Author of Painting Snails: A Rock & Roll Doctor's Tale Stephen John Hartley's beloved VW van and organic garden.
Photo Source: Stephen John Hartley
One time, when I was a very young woman, I went on a long, 36-hour Greyhound Bus trip. On the first leg, the driver cheerily said before we left the station, “The secret to making this trip fly by is to look over to the person next to you and start talking. I promise you there is nothing more interesting than humans.” The driver then beamed with delight as he muscled the giant wheel and pulled out of the station loading area. Unfortunately, I was not so lucky. On the first leg of the trip, I sat next to a very old man who had wet himself, most likely several times, and who remained asleep the entire time. On the second leg, I briefly had some company, but he too fell asleep. On the third leg, I was next to a gentleman with little swastikas tattooed all over his face and neck, and while he remained awake, he avoided eye contact in such a way that I had never seen—his eyes were open, but it was clear they were not looking out—rather in. I guessed it was a survival tool he had learned somewhere. On the last leg, I had a pleasant old Chinese woman who did not speak English—and at that point, I was thinking that my bus trip was going to be a complete bust regarding interesting conversation. However, it was around twenty minutes before my destination, Portland, Oregon, when I heard a young man and woman with two very young children talking to each other. They were sitting in the seats directly behind me. They were discussing what they were going to do once in Portland. So far, until they could get some money and get a car, their game plan was to find a quiet park and sleep there. The young man was hoping if he could get a job that his mother might at least take in the kids. The young woman was nervous the kids would be taken from them. As I got off the bus on my way to a joyous, happy adventure (I was meeting up with friends to drive across the country), I watched the young, haggard family walk towards the bus terminal and felt a very real and deep love for them. Humans are unbelievably worth love, but today it seems we are never properly introduced to human beings. It seems today, humans are not only invisible, but we are taught to hide our humanity as well. This is tragic.
A book review request was sent to us at Twenty-two Twenty-eight, and I found the subject intriguing (as well as the author). Here is a brief sketch of the email we recieved: “I live in England,” “I have a small DIY record label,” “I played in a punk band NOTSENSIBLES,” “I went to medical school late in life, and now I’m an ER physician in Greater Manchester,” “I served an old-fashioned engineering apprenticeship,” “I made a living out of busking [street musician] for five years,” and “I have a hillside smallholding (large organic garden), and I’ve used its annual cycle as a framework to write a book about my experiences….” He goes on to talk a little about self-reliance and having a printing press. I was intrigued. His book is self-published, and beautiful woodcut prints (that he did) (of course) are woven throughout his prose. Additionally, there is an accompanying CD titled the same as the book that features music that he wrote, performed, and recorded (of course). Now, one’s initial feeling might be that this book is all about being intrigued, or perhaps entertained, by the town eccentric. However, that is not the case; in fact, it has been a very long time that I have read something as human and as decent. The book read as human and as decent as the conversation between the young, homeless mother and father who sat behind me on the bus, balancing the want to keep their family intact with the want to have a roof over their kid’s heads.
The book is Painting Snails: A Rock & Roll Doctor’s Tale by Stephen John Hartley. Additionally, the book comes with a CD entitled Painting Snails. Humans really are amazing and deserving of immense love and care, but the problem is that the beings that are flashed before us are not really humans. They are highly edited personas or masks that are meant to make us aroused or frightened or jealous so that we want to either possess them (or at least what they are selling), fear them (and do what they say), or be jealous of them (so that we strive to have what they have, be it wealth, beauty, or fame). Painting Snails: A Rock & Roll Doctor’s Tale is a thoughtful account of being human. He is at times boastful, at times modest, and at times deeply insightful regarding his flaws and triumphs. Stephen John Hartley alerts us right off the bat that this is a self-published DIY sort of thing and that he is not so great with grammar etc. So, he asks us to just go with him on this adventure with a kind of implication that if it’s a ride we want to get off of, then he completely understands. And it is an adventure. I loved his continual need to take the long way or the hard way in seemingly every aspect of his life. I loved it especially because he openly wrote about it and at times saw the hard way might not always be the right way. But he needed to do it the hard way—that was him.
As for its enjoyability, I could not put it down and read it in just a few days. I also enjoyed the CD. However, I kind of wish it wasn’t there, as the book is so good, I almost felt the CD was a distraction. The book is deeply human and yet not dark. I felt a sense of triumph after I read it—a sense that living life on your own terms—could not only be possible it might be the very best life one can live. Now, that I’ve finished, I’ve actually loaned it to a very dear friend of mine who struggles with career ambition—who although very successful—is never happy with his level of success. I told him when he first wakes up to read 20 minutes of Painting Snails: A Rock & Roll Doctor’s Tale in order to regain a little more of his humanness. Simple little pleasures and genuinely giving time and effort to things that feed your soul, like gardening and playing in bands (as the author Stephen John Hartley did), really are the stuff of happiness. And it's important to note that this book has a funny genius to it in that right in the middle of his adventure-laden life he picked up a medical degree and became a successful ER physician.
I will say there were some edits here and there that I wish were made. There were a few times that I felt it sounded too much like ‘inside jokes’ that only he and his friends would understand that felt like I, the reader, was on the outside. However, his writing clips along at a brisk enough pace that any unclear or boring segments are quickly read through.
If you want a break from a world of masks that are trying to lure you into becoming a mask too, I heartily suggest this book. It is so completely, wonderfully human.
Painting Snails: A Rock & Roll Doctor's Tale by Stephen John Hartley
Publisher: ELI Press
If you are interested in reading Painting Snails, you can find Hartley's book on his website here and on Amazon here.
Pictured Below: Stephen John Hartley