Lucky: What happened when I decided to throw away money

 

What follows is a true story. It seems so bizarre to me, even now, that I find it hard to reconcile with myself. Was that really me? Surely I didn’t do anything quite this crazy? But it was. And I did. Though whether it was really crazy or not, you’ll have to judge for yourself.

 

It started with Lisa Lynch. I’ve written before about her. She wrote a fantastic book called The C Word. The planned sequel was to be called Lucky, and while she was writing it, she asked a lot of us for stories from our lives on the theme of luck. As it happened, I had a story – a very strange one. So I sent it to her, and she sent me a note back to say how much she liked it, and planned to incorporate it. When Lisa died, the book remained unfinished. I’ve often thought about posting the story, but the time was never right. Then, the other day, I told it to someone else.

 

It still had a strange, irreducible magic about it. In fact, it freaks me out a bit. So here it is…

 

Danish Kronor nailed to the wall by Matt Potter

I’m a confirmed sceptic, science geek and logical positivist. So I don’t actually believe in luck at all – just average outcomes. This is a bad thing from the point of view of enjoyment, as it means that even when an incredibly good thing happens by chance – I catch a train and get a seat; I find a tenner; I happen across the very thing I’ve been looking for –  I wince.

 

Because I know I’ve just made a withdrawal, as it were, in the bank of average outcomes. The luck bank. And sooner or later, a deposit will be required.

 

So no, luck hasn’t been a great focus of my life. And yet. And yet. The facts still say this all happened.

 

And it all began with the Aphex Twin.

 

I read an interview in the early-1990s in which he put the fact that his noise/chaotic/atonal/uncommercial music had suddenly become hugely successful through absolutely no fault of his own with the fact that he’d recently moved flat. His new basement apartment, he explained, turned out to have been a bank vault before it was converted by the property developer. Aphex Twin, who hadn’t known it when he moved in, said he’d noticed that since the day he moved there, money seemed to keep wanting to come to him. He’d apparently even had a mini-crisis about it, freaked out, got paranoid in a slightly-stoned way maybe, and started trying to avoid making money, even give it away, for fear it was all a wind-up or that it was too good to trust. But the more he freaked, the more unsolicited cheques would arrive, the more cash would be dropped round to his house.

 

I just put that down to being a chaotic bloke who worked hard. He’d obviously forgotten all the productivity (like we all do) and so when records sold, he thought woah, what? Cash? What for? But then it happened.

 

OK, so fast forward to a point, a coupla years later, when I moved into my new house. Completely broke; overstretched; no money. I then split up with my partner, so I suddenly had a whole joint mortgage to pay off on my own, and had just had a job go tits up. As money got lower and lower, then minus, I began living off borrows. Hmm.

 

I was doing a bit of drunk decorating one night (it’s great fun, you get to splash it about like the Stone Roses and stakes is low with a white undercoat in a house you can’t afford to furnish or carpet) and I found an old coin between the floorboards. It was Danish, one of the Krønor with a hole in the middle. So I hung it on a nail over the door, and as I did so, I thought of the Aphex Twin, and then I thought, what the hell, hahahahaha! Then I had another drink. And then, giggling, I went a bit crazy with the old spare holiday currency pot.

 

By dawn, the entire house was a metal detector’s nervous twitch. I had secreted foreign coins inside polyfilla’d walls; wallpapered over old Polish Zloty notes; sealed invalidated French centimes behind skirting; the lot. I had a hangover, and a massive paint headache, I’d fallen asleep without washing and there was white paint on my bed, and I thought, well, that was stupid.

 

Next day was Monday. I got home from a meeting about a job to discover a message on my ansaphone (yeah, that long ago). Some articles I’d written years ago had unaccountably suddenly started selling on syndication, and would I agree to having some cash to let some Brazilian mag print them. But I didn’t think about the Aphex Twin.

 

Then I found a purse, and a diary in a hedge. I called the numbers, the person was happy, she asked me to keep any cash in the purse. There was £30. I didn’t, I just gave it back. That afternoon she came round with £50 to say thanks for everything, and for giving the money back when I could have kept it. In 48 hours, I got an unexpected expenses rebate. A building society got taken over and sent me cash. My phone company said sorry for something I wasn’t aware they’d done, and sent me some cash too.

 

A bell rang in my head. I started to do the Aphex Twin thing, and see what would happen if I actively turned down money. And sure enough, it started coming in.

 

I won’t bore you with details, just to say that the number of odd windfalls was truly freakish, and in direct and inverse proportion to the amount I tried not to earn.

 

On the third day – all this happened in that short a space of time – I  turned down the job offer – which I would normally have jumped at – quite deliberately pricing myself out of it, just because I now figured something would come up anyway, what with my hot streak. Unexpectedly, they came back with a yes. Then an old mate rang to say he’d got a job on a daily and wanted me to do a daily column.

 

It genuinely did start rolling in, the more I tried to waste it. I never do lotteries. But a friend gave me a scratchcard as a joke-shit present, and it won. I never bet. But I bet on the Derby, and made a packet. Before, I’d never say no. But I did, and more and more people came back offering more for whatever it was. I was briefly minted. I bought new furniture I’d never have bought before. I paid off shitloads of mortgage. I even bought a suit and started drinking cocktails. Because I could.

 

Of course, it didn’t last. The momentum, or maybe just the novelty, the sense of liberation, faded. And as it did, I went back to being suspicious of chance, risk-averse, and poorish. I’ve thought about it, and of course it’s the return to the mean – bad luck and good luck are illusory patterns we impose with our minds onto a series of random, or at least disorderly, happenings.

 

But I also think it’s all about an odd ‘cheat’ or jumpstart to your confidence: believing – or even playing without really believing – that you’re ‘lucky’ can give you the balls to make decisions or take paths that you’d otherwise be too craven or risk-averse to take. It’s shamanism, in a way: the berserker’s invulnerability in battle. The hoodoo. The placebo for your sense of adventure and positive risk-taking.

 

It’s not whether you’re lucky at all. (You’re not.) It’s whether you feel lucky.

 

So tell me, punk. Do ya?

 

Where are you, Sue George? Help me to track down the vanishing lady behind the new book!


I have a new non-fiction book out in November, published by Little, Brown in hardback. It’ll be one of the Christmas display books at Waterstones. I guess lots of people will see it, and of course I hope lots of them read it.

 

But mainly, I hope lots of people see the first page… and that someone will recognise the name there.

 

Because on that page I’ve dedicated the book to someone I last saw when I was 10 – some 33 years ago – who probably had more to do with it being written at all than… well, even me. I need to let her know.

 

Who is she?
Back in 1977, I was one of the first intake at a tiny school called Lowbrook Primary, in a small town called Maidenhead in Berkshire. It was an extraordinary place for a number of reasons. It was an experiment, I think. There was a computer, and a smart, 30-year-old headteacher called Graham Sullivan who – in 1978 – was telling us all we’d need to learn to code.

 

But there was another teacher who inspired me personally a great deal there – seven-to-10-year-old as I was.

 

Her name then was Mrs Sue Evans, though she’d been born Susan George. (All the teachers used to laugh about the fact that we had a famous actress in the school, and we laughed too, though we had no idea who that actress was supposed to be.)

 

I remember sometimes I’d answer questions or hand her pieces of language work, and she’d occasionally look as if she’d seen a ghost. Often, it seemed like quite she liked the ghost she was seeing, or found the ghost a very curious creature indeed. This interested me. Once, I said a word she hadn’t expected me to know (it was ‘megalomaniac’) that made her ask if I’d seen her write the word on her pad. I hadn’t. Then she laughed and looked at me funny.

 

I realise now how much these odd, startled reactions meant. I enjoyed getting those reactions, and in the sort of natural, unconscious way that kids adapt, I realise now that I began to strive to make them happen more often.

 

We had an assignment in which we were to compare colours to things we’d seen in nature. When I wrote that a kind of creamy off-white was the same colour as a songthrush’s throat, Susan Evans stopped and put down her book and with a sort of half-smile, said she bet I’d end up being a writer.

 

Well, I realised later that it was from that point that I began thinking of that. When annoying uncles would ask what I was going to be, I didn’t just say a footballer or a soldier or a fossil-hunter any more. Writer was possible. Writer was a thing.

 

Writer is now a thing. And, fool’s errand as it seems, I’m trying to track her down to tell her that I’ve dedicated my new book to her… because it’s partly down to her spark that I’m making a living from writing books 35 years on.

 

Something happened there that opened a tiny chink of light in my head, and that made all the difference. A great teacher at primary age is worth a hundred any time after that, and she was just such a one. And I’d very much like to tell her I’ve remembered her, and what an impact she had.

 

Sue Evans née George is a very hard lady to track down at this remove, though.

 

I think she came from Wales, and I know she lived in Maidenhead. Her colleagues remember her with fondness, but eventually they left the school too – one in 1983, one a year later – and lost touch. Some think she moved back to Wales – her family might have been from South Wales. Others recall she may have split from her husband when she moved away. She’d be in her early 60s now, I expect. Her name might be back to Susan George or Sue George again… or she might have remarried and it might be something completely different again.

 

So this is an appeal to the public, as my other avenues of enquiry begin to peter out. The National Union of Teachers have put a call out in their magazine. I’ve been in touch with records offices (huge numbers of possible Susan Georges born within the date spread, no record of a Sue George marrying an Evans), the school, former colleagues, local papers in Wales, and an extravagant – no, an embarrassing – number of Susan Evanses and Susan Georges and Sue Georges. And even some Sues who are teachers and around the right age.

 

My apologies to all the bewildered Sues.

 

So why am I bothering? That was 33-35 years ago, and I was just another of the saplings. She certainly won’t recall one little kid she inspired from the late 1970s by now anyway. Nevertheless, I wanted to tell her how important her enthusiasm and interest remain… and that I’m prepared to testify to that in the window of Waterstones.

 

So please, spread the word. And if anyone knows her – if you bump into her, or have friends in common, or even suspect your Sue or Susan is this Sue or Susan, then tell her. The things she did mean a lot, more than ever maybe, even now in 2014. As it says on the book: Better late than never.

 

 

The real reason I write: In praise of ‘threshold apprehension’

 

The cover for my next book arrived today. Any writer will tell you: the arrival of their new book’s cover is an exciting moment. Me, I’ve always found it a little bit poignant too.

 

Up to this point, it’s all about the making. There are routes to take; ways to turn things. The whole project exists in that glorious state of suspension where all things are possible. It’s crazy, but I always thought I knew pretty well how the pilot in that Roy Lichtenstein painting feels the instant before he pushes the button that makes the Blaaaaaaam! happen. (It always struck me as quite a peaceful, meditative picture for that reason. I understand I may well be alone in this.)

 

It’s elsewhere too. There’s a great Black Francis album called Bluefinger, all about the life of Dutch artist, rock star and heroin aficionado Herman Brood. It contains a song called ‘Threshold Apprehension’ that nails the feeling, the taste in your mouth, of being just about to nail something; the split second before the “Yessss!”. Threshold apprehension. (In the context of the album, I suspect it’s also about the feeling of a hit of smack, and the 9th-floor window Brood eventually jumped to his death from, but let’s stick with the eureka thing for a moment.)

 

It’s an obscure feeling, and you don’t hear it talked about much, but that’s only because (by definition) there’s nothing tangible you can show people. The Blaaaaaam! is what they see; only the pilot knows the heavenly chill that had him upside the temples the second before.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some Eeyore, saying that having done good work (insofar as I have done any) isn’t satisfying and wonderful and all. But being about to nail something great is The Drug.

 

It’s also the secret feeling. You’re alone with it. It’s the one result of the creative process you don’t get to talk about at awards ceremonies or on CVs, or see in the press, or exchange views on with your kids, or your mates. You’d sound like a freak. But you know it’s the fix that really keeps you in the game.

 

So that’s the feeling, from spark through pitch to publishers, tracking your story, bringing it to life, right the way through edits, then cover discussion and brief and feedback to the publishing house. And then…

 

Well, then there’s this… thing. A good thing. You love it. You brought it up, dammit. And it looks confident and it’s hanging out in shops and with the rough boys and girls on Amazon and in the press, and all you can do is wish it good luck out in the world, prepare yourself to explain it a few hundred times, and hope you gave it the toughness to handle itself out there. But it’s not yours any more, not really. Which is just fine, actually. And I mean, by this time you’re over the cover. You’ve seen it too much. You want to think about something else.

 

So you turn your attention to other things. Call people you haven’t seen for a while (you’ve been writing your book too many evenings lately). Get back to those things you love to read. Surf the net.

 

And that’s when the idea hits you. The idea… maybe even The Idea. Now this, this is exciting. You can almost taste it…

 

Comment: The best writer I know

 

While I was in New York, running around promoting the book and doing things I thought were all terribly important, something else happened.

 

Jetlagged and excited, I sat on a step outside a Starbucks close to 5th Avenue to check my emails. There was a cheery, round-robin, letting-you-know email from a good friend and fellow journalist – I’ll call her X here, because though her news is now more or less public, I’m guessing it would only embarrass her if people knew who she was from reading this. It started in the way she always starts important news – the chatty, importance-deflating opener, the joke or two just to settle you in, then (wallop) the Big News, always with the same casual, pick-that-out-of-the-net delivery. I love the way she does news.

 

As I began to read it, I remembered the last time I’d seen such an off-hand opener to a piece of amazing gossip from her. That one had said something like, “So whaddyaknow. I got a book deal.” I’d loved that. I read on.

 

So whaddyaknow (…the jokes…) the big news is (…and the casual netside smash…) she’s got cancer.

 

I read it back again.

 

X has got cancer. Actually, she’s got cancer back. And this time it means business in a way that makes even her previous brush – aged 28, breast, stage four, double removal and reconstruction, more major surgery, chemo – look like it was just messing her about. Three years on, it’s in her bones. And while it can be treated, it cannot be cured.

 

Then the jokes again, and the Bossy X thing, telling recipients to get a damn grip, put it in perspective and look out for her husband, brother and family. It was a hell of an email. I sat there and looked at the email, while 5th Avenue did its fast-motion thing around me and my inbox.

 

Then something weird happened. Something that was almost as surprising as the news itself.

 

But for me to tell you what, there are three things you now have to know about X.

 

1. She’s the best writer I know. This is something I said, both to her face (OK, Twitter face) and others (everywhere) before this note. A good thing too: if I told her now, such is her aw-shucks modesty she’d assume I was “just saying it”.

 

2. When I say the best writer, I actually don’t mean just the best writer. Her tweets, her journalism, her blog, her book, her conversation – especially, her conversation – all have something that make people want to be a part of them. I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s a sort of empathy. There’s this thing when you’re at the pub or work or wherever and chewing the fat with X, where you see her absolutely rapt in the narrative (joke, tall tale, laugh, polemic, whatever) of the moment. You tell a story, and you notice she’s primed, ready for the laugh. Essentially, I believe this is what informs her writing. She’s up for the story in a way that a lot of journalists aren’t, and will follow a line of humour for the reward, where other writers might pull back. It’s a sort of nose for the good bit. An instinct for entering into the spirit of things. It makes her writing fun, and true, but it also makes it really human. A lot of journalists don’t necessarily do things like human, warm, empathy. I love slipping into them, but for her, they aren’t fancy dress; they’re like housetrousers.

 

In fact, I think that’s what makes her a great writer: the same thing that makes her such fun to have as a mate. And if you’ve read her books, her articles, but don’t know her, here’s the news: you do know her. Because she really is the person you hope she’ll be when you laugh and tut and generally hang out with her page-self.

 

3. That’s what I think. And I’m not even one of X’s super-close friends. We’ve worked together, jabber over social media quite a bit, meet for a drink occasionally. I’ve met her man and he’s a great guy too. I guess/hope they both know I’ve got their backs if it comes to it. But in that oh-so-London way, I still don’t know her home address.

 

So why do you have to know all this? What comes next that’s so surprising, so hard to understand?

 

For X, I felt (feel) pissed off, powerless, sad, guilty (Woah! Where did that come from?), and lots more. But something in what she wrote, or how she wrote it, made me weirdly hopeful. Or maybe inspired. Something. I didn’t know why. It wasn’t hopeful or inspiring news. So that messed with my mind for a few days. And (a week on) I think I’ve figured it out.

 

There’s been a fair bit of cancer flying about in my family recently, and there’s nothing good about it. It’s a mean-spirited thing. It doesn’t just take your health, or your loved ones’ health; it tries to mess with your mind. It puts things off limits – not just activities but whole subjects of discussion, even feelings. It puts up barriers between people. It stops them doing, saying, even thinking what they really want (need) to do, say, and think.

 

People become prisoners to it.

 

They want to talk to their families like they did before, freely and with love, and without baggage.

 

Cancer says No.

 

They want to say ‘I love you’ without the other person thinking they’re only saying it because they have cancer.

 

They want to be told they are loved without thinking, “This person is only saying this because I have cancer”.

 

Cancer says No to that.

 

They want people to see them, argue with them, say hello and goodbye to them, hug them, catch up with them, share a joke with them, without the other person seeing a cancer-sufferer instead of a mum, a brother, a sister, a wife, a dad, a grandma, a son, a husband, a daughter, a friend.

 

They want to talk to people without cancer subtitles appearing at the bottom of the screen.

 

They want to watch TV, listen to some music, read a magazine, have a conversation, without half-expecting that awful moment when innocent turn, chance remark, supporting character (something they would have skated over a million times before, something innocuous or coincidental) brings them out of the moment and back to their cancer, and its shadow.

 

Cancer says No.

 

Cancer says No to a lot of things. It tries to close us down. It can be very isolating. X knew this, because in the book she wrote about the last time, she even thanked the friends “who just didn’t know what to say”. At different times, that’s been me.

 

I’ve never had cancer. But like I say, more than one member of my close family has had it, this past couple of years. And while they had it, they got further away. And that always seemed to me the cruellest thing.

 

The No is always the same. It’s a shake of the head, something filled with doubt and isolation. But everything X does, everything she says, and everything she writes in response – even in the email that informed her friends of its return – is a far more powerful affirmation of her closeness to people. Humour beats doubt and awkwardness every time; humanity, openness and generosity of spirit will always kick the black dogs of depression and helplessness out.

 

And then there’s love.

 

That – sheer bloody love of life, of the people around her, of the ongoing story, of the moment before the laugh, of her husband, family, friends, of people at large – is what comes through in her writing and conversation. It’s in that email, her ongoing blog, her book, and her journalism on damn near any subject; it’s in her tweets and status updates, and (especially) it’s in the times in pubs and offices and on Twitter that she’s made me laugh and think how much I’d like to be her when I grow up.

 

And those things combine in her to make a great big fucking YES, about million times louder than anything the cancer can muster up.

 

YES to friends, yes to humour, yes to honesty, yes to closeness, yes to all the precious stuff cancer tries to deny. Yes to still loving life, yes to seeing the world wide open. Yes to the moment before the laugh. Yes to the continuing story, whatever it holds.

 

That word. Somehow she managed to sneak it inside every single one of the other words on that email. You couldn’t see it at first, you couldn’t read it, but you could sure feel it. Like I say: the best writer I know.

 

 Update, 29th September: So the cat is out of the bag regarding the person identified as ‘X’ in this post. And since it is, I’m adding it here, so readers can chase Lisa Lynch’s work down – and her blog entry on the subject, which contained much of the text from the just-letting-you-know email – and see what I mean for themselves. And as for her book, The C-Word, just buy it.