Rating 5 stars
I was all set to start a different book when Tom Cox’s Notebook arrived in the post. This is a book I’ve been waiting for, delayed by the pandemic, pledged for in 2019. Cox is an author who does his own thing, publishing through Unbound since 2017, and a writer whose work fits the contours of my brain so perfectly that I don’t think twice about pledging for his books.
Before I even opened the cover, an extract on the back sleeve made me laugh.
I want my autobiography to truly sum up my life so I’m going to call it The Reason You Can’t Find Your Wallet Is Because It’s In Your Hand.
Notebook came about because Cox had his writing journal stolen when his bag was taken from a Bristol pub in 2018. The lost potential of that journal led to him mining his other notebooks to assemble this modern almanac of thoughts about the world. In size and weight, it reminded me of The Friendship Book of Francis Gay – an annual collection of poetry, prose and pictures about nature and human existence that my great aunt bought my parents every year when I was a child, and that introduced me to a variety of writers.
Notebook‘s not The Friendship Book, of course; that series was started by an ardent Methodist, real name Herbert Leslie Gee. While Cox shares Gee’s love of nature and understanding of our human relationship with it, he is definitely not a Methodist. His view of the world is more psychedelic than a Methodist could ever hope to achieve. Take the section title ‘Weather-fucked Pelt of a Long-deceased Vole’ as an example. It conjures images an ardent Methodist would surely shy away from.
In his introduction, Cox unpicks something about the nature of loss, the transience of possessions, and the way something unfinished or unfulfilled lives on in the mind in a way more interesting than completion would ever render it. Like a love affair that barely begins before it ends, still aching with potential.
My own relationship with stationery is different to Cox’s. He chooses notebooks in a similar way to me, and I knew just what he was driving at in his reference to a certain type of notebook sold by Paperchase around 2008. Three of the four journals that bulge with memories and mementos of our seven trips to Japan are those sort of Paperchase notebooks. That’s where the similarity fades, though, because the other notebooks I own that have attractive covers are unused, waiting for something worthy of them to be written within. My daily use of notebooks is work related, in the sort of spiral bound innocuous style obtained from the office stationery supplier, functional and intended to be discarded once their transient worth is spent. Cox uses his notebooks to capture fleeting thoughts, document experiences, and muse on life in the way I use Google Keep. I know, he’s definitely the winner.
This made me think again about a survey I once did in the brew room at the large county record office I was working in as an archivist two decades ago. I was stationery monitor at both primary and secondary school. Convinced that my love of arranging and inventorying stationery and handing it over to classmates had something to do with becoming an archivist, I asked my workmates if they’d been stationery monitor at school, too. Every single archivist and records manager had. Although we deal with used stationery, a lot of what we do as archivists has its roots in the stationery cupboard, I feel.
What’s interesting about Notebook is the way it cracks some light onto the process a writer follows. Both in the construction of this book and in his short story collection Help the Witch and his major works of nature writing 21st Century Yokel and Ring the Hill, the capturing on paper of thoughts and ideas is fundamental to the creation of a more cohesive piece of writing. I can see from these selected notebook entries, although he says he has tried to avoid including notes that have ended up in his writing elsewhere, that Cox’s journals also inform the Personal Compendiums and other essays on his website. Cox says it himself.
It is surely no coincidence that the period of my career as an author which produced my most fulfilling work is also the period when I was a more diligent notebook keeper. What I have realised more and more is my notebooks contain the grain in the wood of my writing. Without them, it would probably be just a laminate floor.
There is also direct illumination of the act of being a writer, in notes where Cox records his realisations about what drives him to write and what kind of writer he feels he is.
Some of what Cox says about his notebooks made me think of two archives we have on loan at the museum, the collected ephemera and decision making of two of the men who ran the world’s best record label. There are notebooks in one and scraps of paper that act as leaves of a notebook in the other. These are the locations of the manifesto making, planning, idea conjuring and restlessness that made Factory Records so special. Forty years on, with both men no longer here to talk to, they are revelatory about a time and place, and the men themselves.
I didn’t really know what to expect from this book. It’s hard to pin down, and that’s what I like about it. It captures the spaghettiness of time and the spaghettiness of thought processes. Its coherence is abstract, to borrow a phrase from Cox. He describes the sections as mixtapes, a scramble of subject matter loosely bound. The notes are shot through with the brilliance of Cox’s whimsy, the surreal flights of fancy that permit inanimate objects sentience, the altered consciousness at the heart of a psychedelic mindset. Other notes are records of being present in a moment so that the same moment can be accessed again.
Cox’s observations of other people are wonderful. I particularly enjoyed the description of the man who built a robot based on the Harrier Jump Jet.
Visiting Lacey is like visiting the lair of a lost Doctor Who that never quite made it into space.
The longer pieces, like the entry documenting Cox’s visit to meet robot creator Bruce Lacey, took me back to when I would read Cox’s 21st Century Yokel column in The Guardian. These were the pieces that drew me to his website and his social media, and from thence to his recent books. I loved those columns but, having followed his writing progress in the years since he quit writing for the national press, I can understand why he looks on them as limited. There’s an immediacy in the longer notebook entries that his recent books build on in a way the newspaper columns didn’t.
Cox’s parents are a presence, of course. His dad Mick appears in vignettes where he speaks entirely in capitals, a visual representation of his loudness familiar from 21st Century Yokel and Ring the Hill. His mum Jo is a quieter presence, the observations she shares with her son as precise as those Cox makes. Both Mick and Jo Cox are artists, and Notebook is illustrated with Jo’s linocut prints and Mick’s paintings.
Notebook is also a repository for Cox’s jottings from his time living in Norwich. It seems that this urban sojourn produced material that hasn’t quite slotted in with Cox’s writing trajectory, in relation to his books. I’ve never been to Norwich. I have friends who went to university there, and have worked with people from there, or near there. The only other thing I know about Norwich is that the brutalist university campus that Cox describes so vividly was the inspiration for Lowlands University in A Very Peculiar Practice. I enjoyed the observations in Notebook. They made me think of other small cities and market towns I have visited, like Chester, Newark, Lincoln and Stratford upon Avon.
One of the sections goes into record shops. In one journal entry, he talks about the serenity of idly flipping through records in a rack. It reminded me of the time, around 2003 or 4, when I was flipping through the racks in the HMV on Market Street in Manchester when a downy youth lolled across the racks next to me and sang the final chorus of How Soon Is Now to me. The t.a.T.u. cover version was playing at the time, and he was better. His embarrassed friend dragged him away, saying, “Stop annoying her mate.” It wasn’t annoying though, it was funny.
I could quote extensively from this book, but I don’t want to give the joy of discovering Cox’s way with words away too much. I can’t resist this triplet of sentences, though, about how walking and writing are intertwined for Cox.
I walked to Porlock on the north coast. Stories in my head, my feet writing them. Stories I couldn’t write if I stayed still.
Reading this book felt a bit like a conversation. I found myself, as I do with the audio recordings Cox puts on his website, sound versions of the notes in his journals, agreeing with, being surprised into a different train of thought by, and replying to the things he says. In that sense, it’s very much a friendship book.
You’ll notice that I read it quickly. That’s because it lifted me out of my lockdown funk. I should read more books that do that.
Notebook has just been sent out to pledgers, but will be available for purchase from 18 March 2021 from booksellers and online.