Truth in the Impossible: On writing ‘Cautious, A Boat Adrift’ by Tommy Sissons

My debut novel, ‘Cautious, A Boat Adrift’, will be published by Repeater Books on July 11th. The text has been evolving in my mind for the best part of a decade – perhaps for my whole life. Of the two stories which run concurrently through its pages, the contemporary narrative is grounded in my own personal experience, whilst the historical narrative perished before I existed, lost in folklore, shouting silently.

7.27am. June 2021. A Megabus to Leeds.

The best way to travel England is cheaply,

and in discomfort.

 The novel is not autobiographic. Whilst for my debut polemic, ‘A Small Man’s England’ I penned numerous autobiographical essays in relation to class and family, whatever is true within ‘Cautious’ is witnessed, distorted, and reproduced through the eyes of a fictional protagonist. Here I mythologise real people and events, rather than attempting to reflect them with absolute objectivity. The process of writing ‘Cautious’ was an act of reassembling a broken mirror, with devotion to the fractures rather than the glass.

 The protagonist – Fred – bears my middle name, but he is not me. He is older than me, is from a different city and is in a different line of work. He exhibits an anxiety and discontent common amongst working-class millennials, many of whom are far worse off than previous generations. He is an ‘everyman’ in a society in which the ‘everyman’ is in psychological crisis. Fred’s turmoil, however, is mundane. It is symptomatic of the gradual corrosion of once-oppositional communities as a result of the everyday evils of a long-cemented neoliberalism. Fred is part of the landscape, whether he wishes to be or not. He is part of England. His family name is Whitby – for the Yorkshire seaside town. The Whitbys, whilst tethered to England, simultaneously teeter at the edge of it, a stone’s throw from the world beyond, a footfall from the impossible and unknowable sea.

 I was given the middle name Fred in memory of my great grandfather. He is represented in the novel by the character Jim Whitby. As Jim does in the story, my great grandfather Fred once did defend a shopkeeper from a protection racketeering gang with a pan of boiling water. He taught himself philosophy and woke up so early that he could recite the world’s news by the time others in the house had climbed out of bed. Fred Whitby also attempts this in the novel. So many Freds to unpick! The protagonist Fred Whitby, then, was perhaps unconsciously composed of miscellaneous shards of myself and my great grandfather. On the other hand, he is at the same time neither of us but rather a representation of many vastly different young men I know; or is in fact all of us all at once. Betty, Fred Whitby’s mother, is not my mother, although she inevitably shares some of her personality traits. The only model of motherhood I can write must automatically come from her.

View of the Medusa A58.

Everything that looks at it turns to stone.

 Of all characters in ‘Cautious’, Norman Whitby and Brenda are truest to life. They are my late grandfather and his last wife. Norman’s alcoholism, also, is based on reality. My grandfather struggled with alcohol addiction. He was also – like Norman – an amateur writer and spent his life working for the National Association of Boys’ Clubs. Following his passing in 2015, I uncovered a number of his stories, the pages of which were stacked in a haphazard manner, disordered, and in some cases cut in half and taped onto other pages like a mosaic. ‘Cautious’, in a more regulated sense, pays homage to this patchwork form.

At the working men’s club

the barman cannot put a finger

on my voice. There is so much

of England on my tongue

it’s unsettling.

 I had planned on anthologising some of my grandfather’s short stories and having them published alongside several of my own. His narratives, however, existed in isolation from one another, without thematic connection or explanation. They were indicative of the different stages of his life, but also served as antidotes to reality. They were the products of his escapism in which creative liberty and authorial control could be established and retained in an unpredictable landscape. They were immediate – all of them – but they were also sketches of a world which no longer exists. The stories emerged from an industrial and radical north which had been sunk by neoliberalism almost three decades before I read them. They were spoken into being by an imaginative but faithful working-class voice which has since been stifled to an ignorable rasp by both the mainstream publishing industry and by late capitalism’s deliberate attack on of class consciousness.

On the wall of the Hunslet youth club:

Les Sissons: Sports captain.

Families have been here

for three lifetimes or more.

Everything and nothing

has changed.

 The disappearance of my grandfather’s real and, ergo, fictional world was, to me, just as important (if not more important) to investigate than its actual existence. Thus, in 2021, I decided that I must write the history of that world, whilst conceding to my limitations in doing so authoritatively. In penning such an occulted history, the writer must attempt to reach its people – even in their remote island, even in their death – and to do so successfully the writer must traverse through the peripheries of negation. In writing, I waded through water.

 Within literature, I do not believe objectivity to be attainable. With all the best intentions of verisimilitude, some degree of truth will always slip through the fingers of the author. This is due to the weight of emotional truth in all humans, and the way feeling can influence or misshape our interpretations of others, events we have witnessed and, indeed, our personal histories. History, in its formal, academic representation, is often written under the guise of a universal truth. Of course, these tomes of our ‘collective’ or ‘national’ past often obscure the lives of those who are deemed not worthy of study so cannot be claimed to be ‘universal’ at all. The encyclopaedic writer (of history and of fiction), who aims at impartiality, objectivity, and totality, is ignoring their natural limitations. In trying to surpass them, and establish human omniscience, they will find further extensions and obstructions ahead of them, ad infinitum.

Croggying a motorbike

to Pudsey. I exit the city

as soon as I enter it.

 Of course, humans are flawed and our knowledge of ourselves, others and the world can only stretch so far. Thus, in attempting a surgically precise representation of their subjects, the writer encounters a Gordian Knot composed of two problems – the limitation of their characters’ knowability, and the limitations of knowledge within themselves. How do you faithfully represent a person who not only you could not know in totality, but who also did not in totality know themselves? This Gordian Knot cannot be untied. It must be yielded to.

 These limitations form the lacunae of ‘Cautious, A Boat Adrift’, in which the voids between episodes of the historical narrative which Fred constructs reflect the gaps in historical accuracy and the chasms that appear when trying to plot the past in a flawless linear chronology. The past is not so neat. It is, instead, as a storm of mundane and emotionally fantastical events, each pushing past one another, trying to be heard in the silence of collective memory.

Uncle Ken had a chair

that would lift him. Mobility issues.

The few metres it raised him was as high as Ben Nevis

when I was a child. Again I went on it, and again

and again. He waved us off knowing it was

the last time.

 The psychogeography of the nation is heard in its chaotic ululations. The ‘post-truth’ age of late capitalism looms large, distorting the communication of reality in media and politics and destabilising our search for whatever common meaning can still be located. In the novel, Fred laments the disorienting influence this late capitalism can have even on socialists like himself:

 This unreal, indifferent, sci-fi hypercapitalism. Spacecraft capitalism, interplanetary capitalism, can’t-have-a-bacon-butty-without-contributing-to-it capitalism. My thoughts are not my own. My sentiments are manufactured in marketing districts. The word is out. Delete all evidence. Tap the nerve. Many folk die — many self-sacrifice — on the battlefield of mass-produced illusions. Symbols and structures of meaning inflated by propaganda. Their bodies exist forever in cyberspace, still fat with passion, to be replayed, reread and re-enjoyed at a click. YOU ARE NOT AS SMART AS YOU THINK. It is an age of the constant present, that is to say, it is the age of the non-age. Time has fallen off its linear trajectory. It is reprocessed, reproduced and revived in infinite cycle. Time has been detemporalised. Time is not itself. I am not myself. I am not quite real. I am the sum of my productivity. I am the sum of my knowledge storage, yet everywhere totality is impossible. I must be more mechanised. I must buy more and sell more. […] I am multinational. I am the corporations’ basset hound. I didn’t vote for Brexit or for Remain. I spoilt my ballot. I enjoyed being to the detriment of both parties. I read fake news regularly and, secretly, deep down, enjoy sensationalism. It is a guilty pleasure. It is an escape technique. I don’t like that, nowadays, everyone’s a copper. I don’t like that, nowadays, everyone’s a snitch. I don’t like how capitalism is so fucking intelligent.

 How to respond to the ‘post-truth’ age? In ‘Cautious’, whatever truth and meaning remains is found in art. Whilst in the material world of capitalism reality suffers perpetual attacks, Fred locates unscathed meaning outside of time and place, in the emotive plane of storytelling. It is within stories that collective identity, transcendence, and escapism are found – in, as Fred calls them, “Those unmanufacturable utopias of the non-place”. Stories are carried through history in invisible pockets. Paradoxically, they are the only thing we can carry forever, unreachable as they are. That is the reality of it. In writing ‘Cautious, A Boat Adrift’, I was able to locate a level of my own truth within the impossible.

Only in leaving

do I return.

Tommy Sissons is a poet, writer and educator based in London. He is the literary editor of GRASS Magazine, a publication specialising in the promotion of working-class creatives. Sissons has toured his spoken word poetry across Europe and delivered talks on widening participation in education and the arts at a number of academic and cultural institutions, including the V&A Museum and Sheffield Hallam University.

Twitter: @TommySissons

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