Papercats – a story

Once there was a boy called Tom, and he lived in a world of paper.

Of course it wasn’t literally paper. He had a house, with broad stone walls, a scarred wooden table and a cold kitchen and warm bedroom – a sure sign of someone who spends too much time in their own head. Tom didn’t have a family and he didn’t have friends. Instead, Tom had paper.

Throughout the day and long into the night, Tom made things out of paper. He made animals and plants, buildings and landscapes. He crafted bridges and bred dinosaurs. He built people and sat them around tiny paper plates, cups and saucers. But at the end of every day, Tom would examine his work sadly and realise that something was missing. Perhaps a crease was messy or there was a smear on the crisp white card. And, sadly, Tom would crumple the paper figures up in his hand, stack his paper neatly at the edge of the table and shuffle slowly up the stairs to bed, where he would sleep badly.

Day after day, night after night, Tom worked steadily on his paper world. And day after day, night after night, he went up to bed disappointed. Until the night that Tom ran out of ideas.

He sat at the table, frustrated and dismayed. He had never before been stuck for inspiration, but this time it seemed like he’d already made everything there was to be made. His hands started to itch to fold paper, but his brain didn’t know what shape the paper should take.

IMG_0328Finally, he lifted a sheet, turned it over in his hands, and eventually started to work. He realised that among the many animals he had made – weasels, parakeets, dogs, frogs, zebras – he’d never made a cat. And that’s what he was going to try to make now.

When the cat was finished, Tom looked it carefully. This cat would never do. Its left ear was too small, and its tail a stubby mess. Immediately, Tom crushed the cat in his fingers and started again.

The second cat was better than the first, but still – it simply wasn’t right. There was a smear on the right haunch, and the head was at a funny angle. Usually Tom would simply move on to the next thing; in fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d even given anything a second chance. And now, as he feverishly grabbed another sheet of paper, he was trying for the third time.

Tom set to work. Piece after folding piece, crease after folding crease, the cat began to take shape. His hair began to fall into his eyes, the cold chill in the kitchen crept up around his shoulders and his fingers began to feel stiff and sore, but still he went on. At last, the final fold was in place, and he gently set the cat on the table and eased down his aching shoulders, staring at the paper pet.

This attempt was….

Perfect.

Tom sat back, confused. He could not find a single fault with the cat. It sat upright on its haunches, a neatly proportioned tail curled around to the side. Its head was tilted with a curious expression, its ears were pointed and perky, and the curve of its back was smooth and blemish free.

Tom slowly rose from his chair. He stacked the paper neatly on the table, never taking his eyes off the cat, and then turned his back and walked up the stairs to bed.

In the gloomy, cold kitchen, nothing moved. Until the cat suddenly yawned, stretched and wandered off into the darkness. It was hungry, and thirsty, and bored. It sniffed at the paper stack, and tasted the edge of a sheet. It jumped down off the table, and chased dust across the floor. It clambered up to the sink and tried to lick droplets from the tap, but this made its muzzle soggy so it edged to the lukewarm radiator and stayed there a while, trying to dry its nose.

Upstairs, Tom was having the worst night’s sleep he’d ever had. In fact, since every time he was about to drop off he jerked back awake, sure he could hear clattering and banging in the empty kitchen, he couldn’t even really call it a night’s sleep at all.

Finally, he gave up and made his way downstairs. Everything was exactly as he left it. Well, almost. In the middle of the table, where he’d left the cat, was… nothing.

Tom looked on the floor, in case the cat had somehow blown over. There was nothing there. He crawled under the table. Nothing there either. He lifted the stack of paper, even though it was flush to the table top. Nothing at all. But the edge of the topmost sheet was strangely frayed.

Finally, Tom sat down, placed the damaged sheet aside, and began to make another cat. And it was just as perfect as the first.

After staring at the new cat for a long while, Tom once again left it in the centre of the table and went up to bed. And this time, for the first time, Tom drifted off almost immediately into a peaceful, dreamless sleep.

The cats met in the middle of the table, approaching each other cautiously and then circling around and around. Then they began to explore.

Eventually, they came back to the pile of paper. They looked at the stack, then looked at each other. Their noses quivered. Together, they turned to look out of the window, where the moon was still high in the sky. And then they turned back to the stack.

The sun was burning brightly by the time Tom woke in his bed. He felt rested, and that in itself was strange, since he never usually felt rested. He felt calm. He felt happy. He felt… hungry.

Tom got up, went to the bathroom, got dressed. He stood at the top of the stairs and stretched. Then he shuffled downstairs to the kitchen, where he stopped in the doorway, stunned.

Every inch of every surface was jammed full of paper cats. They crowded the floor. They cluttered the ceiling lights. They clustered on the chairs. The table. The worktops. The sink – apart from a space around the plughole, where the cats seemed to be edging away from the drips.

Once there was a boy called Tom, and he lived in a world of paper.

Of course it wasn’t literally paper. He had a house, with broad stone walls, a scarred wooden table and a warm kitchen. Tom had family, and Tom had friends. And every one of them was a perfect paper cat.

A little background: As a result of my #100forchildsi sketching, a few stories to accompany my scrawls began to grow in my head. One of them was just a single image, and I drew it once in pencil and once painted – that’s it above. I hoped to next try a plain ink version… it’s never been quite right. Anyway. It was never intended to be more than just a single image, but then Ramona invented a game where we each had to tell a story, and they were becoming increasingly outlandish. Eventually, this image popped into my head and as we were walking through town, crowds milling around us, she held my hand and listened carefully to the story of Tom and his paper friends. If my 100 days of artwork taught me anything, it’s that an unrefined bird released to the winds is worth two fully-polished articles in your head, so I thought better to commit it to screen, faults and all, than to keep replaying it in my head and watching the colours dim each time I failed to do anything more with it. And besides, Ramona might ask me to tell it again.

David Bowie at the V&A, and why my sister nicely ruins everything

My sister, in the nicest possible way, ruins everything. Take snow. I used to get excited about snow! And then she pointed out that it was fairly miserable for people with nowhere to shelter from it.

Then there was that time she ruined Together in Electric Dreams by pointing out that if the object of his affection didn’t smile until it was time to go away, then maybe they didn’t like Phil Oakey that much anyway.

Or the time that she snorted at the idea of conditions being remotely ‘normal’ in Enola Gay. I mean, honestly. Am I really supposed to think about things?!

And then she ruined 30-odd years of thinking perfectly nice but faintly indifferent thoughts about David Bowie (except as Jareth, of course, where he is the Best Thing Ever), by asking me to go along to the V&A retrospective about him.

Because actually, as it turns out, his body of work screams pretty much every life lesson worth knowing. The exhibition – lovingly curated and presented beautifully in an enjoyably immersive experience complete with headphones that play a soundtrack triggered by the nearest display – is not very much about David Bowie himself – except as he can be known through his work – but mostly about the art of and around his work. It includes sketches and lyric notes, a piece from the graphic designer about the creation of the cover for The Next Day, videos of collaborators and influences. It’s a massively rich collection, and it’s only a tiny slice of the massive volume that could have been displayed, I’m sure.

We stopped at one point, in the middle, already overwhelmed with the quality of what we’d seen – and before we’d even reached the man’s mid-20s.

“If you just completely commit yourself to it, and keep producing work so prolifically,” she commented, “you’re simply bound to strike gold more than other people.”

I thought about other vastly active artists – the obvious ones for me at this moment are Gaiman and Palmer – who might not always hit the target but whose monolithic archives mean that they are always producing something, and therefore are more likely to produce something excellent. And, besides, practice makes perfect, right?

I’m not suggesting that innate talent isn’t important. But as my former colleague Stacey, bassist for Axes, once said to me: “It pisses me off when people think this kind of thing just comes to you. Sure, I’m musical, but I worked my arse off to get this good.”

And, crucially, it’s not enough to be good on your own. You have to share it with someone else. Perhaps with everyone else. Because then it takes on a separate life of its own, too (here I think of Mark Billingham, author of the Thorne detective novels, who – rightly, in my opinion – figures “a book isn’t a book until it’s read”).

Basically, the brilliant, when it comes to what they are brilliant at, simply don’t do shy, even when it hurts, and they don’t do lazy, because that doesn’t make sense to them.

They also don’t have to do drama. Have you ever noticed? People like working with them, and hiring them, and talking about how easy they are to collaborate with. When you’re reasonably secure in your ability, and totally passionate about and dedicated to the production of whatever it is you produce, you simply don’t have to be an ass about it.

And so, back to Bowie and my sister. My sister, who ruins things by not ruining them. By, in fact, forcing me to think, and reflect, and love her ever so much for it,  even while I resent the nagging feeling that I should set my bar higher, and rise to meet it.

As we were leaving, she said to me, contemplatively:

“You get the impression that the world is just a better place for having had him in it.”

Now what a legacy that is.

Signed up to NaNoWriMo… sort of

Schrodinger's LolcatFor the last two years, I’ve signed up to National Novel Writing Month and failed miserably.

In 2007 I did actually write 6-7,000 words of nonsense, largely as an exercise in having an idea as my writing muscles had near-irretrievably seized up. Last year I did nothing at all. The ideas were not flowing and I just didn’t have the time.

Having done nothing with the Monster Book since the epic 10,000+ word writing marathon at the Urban Writers Retreat, I’ve decided it’s time to go back to it. Now, NaNoWriMo prohibits use of pre-written prose as the idea is to freely write whatever and not be tied up in feelings about characters, yadda, yadda, yadda. But I’d rather have an idea I really want to work on and use it as an excuse to get a little further down that track than stare at the empty screen until I get thoroughly miserable and then ignore it until, oh, next May or something. So even if I nail the 50,000, I can’t win. That said, if I nail the 50,000 I’ll probably have finished the bugger and that’s a much bigger win than a snazzy web badge and PDF certificate will ever, ever be.

I plan to use the UWR to help me actually do this, too, if there are any sessions left this year. (There are). Plus this year I know more other people doing it and can use The Guilt to spur me on.