alleviated it. At least for a short while. Such is the paradox of the human spirit.

I intuited, slowly, as the days passed, that the searing pain in my back had retreated to a lesser heat that was sinking and settling into my lower lumbar region – a sure sign of remission – perhaps with the odd lightbulb flash of jolting, bolting raw pain if I was unlucky. But I wasn’t unlucky this time.

I made for the seafront at night. I googled high tide and sat within the frothy embers of the floodplain on a deserted promenade in mid-winter listening to the power of the fast-approaching water. When the wave crests overpowered the floodwalls it would jettison thirty feet into the air and just hang there, white and glowing in the black night sky, like a peacock plumage, before coming raining down onto the promenade and panning with venom across the tarmac toward me in a river of a depth of inches. Dying as suddenly as it had materialised in an angry and tormented white froth. Hissing like a basket of snakes around my feet.


I intuit the mighty dull, deep, distant roar of the next sequence of rips, currently offshore in the sightless pitch but heading for me at such incredible speed and with such a massive wealth of menacing compound energy, as the same fiery yet benevolent power of Mother Nature that was presently repairing my back free of charge as I sat there like an old man, crooked and compromised at a table on the outside decking of a summer ice cream cafe that wouldn’t see life for a good few months yet. All signs promoting waterparks and beach huts and picnic areas with their joyous optimism juxtaposing the anatomy of all other things here. Me and this raw, freezing cold winter, cosying up together in our gloom. I was right at home.

When my back gives way my metabolism drops by about forty percent in a matter of days. Cortisol, the stress hormone, rises in my body, seeping from the pituitary gland at the stem of my brain and those in my digestive tract, rinsing me in a perpetual hunger. I put about a stone in weight on and lose muscle mass. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle which beautifully reinforces itself. I am only five foot seven so all of my slim, slender figure vacates as quickly as I did. I never feel older and uglier. Behind tired eyes in a blank-drawn face of collapsed cranial muscles, I limp slowly through life. All of my clothes feeling tighter like they shrank in the wash.

Time was I’d be on a real downer about my current “state”. Yet with the help of many years of professional psychoanalytical and psychotherapeutic counsel, and this will read very perversely indeed, I have come to not just anticipate and tolerate my injury cycle and the ensuing unhappiness, but to actually look forward to it and, by being clever and deploying such techniques as I have outlined above, to extract a palpable level of sardonic enjoyment from it.

Hubris and Nemesis

In a day or two -perhaps another week – I’ll be at the bottom of the steep stoney mountain of recovery that I will once again sheepishly start to climb in a bid to slowly but lovingly restore all the qualities of my amazing life.

How lucky am I? A spring and summer of glorious being await, God willing. Another lap of luxury for me to witness and be part of. I don’t recall ever earning it.

Unhappiness is not a state. It is an experience. You don’t get to skip it nor often even to postpone it but you get to shape it. So why not shape it into something that sets your heart on fire? This piper is striking up. So call the tune. 

In the hazy heat of summer 2019, odds on I’ll be running like a professional athlete down some Italian mountain path, pushing fifty yet looking closer to forty and feeling like a teenager. And I’ll know that the high of this present moment is built proudly on the trying melancholy of my lonely winter stint in a cold, deserted northern English coastal town.

Bad times are replete with pain and loss and torment. And deep within the kernel of this mischievous band of triplets are lessons. Lessons we are forced to learn as we come face to face with ourselves – our nature – our fragility – our mysterious season ticket for these days at the races which doesn’t carry an exact expiry date. But she’s coming. Fortune turns like the tide. And anyway, lessons are good for us. Growing pains.

Unhappiness is not just misunderstood. It is underrated.

Thanks for reading.


We are one                                        


Fading Opposition

Religio (with a hard G) is very old Italian (not quite Roman) for the phrase “to be bound back”. Mantra is like man-tra. Man (the human mind) and tra (the cleansing or liberation of). Mind cleansing. Mantra.

So what? Y’all say. I can hear you. And that’s OK.

Just try it piecemeal. It ain’t gonna all go down at once. I should know.

Maybe even in these glorious decadent scientific times we could all use a little humility. Of course, not all of us – not you guys ‘n gals who got it all nailed down – I just mean the other ninety-eight per cent. I don’t wanna cause any offence ‘n all.

Cognition can’t do it. Intellect won’t cut it. The pure logic of the high-end thinking brain can’t get near.

Freaky huh?

Of course.

There are neurons in the heart that don’t defer to the brain before they execute. You are they.

Do you hear me?

You are they.

If we can contribute. If we can heal. If we can serve.

If, through devotion and community (our common unity) we can change this world, then we are here.


Your stuff is not the stuff. Your property and your reputation are void. Oooohh! Don’t worry I felt it too. Poor baby.

Hey, man up and act like an adult.

What you look like and what you got ain’t cutting it. How you behave and what you stand for is all.

Everyone bangs on about the God side of religion. Ain’t no God in this poem. But you still can’t step to it can you? All the above is atheist. So quit your whining ‘bout G because all the excuses in the world can’t cover your truth.

If your so atheist, how come you’re so shabbily behaved?

Your non-belief is denial. Media-hyped. Alas your abysmal “hell yeahs”  to address the ghosts and stacks of all your failures. I heard “I believe in science” earlier.

You “what” in science?

You “believe” in it. Like ghosts and Santa. Doh!

There’s proof.


OK then. If you’re above superstition’s station – write me the equation.

I wouldn’t mind atheism if it spent three seconds on its own constructed self. It’s not like church is jammed with fanatics as much as some of us can handle mathematics.

I’m still waiting for the algorithm……


e=mc what? Easy to oppose with a vacant lot.

At least science and religion go after the answers. What you doing atheism? Trashing somebody else’s wealth?

Oh high-five! Chest bump! We’re all heartily impressed.

Good luck to you. Good health!

If only you weren’t burning in eternal stealth.

Did I say that out loud? Jeez. I only meant to think it to myself.


….. gK




On writing, and other compulsions

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The old twenty-six

I know none better; the eyelessness of days without a letter

Ingvar Kamprad. The I and K in IKEA. He didn’t set out to deliver unto the world a chain of giant self-assemble furniture outlets with Eastern European production lines to get the cost down. He was balked and shunted and slighted by the industry such that he had to dive behind the iron curtain in a Cold War era out of necessity. He just realised that pretty much all of the cost of “stuff” is in the human assembly.

Thornton’s chocolates. They tried selling them in the corner shops and supermarkets but, as with IKEA, the stakeholder incumbents started flexing. Thornton had a choice. Sell your stuff from your own shop or shut down. Necessity is the mother and father and second cousin of what appears to be “invention” looking back, as we do, from the end-point.

Invention is a function of creativity. Strong storytelling, therefore, must take place from a position of necessity.

People ask me how to write or what to write or what to think up to put down on paper but if you’re at that stage forget it. Do something else.

At forty-thousand words in – the half way point for standard books – they ask how you continue at a pace and quality?

But it’s the wrong type of question to be asking.

IKEA and Thorntons are but the upshot of some guys somewhere just getting done what they had to get done. The world as it existed was doing their heads in. They couldn’t help but offer a new solution. It was as natural and reflexive as breathing out.

And so with writing. If you don’t know what to write you are playing at something that doesn’t belong to you. Perhaps a career obligation or some such anomaly. And that’s OK. But just move it. Don’t hang around staring at that flashing cursor on the screen. What kind of life is that?

The best writers. You could have chained them down and gagged them and stolen their pens and papers and PC’s. They’d have gotten the message out anyway. The Ballad of Reading Gaol, anyone?

The bent-neck lady

What really winds you up? What most inspires you? What do you love – you know, deep deep down?

You know that feeling you get when you’re itching to pipe up. Like the clever kid at school always with her hand stretched high in the air, her head and neck bent to accommodate the upstanding arm, eyes dilated, lips quivering, feet on tip toes as she sits at her desk, simply dying for the teacher to give her the floor?

Well, that ain’t nothing to do with writing. That’s just human. Belonging. Questioning. Playing. Being. Joining in.

Writers on writing courses always talk about technique. Narrative. Tense. Sub-plot. Some courses focus exclusively on character development. And that’s useful but in the face of Writers Block or overall purpose it’s about as relevant as talking bookshelves to Ingvar or dairy milk to the Thornton family. That’s not the why. It’s just the what. I went to a grammar school that taught me never to start a sentence with the word “and”. Why on earth?

And check how that panned out, anyways.

Rules are for schools and horses really are for courses.

But writing? Real quality word craft? Ain’t nothing to do with any of that. It’s all about your inner voice and it’s all about now. It’s the fire in your heart that’s gotta burn bright in distant undistilled night skies. Amis. Rushdie. Welsh. Eliot. Sexton. McGregor. Scudamore. Woolf.

It’s not like we’re short of documentary evidence. Writers tend to leave a record, innit.

Style helps of course. But what is your message? What are you trying to say? Substance towers over style. Both together are a bonus and one could argue that style can be learnt and develops over time with invested effort. But your message? That’s just who you are, kiddo. You can’t teach authenticity. You gotta go bring it.

Thankfully, we all have it.

What’s the story?

Wait for your blood to rise. Feel the colour in your cheeks. The twitch in your smile. The heat of insight. The searing jolt of injustice. The clarity of love. The vision of hope. The giddiness of comedy. The glint of a twist. The suggestion of newness. Of you-ness.

If you are not drowning in urgency you are gonna struggle. If you are a Fake Literary Genius you might just have to have a showdown with the very existence of that first adjective in your job title.

It’s like when your favourite TV show just closed or you saw something awesome at the movies and soon after a friend asks you to relay your impression, how hard is it to tell the story of the show you enjoyed? It’s almost impossible not to.

Get that. Get to that point. Now turn the PC on or grab a pen and paper.

And no sooner.

The bleak compulsion

Writing is not about thinking something up. It’s about getting something down. Always was. Always is.

So get down in the dirt and scratch.

Literature. Art. Words. Whatever. It’s too worthy a profession to skirt around the edges. And too exacting for the half-hearted. Too versatile for skirmishes. Too ruthless for the toothless. And way too self-important to be taken all that seriously. Way too pretentious to be getting all precious and licentious. You do it or you don’t. You can or you can’t. It is not like riding a bike, which can be taught to those who are at first unable to do it. It is like breathing out, in that for those who do it authentically, it is impossible to stop for too long. Not writing, to us, is not living. It is holding your breath. And soon enough, you’ll be at it again.

Junk, gold and everything in between. For no one. For yourself. For everyone. It doesn’t matter if it never gets read. Because reading is not writing. The goal is scored as the writer writes. What book? What life? What shelf? The behaviour I address is an end in itself.

Reading is just feeding and talking is all talk. But writing with traction is a commitment. An action. It is an act of doing. Promoting your work is not writing. Talking about your book is not writing. Attending courses is not writing. Calling yourself a writer and voguing around like you’re some new upgraded version of George Orwell is not writing. Reading over what you wrote is not writing. Writing is.

So just do it or don’t. There are no half way houses.

And there are plenty of people forced to do real jobs, by the way. Never forget that. The pen is not mightier than the sword. Swords make you really bleed (this may just be my whole point in a nutshell).

The profession of the person who first wrote that the pen is mightier than the sword kinda skews the whole deal. If the swordsmen was afforded equal access to literary longevity he may have scribbled:

“No one’s gonna warn ya. And no one’s gonna yell “Attack!” And you don’t feel the steel ’til it’s coming out ya back.”***

History is written by the winners. True. But of the winner’s who gets to write it then? A tiny off-beat subset. The nerds with the words.

Poetry. Diction. History. Lyrics. Drama. Pulp fiction. Dialogue. Press leaks. Journalism. Plays. Scripts. TV. Comedy. News. Art house. Classics.

Own the words or they’ll feed you to the birds. Fact.

That green light

I dig the community. It’s a lonely road. But every time I reach out to #amwriting or #writerslife a wicked smile flickers across my foolish face.

And I blend Taoism with Margaret Thatcher to arrive at this:

Being a writer is like being a lady or like being powerful. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.

People kinda know what you are already. That’s the thing about people. They see you. And the other thing about people? They are not the audience, my dearest scrivener. You are.

The what is just the twenty-six letters. The how is a no brainer. Y’all can write. But the why. The why is the whole deal.

It were a vain endeavour. Though I should gaze forever on that green light that lingers in the west. I may not hope from outward forms to win the passion and the life whose fountains are within.*

What green light? We can’t see it Samuel. We’ll have to take your word for it, mate. Yet we do. Because he simply commands it. I’m guessing that on the 4th October 1802 Coleridge was feeling depressed. I imagine him looking at a distant tinge of rainbow or sunset and thinking “That’s one hell of a disco up in the sky. I wish I was there!” A hundred years before aeroplanes, it’s not a bad shout. Just another bloke on a downer, then. But he’s not writing it from a future moment whilst remembering the pain of his bad day. He’s writing it now. From within the pain. Alas the authenticity. It simply falls off the page.

Letters are not phonetic to writers

Writing isn’t about itself. It’s about everything else. And you, as the writer, are about why. The time to write is always now. The rest is just words. Made up of letters. Silent shapes in a space and most definitely NOT noises in the sonic bandwidth spectrum. Speechless constituent denominations. The “old twenty-six“. Period.

Written words are only potentially phonetic. They are actually (tempting to write “literally”) silent as the moon. Eery and vacuous as road traffic on Christmas morning. Riven and shoe-strung and hard as nails. The dry stone walls of human communication. The very instant that phonetic potential is realised, writing is not taking place. And what you created, by extension, vacated.

Literature and very much most of what is written these days rarely remains where it was born and is seemingly encoded to break out of its advent habitat and change its form.

Speech, like violence, breaks the silence. The sun loves horses and hates cats. That’s why it makes hay and heats tin roofs.** Ditto noise for those who play with alphabet toys. World creators. Good writers are dumb. Not waiters.

Thanks for reading.

We are one




*extract from Dejection: An Ode by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

**Larkin paraphrase

*** Night Prowler: AC/DC




How to play with toys

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If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? *

Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that get you to the thing.**

Realism: it’s common sense, doh!

Dr Thomas Reid was an Eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher who put forward a concept that, unless you just landed, is deeply ingrained in the core of your being, even all these years on: common sense.

Reid was a key figure in an era when new ideas seemed to pour forth from these isles with ease – called the British Enlightenment, and he was a close friend and scholar of other stand-out contributors, such was the cosy, cloistered world of ivory tower intellectualism.

Reid was on the ball but hardly original. His concept of Common Sense was developed from the teachings of a Roman Statesman and philosopher who was a Consul in the year 63 BC. Marcus Cicero was known for his theory of Sensus Communis.

Nonetheless, we all, it would seem, tend to lend at least a little respect to Cicero and Reid, even if such a notion, upon deeper reflection, tends to jar with our more nuanced instincts. Who among us has not uttered the words “It’s common sense!” ? We may even do so in spite of ourselves. I know that I do.

For me, it seems to hit below the intellect and offend my sense of spiritual sophistry. Yet I still utter the lie.

Common sense, then as now, suggests that the world is as our five sense doors perceive it. Self-evident truths. If you walk out into the road in front of an oncoming car, you are likely to be knocked down and suffer real injuries or worse. So you can argue against the self-evident truths at your peril. This was the thread of Reid’s proposition and it was ferociously popular in the throes of the industrial revolution. When material stuff made a material difference.

The illusion of consensus

But there’s a catch because as with all things in life that look neat and tidy and boxed-off in the abstract, things get a little messy in the execution of the day-to-day. A theory is one thing. The application is quite another.

In the middle of a blue sky summer morning in New England on June 11, 1776 Thomas Jefferson, codifying the American Declaration of Independence, stated:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Yet in the prevailing two hundred and forty-two years, Jefferson’s propagation of Reid and Cicero’s Realism has hit many a stumbling block. To name but three, human equality, the existence of a Creator and, amongst those certain unalienable rights, (included but not mentioned in the above citation) the right to bear arms.

While many of us concur that God is self-evident and the use of a personal weapon to wipe out one’s enemies seems entirely reasonable to such as myself (I am entirely serious) even in the modern age, I can name at least as many people who would authentically disagree with me as those who share my personal views and values. And those counter-arguments are fierce and valid and potent and urgent and upstanding. As, I contend, are mine. Probably far more would oppose, certainly in the UK. And an equal number would go head to head on the idea that, from birth, all humans are rolled out onto a playing field level in opportunity and devoid of hereditary privilege.

Wherever we stand on such matters, many of us are convinced that we are right. Only the wise refuse to engage in the debate and wisdom is rare.

Animals strike curious poses

Prince (Rogers Nelson) may have had a point when drafting his lyrics to When Doves Cry in his cold lonely Minneapolis studio. We are a curious animal and the deeper our curiosity leads us down the path of external investigation and internal inquiry, the more fervently we appear to arrive at wildly conflicting conclusions.

Nothing, upon closer inspection, is self-evident. Common sense ain’t that common.

Critical realism: everything is illuminated

Rene Descartes was a mathematician, French by birth, he lived a relatively short life, predominantly in the Netherlands and Stockholm, Sweden. Most famous for using algebra to solve geometrical problems in architecture and design, in the modern day, for reasons I cannot fathom, he seems to have become known for his comments surrounding the concept of curiosity – although the word for curiosity in his day was “doubt”. This is not the cynical mechanism conveyed by that same word in contemporary times. Words, being chameleon, often change their stripes along a timeline.

Descartes, keenly echoing the sentiments of Socrates two thousand years before him and Jesus of Nazareth more recently, frequently suggested that when we doubt, we are on the right track. That doubt – or what we now would more comfortably term “curiosity” is less an obstacle than a source of light helping to colour the path of our search.

In direct opposition to Cicero and Reid, Cartesian Doubt would have it that whilst a reliance on human senses often leaves us groping around in the dark, a dedication to unsolved inquisition produces enlightenment. That is, everything is illuminated.

Descartes was joined by Brits John Locke and Jeremy Bentham. Just outside UCL in central London in the late nineteen-nineties, my colleagues from the Financial Times and I would sit at the wooden bench tables outside the pub on University Street named after Bentham and down a couple of beers before heading back to the office for the afternoon shift.

The outer world is filtered by the inner

Jeremy Bentham is the spiritual founder of the University of London and together with Locke and Descartes, he proposed an amendment to Realism – the old idea that seeing is believing. This update was known as Critical Realism and holds thus:

In order to really understand the world and grasp the essence of the truth of the nature of it, two stages must unfold:

The physical stages of empirical knowledge

1: The objective external world exists and does its thing

2: Information from that external world arrives at our five sense doors and is processed and filtered mentally in the human brain.

Furthermore, Critical Realism insists that our senses are incomplete and distorted such that we cannot trust or rely on (modern day “doubt” creeping in here) what we see, hear, touch, taste (smell) and feel (emotionally) as an accurate representation of what is out there.

Critical Realism is a smart update. It is humble and reverential and seems to chime with what science has discovered. Science used to be called Natural Philosophy and since its turbo-boosted evolution since the founding of the Royal Society just off London Piccadilly science has proved time and again that things are indeed not what they seem. From Michael Faraday’s 1832 discovery of invisible energy waves all around us that we now harness, store and leverage as electricity to Marconi’s revelation that if you send a sound wave out into the distance it does not travel in a straight line, but bends to exactly mirror the curvature of the planet, like one half of a dancing couple refusing to step out of line with his partner. This led Einstein to postulate that all “straight” lines are in fact bent and from here it was only a short yet quantum leap to the discovery that all things are everywhere at once, or, to tidy that messy piece of observation up by reversing it, there are no things, in fact.

George Berkeley: Subjective idealism

Yet I love best of all the next update to the update. George Berkeley was an Irish man born in Kilkenny and buried at Christ Church in Oxford, England.

Reviewing Realism and Critical Realism and those two stages of the objective world doing its thing out there (Stage 1) and the subjective human mental processing of information arriving at the senses (Stage 2), George said:

Thomas Reid says that Stage 1 is enough. Descartes and Locke say that you must have both Stage 1 and Stage 2. But I say that Stage 2 is all there is. 

Disarmingly simple, Subjective Idealism is the monistic doctrine that only minds and mental contents exist.

Just as Thomas Reid borrowed from Cicero and as Descartes reframed Socrates and Jesus of Nazareth, George Berkeley was essentially referencing Buddha and the Zen school of Buddhism that grew East out of India into Japan in the years before his very Christianity even came into existence. (Berkeley was an Irish Bishop).

Imagine a baseball umpire calling a strike (or, boringly, an English football referee signalling a penalty kick.) We can layer the three schools of experiential knowledge (Empiricism) on to that scenario thus:

Here’s the baseball umpire defending his decision;

1 “I calls it as I sees it.” (Descartes: Critical Realism)

2 “I calls it as it is.” (Reid: Realism)

3 “Shoot! Ain’t nuthing ‘til I calls it.” (Berkeley: Subjective Idealism)

Dependent origination

Subjective Idealism or Dependent Origination in Zen Buddhism contends that all phenomena (things) arise simultaneously in reality in the present moment. Everything is inside your head. All your arguments. All your problems. All your greatest achievements. You are making them all up. The world outside? It is entirely a projection from the inside calling itself the outside. You are forever inside your head which is a wooden box with no holes in it to let the light enter. Your light in the perfect darkness is your own little slideshow. All content is dream content. You are sleeping. And when you close your eyes and fall out of conscious awareness in the dark of night, it is only then that you wake up – alas – only temporarily. Seven or eight hours later, you’ll be jumping up out of bed and falling asleep again.

Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. Plato. Buddha. Mohammad. All astutely point out that the likes of computers and phones and cars and property and jobs and titles and our greatest achievements are just media. They are just extensions of man and woman. Like money. Like bicycles. Like clothing. Like hammers. They are of no value in and of themselves. They are not the thing. They are just the things that get us to the places that truly enable us to come into ourselves, be who we are and dance out our self-discoveries whilst playfully enjoying the emptiness of essence and the very joy of being. They are but circumstances. And we as humans are not a circumstance. We are hoping and despairing and laughing and crying and loving. We are experiential. We be.

What is the best thing you ever felt? And what is the very worst? What colour and shape and size is that and what noise does it make and how much can I buy it for?

This universe is not outside of you.*** Life is not a thing. Yet it is certainly not nothing.

What lies between?

What if science, technology, research, religion, money, fame, accomplishment, reputation, success and all material objects and all of your goals pertaining to all of these are not the thing? What if they are all just by-products of our philosophical reflection? Fireworks lighting up the night sky. What if they are just the things that get us to the thing? Or, as George Berkeley and Buddha might say: What if they are just the things that get us to the no-thing?

Toys and games are not real. They are for playing with. They are, after all, only toys and games. Your cars and your houses and your mightily impressive salary cheques are hardly your insight, your loved ones and your beating heart. That’s the thing about toys and games. They’re devoid of grown-ups. I’m with the Bishop.

Thanks for reading.

We are one




* A Zen Koan

**Joe Macmillan: Halt & Catch Fire

***Rumi – an Islamic philosopher

Chin Music: the voice of the underclass

An extract from Chin Music: From Under a Cloud on Heartbreak Hill: a new book by Gary Knapton.

Screen Shot 2018-10-21 at 11.12.54.pngYou don’t call the police on our block. If you dial in a 999 they don’t come. I don’t blame them. They’ve been caught short one too many times. Some of my mates are policemen and women and I get it.

If a frightened female voice claims that her bloke is knocking her around and a couple of bobbies turn up to realise that the call was a set-up it’s too late once the Old Bill are inside the building. No escape routes. Nice and secluded. The delights of Brutalist architecture.

The police then take a revenge beating and learn the lesson for future protection of their staff. It can take eight or nine policemen just to contain Karl. He’s a giant. Let alone a group of five or six residents.

Thing is, when the local ferals out of The Foyer hostel are at my front door with their EDL buddies, seeing me as ripe for a good homophobic kick-in – they don’t know that the police no-go rule applies. And I do.

And the rule works in both directions. So if I can’t call the police out and you’re up to no good on my block, neither can you. So you’d better be taking me out because if I’m still standing when you’re through, you’re in real trouble, potentially.

Buddy, Geoff, Slater, Billie The Kid – they’ve all done plenty of stir in Strangeways. They used to re-house them here on The Hill right out of their long-term stretches so a good few of my neighbours and friends and the people I now like and can trust, have “ninety-nines”. A long term lease of ninety-nine years to remain on the block as a tenant here as long as they behave and pay their dues. You know, council tax and rent. The big two.

Water doesn’t stop running out of the tap if they don’t pay that bill. The electricity is on a cash only key and will cut after the five pound reserve is up but I’ve seen these hardened men. A few days by candlelight never killed anyone. It’s better than a cell. They’re improvising on toilet roll and tea bags when I call round but not in an unhygienic way – which may be hard for you to comprehend in these whiter than white clinical times.

Good men. Real people with real stories to tell. Men and women that I can rely on. Who have my back. Jay literally offers me his last five pound note when I mention, just in passing, that I’m skint. I refuse. I didn’t mean it like that. But he’s got the note in his hand and he’s offering.

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The last time I ever see Jay he’s sat on the floor in the corridor on the twentieth floor with his wife and kids as my lift down makes a stop. His situation didn’t compute at the time but he asks me for some cigarettes or money for some. I sense a new concern in the energy field in that secluded space. I tell him to wait there and I go down to Tony’s and buy him a packet. I then take it back up and he nods in appreciation as I hand them over.

Here are my diary notes from January 2018 exactly as I wrote them in at the time.

Attacks in the lift & mall

Witnessing attacks from window on Sunday 14th January with Nicole

Evidence – witnesses and cameras

Police hate crime logged. 101. 999. WPC Weaver. This on 14th Jan. On 24th January 2018 I learn that my case worker has changed from PC Leslie Warburton Marsh to WPC Catherine Magnall and I get the formula for working out her email address. The 101 contact handler advises me to call the council housing office as she herself is a landlord. I place an email to Catherine on 24th and the 101 contact handler logs my request for her to contact me at my request on the mornings of 24th and again on 25th January. She is on duty but unavailable to take my call when I ring in on this most recent occasion.

Thursday 25th at about 10am I place a lengthy call to activate (mobilise) the “rogue landlord team” in the council with a specific request not to contact my landlord, who i state to be XXX and XXX. My reference number is F85125 and my receiver is a really pleasant and supportive lady called Jane @ customer contact to housing standards. She informs me of a hate crime team here too that feds into the police.

The same evening Chris Gleave leaves me voicemail explaining how my landlord must be notified. This is the S21 revenge loophole, btw. He offers the fire brigade as an alt option. He leaves me email.

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Neighbours ‘grass’ allegations. I suspect this isn’t OG prison talk as much as strategic implied pressure on me to not have the police in the building where most people are smoking weed etc. Yet I can’t be sure that it’s not both.

Jackson Lees. Short but great advice.

Jessica at LGBT Foundation re the legal advice surgery for a free 30 mins. She emails me a lawyers contact details for me to follow up. This is Kirsty Almond at Alfred Newton Solicitors and I am given her landline and email address. I email Kirsty a top line briefing at 950 am on Thursday 25th January

That evening I get voicemail from Holly at Alfred Newton offering me her number. I make a call to Holly on Friday 26th and leave a message with a colleague. I am told to expect a call.

I get the numbers for Shelter and the Residential Landlord’s Association in a bid to reach out for wider help, after reading an article in The Guardian where these two organisations are referenced in a story about tackling rogue landlords. This is Friday 25th January 2018.

Lewis re Osman advice. Again. Concise but essential new paths for me to pursue.

Osman Warning research. Real and immediate danger. Evidence logged. Not arrests made. Do I fulfil these criteria?

Strangford. The door. 12th Jan recorded call to Leanne. 3 calls to Leanne on Monday 22nd January and a call from Pedro (in person) who drills in the three missing screws to my doorframe yet the problem is not resolved and despite both Pedro and Leanne promising quick feedback as to James (the fitter of my new door) intentions, nothing has happened at all by Thursday, except that my door handle moves further off the frame it is bolted to with every forced closure. It is now when I speak with Jane (above) re the rogue landlords team. Yet I am not left feeling good or powerful or in control. It feels as if I have just put more trouble for myself up ahead on record. But there is a palpable sense of courage and agency too. I intuit that the fight must be taken, by me, to the big guys. Or I already lost.

The Lift

Bridewell Security

Salford Street Security. Daniel & Garry. The vests on eBay. Advice on ‘wearing a piece’.

Jo Moby on record at The Foyer re Conor Bradbury and Amy by phone

My neighbours apathy. Alison Hulme and Nicole Chidwell. Innocent and guilty reasons for going it alone.


Natalie is scared off

I make an after dark escape to Mum’s for the week

iSentry, iCloud and Stagecoach mobile travel pass. Restructured my data for safety.

On 22nd Jan I obtain a four week sick note from Locum GP Lucy Friedman at Ordsall Health Surgery. The next day I submit it to UC via my job search DWP Consultant James Smith. It buys me a window to go all out on this case without having to meet obligations of searching for work. A short window yet if I am dedicated and courageous, it may be enough.

I read page 272 of Omar El Akkad’s American War;

‘My sheltered world shook with the realisation that it was possible to live this way. I’d been raised in the shadow of walls; she was of the river.’

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That word. Sheltered. And that other word. Shook. I think of Natalie.

I open my twitter messages and read the last one from Kirk. My friend in London. His final advice to me is ‘Write what’s happening. I’d buy it.’

I sit in Costa with this paperback book headed for Kirk when I’m through. Slow beat blues piping through the tinny ceiling speakers, competing with the whir of air conditioning filters.

About a half dozen other customers in this giant new coffee shop. All blue green light in the early winter dawn. How high they build hospitals, observed Larkin in the seventies. How massive they make Costa’s and Poundlands and Cash Converters. Knapton. 2018.

Does my Barista look like a younger , Eastern European version of Linda Cardellini or am I having a middle aged breakdown? Both – is the word that rattles my skull as the most valid answer to that question.

Write what’s happening.



My neighbour and I stand at my window with binoculars and watch the Bradbury twins literally mugging people at the pelican crossing island in front of the block. Two hundred and fifty feet below where we stand in my lounge. I’ve got the eight by forties. She’s using the cheap pair I picked up on ebay. Good enough, though. She heads off for the elevators to get down there and stop them. She’s hard as nails and angry. A good soul. We see an old man walking with a frame get body-checked and we see the glimmer of his phone pass into Conor’s pocket. They’re picking on the single mum’s with prams and the old people. The Bradbury’s are sixteen. Under the age limit for a stretch in prison. They just get fortnight spells in youth centres and they come out even tougher. Invincible.

Is that the best you got? Say their cheeky adolescent smiles.

I call the local police station- Pendleton and I ask for precise technical advice on self-defence – on how I can wipe these kids out without being charged for assault. My neighbour on the twenty first floor has windows that open fully – so you could jump right out or throw something big out. A tumble drier or bodies. A well worn channel of waste-disposal. Word passes along the block grapevine that I am welcome to use his facility to make the Bradbury’s expire but it’s not my style. These lads have been dragged up through orphanages and hostels with no role models ever. I detest their behaviour but I feel like I know them in my heart. They need help from people like me in a good mood before they meet people like me in a bad mood. Otherwise they won’t make it to Strangeways on their eighteenth birthdays.

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Jo Turnbull at Swinton CID calls me back and she is really helpful. I’m walking a tightrope here. I’m desperate to engage the authorities in my support – desperate to breathe the oxygen of urgency and agency into a sleepy, uncaring society where collective conscience is fragmented and nobody takes ownership of the grand design of the core of the matters at hand. At the same time, I don’t wanna get nicked for lamping a cocky minor. Yet if I clock one more whack from behind from some total unknown that I never saw coming – the upshot of a kid secretly filming me declare my sexuality and circulating it to the gangland and the EDL boys, then I won’t be responsible for my actions. Well that’s the phrase we all use. Thing is, I am responsible and I will continue to be so. Always. And you too. Actions have consequences.

The lads that run the local security cameras in the hood tell me the blind spots where I can take the rascals and put the boot in without detection. Wear gloves and a stab jacket is their advice. But again, I know I’m way too old fashioned for that. I don’t want to join the problem and add to the violence.

Then again- this is Manchester. Emmeline Pankhurst. Peterloo. The Working Class Movement. Engels and Marx.

The language of the ‘hood ain’t verbal persuasion.

And remember, I cannot call the police. My 999 ain’t heard. This is 2018. This is inner-city Salford. The green and pleasant land of England.

This is Chin Music.