words on the internet


The first woman I ever fell in love with was a private detective. She worked out of an agency in Los Angeles. It was a small operation, just two other detectives, an office manager and a boss she never saw.

She was smart and perceptive and beautiful. She knew how to handle herself and how to use a gun. She had the biggest brownest eyes I’d ever seen, the whitest teeth and a smile that, when it dimpled her cheeks, made my insides leap like a dog after a biscuit.

I used to gaze at her and feel my heart try to leave my body. It felt like my chest would open, my ribs would part and that bloody beating heart would tear free and fly through the air to be near her. It was an intensity of feeling I had never experienced before and it untethered me.

I could only see her once a week. Just one evening that I would think about constantly until the next. Sometimes the longing would be so great during the intervening days that I would say her name quietly to myself, as though I could conjure her. I would write tiny messages on small bits of balled up paper, reminders of how much she meant to me.

Part of the pain of it was always knowing how impossible it was. She lived in LA. I lived on a lower middle-class housing estate in England. She was a clever, beautiful woman with a career and a pistol. I was a skinny, lonely schoolboy with a dachshund and a retractable pencil.

She was a fictional character solving crimes in a pretence of real America. I was a real boy living a pretend life in a Britain largely of my own imagination.

It could never work.

But, gosh, how I loved her.

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three swans

The morning started with a surprise: three swans flying over my house startled me at the exact moment I opened my bedroom curtain. Their downy bellies were the first thing I saw as I looked out. They were glowing softly with the light of a sun that hadn’t yet made it over the horizon. In my shock I seemed to feel the waft of their wings and the ripple of their necks as they passed like waves crashing over me.

And there was their sound. So difficult to put into words. Almost a honk and almost a swish. Like a herald, but of something secret, something so precious it must only be whispered about.

It was barely a second or two before they were gone. But something of them seemed to remain in the sky. It was rain grey, scored by the dark branches of a large dying tree in my neighbour’s garden. To the east, where the swans had come from, a low band of palest yellow was rising.

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From my notebook a year ago. A stroll that has stayed with me. There was something special in the air that night:

I took the dog for a walk in the dark this evening and the streets were so still and quiet. The sky was clear and it was cold, but there was moisture in the air around us. The stars seemed to float over houses washed with mist. There was no moon.

The area was more silent than I have ever known it. We passed houses with lights on and curtains open. The people inside looked flushed and happy. The streets were deserted except for a lone couple who seemed to be heading from one family gathering to another.

We exchanged quiet smiles as we passed beneath an amber street lamp. The silence was so thick that no one dared break it, not even to say Merry Christmas. The two of them were portly and middle-aged. One had a beard and both were wearing crowns of golden cardboard. If there had been three of them it would have been perfect.

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To live a human life is to be an ocean. Currents and tides are always moving. There is a surface that can glisten, reflecting the light of the moon and the sun. And there are profound mysterious depths that can be dark.

It is common to fear the depths, to struggle always for the light and the comfort of the surface. The depths can seem cold and scary. We fear monsters lurk there. But they are also where meaning is found. They can be a source of wisdom and beauty and significance, and we can befriend them.

A full life includes space to be curious about the sadness and discomfort in the dark. It is a thing to approach slowly, with care and with gentleness. It is not something to overdo, but you do not need to fight or be afraid.

To swim in the sun with the waves cresting around us is joyful. When we do that it is not just the surface that is buoying us up. It is the whole ocean.  

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treat all dharmas as dreams

My phone one day a few months back: “Ocean temperatures hit record high showing ‘irrefutable and accelerating’ heating of the planet.”

What world is this where a ping can mean either a funny text from my daughter or a news alert like that?

Treat all dharmas as dreams

It works back to front too.

I spend much of my life in fantasy worlds. I always have. I think it’s how I get by. I love stories and I love pretending. But I’ve felt apologetic about it. It’s childish — a way of hiding from reality. Surely it would best if I lived more firmly in the real world, if I was more of a grown up, more of a man?

I’m not so sure any more. I’m deciding that my imagination is as valid as anything else. That may be mistaken, but this world is tough going right now.

So forgive me if sometimes I prefer to spend time in the Hundred Acre Wood, or Charlie’s chocolate factory, or the Forest of Arden. And forgive me if I disappear sometimes into places and times that I’ve made inside my own head. I’m choosing not to be so shy about it any more. It’s how I soothe myself, where I find strength. My dreams are dharmas — and refuges and retreats.

I sit here at my desk listening to speeches and churning out news scripts. That used to be exciting. These days it could depress the hell out of me — except I’m also an Oompa Loompa turning out Wonka bars. The butterball president droning on and on and on about how great he is is really Augustus Gloop. There’s a river of chocolate, and pipes to the fudge room. All it takes is a slip…

The world needs us to act, but it also needs us to get by. I think dreaming is how I do that. It may even be my superpower.

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…. This is quite old. My mum has also gone since I wrote this. But I was thinking of my dad the other day (I was using his tools) and I remembered this and thought I’d post it ….

 People say grief doesn’t move in straight lines it moves in waves. What’s not always said is that the waves are more like the kind you get on a pond than in the sea. A pond can be flat for a while; the ducks go back to tending their nests, the frogs creep out to test their voices. And then something – a smell, a place, a memory of something shared – goes plop, and a stone hits the water.

 Sometimes it doesn’t even seem to take a stone. Something will bubble up from nowhere, like methane from the mud, and off go the circles. Unlike a pond, the waves don’t always diminish as they move outwards. Sometimes they get bigger and the waves from one loss can touch off another until the pond is not a pond anymore, it’s a whirlpool and it feels like you’re drowning – and all because someone was wearing the same aftershave, or you heard a song, or saw a place name on a map.

The stone for me this time was wrapping paper, or maybe Sellotape. Suddenly it was Christmas and I was back in that small house, in the tiny hallway outside the shut door of the living room (the front room we used to call it, although it was at the back). That door was never closed.  Never ever. Except for one time a year. And that was the time when Mum and Dad would shut themselves in to wrap Christmas presents. What exquisite torture it was to be an eight-year-old and to stand in pyjamas in that hallway and press my ear to the door and listen for the rustle of paper and the screech of my dad’s Sellotape dispenser.

Dad was a careful wrapper. His gifts, no matter what they were – a chocolate selection box, a Scalextric set, even a bag of marbles – all looked beautiful by the time he’d finished. He wrapped with care. Mum says he used to use a ruler. (How would he use a ruler?)

Dad did everything with care. He was gentle and warm and kind and funny, and I miss him so very, very much. I miss his arms, so big and soft, and how they would enfold me. I miss the smell of him and the warmth of him. His smile, his laugh and the way that he stood between me and anything that was bad in the world. He was my champion and my best friend. And he was the ground. He held me up.

Waves upon waves. Missing my dad, I found myself thinking about Gena for the first time in weeks. Gena was my friend. We didn’t know each other for a long time. We weren’t old school friends or anything like that, but Gena was there for me in one of the very darkest periods of my life. And I don’t know if I’d be here if it wasn’t for her.

She was what people call a free spirit (although she’d scoff and groan and roll her eyes at an expression like that). A musician. She had hair that was sometimes pink, sometimes black, most often the colour of copper. She played keyboards and guitar and wore Dr Marten’s boots before they were revived. And she sang. Boy did she sing. She sang jazz. She sang punk rock. She sang wild, crazy songs that she wrote herself – some of them fizzing with anger, some weird, and some haunting and sad.

And she did gutsy things that I dreamed of doing but didn’t dare. She bought a plane ticket, dropped everything in London and took her guitar to New York. She sang in bars and slept on sofas until months later, after September the eleventh, she came home. Sadder.

She taught me to sing Elvis songs and Sinatra. She used to say that people worried too much about what kind of voice they had or how well they could carry a tune. For her it was always about the song. If you believed it and you sang it with all your heart, it didn’t matter what kind of voice you had; people would feel the connection and would respond. She made me test the theory once by standing on a desk and belting out New York, New York to a room full of strangers. It was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done – and possibly one of the least popular music events of all time. To this day I still don’t know how she got me to do it.

I’m not sure her theory worked for me. (I didn’t seem to make many connections.) But it worked for her. Her voice was not what’s generally considered a beautiful voice. It wasn’t conventional. Her voice had gravel in it, grit – and she didn’t have a huge range. But she sang with her whole heart.

Once, at a party, in a friend’s kitchen she sang Stormy Weather. She just stood there next to the sink holding a bottle of beer and sang it. No backing. People stopped talking to listen. A few looked like they would cry. It was one of the saddest, loneliest performances I’d ever heard, and it was beautiful. But I missed the significance of it. Stupidly. I just didn’t think.

And then I got married. Gena came to the wedding in a dress and boots. And for a wedding present she gave us a big book of songs, jazz standards. I’ve got it right here.

And then I never saw her again.

My wife and I had our first child and, as sometimes happens, we became preoccupied. We lost touch with people. It was at least two years before I tried to find Gena again. By then she had gone.

Now sometimes I listen back to her recordings and I kick myself. It’s all there. In her crazy songs (…don’t turn away, it’s the least you can do. Catch me, I’m falling…) and in her voice. The story, her pain, it was all there all along. Stormy Weather. There in plain sight. But I didn’t see it and I didn’t help. I was too wrapped up in myself.

Gena, I miss you. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you like you were for me. I missed it. I just didn’t see. Forgive me.

There is a poem by Rupert Brooke called ‘Dust’. I first saw it in an old second-hand book. Brooke seems to be writing about romantic love, but the poem always reminds me of my dad. Maybe that’s because I’ve seen his ashes — grey dust in a polythene bag inside a small green box. Dad liked boxes. He liked things neat. And there he is. Dust. Waiting for my mother, still going strong three years later. Waiting for their six decades of marriage to resume again, their ashes to mingle as we scatter them together – as we plan to do – on the sea off the beach where we spent so many holidays.

The poem starts:

“When the white flame in us is gone,

And we that lost the world’s delight

Stiffen in darkness, left alone

To crumble in our separate night;”

But it’s the sixth stanza that always gets me. The first time I read it made me gasp. I thought of my dad and of how much I want to see him again.

“Nor ever rest, nor ever lie,

Till, beyond thinking, out of view,

One mote of all the dust that’s I

Shall meet one atom that was you.”

I think it’s the possibility that hurts so much. And wanting it so.

I miss him so much.

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I miss vapour trails.

And coffee shops.

Tattooed barista girls, buskers, and kissing people on the cheek.

I miss walking through London, being invisible, imagining the worlds behind each face. I miss the plaques that say Dickens Lived Here, or Saki, Jimi Hendrix or Canaleto. I miss the woman who stands outside Waterloo Station shouting Jesus Loves You.

I miss mojito ice lollies on my way home, slurping as I walk, chewing the lime slice. I miss the theatre, and stationery shops, and staring across the Thames from a crowded footbridge. The moon over Trafalgar Square. The sun over Oxford Street. The dusty electric smell of the Underground.

I miss crowded commuter trains. I really miss them. I hadn’t realised how much thinking I do on trains. So many clouds seen from windows, sorted into shapes or omens or, once, even a version of myself swooping and soaring through the sky.

The trains still run here, high up on the railway embankment. But they are empty now. Not a single tiny head in any of the lighted windows. And the trains sound different too. They are lighter. They rattle past in a higher key.

No one close to us has died. The deaths are still numbers on the news. But the sadness laps at our feet. There is a cheerfulness among our neighbours that seems unreal. A coming together that smells lightly of hysteria, of a desperation to be normal, to not look at the dark.

So much has changed in so little time.

I pass a car dealership as I walk my dog. The new cars on the forecourt are thick with dust.

Everything is different now.

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real spam

Two things.

Something has gone wrong with my email spam filter. I’ve been thinking about the concept of multiple realities. In physics and philosophy there are several theories and ways to get to that second idea. (I have no idea what I’m talking about.)

In an infinite universe (or series of universes) for example, if the building blocks of matter are the same, then every possible arrangement of those particles will necessarily exist somewhere, no matter how complicated.

Another theory is linked to somebody’s cat (it was Schroedinger) and to the idea that electrons orbiting a nucleus can be circling clockwise or anti-clockwise until you look at them. Once you’ve seen them they only ever go one way. Explaining the difference that looking makes is difficult. An idea that I read is backed by the majority of physicists is that there is some kind of split at the point of observation — like limbs branching from a tree. (I really do have no idea what I’m talking about.)

If you look and see the electrons spinning clockwise that becomes your reality and is the branch you subsequently follow. The other reality, where they spin the other way, also exists but is no longer available to you. Life is a series of decision points at which different versions of you break off and follow different branches into different realities, while you continue on the only path available given your choices.


Somewhere out across the vast emptiness of space-time there is another James, just like me, who is also getting all this spam.

But for him the offers are real.

For him there really is a single lotion to take away all his aches and pains, another to eliminate signs of aging, and pills that, overnight, will render him svelte and a sexual god. The IMF really has mandated the Kenyan Ministry of Finance to send him $7.8 million if he’ll only supply his bank details, and dozens of beautiful Russian women really are just dying to take him on dates.

Have fun James. Enjoy it while it lasts. Any second someone might check on those electrons. They may not be spinning the way you assume.

words on the internet

mr magic

The people on the 6.35 to Waterloo are an odd bunch, but they work very hard. While I’m staring out the window at the clouds they spend lots of time on laptops. Half move numbers from one column to another for reasons I have no hope of understanding. Most of the others seem to work in marketing.

One man, who I first noticed a few months ago, has been writing a book about selling. I’ve been reading it over his shoulder. It’s the pseudo-scientific kind, with pat summaries of small psychological studies. Lots of talk of brain function and serotonin levels, that sort of thing. He’s been working on it for ages and I’ve become fascinated.

He’s in his forties, designer casual, trendy haircut, Chelsea boots, and expensive glasses – a successful marketing man with knowledge to pass on. His draft is on an Apple Macbook. Passages that he’s not sure about are in red and he revises them as we trundle through Wimbledon to Charing Cross.

Some days I’ve felt mildly jealous. He’s clearly more successful than me. He’s got more hair too. And I wish I was that close to finishing a book. But his chapter today touched a particular nerve. It was all about The Power of Stories. 

Stories, he wrote, can really connect people. Something special happens to the mind when we share them. He quoted studies suggesting that brain chemistry is affected,  and others showing that stories help people access emotions that are otherwise unavailable to them. This helps them to empathise with situations and people that they otherwise wouldn’t.

“Stories move people,” he wrote. “The effect can be very powerful.”
Then he went on to describe how this might be deployed to sell people things they otherwise wouldn’t want.

Part of me wanted to bash his head in with his Macbook. Another bit just felt sad.

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helter skelter

Delusion stalks me like a lovelorn ex. Sometimes it feels like I camp at the edge of a kind of madness. It’s like all I would ever have to do is stop clinging on, just let myself descend.
I recall a red tower from my childhood. It is a helter skelter. I seem to live at the top of this metaphorical cliché. The stiff and shifting bristles of the mat press hard against my legs. I feel their scent in my nostrils – dry grass and old dust and cleaning products. (This cannot be a real memory.) I see the word ‘welcome’ in dark letters.
My childish pink hands grip the cold red metal of the chute. There is a novelty plastic ring on one of my fingers. The tiny grey face of an ape, or maybe a skull, girns back at me.
I live at the top. All I’d ever have to do is let go. Just stop holding on. Unflex those little hands. Slide. Lunacy would be waiting, its arms wide and soft.

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coming up short

It is one of the most human things of all to know something, to know you know something, and still to behave sometimes as if you don’t know it. The key, I guess, is in how we deal with that.

There are clay tablets in the British Museum scratched with parts of a story called The Epic of Gilgamesh. They are very old. It’s a story that has been around in written form for about four thousand years. It was probably being told long before anyone wrote it down.

On his quest Gilgamesh comes to realise that “The life which you look for, you will never find.” Humans have known this for at least four millennia — but I have never met anyone who’s stopped looking.

I don’t know what the answer is for coming to terms with our human inadequacies. It’s probably something to do with the difference between accepting responsibility and taking blame, between regret and guilt, between making amends and beating yourself up.

It’s worth reflecting that if you are aggressive with yourself about your failures then you are adding aggression to a world that already has more than enough. But if you can be gentle with yourself while not dodging responsibility then you are adding to the sum of gentleness and also moving forward.

We need to be careful that we don’t try so hard to become the person that we’d like to be that we forget to be who we already are.

Everything always seems to come back to relaxing with what is.

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buskers 2 – an exception

Except bagpipes. I don’t give money for bagpipes. Bagpipes are not magic.
Only when they stop.
If there is a hell it has bagpipes. Hell, if it exists, is probably the nicest place you could imagine, but with bagpipes.
For me it might be a reclining chair with a reading lamp and a stack of old hardback books. For you maybe it’s a red and white checked picnic blanket in a beautiful alpine meadow, a recliner on a sun-kissed tropical beach, or a luxury suite in a top hotel. Hell is any of those places with the addition of a single man in a tartan skirt playing Mull of Kintyre over and over and over.
I’m sorry Scotland. I do love you, but this is something you need to know.

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One thing I really like about London is that it is full of buskers. I love buskers. If I could do anything in the world – astronaut, president, person-with-measuring-tape-in-lingerie-shop – I’d be a busker. I’d travel around from place to place with a guitar or a ukele, or maybe the full Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins outfit, and I’d sing and dance and make people smile and laugh. At the end of the day I’d pick up my hat and my coins and go find a warm meal and a place to sleep.
And the next day I’d get up and maybe stay for a bit or maybe move on to some place else, depending how I felt that morning. I’d have connections everywhere, but never ties. I’d be always moving – an English Bruce Banner, without the anger issues.  
But I have no voice you want to hear and no musical talent. And so I just love buskers. They are magic. They do a thing I love but could never do. If you pass one don’t be mean. Slow down, listen for a bit – and for goodness sake give them some dough.

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A ragged man teeters on the top steps of Waterloo Station. Commuters rush below. Their heads are level with his feet. Chins tucked against the chill they crowd past heading for home.

The man is shivering. His clothes and face are crumpled and old. He wears a filthy woollen hat and a jacket that is too small. One hand clutches a damp grey sleeping bag, the other a paper cup.

“Any help?” He calls, “Any spare?”

His back is bent. He’s rocking slowly from one foot to the other, a worn out sailor on a sea of hasty people.

“Any help? Any spare?”

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Dead Clowns Don’t Juggle

(A Rik Strand mystery)

Some cops police with their heads, and some cops are gut cops. Strand was a gut cop. He was all gut.

                It was Strand’s gut that told him that was no ordinary road traffic accident. Cars don’t just fall apart like that. Not by themselves. Not in his town.

                It was his gut that told him there was something off about the stiff. The guy’s face was all messed up. Whatever happened to his nose was real ugly.

                And it was Strand’s gut that brought him here, to the part of town they called the Circus – and a two-bit motel called the Big Top.

                The dame on the front desk wore a faded leotard and a face like a satchel. Strand flashed his badge and she jabbed towards the stairs with a half-sucked Lucky Strike.

                Outside the stiff’s room Strand adjusted his belt. He rearranged his pants so his gut could hang free. Give it room. Among cops Strand was known for his gut.

                He turned the key and stepped forward. As he went through the door there was a sound. Something flew at him. He yelled and struck out, his legs flexing and his arms whirling in front of his face. But there was no one there. Just tiny pieces of coloured paper showering to the floor, and a bucket flopping noisily against the door frame.

Strand called out, “Police.” But there was no answer. His gut told him the room was empty. The victim’s room.

Strand began to take it in. He’d never seen a circular bedroom before. It reminded him of a boxing ring – only round. The second thing he noticed was the paint job. Primary colours, lots of them. The room had been decorated all over with huge pictures of balloons – red, blue, yellow ballons all over the walls and ceiling.

                The floor was something else. Strand’s gut told him it was significant. The texture was strange and he knelt to touch it. The scent of pine filled Strand’s nostrils. It was loose. It was sawdust. The entire floor was sawdust.

                He crossed to a large dressing table. Above it a mirror floated in a halo of lightbulbs. The stiff seemed to like makeup. Disgusted, Strand picked up a jar and unscrewed the lid. There was a whistling noise and a blur of orange. A plastic snake flew across the room.

                Strand’s eyes fell on the bed. It was long and yellow and looked like a banana. Strings of helium balloons floated at each corner. Beneath the bed a pair of shoes. He picked them up. They were black and narrow and maybe a yard long. The dead guy sure had big feet.

                He went to a large double wardrobe and pulled it open. Wigs. A whole shelf of bright, curly wigs. And bow ties. Sparkling, shining bow ties. On the rail beneath flopped a row of polka-dot one-piece outfits with shiny straps, hooped waists and pompoms for buttons. Stacked on the floor were white paper plates and two big boxes labelled ‘custard pie mix’. 

                Strand picked up the telephone and dialled the station. The phone was shaped like a hotdog. The receiver was a large frankfurter. He barked into it.

                “This is Strand. Get me forensics”.

                Strand’s gut was talking again. It said follow the money.

If he could just figure out what the dead guy did for a living, this case would crack like an egg.

———— © inkyjim ———–