Driffield’s Bookcase (an Epilogue to The Anatomy of Melancholy)

“Never confuse where you are with where you are going.”

-Emir Manheim


In the past, when I’ve felt blue/down/angry, people’s always-helpful-and-never-knowingly-unappreciated advice has often extended to phrases like “try not to think about it” or “hmm, maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here”, or even “I’d keep those sort of opinions to yourself if I were you!”

More often than not, the people who actually cheer me up are people I’ve never met, sometimes people who’ve been dead for years: poets, writers, philosophers, artists.

My recent quest to detox from most of the human race through other people’s multimedia art proved fruitful. The world may still be the planetary equivalent of a reasonably amusing hobo who approaches you and mumbles some crazy shit that makes you chuckle, only to pull out a rusty hunting knife and go straight for the gonads, but maybe it’s always been that way.

A long time ago, the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates found himself standing in the sunny garden of his friend Democritus, the ‘laughing philosopher’. Something like the following scene unfolded:

FADE IN.

EXT. THRACIAN SUBURBS, 3RD CENTURY BCE – DAY

Hippocrates (tall, bearded, father-of-modern-medicine type) stands in a sunny Greek garden. His face suddenly turns sour as he sniffs the air suspiciously.

HIPPOCRATES (with distaste)
Hmm. Smells like entrails around here!

Following the intestinal scent, Hippocrates finds his friend sitting beneath a huge tree. Democritus (fat, pre-Socratic, father-of-atomic theory looking), has an open book in his nude lap and a big dopey Joker grin on his face. Strewn about him on the ground are the corpses of at least a dozen household animals.

HIPPOCRATES
Wtf, Democritus! Why do you sit naked under a shady bower, surrounded by the carcasses of many and several beasts? Do you hold these creatures in contempt or something, fam?

DEMOCRITUS
Nah, bro. I is doing science, innit. This book upon my knee is my own work. I am writing on madness and anatomy and that. I have anatomized these animals, all of which are dear to me, in order that my writings and researches may lead other men to avoid sitting upon the throne of atra bilis, known in English as melancholy.

HIPPOCRATES
I know what atra bilis is mate, for I am Greek also. But what is to be done about the smell, broheim?

FADE TO WHITE.

Flash forward a couple of epochs. Two score centuries, give or take.

1631. An English scholar by the name of Robert Burton, writing under the questionable (and possibly not-so-serious) pseudonym ‘Democritus Junior’ incorporates his own version of Hippocrates’s anecdote into what would become his only published work, a dense medical text on melancholy. Burton was an obsessive re-writer of his own work, and no less than five revisions of the book were published in his lifetime alone.

The text is described in the beginning (by a possibly unreliable source) as “A book once the favourite of the learned and the witty”, “the delight of the learned, the solace of the indolent, and the refuge of the uninformed”, which sounds like something quite a lot of people here in the 21st century should be reading.

Samuel Johnson supposedly once said that Burton’s work “was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.”*

By all accounts, Burton was quite the pleasant chap. A voracious reader. A devoted student of the world with a dark sense of humour. “Very merry, facete, and juvenile”, “the pleasantest, the most learned, and the most full of sterling sense.”

Anyone who has the word ‘learned’ attached to him that many times must be worth a read, surely?

FADE TO WHITE.

Let’s crash through another few centuries:

EXT. WEST PENDER STREET, VANCOUVER, CANADA – DAY

Benjamin (scrucify, clumsy, introverted but undeniably sexually attractive kind of guy) walks through the rain clutching an umbrella. He is at a point exactly equidistant from a secondhand bookshop and a little café run by a woman from Shanghai who makes excellent eggs Benedict.

BENJAMIN (inner monologue)
I swear, after going book shopping in Vancouver, that I will never complain about the price of paperbacks in Beijing ever again! Perhaps I’ll go to the library and see if they have anything by Alan Moore or Iain Sinclair.

CUT TO:

I walk in to pick up a hold in the Vancouver Public Library.** The book is London: City of Disappearances, a sprawling multi-author fusion of fact and fiction about England’s swinging capital.

One of the book’s ‘characters’ is the enigmatic bookseller Driffield, who spends his time sipping jet black coffees, loafing about in salmon pink jumpers and gathering research for his self-published guides to All The Secondhand and Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain; he tries to make money by renting himself out to writers as a character in their fictional stories. On one of Driff’s many bookcases sits a 17th Century medical textbook, which is where I first become aware of Robert Burton’s 2000 page tome The Anatomy of Melancholy: What it is; With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up. I clearly file it away somewhere in my brain in case the world becomes so depressing that I’ll want to steal any part of the catchy title for a blog project.

Ironically, for a book that he wrote mostly to relieve his own melancholy, the textbook apparently increased Burton’s malady to such a degree that he never recovered.

A similar fate may well have befallen the by-now-at-least-semi-fictional Driffield. Nobody is even sure of his current whereabouts, although rumours of his death may have been started by the mysterious book dealer himself.

FADE TO WHITE.

Onwards, further into the future:

INT. ANLILU SUBWAY STATION, BEIJING, CHINA – DAY

I hop onto Line 15 one chilly December evening, chatting to an interesting fella who was with the circus for ten years, and is now – after a decade of juggling and death defying stunts – ready to run away to Medical School. He’s now clowning around as a drama teacher, waiting for his scholarship to come through, studying Chinese medicine in his spare time. This guy is already a veritable fount of knowledge after pretty much teaching himself anatomy and physiology. I’m telling him about the time I myself wanted to run away from the circus of my life and join BBC medical dramas. As he talks about nerve endings and skin cells, and I talk about that red-headed surgeon from Holby City, something in the back of my mind reminds me that I still haven’t read any Robert Burton.

CUT TO:

Several months later. After visiting a couple of art galleries, having distilled the story of my day into a 3000 word mess on art and Batman, I forget to put a paperback of Lady Chatterley’s Lover into my rucksack. Dashing towards the subway as usual, I can’t bear the thought of a commute without a piece of literature, so I open my iBooks app and load up the Project Gutenberg version of The Anatomy of Melancholy.

By the time I have reached my destination, I’ve read nearly 50 pages. A few days later, as I write this, I have read nearly 200.

I’m only on chapter 2.

FADE OUT.


*Although he also stated that it was “perhaps, overloaded with quotation”, which I can now confirm is very much the fucking case! And so much Latin. Remember that anecdote about Walt Disney rejecting Aldous Huxley’s screenplay for Alice in Wonderland because he only understood every fourth word? Here uncle Walt would be clueless.

**In Canadian libraries, a book reservation is called a ‘hold’, presumably because the word ‘reservation’ was already in use for the awful stuff that the early settlers were doing to native Americans.

Wayfinding

“Strangely clean, lacking in texture, like video games before they’d learned to dirty them up”
– William Gibson, on Vancouver


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If someone had told me a year ago that I would miss Beijing I’d have thought they were as crazy as the ‘brain infected’ old man from Shogun Assassin*. That I’d miss China? Maybe. That I’d miss my slinky, shoe-washing co-teacher? Certainly. But that I’d miss the smoggy North Capital itself? Nah.

There is a joke that certain people once whispered in pre-Brexit Britain**: “What’s the difference between yoghurt and Canada? Yoghurt has culture!” A similar joke is told here in Vancouver, except ‘Canada’ is pronounced ‘Calgary’ and ‘yoghurt’ is pronounced wrong.

The tricky thing about evaluating ‘culture’ is that it’s a pretty subjective concept. To me, culture is like a planet’s atmosphere: something fiendishly complicated and occasionally life-supporting that builds up in the right conditions over a long period of time***.

I’ve spent most of my 2016 working in a hostel in my adopted homeland, making beds and scrubbing vomit from washroom floors. Some might say it’s a step down from teaching the children of wealthy Chinese families but if you’d ever worked for the same company as me in the Beijing boonies, you’d know that it’s actually an improvement!

But I have missed the Jing, which is why I’ve decided to go back there. I like Vancouver. The people are, on the whole, both dope and chill, usually because they spend a lot of time smoking dope and/or chillin’.

To my eyes, Vancouver is a young city. Not jailbait young, but certainly not creaking at the knees under the weight of its own mythology (like, say, London or Paris). Van City, therefore, comes with all the advantages (and disadvantages) that youth has to offer: It’s beautiful, the air is fresh, there are as many mountains as skyscrapers; it’s got bicycles and beards and artisan coffee shops coming out the wazoo. A veritable Utopia for a pretentious hipster type such as myself! It’s even relatively safe to cross the street without worrying about being hit by a car.

So what has prompted me to return to the not-so-mysterious east? Why the sudden urge to re-enter the dragon? Why do I want to become Ben the Foreigner again? Was I polishing some fans at work when I suddenly inhaled dust that triggered a wistful memory of Tongzhou’s fecal smog? Had I run out of toilet paper and become misty-eyed at the recollection of squatting in a hutong with a red-raw medieval arsehole?

The short answer is, “No, don’t be silly.” I simply couldn’t shake the feeling that, like Stallone between Rocky 5 and Rocky 6, I retired too early. That there’s more of China still to experience.

I’m also a little tired of hearing myself start almost every conversation with the words “when I was in Beijing…”

I arrived in Hollywood North the same way I left the Big Dustbowl: with mixed feelings. There is, of course, the temptation to disappear into the woods like Emily Carr or Henry David Thoreau, to play at being Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans or to go on some sort of shamanic quest (at least as far as Banff). But there is also the temptation not to bugger about with that sort of thing and to face the fact that I’m still more interested in where the sun rises than in where it sets.

I told you I’d see you on the next adventure. Are you ready?


*see https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/04/06/hello-world/. (I’m not made of film references!)

**(before nearly everyone there started Googling ‘How To Move To The Great White North’)

***(NOT something that happens instantly in scientifically inaccurate movies at the push of a button while Arnold Schwarzenegger’s eyes are popping out of his head).

Origin Story

“Where the hell are we?”

“Geographically speaking, in the northern hemisphere. Socially, on the margins. And narratively, with some way to go.”

-The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus


I’ve been writing a lot recently. I have ‘been a writer’ since at least the age of twelve. I’ve kept notebooks and journals for the last decade (most of them are gathering dust in a Bag For Life at my sister’s place in the UK), but I only decided I wanted to ‘be a writer’ four or five years ago. At the age of 27 I started to send some scripts and writing samples to various corners of the UK in the hope of turning pro.

I had some success. Within six months I had interest from the BBC Writers Room regarding a script I’d written for a potential children’s fantasy series. I nearly got an agent. I landed an internship as head writer on an exciting transmedia project. I script edited a so-far-unmade science fiction series for a very pleasant Belgian filmmaker. I worked with some wonderful actors and I even met, and spoke to at length, two of my favourite authors, both of whom proved that the caveat ‘never meet your heroes’ is bollocks

After that, though, something went slightly sour. I wasn’t making money as a writer. I was in a relationship that I didn’t want to be in. I wasn’t seeing enough of my friends because I was devoting myself to my writing in the way that a catholic nun devotes herself to her husband, Jesus. I spent a year writing an X-rated choose-your-own-adventure-style fantasy before realizing that it was a tangled mess of pseudo-narrative and dick jokes, then consigning it to the ‘better luck next rewrite’ drawer of my digital filing cabinet. I toyed with the idea of writing a mystical self-help parody called Everything You Know is Utter Monkey Spunk.

I was a bit of a mess. I had long hair and a big beard, which made me look like the cover of Gregory Macguire’s novel A Lion Among Men (which, ironically, was a perfectly inadequate way of describing myself at that time).

I started looking for a ‘real’ job, only to discover that I’d made myself virtually unemployable in the UK. I’d studied performing arts and digital filmmaking, only to discover that the ability to caper through a Commedia Dell’arte routine or talk at length about the French Nouvelle Vague is about as useful in the world of gainful employment as a paper boat is to a drowning man. I ended up on the dole, living in my sister’s attic, my confidence having taken a few gut punches. I spent most of my days lying in bed, reading self-help books or writing in notebooks.

I started searching for jobs abroad. I tried very hard to land a job in Carlsbad, California writing online content for the Transformers franchise. I even considered doing research by sitting through the film version staring 90s pop sensation Marky Mark, before wisely deciding against that. The job probably went to someone who actually gives a crap about giant metal things that can change into other, slightly less conspicuous metal things. The truth is, I just wanted to sip beers on a beach and write science fiction stories.

For the last few weeks I have been back on the writing, though. I have been lazily scripting a short horror film for a friend in England, and I have been slowly Transforming an old script of mine into what I’m pretty sure will be my first full-length novel. Part of my new-found productivity is to do with the simple fact that I earn a low wage and that there’s bugger all to do in Tongzhou except wander about whistling the theme tune to The Prisoner. Part of it is to do with some of the inspiring people I’ve met since coming to Beijing. Part of it is to do with the fact that I feel I’m starting to find a voice. Mostly, though, it’s down to me realizing that I still want to ‘be a writer’.

I enjoy teaching, and it was a particular joy to orchestrate my first graduating class with my Chinese co-teacher a few weeks ago. I also enjoy exploring Beijing, but the truth is that the feeling I get standing on the Great Wall or watching the sunset from the rooftop of a hutong bar is no different from the feeling I used to get sitting in a coffee shop in Northampton or a pub in Banbury with a Muji notebook and some coloured pens.

I have a lot of confidence in my writing that simply wasn’t there a couple of years ago. Maybe the writing has improved. Maybe my self-esteem has. I’m not sure. Either way, I have somehow ended up with about a third of a science fiction novel within the last eight weeks or so. It’s the most productive that I’ve ever been, and I hold out hope that it is, at the very least, publishable. Strangely, the novel keeps taking my mind away from Beijing and bringing back childhood memories: riding my mountain bike to the shopping mall, reading comic books about the death of Superman and shoplifting issues of Vampirella because I was too embarrassed to ask my mum for parental consent.

I was talking to a friend here the other day. I haven’t known him for that long, but like most of my friends, he is both trusting and trustworthy and he speaks his mind. “You know that your next story has to be an autobiography, don’t you?” He said. “You’ve got to tell some of these true stories of yours!” Then he took a sharp intake of breath and said “Trouble is, there’d be too much truth in it! I reckon you’d have a hard time publishing it, and you’d piss a lot of people off!” He’s probably right. On all counts.

Look at superhero stories, for example. I remember the death of Superman like it was yesterday. It was such a well-received story cycle that, ironically, it resurrected the fortunes of DC comics. But nobody ever buys the origin stories, do they?