Ballet Preljocaj’s La Fresque at Sadler’s Wells

Picture Credits: Jean-Claude Carbonne

This show prompts you to lift up your eyes and spirit, and dream. From the very beginning, when we are exposed to vaporous, silky grey shapes that gradually materialise on stage, the invitation is to relish the dream-like atmosphere, without asking too many questions. Admittedly, I spent the first 15 minutes trying to work out whether the soft shapes were lights, projections, actual silk, or some unexplained VR magic. But much like these light effects (by brilliant light designer Éric Soyer), La Fresque is a mesmerising show, and one to enjoy precisely in its mysterious haziness.

I liked the idea that, as a show revolving around a painting, the framework of it was quite clear: Chu and Meng, two friends travelling together, enter a temple and come across a magnificent fresco depicting a group of young, beautiful girls. Contemplating the wall painting, Chu is magnetically drawn into it, and begins a journey of idyll, passion, and adventure. As he comes out of the fresco, his whole world has changed, but so has the painting.

The show seems in many ways indebted to the ancient device of ekphrasis, whereby a poem describes a visual work of art in such detailed and vivid manner that the artwork acquires a life of its own. In Catullus’ Poem 64, for instance, the story of Ariadne and Theseus (and the Minotaur and the labyrinth), which is supposed to be simply embroidered as a decoration on a coverlet, is narrated almost as an independent story, and ends up taking up more lines than the rest of the poem. Similarly, in La Fresque, the dream (from the moment Chu steps into the painting) seems to be the real show – we are set free from any sense of temporality and place. We are transported in a world of visions, some perhaps more striking than others, but all equally fascinating as they explore the link between movement and stasis, the fixed image and real life.

What’s remarkable about La Fresque is the incredible variety in the quality of movement the dancers showcase, especially the leading roles. From a sensual and staccato sequence introducing the wall painting, to a La La Land-like routine with the two lovers seemingly floating in the air (featuring a starry sky in the background), to the intrusion of bizarrely bouncy, jelly-moving masked creatures, to soldiers moving with sharp precision, the show can be anything from delicate to empowering to shocking, navigating the variegated score by Nicolas Godin and Vincent Taurelle.

One of the most fascinating themes of the piece, which comes up repeatedly, but again explored from different angles, is hair. The whole idea of dancing with (and choreographing) hair is adventurous, and feels pretty avant-garde. As choreographer Angelin Prelijocaj puts it: “It’s funny how hair can extend the movement of the body in a sequence, but it’s also hazardous. There is something that occurs that is … unexpected. But that is very nice.” This actually sums up the show pretty well. We get hair flicking in perfect synchronicity, chignons being made to a fellow dancer on stage (in a creepy, wonderful way), hair extensions literally hanging from the ceiling and used as circus ropes – hair is omnipresent. In all instances, it seems to stand for beauty, freedom and sensuality, and its “taming” means inhibiting this sense of unrestrained freedom.

Using art (dance) to explore art (painting) is a rich, compelling concept. I found myself thinking about one of my favourite paintings (Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent), and the number of times I tried to imagine the background story that hides behind it: who are the two girls? What are their lanterns for? What are they thinking? Ballet Preljocaj goes one step further and asks what happens when we positively enter the world of static images, and how much they have the power to change us.

La Fresque runs at Sadler’s Wells until 2nd October. For more information, please visit their website.




Ready to Be Shameless

Introduction

I

Lining up for Nadia Bolz-Weber’s talk
at Southwark Cathedral, I’m aware I don’t fit in. A young woman beside me is talking
to her mother, describing the time she prayed in front of her friends. She
wanted to illustrate how she speaks to Jesus in exactly the same way she does
to them. She is so matter of fact about it I’m impressed; prayer seems part of
her daily existence as a cup of coffee is to mine. Behind me a boisterous group
are discussing the role distributions for their forthcoming Sunday service. One
woman complains that being the wife means she gets roped into doing too much,
she’s been put down for visuals and
service management. Looking around the rest of the queue, I try to gauge if I’m
the only heathen in their midst as if, for those of us without a dog collar,
Christianity could be worn like a cloak.

Once
inside I sit down on one of the pews towards the back. The atmosphere in the cathedral
is charged, as if we’re waiting to see a sell-out gig at Brixton Academy. In
some ways, Nadia Bolz-Weber is a rock star. Ex alcoholic. Covered in tattoos.
Former stand-up who swears like a fishwife and wears crimson lipstick. She’s
also a Lutheran pastor and orthodox theologian. It is this juxtaposition that
makes her so compelling – her ability to inhabit two (seemingly) opposing realms.
True to the name of the church she founded in Denver, Colorado, she is a sinner
and a saint.

I
first came across Bolz-Weber in a video that appeared in my Facebook feed
entitled ‘Forgive Assholes: Have a Little Faith’, where she calls those with
the capacity to forgive, ‘freedom fighters’. An advocate for social change,
Bolz-Weber’s latest book ‘Shameless’ is a call for a sexual reformation within
the church. The premise took shape right here in London, she
tells us, when she was on tour with her previous book. Weeks into a new
relationship, and somewhat overwhelmed by the impact it was having on her body
and her spirit, she phoned her boyfriend, who was back in the U.S., waking him
up at 6 a.m. with a question she couldn’t shake:

Why has the church always tried to control
sexuality?

Eric, who Bolz-Weber casually describes as a
heathen, replied instantly, saying he’d always assumed it was because the
church viewed sex as its biggest competition. Bingo, she had the subject of her
next book.

Perhaps the explosive nature of this subject is
why Bolz-Weber admits to feeling nervous when she appears on stage. To allay
her anxiety she reads out the order of service, a trademark Bolz-Weber blend of
Christian tradition and rebellion against the rule book. Following an a cappella
rendition of Amazing Grace, a Q and O session, some shameless confessions and a
blessing, tonight will culminate with a dance-off under the cathedral dome.
‘Don’t leave me hanging like they did in Indianapolis,’ she says.  ‘That was totally humiliating.’

It is this kind of impromptu remark that makes
Bolz-Weber so easy to relate to, that brings her down from the pulpit and on a
level with ordinary people. ‘Shameless’ is testament to this, inspired by the
stories she heard first hand from members of her congregation. In her
introduction this evening, she reads from the first pages, recounting a flight she
took from Colorado to North Carolina. Not long after take-off, the crop circles
outside of Denver caught her eye. She discovers later that these crops aren’t
planted in circles but in square plots of land. They grow in circles because of
the way they’re watered. This provides Bolz Weber with a potent metaphor for
the church’s failure to reach people that don’t fit inside its circle, whether
it’s because of body shape, sexual orientation,
gender or faith: ‘God planted so many of us in the corners, yet the
center pivot irrigation of the church’s teachings about sex and sexuality tends
to exclude us.’

Bolz-Weber is a self-proclaimed planted-in-the-corner
Christian. When she was ordained over a decade ago, she signed a contract which
stipulated two options for her sex life:

  1. As a wife, stay faithful to your husband
    till death do you part.
  2. As a single woman, remain chaste.

Looking
back on it now, post-divorce, and still in a steady relationship with Eric, she
says, ‘In what way is it good for my congregation for me not to get laid?’ This has the Southwark crowd laughing out loud. The
audacity of it, the honesty, the inherent logic behind the question: what has chastity got to do with one’s
ability to pastor? I think of a George Saunders quote I read recently: ‘Humor is
what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more
directly
 than we’re used to.’ One expects this kind of risk-taking from comedians
but it’s refreshing to see it come from the clergy.

Amazing Grace

II

Luckily,
we’ve been given the lyrics to Amazing Grace so I won’t resemble former tory MP
John Redwood famously bumbling his way through the Welsh National anthem. As
the first verse begins, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. If I did
believe in God, this is where I would feel her the most, in the voices of 500
strangers floating up to the cathedral rafters. During the hymn, we’ve been
asked to complete the following sentence on a small square of card: ‘I am ready
to be shameless about…’ and if we wish to, place it in the basket usually
reserved for donations. This, in itself, is heavily symbolic. Repairing the
church, Bolz-Weber is suggesting, doesn’t require money, but doing away with
the culture of shame around sexuality, shame the church has perpetuated
throughout its history, particularly for women and members of the LGBTQ
community. I slip my card in my bag for the time being, the sentence left
unfinished.

Q and O’s

III

Bolz-Weber
doesn’t do questions and answers because she openly admits she doesn’t have any
of the latter. She does, however, have opinions. Lots of them. And for the half
an hour that follows she walks the aisles, getting up close to those brave
enough to raise their hands.

One woman asks Bolz-Weber’s view on being
faithful to the vow ‘till death do us part,’ in light of her own divorce. Her
reply is surprising and would undoubtedly have some Bible scholars shaking
their heads. ‘I think there are a lot of forms of death,’ she says, alluding to
the death of desire within her own marriage, death of respect for one another’s
bodies via domestic or sexual abuse, or the protracted demise of incompatible
couples.  She argues these kind of
marriages undermine the very institution they are trying so hard to uphold.

A woman in the pew behind me wonders how to
remain authentic in the age of internet dating. Bolz-Weber segues into a
section of ‘Shameless’ that broaches the subject of consent, citing the WHO
ethical requirements for sexual health as consent and mutuality. For
Bolz-Weber, this fails to include the Christian ethic of concern. Sexual
health, she asserts, should not simply mean the absence of harm but the
presence of benevolence towards both ourselves and others. She compares it to
the fifth commandment – or the ‘freebie’ – and Martin Luther’s teachings that ‘thou
shalt not kill’ is more than refraining from murder. It’s actively offering
support and good will to others. It’s going above and beyond.

After several thwarted attempts, the young priest
next to me raises his hand and his voice. If Bolz-Weber could go back in time, would
she still sign the contract with the church, even though she knows it
compromises her integrity, or would she refuse to do so and risk never entering
the church on her own terms? It’s a bold question, especially as the young priest
admits to signing an equivalent contract when he entered the Anglican Church,
and it takes Bolz-Weber a few moments to answer. Ultimately, she says she would
sign. Because in order to truly shake things up, it’s easier to do so from within
the institution. Make no mistake, though, she doesn’t mean piecemeal
improvements. As the title of her books clearly states, she wants reformation,
or in her own words, ‘to burn it the fuck down and start over.’

What strikes me as I listen to Bolz-Weber is that
the damaging messages and dogma she refers to around sex and gender are not
unique to the church. The idea that a woman’s body belongs to her husband isn’t
just found in sermons but is deeply ingrained in our culture and shows up in
the most innocuous places: from a well-meaning midwife, for example, who
enquires about my (non-existent) sex life six months after giving birth,
‘Doesn’t that bother your husband?’ she asks. It is the insidious nature of
these remarks that shock me, the implication that a woman is a second class
citizen of her own body, that her sexual desire is insignificant and not worth
enquiring after, or that sex is a one-way exchange, with women (in heterosexual
couples, at least) morally obliged to satisfy the sexual impulses of their
partners or reap the repercussions – aggression, frustration, and potentially,
abuse.

As a secondary school pupil, I am told, along
with a group of girlfriends, that we shouldn’t wear short skirts because it’s
too distracting for the male teachers as we walk up the stairs. This from one
of the teachers.  In this scenario, young women are not only
sartorially censored, they are made responsible for the inappropriate and
sexually predatory behaviour of the men into whose care they are entrusted.
This is not a far cry from the teaching Bolz-Weber received in charm class as
part of her fundamentalist Christian upbringing, an experience she described in
a recent interview with Rich Roll: ‘you have to dress modestly because you
don’t want to tempt the boys…don’t ever arouse them sexually because once
they’re aroused to a certain point, then they can’t help themselves.’ However,
the key difference, Bolz Weber writes in ‘Shameless’, is that ‘as harmful as
the messages from society are, what society does not do is say that those messages are from God.’ Asked whether she
sees a direct correlation between the gendered teachings of the church and
domestic violence, Bolz-Weber is unequivocal: ‘Abso-fucking-lutely.’

Shameless Confessions

IV

The
congregation at Southwark Cathedral have been given one straight-forward
instruction. Once Bolz-Weber has finished reading out an anonymous confession,
we must respond in unison: ‘Let that shit go!’ It’s an unorthodox call and
response, which takes us a few rounds to get into it, to let go, perhaps, of
the unwritten rule of no swearing in church. Bolz-Weber has been effing and
blinding since she stepped onto the stage but it’s something else to hear your
own voice say ‘shit’ in the house of God. The confessions vary from profound to
inspiring, and slightly enigmatic.

‘I am ready to be shameless about my daughter’s sexuality,’

LET THAT SHIT GO!

 ‘I am ready to be
shameless about having the best sex in my seventies.’

LET THAT SHIT GO!

 ‘I am ready to be
shameless about underwear.’

LET THAT SHIT GO!

This last one has an elderly woman in the row in
front of me in hysterics. She’s laughing so hard the whole pew is shaking. It’s
a joyous, liberating moment to witness, to see the austere codes and taboos of
the church broken and replaced with laughter. It demystifies the congregation.
We are still a group of strangers but we are a group of strangers who share the
same basic fears hopes, hang-ups and #lifegoals.

Blessing

V

Bolz-Weber’s book is not only for victims of shame but for those
who have done the shaming and regretted it. Why? Because Bolz-Weber is a big
believer in grey areas, in non-binary definitions of good and bad, and most
significantly, in God’s grace. Tonight she ends with a benediction: ‘God saves
us in our bodies, not from our bodies. And I want that
knowledge to be a blessing.’

Dance-Off

VI

When Prince’s ‘Kiss’ blasts out
of the cathedral speakers, it’s time for the dance-off. Suddenly I’m back in 1988
when shame is practically a prerequisite for the primary school disco. Please
choose me I want to scream between gulps of flat cream soda and salt and
vinegar crisps that get stuck in my throat. But only if there are enough people
on the dance floor to hide behind, that is. Southwark Cathedral is bigger than
the school hall and there is nowhere to hide. We are in full view of the
congregation and theoretically, God. I bite the bullet, even plucking up the
courage to ask my neighbour to join me. She declines politely, saying ‘I won’t,
but enjoy.’ The female priest at the end of the pew has a look on her face that
says, ‘don’t even bother’ so I go up alone. If this event is anything like
Manchester, there’ll be a video posted within hours on Twitter. I feel
embarrassed about being seen, a heathen dancing on the cold stone floor of the
cathedral but then I see a young Lutheran priest dressed in blue launch himself
into the crowd as if his life depended on it. Perhaps tonight is not about
fitting in – to the church or society at large – but accepting and celebrating who
you are, not dwelling on what you’re ‘lacking’ – the feeling of not being
enough that is so prevalent in purity culture. As the music fades out Nadia
Bolz-Weber slips away to sign copies of ‘Shameless’ in the Cathedral shop,
leaving the last word to Prince.

Don’t have to be rich
To be my girl
You don’t have to be cool
To rule my world
Ain’t no particular sign
I’m more compatible with

I just want your extra time and your

Kiss




Just Noise – The Barbarian Thrill of Noise in Music

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Riots for Stravinsky and cheers for Hanatarashi. How do you get from the tritone as “the devil in music” to an audience facing a wall of white noise with smiles on their faces?


“It’s amazing, really, how little sound comes out of something you’re smashing with all your might” – Yamatsuka Eye

The adventurous Noizu fans who came to see crackpot noise-makers Hanatarashi (meaning snot-nosed) at Tokyo’s Toritsu Kasei Super Loft on August 4th 1985 expected a raucous show. What they didn’t expect was a ferocious performance of industrial-grade destruction, with a back-hoe bulldozer as the lead instrument. Handed waivers upon arrival that relieved the band of any responsibility for injury, or worse, the audience watched as frontman and HDV operator Yamatsuka Eye burst through the doors of the hall atop the bulldozer. With percussionist Ikuo Taketani somewhat safely tucked away in the corner, Eye tore through the stage and inflicted brutal punishment on everything nearby, including the literal kitchen sink, while screaming the band’s trademark scatological and sexual non-sequitur lyrics. The beleaguered bulldozer held out until Eye put the hoe into the wall. The dozer tipped backwards and gave out, but after pulling off the dozer’s cage to hurl across the stage and grabbing a circular saw, the destruction continued with the audience now nervously dodging Eye’s fitful saw swings. Surrounded by bent metal, crumbled masonry and the squawking remains of Marshall stacks, with gasoline pouring from the ruined bulldozer, Eye produced, as his grand finale, a molotov cocktail that he’d prepared earlier. This was a touch too dangerous for even this daredevil audience and Eye, confessing later in an interview for Banana Fish Magazine that he got “too excited”, had to be violently subdued by several members of the crowd.

In the settled atmosphere, once certain that explosive group immolation wasn’t to be the crescendo, the crowd that had remained, many with smiles on their faces, slowly filed out enclosed in their own bubbles of tinnitus. The bill for the annihilation of the Super Loft tallied ¥600,000 (approximately £6000) and Hanatarashi subsequently laboured under a ban from most venues that ran until 1990, when the band, slightly calmer and more safety conscious, dropped the ‘i’ and returned to what passed as civil society in the Noizu circuit.

Hanatarashi, along with fellow Noizu bands such as Hijokaidan, indulged in the kind of audial assault that would bring most people to the point of self-induced deafness, but the Super Loft audience signed off on possible death-by-bulldozer just for the opportunity to experience it up close and personal. Extreme volume, distortion and cacophony, with a ferocity of performance that completely transgressed the normal bounds of the relationship between the performer and audience, were unrestrained musical expressions that attracted large audiences to the Noizu scene in Japan from the 1980’s onwards. It’s been argued that Noise as a genre was born in Japan at this time; whereby the noise was not a wash or flavour, but the whole. The act of seeking out sounds which most people take care to avoid seems a strange masochistic ritual, but evidenced by the brutalised crowd at the Hanatarashi gig, there is – for some – much to enjoy in noise.

“I did Noise Music because I genuinely liked noise… But a lot of people didn’t. At my concerts, people smashed beer glasses in my face.” – noise musician Boyd Rice a.k.a NON

In music, the definition of noise has changed drastically over time and is still debated today. The simplest common usage of the word noise is that of unwanted sound and, although clearly subjective, in some sense this definition also works in the context of music. Noise in music is of a volume/tonality/structure which breaks from previously held traditions of what is ‘pleasant’ to the ear of the average person, or consonant. What may be considered at the time to be noise can be the sound desired by a particular composer and, one would hope for the composer’s sake, later embraced by the intended audience. In essence, history has shown that noise in music is unwanted until a musician proves otherwise, with help from a willing audience. Noise can be a disturbance, but disturbance can be key to progression. By prodding at the edges of the normative discrimination, musicians have expanded the appreciation for sounds which previous generations would have found genuinely violative.

‘Who wrote this fiendish “Rite of Spring”? What right had he to write the thing?
Against our helpless ears to fling
Its crash, clash, cling, clang, bing, bang bing?
And then to call it “Rite of SPRING,” The season when on joyous wing The birds melodious carols sing And harmony’s in every thing!
He who could write the “Rite of Spring,” If I be right by right should swing!’

Anonymous letter to the Boston Herold of February 9, 1924

An amusing example of how dissonant prodding has been received as violative is to be found at the Paris première of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs- Élysées on the 29th of May 1913, the year that the Ford Motor Company would develop the first moving, mass-production assembly line. Stravinsky was a young and innovative Russian composer, of little renown in 1913, hired by Sergei Diaghilev’s to write for the Ballets Russes company, with The Rite of Spring being the third such composition. Prior to the première, Diaghilev had promised “a new thrill that will doubtless inspire heated discussion” and Stravinsky had written the work as a solemn pagan rite and hoped to present a “great insult to habit”. When first playing the piano version for Diaghilev, Stravinsky was asked how long the dissonant, ostinato chords would sound, to which Stravinsky replied “to the end, dear Serge, to the very end.” The newly opened theatre, designed by Auguste Perret, was as avant-garde in construction as the contemporary music, opera and dance that was to be presented inside. The geometrically strict and decoratively plain exterior of reinforced concrete mixed modern and classical architecture and made it the perfect venue for what Debussy described as “primitive music with all the modern conveniences.”

The atmosphere before the performance was lively; the 29th of May was unseasonably hot, reaching a height of 30c, and the halls and corridors of the theatre were packed with those who had bought into Diaghilev’s hype. The house was sold-out, largely encompassing subscribers for the whole season of Ballet Russe and there was a fifty-fifty split in the guest-list between the Parisian elite of diplomats, dignitaries and dilletantes, and the Modernist art scene. Patrons such as Daisy Fellowes, (née Countess Severine Phillipine Decazes de Glückberg), an elderly Countess de Pourtales, and the ambassador of the Austro-Hungarian empire represented the upper crust, and batting for the avant-garde were the likes of Jean Cousteau, Maurice Ravel and Edgard Varèse. Cousteau was quoted later as saying that a scandal was primed by the mix, with “a fashionable audience [in] low-cut dresses, tricked out in pearls, egret and ostrich feathers…side by side with tails and tulle, the sack suits, headbands, showy rags of that race of esthetes who acclaim, right or wrong, anything that is new because of their hatred of the boxes.”

Alfred Capus in Le Figaro reported that during the first bars of bassoon with discondant accompaniment in the closed-curtain introduction, there was prompt hissing and jeering. Incensed at a perceived misuse of the instrument, Camille Saint-Saëns exclaimed, “If that’s a bassoon, then I’m a baboon”, before storming out. The Countess de Pourales is recorded to have shouted “I am 60 years old and this is the first time anyone has dared to make fun of me”, to no one in particular. A back and forth between supporters and discontents followed, with the American music critic Carl van Vechten recalling “a battery of screams, countered by a foil of applause.” At the start of the Augurs of Spring section, the curtains opened and the ensuing polyrhythms, unresolved harmonies, rapid dynamic shifts, and familiar themes played in unfamiliar registers did not sit well with the patrons disinclined to experimental music. Furthermore, in an attempt to convey the agony of human sacrifice in a primitive society, choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky had his dancers land their leaps with flat feet which added echoing thuds to the music. At its worst, the din from the audience was so loud that it drowned out the music and Nijinsky resorted to shouting out counts to the dancers while standing on a chair in the wings.

According to Stravinsky, his friend Florent Schmitt shouted an insult to a group of elegant socialites, “taisez-vous, garces du seizieme!” and the various reactions and counter-reactions shared between the conservative and avant-garde sections pushed the battle onward. Diaghilev ordered the house lights to be flicked on and off in either an attempt to quell the uproar or, perhaps, sheer excitement at the press-baiting pandemonium he’d created. Stravinsky was horrified by the furore, leaving the auditorium to watch at the wings (it has been alleged in tears, but to claim so seems to kick a man when he’s down) saying later that he had “never been that angry”. At the intermission, the theatre proceeded to eject forty of the most troublesome, but it was not particularly successful in restoring full order.

Stravinsky and Nijinsky were devastated by the negative response and embarrassed by the spectacle, but Diaghilev took delight in the publicity of scandal, expressing complete satisfaction at a celebratory dinner after the show. Mainstream reactions in the press to “Le Massacre du Printemps” were not great, with Giacomo Puccini damning The Rite of Spring as “sheer cacophony” and Adolphe Boschot in L’Echo de Paris claiming (pejoratively, it should be noted) that the composer had “worked at bringing his music close to noise”. The performance immediately made waves internationally with The New York Times reporting under the headline: “Parisians hiss new ballet: Russian dancer’s latest offering, ‘The Consecration of Spring’, a failure”. However, there was strong praise from some publications and subsequent performances were far more successful.

“No doubt it will be understood one day that I sprang a surprise on Paris.” – Igor Stravinsky

Dissonant music wasn’t the sole cause of the chaos, with the angular and provocative dancing, anti-Russian sentiment, reactionary morality, and hype all part of a melting pot. However, the premiere was a key flashpoint in the debate over modernism, in which noise in music was a rapidly expanding form of expression. Arnold Schoenberg’s drive to “emancipate the dissonance” and expand the possibilities of musical expression lent dissonance a cultural cachet in the early 20th century. Schoenberg’s music was noteworthy for the absence of traditional keys or tonal centers and, although he faced a similar reaction to The Rite of Spring on occasion, his music and theories had lasting influence throughout the 20th century.

While composers such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky were experimenting with rhythm and harmony, the Futurist Italian Luigi Russolo, in his 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises, was arguing that the public, accustomed to the sounds of industry and traffic, were hungry for “the infinite variety of noise-sounds” regardless of whether they knew it or not. For the Futurists, the explosion of mechanical noise in the 20th century evoked the activity, speed and progression that they celebrated in modern society. Russolo’s revolution was for music to no longer be a canonised system of notes, but rather understood as a structure of non-periodic complex sound. Russolo categorised these noise-sounds into six groups:


1. Roars, Thunderings, Explosions, Hissing roars, Bangs, Booms
2. Whistling, Hissing, Puffing
3. Whispers, Murmurs, Mumbling, Muttering, Gurgling
4. Noises obtained by beating on metals, woods, skins, stones, pottery, etc.
5. Voices of animals and people, Shouts, Screams, Shrieks, Wails, Hoots, Howls, Death rattles, Sobs
6. Screeching, Creaking, Rustling, Buzzing, Crackling,
Scraping

In order to produce these sounds, Russolo constructed 27 varieties of noise machine called intonarumori, each named after a different sound. The device was a crank-operated wooden parallelepiped box with a speaker at the front, the pitch being controlled by a lever on the top. The lever would modify the tension of a metal or gut string, wrapped round a wheel, that was attached to a drumhead inside the box.

Russolo introduced the public to these devices with a concert entitled Awakening of a City and Meeting of Automobiles and Airplanes in Milan in April of 1914, and, continuing the trend of violence in response to noisy spectacle, a riot ensued. Futurists in the audience responded to booing with fists, and eleven audience members ended up in hospital. In 1926, influenced by Russolo’s machine music, and anticipating Hanatarashi’s use of machines of industry, George Antheil produced Ballet Mécanique, which called for 3 airplane propellers to accompany the pianos, bells and siren in the orchestra. The reception to the piece was as mixed as that of the The Rite of Spring or Russolo’s Awakening, and the Paris première ended with – you guessed it – a riot in the streets. Despite the early negative reactions to these modernist experiments in noise, by 1940 The Rite of Spring was accompanying the extinction of cartoon dinosaurs in Disney’s Fantasia and the following decades would see avant-garde composers such as Harry Partch, John Cage and Karl Stockhausen produce music that would have presumably killed the Countess de Pourales on the spot. These experimental composers would eventually find their ideas pushed into pop music by the likes of Sonic Youth, who managed to straddle the seemingly incongruous worlds of MTV and the art music underground, with the benefit of an audience of noise-primed Gen X youth.

“We believed that music is nothing but organized noise. You can take anything—street sounds, us talking, whatever you want—and make it music by organizing it. That’s still our philosophy, to show people that this thing you call music is a lot broader than you think it is.” — Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, Keyboard Magazine, 1990

From the purposefully consonant compositions, within strict rules of tonality, of medieval religious music to the chaotic noise of Tokyo’s Merzbow or Detroit’s Wolf Eyes, dissonance has moved from something to be avoided to become an all-encompassing driving force. What was an imperceptibly gradual change before the 20th century has now become rapid. The relationship between an experimental composer and his noisy environment and the advances in music technology have led us to the point whereby people will pay for a MP3 of almost pure white noise and call it music. Cued by Willie Kizart using a damaged amplifier on the recording of the Kings of Rhythm track Rocket 88 and furthered by Dick Dale’s work with Fender, the electric guitar turned distortion and feedback into an art-form, driving music more towards timbre than harmony. Experiments with synthesisers, from Elisha Gray’s basic single note oscillator in 1876 to Hugh Le Caine’s Electronic Sackbut, engendered real-time, precision control of volume, pitch and timbre. Rather than Russolo’s acoustic noise generators, noise could now be artificially created in exact and varied ways. With the development of recorded music from tape to digital memory, sampling became a new form of replicating and altering environmental noise. Just as Russolo and Antheil would take from the sounds of the modern mechanical world, musique concrete would mimic the electronic age with the use of tape loops and purely electronic-produced sound. The digital revolution would lead to the hip-hop sampling of Public Enemy, which took the sounds of New York streets and media soundbites and reconfigured the noise into dense music, punctuated by sirens and drills, that articulated urban conflict.

There are many ways of conceptualising dissonance. The term consonance comes from the Latin consonare, meaning ‘sounding together’, and has become synonymous with particularly harmonious intervals in Western music. However, there is a psychological aspect to consonance and dissonance which is subjective and has changed throughout history. Psychologists would describe dissonance as a negative valence emotional response, meaning that it conjures feelings such as anger and fear; emotions that relate to suffering. In harmony, consonance and dissonance refer to specific qualities an interval can possess but, although consonance relates to mathematical constants, musical experiments outside the acceptable ranges of the time attuned the human ear gradually to more dissonant sounds. In the Middle Ages, the tritone musical interval (the interval between, for instance, F to the B above) was once prohibited by the Roman Catholic church due to its dissonant qualities and perceived ties to the Devil. Nowadays, however, this very interval is one of the main building blocks in jazz harmony, especially in the music of Duke Ellington and Art Tatum; music considered completely palatable to today’s ear.

Differentiation in ability to determine pitch, timbre, volume and time between tones could account for more or less appreciation of complex music. When two pitches are played together the mind appreciates the combination while also picking apart the unique pitches. More distortion or dissonant intervals will lead to added overtones and sum tones, creating very complex waveforms, which will force the listening brain to work harder to decipher it. These complex waveforms are what people would be hearing in music they consider to be difficult. The reason why some people react so poorly to modern classical music that delves into dissonance is that there are no easily discernible patterns. Philip Ball, in The Music Instinct, writes that “the brain is a pattern seeking organ, so it looks for patterns in music to make sense of what we hear.” The lack of predictability of tone sequences in the music of Stockhausen, for example, can confuse the brain, but the mind can learn to appreciate the complexity. We learn to appreciate this through listening to more complex music but, as the noise in our environment has increased, it is our adaptation that further enables us to enjoy what previously was rejected. The music mimics the noise in the environment and, in turn, the environment programs us to accept more noise as music.

Who are these loud and noisy people? They are like fishermen hawking fish.” – Buddha

How much has noise increased in the past few hundred years? Statistical comparison is a struggle, but noise appears to have been a concern for every society throughout history. The Buddhist Digha Nikaya, committed to writing in 29 BCE, records some contemporary noises of concern:

“Ananda, was neither by day nor night without the ten noises,—to wit, the noise of elephants, the noise of horses, the noise of chariots, the noise of drums, the noise of tabors, the noise of lutes, the noise of song, the noise of cymbals, the noise of gongs, and the tenth noise of people crying, ‘Eat ye, and drink!’”

Allowing for the unknown volume of an ancient Buddhist toast, the loudest sound on the list is that of the Asian elephant, trumpeting at a maximum of 90dB. The decibel level of the loudest sound in a city environment would increase as time went on, pacing more rapidly in the decades leading up to the 20th century. In an 1896 article entitled The Plague of City Noises, a clearly irate Dr. John H. Girdner called attention to the “injurious and exhaustive effects of city noises” from such sources as horse-drawn vehicles, bells and whistles, animals, persons learning to play musical instruments, peddlers, and that most infuriating member of late 19th century street-theatre, the organ grinder. What Dr. Girdner and the Buddha share is a concern for largely natural sounds of animal and human activity. However, the industrial and urban development of the 20th century altered the make-up of street noise and a poll of New Yorkers in 1929 issued an updated list of ten sounds to break a Buddhist samantha, with every one a product of a mechanisation.

The everyday noises of Girdner and the Buddhists pale in comparison to what the modern ear has to contend with, especially baring in mind the logarithmic nature of the decibel scale. Rule of thumb: the sound must increase in intensity by a factor of ten for the sound to be perceived as twice as loud. A car horn (120dB at 1 metre), a jet flyover at 1000 feet (103 dB), a power mower (96 dB), a food blender (88 dB), and a car driving at 65 mph (77 dB at 25ft) could conceivably occur simultaneously and for extended periods of time, albeit in a particularly poorly-situated home. Even the average lowest limit of urban ambient sound today is 40 dB; a constant hum that crosses the frequency spectrum.

“Natural sounds generate a sinusoidal wave, with rounded peaks, which is easy on the ears. Many mechanized sounds are square or sawtooth shaped or have jagged edges. If you see them on an oscilloscope, you’ll know why they’re unpleasant to listen to.” – Gordon Hempton

The increasingly urbanised and industrialised modern world has become a place of almost constant unnatural sound. The American acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton contends that in the whole of the United States there are just 12 places that could be considered naturally ‘silent’. By measuring average noise intervals at various locations over time, Hempton demonstrated that in the state of Washington there are just 3 places that are free from anthropogenic noise for longer than 15 minutes, compared to 21 places in 1994. In the UK, research by Sheffield Hallam University found that Sheffield City Centre was twice as loud in 2001 as it was in 1991. With this increase in the spread and intensity of noise there has followed a general adaptation and acceptance of noise, but accompanied by some very negative consequences.

The word noise is derived from the Latin nausea, meaning seasickness, and noise can have many physiological and psychological effects that are deeply unpleasant, even causing permanent harm. In addition to the obvious hearing damage that can occur from repeated exposure to loud sound, diverse research over several decades has uncovered a variety of problems related to noise exposure. Fatigue, irritability, insomnia, headaches, anxiety disorders, depression and an increased prevalence of stress diseases have all been shown to be possible negative consequences. A WHO report from 2011 estimated that Western Europeans lose over one million healthy life years annually from noise-related disability and disease. Noise could also be making us less kind to one another, as research into noise as an urban stressor has found that a noisy environment can increase anti-social behaviour.

A series of studies at Wright State University in the mid-seventies found that noise interferes with social cues from a person in need of help and reduces helping behaviour. Further study in 1979, at the University of Washington, into noise and social discrimination found that noise may cause people to distort and over-simplify complex social relationships. Key to these outcomes, both physiological and psychological, appears to be our primal response system. Studies of blood chemistry have shown that exposure to noise causes an increased production of epinephrine, a central component in the fight-or-flight response. The more ‘unpleasant’ a sound, the more the amygdala, which plays a role in processing fear, is activated and therefore the stronger the emotional response.

The only rational reactions to an environment that threatens are either to escape or to adapt. However, even if one can ignore it, there is no physiological habituation to noise; an auditory assault affects us even when not consciously registered. Furthermore, it appears that the adaptation to noise that modern life requires is leading to an increased fear of silence. In 1999, the BBC accountancy office was refurbished with noiseless air-conditioning, double- glazed windows, and silent computers.

The makeover was effective in abating noise, but the employees were uncomfortable. They complained that the silence was stressful, leaving them feeling lonely and paranoid that others were listening in on their phone calls. In response, upon consulting noise expert Yong Yan from the University of Greenwich, the BBC decided to buy a noise machine to combat what Yan calls Pin Drop Syndrome. This covered the silence by producing a continuous 20 dB murmur of unintelligible voices, with the occasional snippet of bottled laughter, and the accountants relaxed into their faux-hubbub soundtrack. In a world of noise, silence equals exposure. The noise can fill in spaces that separate, cover up the sounds that bring attention and can blend individuals into an amorphous group. Perhaps it was this comforting, masking relationship with noise that the BBC accountants were found to be craving when absent.

Our ears have an inbuilt hypersensitivity to sound that was invaluable in the days when humans were hunter and hunted. We can hear a pin drop in a quiet room because our auditory system enhances the volume of a sound to several hundred times louder than the source volume before the brain itself registers the sound. While humans have transformed their relationship to environment and the conscious perception of noise, the brain and auditory system are still somewhat stuck in the fight-or-flight world of pre-civilisation. We tune out the noise in our daily lives but the physical and psychological forces are still present, pushing up blood pressure and promoting the release of stress hormones behind-the-scenes, even when we aren’t consciously aware of the sound.

“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating” – John Cage, The Future of Music: Credo, 1961

Today there is no firm basis for a distinction between music and noise. With the abandonment of traditional, harmonic definitions of consonance and dissonance, the distinction is entirely subjective and particular to context. There is no such thing any more as the ‘non-musical sound’ that John Cage wanted to highlight in his compositions; everything is fair game. We are born into noisy environments and the necessary adaptation means that the normative level of acceptable noise has been rising exponentially with each generation. But with musicians of today using white noise, the entire range of audible sound-wave frequencies heard simultaneously, where is there left to go?

The Austrian anthropologist Michael Haberlandt claimed that the more noise a culture could bear, the more ‘‘barbarian’’ it was. Hanatarashi’s bulldozer performance was nothing if not proudly barbarian, but the violent expression was peacefully received – unlike the riots that followed the performances of earlier noise music. Noise has found its audience and the Noizu crowd at Tokyo’s Super Loft were purposefully escaping any sense of tranquility, seeking out that dangerous thrill that the body provides when the fight-or-flight response goes haywire. Like skydivers and train- surfers they were after the exhilaration that comes from hacking the body’s primordial response mechanisms. They were all freaking out together, each body screaming to run but with safety in numbers and the perversely comforting wash of noise connecting and concealing everyone. The enjoyment of the performance came from the transgressive destruction on not just the venue but the audience themselves. They were pushing at the biological limits of their minds and bodies, going against the grain like the boundary pushing experimental music, in order to feel a rush. In earlier decades, or centuries, that rush could have been achieved with less. The charge of a herd of elephants or the clattering and cheering of a horse race might have once been at the upper limit of common noise, but with the constant, and constantly increasing, cacophony of noise in our environment today, the level of acceptable noise has been dragged further up the decibel scale and further out from consonance. The result of this trend is that the noise music listener will always be like a heavy drug user who requires an ever increasing fix. The Hanatarashi fans amongst us are bathing in extreme noise to induce the fight-or-flight response; musical adrenaline junkies looking for a high that the body and mind will continue to adapt to over time. Only, unlike drug use, everyone is taking noise everyday, whether we like it or not, and we have to choose to either embrace it or escape it.

But where to escape to, when silence is disappearing? Perhaps noise music highlights how people are too accepting of the damage and social alienation that the daily exposure to noise is producing. Are we all barbarians for living with noise that would have driven our forbears crazy? Noise is now presented by health authorities and scientific studies as a pollutant but, unlike with oil spills and insecticides, some people inure themselves to this pollutant through choice. By choosing to embrace the constant noise of modern life, with all of its negative effects, they are like the BBC accountants, a symbol of the slow death of silence. If a solution isn’t found, there might come a point where the silence on Earth is found through noise-cancelling headphones rather than a trip out of the city, and natural silence will have truly vanished. And what will the music of that time sound like? The Rite of Spring sounded like noise, even Beethoven sounded like noise to the ear of the day, so in a few hundred years time will we be looking back on Hanatarashi with a feeling of quaint nostalgia as we wonder how anyone could have considered such classics as Boat People Hate Fuck or White Anal Generator to be noise?




14th BBC National Short Story Award inspired by #MeToo, Brexit and Trump.

Lucy Caldwell

Photo by Tom Routh

Announced today was the shortlist for the 14th BBC National Short Story Award  with Cambridge University, this year the writers where inspired by the #MeToo movement, Brexit and Trump.

Lucy Caldwell, multi-award-winning novelist, playwright and short story writer, has been shortlisted for the second time for ‘The Children’. Previously shortlisted in 2012 for ‘Escape Route’, one of her first ever short stories, Caldwell is joined on the 2019 shortlist by a wealth of emerging talent including University of Dundee Fellow and former bookseller Lynda Clark for ‘Ghillie’s Mum’; charity worker Jacqueline Crooks for ‘Silver Fish in the Midnight Sea’; civil servant Tamsin Grey for ‘My Beautiful Millennial’; and Welsh writer Jo Lloyd for ‘The Invisible’. The writers have explored sexual politics, intolerance, community and immigration.

The Award is one of the most prestigious for a single short story, with the winning author receiving £15,000, and the four further shortlisted authors £600 each. The winner is announced during a live BBC Radio 4 Front Row broadcast at a ceremony in London on Tuesday 1st October.




Radio Four

The first few times she hangs out with Ryan, they make constant excuses to stay together a little longer. For their second date, he invites her to a party at his flat. She meets all his friends, stays over, and in the morning he leaves her to do her correspondence – by which he means call her mum – while he goes out to buy breakfast supplies for them both. He doesn’t ask her whether she’s staying for breakfast, he asks her what type of milk she likes best. His humming in the kitchen quickly leads to the scent of freshly ground coffee, and the clatter of various pans signals that she’ll be getting something far more exciting than the toast and Lurpak she usually offers her own guests.

Should I go out there? she texts Kelly. I’m not sure I want to chat to his housemates in this state…

Just go! It’ll be fine! They’ll be rough too!

She braces herself, and makes her way into the kitchen, wearing last night’s clothes. Ryan’s housemate and his girlfriend are doing the dishes, and Ryan is hunched over a steaming pan of eggs and tomatoes. He throws torn coriander into the concoction, and turns to offer her a huge grin.

‘Hungry?’

‘Very.’

In front of the others, he leans down and plants a kiss on her forehead. He’s sweaty and the contact leaves a light sheen on her face. She watches as he plates up two enormous portions of huevos rancheros and pours her a short coffee.

‘Come on,’ he says, nodding towards the door. ‘Let’s sit at the table.’

They go back to bed after that, stay there long enough for cabin fever to kick in. He’s incredibly hungover, green at the gills, and she waits for him to say the words which will break the spell. All it’ll take is a nuanced Well and she’ll have to leave.

‘We should get out the house,’ he says, and she perks up at his assumption that whatever’s happening next will be a communal activity.

They get dressed slowly, lamenting the loss of bare skin. He takes her to the second-hand bookshop next to his house, and each of them touches the spines of tens of books without really registering what they are. They walk through Brockwell Park, clutching hands in the pocket of his puffer jacket. They only have about forty minutes before it gets dark, and again, she thinks that’ll mean the end.

‘Shall we walk into Brixton and get a drink?’ he says, instead.

One drink turns to three, and then, tentatively, he suggests dinner. They share small plates of overly sweet, fried Brazilian fare in Brixton market, and, even as they say goodbye at the station, she’s thinking of how soon she can ask to see him again.

***

The radio of the man who lives downstairs has been blaring all day, every day for over a fortnight. Sometimes, at night, the only thing that calms her is picturing putting on thick, rubber-soled boots, and stamping on the floor until he makes a noise complaint of his own. She realises that this is not an okay thing to think. She doesn’t believe he used to have it this loud. She can’t say for sure. Her nerves are more frayed than usual, and now she’s tuned into it, it’s the only thing she can concentrate on. It’s the bass that bothers her the most, the buzz of it.

She has sent him a number of messages about his radio, ranging from the faintly comical, to the downright hysterical. There’s been a tiny improvement, but not nearly enough for her to relax completely.

Ryan sleeps over. They drink a bottle and a half of wine between them, then hold each other tightly, outside the covers, on her bed, content. He asks if they can switch the light off. It’s a Thursday night, there’s work in the morning, and he’s packed a spare pair of pants and a clean shirt.

She’d usually shower before getting under the sheets, but she’s drunk and she’s happy and she can’t be bothered. He rolls away from her, and she doesn’t mind.

As Ryan’s breathing gets heavier, she feels the slam of the front door downstairs, and her body tenses. The buzz begins almost immediately and her jaw tightens, teeth clenching. Her bones vibrate. Ryan stirs and reaches for her.

‘Come here,’ he says. ‘Try to ignore it.’

She rolls into his arms and pushes her left ear into his hairy chest. She knows it won’t be long until Ryan falls asleep, and then she’ll be left alone with her murderous thoughts.

‘I don’t understand how it doesn’t register with him,’ she mutters. ‘He’s honestly making me miserable.’

Miserable is a big word, and the worst bit is that she means it. The noise has begun to affect her quality of life. Every time she comes home, she checks the forecourt to see if her neighbour’s car is there; every time she pushes through her own front door, she’s on pins, anxious to see if the radio’s on or not. The other day, she found herself with her face to the carpet, listening through her floor and his ceiling to see if she could work out which show he was listening to. She’s losing her mind.

‘Now I don’t know,’ she says, in her normal voice, ‘whether it really is too loud, or if I just hate him.’

‘Okay,’ Ryan says. ‘That’s not helpful, is it?’

She breathes in. ‘Objectively, this is too loud, isn’t it? This is excessive, right?’

‘Yeah, he’s completely out of order,’ Ryan says. ‘Do you want me to go down? I will.’

She contemplates this idea. Would she like that?

‘I don’t think so,’ she says.

‘Try to zone it out for tonight, then send him a message in the morning.’

‘It’s all I can hear!’ Her tone has changed and she knows tears aren’t far off.

It’s much too early in this fledgling romance for her to cry in front of Ryan. But her heart sinks and keeps sinking. Her breathing’s shallow and she has to remind herself: in, two, three, four, out, two, three, four. Ryan shows her how. She copies him. She will never again take for granted the ease with which she normally breathes. It’s not the start of a premature hangover. This month is a blue time. A black time. It is insidious, and will not be ignored. Always around the midway point. She pushes the thought down. It’s not the money she wishes she had more of, it’s not the increasingly sinister TV shows she’s been bingeing on. It’s not the disappointment of a potential agent losing interest. It’s not the longer nights, the sun setting at 4:30pm.

‘I’ve been feeling super anxious all week,’ she says quietly. ‘For no reason.’

But the reason has a name, she thinks. And that thought makes her feel like she can breathe again after all.

‘Silv, just try to relax.’

‘Yes. Thank you.’

‘No, I mean… My mum struggles with sleep and she always told me when I was little that the important thing is to have a rest. If you fall asleep, so much the better, but the main aim is to relax. Do you know what I do?’

‘No?’

‘I’ll take you on my pedalo,’ he whispers, and strokes a strand of her hair. ‘Are you ready?’

She nods into his armpit.

‘Okay, so we’re in the centre of a huge lake. It’s a balmy evening. You can hear the rustle of the breeze through the trees.’

‘All I can hear is Radio Four.’

‘Come on, try.’

She lifts her face for a kiss.

‘You’re doing really well,’ he says.

She snorts.

‘You are. So the waves are lapping against the side of the pedalo. I’m doing all the work. You’re sunning yourself -’

‘I thought it was evening?’

‘It’s mid-afternoon, I got confused.’

‘Okay.’ She shifts her body to better fit around his.

He talks for tens of minutes, his voice getting lazier and quieter as the disembodied voices from downstairs drone on and on. When the voices stop, it takes her ears a few seconds to adjust. She dare not hope. She’s been tricked this way before.

‘See? It’s off,’ Ryan says, sleepily. ‘You did so well.’

‘Shhh, shh,’ she says. ‘Don’t jinx it.’

***

They spend two nights in a row together – he comes straight back to hers after work on the Friday to check how she’s doing. He brings her a Twix, offering it up to her eagerly as soon as she opens the door. This childish gift brings her immeasurable joy, and when Ryan picks her up in a fireman’s lift, she lets him carry her up to her floor, giggling the whole way.

When they wake up together on the Saturday morning, he’s adamant that he needs to seize the day, buy a stepladder from Homebase and get up to his attic. She, on the other hand, has no real purpose for her day, hasn’t scheduled anything with any of her friends and feels instantly lost.

He’s dressed when she comes out of the bathroom.

‘You’re ready?’ she asks.

‘I think.’

Let him go, be cool, let him go.

‘I feel a bit sad,’ she says instead, throwing herself onto the bed.

‘Oh no, why?’

She lifts her shoulders up and down.

‘Do you want to come and help me with the ladder?’ he asks.

She shrugs again. ‘Maybe,’ she says, laughing a bit, careful not to sound too keen. ‘Or I’ll do some writing. Or go book shopping. Or clean the flat. Just spitballing here.’

He’s putting yesterday’s socks into his backpack, zipping it up. She’s still in her bathrobe. She rolls over onto her front and breathes out, heavily. The air is stagnant in the room and she can’t find the energy to stand up, walk over to the window, and open it, even though she knows that it’ll make her feel instantly better.

‘Will you open the window for a minute?’ she asks him.

‘Course.’

She watches as he crosses the room in two strides and, with one smooth movement, lets the cold air flood in.

‘Look at those arms,’ she says, still not moving.

‘Come on, Silv. I think it’ll help if you move.’

‘I will,’ she says, face in the pillow, ‘eventually.’

He is leaning down now, next to the bed. ‘Come with me,’ he breathes into her ear, ‘I’ll buy you lunch. Then we can go back to mine and have a read. I’ll open that whisky my sister got me for Christmas.’

‘Really? That sounds nice.’

‘Really.’ She is cheery on the bus to Finsbury Park, content to be sitting next to him, for them to have the same goals for the afternoon. Fleetingly, entirely without her consent, her brain says, I love him. She ignores her brain, and squeezes Ryan’s hand.

Radio Four is taken from Mate, the dating memoir that Silvia Saunders is currently working on.




PRINCE.SSE.S DES VILLES at Palais de Tokyo

Picture Credits: Sarker Protick

The first question everyone asks when I say I’m attending an exhibition on the subject of the megacity is, ‘What exactly is a megacity?’

The Oxford dictionary definition:

  • A very large city, typically with a population of over ten million.

This definition, although obviously correct, fails to evoke the unifying characteristics of a megacity: pollution, traffic, a rapid increase in population, sprawling housing development, abject poverty, unimaginable wealth, labyrinthine public transport systems and in relation to this exhibition, exciting and flourishing art scenes.

The five megacities showcased here are: Dhaka, Lagos, Manila, Mexico City and Tehran.

The curators are keen to point out in the program, however, that the megacity provides the exhibition’s context but not its content. Indeed, part of their objective is to create a space that is not categorised by geographical location nor “defined by origins or borders”.

This aim is evident in the layout of the exhibition, detailed in a fold-out A3 map found at the entrance. Works are displayed in no particular order, and artists often have several pieces spread out amongst the two floors of the museum. Having to navigate such a large space with so many mediums: painting, video installation, fashion design, photography and robotics to name a few, has a dizzying effect. I suspect this is deliberate, creating the dynamic felt in major cities: a sense of claustrophobia mixed with the collective energy of ten million+ people living in close proximity. 

*

Ndidi Dike’s recreation of Lagos market stall part photo collage, part sculpture, takes up a corner of the first room, appears cluttered, but look closer, see that – as the artist herself puts it – the stall is “aggressively arranged”: piles of fabric and rolls of ribbon are displayed according to colour, Tupperware boxes are neatly stacked, brooms are lined up in neat rows, bowls of chillies, fluted pumpkins, tomatoes, and African monkey kola are placed precariously one atop the other but show no signs of teetering, packet noodles, almonds, beans, sieves, white plastic spoons, everything has its place, everything belongs, crouch down and place myself within the picture, move to Dhaka, Bangladesh, Britto Arts Trust, artists paint domestic objects, same techniques used for city rickshaws, bright and deep pinks, blues, red, oranges and greens, exhaust pipes, frying pans, teapots, parasols, fire extinguishers, a lion sips tea while chatting to a pigeon sitting at a table in a town square, rickshaw art is dying out I tell my daughter, being replaced by digital images, humans by machines, ‘the art is being lost?’ she asks, crestfallen, plonks herself down in front of the exhibit, draws a sketch of a frying pan portrait, looking, not through a mobile phone lens like so many museum goers but following lines with her eyes, turn the corner to a corridor of work, stop at Farrokh Mahdavi’s portraits of pink figures that cover three walls, the floor, daughter runs straight in, Paris-street footsteps on paint, the guard says “Madame, vous pouvez y aller”, it feels strange to walk on work, to add to the accumulation of dirt that blurs the image, the paint is thick, the colour of stuck-to-your-shoe bubble gum, his muses are bald, old men, young men, women, babies, clown-like smiles, Mahdavi worked in a morgue, makes sense, despite the brightness of the pink and the smiles, the portraits are morbid, fleshy-molten masks that much like the Mona Lisa seem to follow you around the room, we walk out, stumble upon a vast space, black advertising board at its centre, one giant slogan, IN A BOTTLE, CITIES ARE ALIVE, look for meaning, look for bearings, think of “message in a bottle”, walk past walls dripping spray-paint neon pink and wood-chip partitions, black and white photos by WAFFLESNCREAM, fashion brand ads, skateboards, men, thick-biceps, arms crossed, muscles flexed, angles, elbows, wrists, tight T-shirts, strong bodies, puffed chests, clasped fists, find a room full of earth, a mechanical horse that looks dead, put down, skeleton made of wood, hollow body nothing but a plastic bag, lifts its head, mane and tail intact, thick, black, daughter takes comfort in one fact, it can still move but it is laboured, no breath, turn, walk head down, bump into costumes like clowns, the white mannequins and harlequin colours of HA.MU, a Manila fashion brand, artists are young, born in ’96, ‘this one is the least weird,’ says my daughter, pointing to a red confection the shape of a real heart, can we touch she asks, there are multiple arms, rubber gloves, knitted appendages, rainbow slinkies where there should be limbs, hidden faces, bare legs, is this the front or the back? she says, we climb steps to discover the body of a whale on the floor, a work by Bikini Wax EPS, its ribs stripped clean, its head still slick and black, as well as its tail and fin, reminds me of a piñata, dropped, gutted, full of candy-coloured knick-knacks of American consumerism, 90s paraphernalia, childhood toys gone wrong, Gremlins, Jaws, Mickey Mouse in a graduation cap, a surrealist clock, a dinosaur with broken legs, the whale has been gagged by Coca-Cola cans attached to a rope, a telly in the corner shows clips of Free Willy, crowded aquariums, whales attempting to turn in containers too tight, children bang on glass, they want more, we take the stairs down to another floor, huge papier Mache strippers apply lipstick, pour themselves a drink, naked except for high heels and lingerie, hair long, lips thick, can’t remember if there is a warning about graphic content, wonder what is graphic about a woman in her underwear applying lipstick, pouring herself a drink, is it the stance that might offend, the nonchalance, legs apart, legs crossed, we walk past Newsha Tavakolian’s video installation of women from Iran singing, but the sound has been turned down, think of my theatre tutor’s most common phrase for critiquing, “short fuse”, the impact fizzes out too quick, we all know women’s voices are supressed but what are we going to do about it, we are tired now, maybe jaded, take a seat downstairs before entering Doktor Karayom’s room of red and white illustrations wall to wall, a sculpture of a man lying on a plinth at its centre, his body opened up like an anatomical model from secondary school, layers of epidermis, red, raw, pink, the body inhabited by tiny men the size of toy soldiers, a macabre enactment of Lilliput, scaling his veins, his eyes still open in shock, my daughter is not frightened but I feel overwhelmed by sounds, sights, glare, glitter, too tired to traverse the hallways and board Emeka Ogboh’s yellow bus and the call of voices, loud echoes, that if I’m totally honest intimidate me, because the space is badly lit, like an alleyway behind restaurants where no-one’s supposed to be, an underground car park in the stomach of the city, my daughter wants to keep going so we continue but only manage one more exhibit on the lower level, same shape as a skate park, slope leads to a sculpture that is small, ring-shaped like a hollowed out slice of an oak tree turned on its side, small magic, like fairy tale toadstools, a neon bar of light, textures and colours oozing into each other, nail polish red, New York taxi yellow, greens purples and blues of the clothes of Disney’s seven dwarves, shiny and matte, Mehraneh Atashi’s kaleidoscopic cavern like a child’s imagination, danger lurking round the edges, my daughter strides in front of me, not fatigued by the overload of senses of this reconstructed city of art that lives and breathes, suffocates and blossoms in your mind, minutes, days and hours after you leave it behind and step outside onto a Paris street and feel both constrained by the city, and ultimately, free.




Warheads at Park Theatre

Picture Credits: Marcus Kartal

Based on a true story Warheads, written by Taz Skylar and Ross Berkeley Simpson and directed by Toby Clarke, opens with the energy and chaos of rambunctious youth. Miles, played by Skylar, and his best friend Mory, played by Hassan Najib, are military reservists about to depart on their first deployment to Afghanistan. While Miles has yet to inform his girlfriend Tena, played by Klariza Clayton, of their intentions, Mory has already been dumped by his girlfriend for agreeing to go to war. The play threads through multiple time lines, portraying Miles’s various lives from: pre military, pre-war, post-war, and toward the end, post-PTSD diagnosis. The events in Miles’s various lives depict a teenage boy at the dawn of manhood as he rapidly transforms into a veteran soldier suffering from the traumas of war.

What Warheads captures well is the naïveté of young soldiers and the strain that modern civilian life thrusts upon them. The play shines when revealing how unprepared both Miles and Mory are for life after war and how their loved ones have no idea how to deal with the men who have returned in their altered states. Miles passes much of his time playing Call of Duty, eating pizza, and trying to make love to Tena, but after his first deployment to Afghanistan, nothing feels the same. His anger clouds both his judgment and his waking reality, forcing him to see a therapist, played by Sophie Couch, to deal with the symptoms of PTSD and the violence he perpetrates against others. In a poem written by Tena’s roommate Coby, played by Joseph Connolly, the line “He was broken beyond repair” becomes a chant at the end of the play, directed first at Miles, who struggles with the symptoms of PTSD and the will to seek treatment with his therapist, and then more accurately aimed at Mory, who refuses to return to Afghanistan with Miles for a second deployment.

Wonderful performances are given by Craig Fairbrass, who plays Captain Deex, as the voice of the hardened soldier and a paternal symbol for Miles when his reality spins out of control, and by Connolly, whose depiction of the comedic gay roommate Coby, brings a welcome break from the drama between Miles and everyone he interacts with. Warheads offers a glimpse into the lives of young men who choose to become soldiers because very little choice exists for them at home and reveals the, sometimes, painful outcome that greets these men when they return—not everyone makes it back, but those who do are not truly out of danger.

4 out of 5 stars




Nigerian Teens creating amazing SF movies.

A collective of Nigerian teens afrofuturist filmmakers have created The Critics Company a collective making incredible, science fiction movies with camerawork from old, damaged mobile phones and VFX generated in Blender.

The collective’s showpiece is Z: The Beginning, a ten-minute short film that took the collective 7 months to shoot and edit: “Z is a short film set in a post apocalyptic era in Nigeria around the 2050’s which reveals a developed Nigeria undergoing invasions. The word Z centers around a scientifical project (PROJECT Z) created by a Company called ‘The Triangle’.”

Their youtube channel also includes some behind the scenes mini-docs showing how they accomplish so much with very little.




Lucille and her Owner

Picture Credits: Stephen Griffin

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She can see his shaved head through the middle of the bar. She’s on one side, he’s on the other. He catches her eye and waves his fingers at her. She grins, pleased that he’s recognised her, and waves back. He meets her in the doorway between the two rooms. He’s holding a lead. He’s brought a dog. His dog, presumably. He’s not anywhere near as attractive as his pictures had led her to believe. She thinks, You don’t look 6’5.

He envelopes her in a big hug, plants a wet kiss somewhere near her cheek.

‘What are you having?’ he asks.

‘Wine, please. White.’

He’s served fast, probably a benefit of being the first person the bartender can see. He hands her her drink and they dither about where to sit for a few seconds.

‘Aren’t you going to introduce me?’ she says, looking down at the black and grey dog sitting obediently between his feet.

‘This is Lucille,’ he says.

She bends down and scratches her ears. The dog looks sleepy, has big muddy eyes, and is a sweetie. She heaves herself up onto one of the tall stools around the table they’ve chosen, while he slots himself onto his effortlessly.

‘So,’ she says. ‘Hi.’

He proffers a meaty fist, and she looks at it.

‘Give me some skin,’ he says.

She obeys. ‘I was with someone this afternoon who knows you.’

He keeps his eyes trained to the wall next to them. ‘Oh yeah? This’ll be good. Where do they know me from?’

She laughs.

‘Did I used to sell them drugs, by any chance?’

‘Something like that.’

‘Usually doesn’t come up until at least twenty minutes into a date, but might as well fill you in now.’

He has a flesh-coloured mole on the side of his nose, and the angle of his face means she can’t take her eyes off it.

‘Yeah, I dealt for five years. Was really good at it. Made a fortune.’

‘So you’re an entrepreneur, essentially?’

  ‘I am. It was a good life, I can’t lie. When you do something like that, you’re on the fringes of society, out of the real world, and I loved that.’

She murmurs to show that she wants him to continue.

‘And I was happy to be outside of the real world. But then I fell in love, and thought…’

‘You’d quite like to be back in the real world, after all?’

‘Exactly. God, heavy this, for a first date.’

She looks under the table. ‘She’s so good, I forgot she was even there.’

‘She’s the best.’ He leans right down and rubs his big hand over the dog’s face.

His trainers are huge. When they were messaging, he told her his shoe size was a sixteen. That’s almost three times bigger than hers. As the dog laps at water in a bowl, she takes a sip of her wine.

‘Do you have siblings?’

He whistles through his teeth. ‘Yeah. A few.’

‘How many’s a few?’

‘Not sure. My dad was a busy man back in the day.’

She laughs, loudly.

He laughs too. ‘How much of a red flag is all this? Are you completely put off?’

‘Not at all.’ She flicks her hand back, dismissing the idea. ‘This is fun.’

‘Good, I’m glad.’ He turns his face to her, holds eye contact for a few beats. ‘What about you? Siblings?’

‘None. It’s just me.’

‘Wow. And what was it like growing up in the midlands?’

‘More or less how you’d imagine. Safe, dull, fine.’ She pauses. ‘Aw that’s sly, I like my hometown. I had a lovely childhood.’

‘And then you came here?’

‘With some stop-offs along the way. I lived in France for a while.’

‘Oh yeah? Do you speak the language?’

She nods. ‘It’s a bit rusty, but it comes back when I need it.’

‘And Italian?’

‘Yep.’

‘I love Italy. All mental, aren’t they?’

‘Completely. My favourite thing is the old men. They take these plastic garden chairs, and put them in front of their houses, and just sit. Sit and watch. But sometimes their houses are in cul-de-sacs or whatever, and they have to wait for half an hour to see another person. And the person will go by, and they’ll both say buonasera and then the old man will just go back to staring into space until the next person comes by.’

‘We do a lot of work in Rome, and they have these outrageous requests. They’ll say, Eh we need a tiger. So we’ll sort it out for them, and then they’ll go, The tiger needs to be loose. And we’ll explain the dangers of that and why it’s not possible, and they go, Is okay, is okay. So we’ll do the shoot, and it’ll come time to pay, and they’re like, £100, is okay?’

She sputters into her glass.

For their second drink, talk turns to literature. He says he doesn’t read nearly as much as he used to. He worked in publishing after his drug dealing days were over, comes from a long line of writers and literary agents. He wrote poetry for a while, until he got sick of people assuming he was overemotional or depressed.

‘Who do you like?’ he asks.

As she’s planning her answer, she feels Lucille nuzzle her ankle. She tells him who her favourite writer of all time is, and he gives her a sly smile.

‘I used to sell her coke once a year, on New Year’s Eve.’

‘No!’

‘Yes. She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in real life. Present company excluded.’

‘That’s one person I’m happy to fall short of.’

She excuses herself to go to the bathroom. Once there, she feels no need to text any of her friends, not even Kelly. While she’s sitting on the toilet, he texts her two book recommendations.

‘I like talking to you about books,’ he says, when she rejoins him.

She sort of hears him, but sort of wants to hear him say it again. ‘What?’

‘I like talking to you about books.’

‘I could do this forever. It’s my best.’

He’s relaxed into himself now, she can tell. He’s meeting her eye more, cracking more jokes.

‘Another?’ he asks, pointing to her half-empty glass. His own is almost finished.

‘I’ll nurse this for a bit longer. I haven’t eaten, I’ll be pissed.’

‘Some bar snacks then? Crisps? Pork scratchings?’

She shakes her head, grins. ‘I’m good.’

While he’s at the bar, Lucille jumps up at two women at the table next to theirs. The women lose their minds over her. She really is a lovely little dog.

‘Do you wanna eat?’ he asks once he’s back. ‘We could go somewhere.’

‘I’ll be okay. I have reserves.’

He peers down at her, unconvinced. ‘Where?’

‘Legs.’

‘You know, you don’t seem like you’re five three.’

‘Well I am.’

‘Stand up, let’s see how small you really are.’

So they’re playing this game. She does as she’s told, and he stands up too.

‘Are you wearing heels?’

She lifts her foot, shakes her flat boot at him. They both sit back down. The dog is confused and sniffs her owner’s shoe.

‘You have a tall face,’ he tells her.

‘Oh?’

‘It’s elegant. You have a very elegant face.’

‘I don’t think anybody’s ever called me elegant before.’

She waits for him to expand, but he doesn’t.

***

‘Come and see my house,’ he says, forgetting to put a question mark in his voice.

She’s in control of her faculties and hasn’t decided, even at this late point in the evening, if she’s attracted to him. All she’s sure of is that she would like to hang out a little longer.

The flat is only a few streets away, which was clearly part of his reasoning behind picking that particular nondescript pub. The block is ex-council, unexciting from the outside. Lucille leads the way up six flights of stairs.

‘After you.’

‘I don’t know which one it is.’

‘Here.’ He puts his key into a red door and opens it onto a scene of mild destruction.

The floorboards are bare, but not in the chic, sanded-down, varnished way she admires in other peoples’ Victorian conversions. In the threat-of-splinters way. He leads her past the kitchen. She cranes her neck to peer inside and says, ‘Nice.’ It’s a pretty standard kitchen: a bit messy, personality-less, beige appliances, a plastic cereal box brimming over with dog biscuits, Lino on the floor, curling in the corners. The front room is where he’s headed, and there’s not a lot she can say about this either. The walls are beyond bare. They’ve been dug away. The wiring is on display, and inexplicably, he has hung one solitary painting in the middle of it all. It’s the face of a very unattractive man, done naively.

‘Who’s that?’ She nods at it.

‘This musician I made a film about.’

He doesn’t want to talk now, she can sense that much. He has placed his beefy hands on her hips and is doing a slinky thing with his own hips to close the distance between them.

‘Let me kiss you,’ he says, as he’s already leaning down.

She’s slightly concerned about all that beard, worries it’ll be coarse, uncomfortable, will leave her with stubble rash in the morning. It was difficult to tell in the dingy pub, but she’s aware now that his mouth, like the rest of him, is oversized. Cushiony. His tongue darts around hers and he pulls her closer.

She disentangles herself to look up and say, ‘Let me see the rest, then.’

Lucille runs up the stairs first, and they both follow her. There are two rooms, one filled almost entirely with cardboard boxes full of books, the other the one he clearly sleeps in. In his bedroom, he sits on the edge of the bed.

Here we go, she thinks.

He pats the spot next to him. ‘Sit down.’

He hasn’t left her much room.

‘Where?’

He points at his lap, and she slides onto one of his legs, which is practically the same width as the whole of her. She fits neatly in the space between his thighs. He kisses her with intention, and she finds herself suddenly hyperaware that she is in a complete stranger’s flat, locked in, and that most of their interaction thus far has revolved around him stating in various ways how much more of him there is than of her, and her responding by echoing that yes, she is very little, and he is gigantic. She places a hand on the wide expanse of his chest and pushes gently.

‘Okay,’ she says. ‘You haven’t shown me the dining room yet.’

He laughs wistfully, her body still caught between his various limbs. ‘Do you wanna sleep here?’ he says. ‘We don’t have to fuck.’

She furrows her brow.

‘What? I can make us a cup of tea. I won’t try anything.’

Lucille is sniffing the rug next to their feet.

She doesn’t speak for a moment, then says, ‘I feel weird now. Why did you have to say it like that?’

‘I’m being honest. Let me put the kettle on, we’ll go downstairs.’

She doesn’t feel like she’s in any real danger. Lucille is a strange comfort in that respect. If the dog thinks he’s okay, he must be.

Back in the kitchen, he fusses with mugs and teabags, and she tells him she doesn’t want a cup of tea after all.

‘I mostly just wanted us to come back downstairs before you got too excited.’

‘Sure? I’m gonna have one.’

‘Positive. Thank you.’

He takes his cup of tea, and her, upstairs to his bedroom once more, and asks her if she’d like something to sleep in. This is a game she’s familiar with. It goes like this: the boy gives you a t-shirt, turns the other way while you put it on and get under the covers, and within seconds he’s taken the t-shirt off you, and you’re in your underwear in his bed. Still, she goes along with it, telling him not to look as she shrugs out of her own t-shirt and pulls his one over her head. It doesn’t smell particularly clean. It falls to just below her knees. She takes her trousers off, and leaves her socks on.

‘Okay, I’m decent,’ she says.

He removes his jeans, and, even though she’s already had them wrapped around her, she’s shocked by the sheer size of his bare legs. He leaves his jumper on and lifts the duvet to clamber in. The bed is only a double, the same size as hers at home. With a groan, she is lifted over his chest, and placed in a seated position on his stomach. She is self-conscious about there being a spectator. Lucille is still in the room. He scrunches the fabric of the t-shirt he’s given her all the way up to her neck, but doesn’t take it off.

‘Let me see you,’ he murmurs.

He has that manic, faraway look in his eyes that men get once they’re lying down, and she’s sad that there won’t be any more talk of books or childhoods or past adventures tonight. He rubs himself against her.

‘I really want to fuck you,’ he whispers, as though she can’t tell.

She looks down and sees flesh poking up from the window in his boxers, where he’s threaded himself through the gap. Apart from this cross section of skin, he’s still completely covered and she wonders whether he’s self-conscious about his body. But that’s part of this whole set-up, surely? The bigger, the better. The XXL t-shirt is whipped off her and thrown to the floor, and he gazes at her in her entirety again.

‘Your arms are so sexy,’ he says, rubbing his palms up and down them. ‘You’re minute. Look at your hands.’

Her hands aren’t especially small. She actually has pretty long fingers.

‘Do you like feeling big?’ she asks him.

‘Yeah,’ he breathes. ‘Do you like feeling small?’

She rolls her shoulders back, shrugging him off, then reaches down over the edge of the bed, feeling blindly for fabric, anything to redress the balance. It’s her own, familiar top she plucks from the floor and she’s grateful for this. 

‘I should put this away, then?’ he says, nodding at his crotch.

‘I think so, yeah.’ He falls asleep quickly, then. She squeezes her eyes shut, breathes in hard and tries to pretend she’s in her own bed. He begins to snore, softly at first, then louder and louder. It’s a wet snore, a beer snore. It rattles around his mouth and catches, each time in a slightly different pattern so that it won’t ever settle into white noise. She sighs. He has one arm underneath her and it’s digging into her back. She extracts herself from him, turns the other way. He should still be trying to impress her, not lying exposed in this way, mouth hanging open, nostril hair vibrating with every exhalation. She lies there quietly while he makes an absurd amount of noise. At one point, he mutters, ‘Who’s got the pills?’ and she looks around in dismay. She elbows him. He snuffles, rolls over, and the snoring begins again. At the exact moment she decides to leave – no matter how long the journey home – a weight lands on her feet. Lucille hops over her legs, prancing along the bed to find a space big enough to house her. She wriggles her little dog bum down and sinks precisely into the curve between the two human bodies.

Lucille and her Owner is taken from Mate, the dating memoir that Silvia Saunders is currently working on.




Souvlakiland

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The DJ is a lover of voice notes. In the two days since they started talking, he must have sent her at least fifty, each one longer than the last. He rambles, tells her all the intricacies of his day. He’s currently in a five-star hotel in Montenegro, at the hotel’s expense. 

‘I can make you jealous with trays of hams and cheeses right now. But I won’t do that.’

Within five minutes, there’s another one.

‘I’m having a very Spinal Tap moment in the hotel. I’m lost. I went up some stairs and I’m like, I don’t recognise this, and I think I’ve found myself on the other side of the resort…’

He sends her pictures of the guy he’s working for, and the table where he eats his breakfast, and his feet in a bubble bath. He talks her through his journeys around the corridors of the hotel.

‘Ooh 2001, my room number, and also the vibe of Montenegro so far, I’d say.’

He says Montenegro in a weird accent, which she finds endearing. He has a bit of a lisp, and she finds this endearing too.

He quickly becomes a part of the texture of her day. It’s the kind of obsessive chatting she used to do with boys in school, when she still had to be mindful of not using up all her ten pound credit. Those innocent days when she’d have to sneakily borrow her mum’s Nokia, ending each message with the words, tb to my phone! 

She wakes up worried. She dreamed that she had a conversation with her downstairs neighbour and he asked her, ‘How long are you planning to stay here?’ And she didn’t have an answer for him. She picks her phone up and tells the new boy via voice note about this dream, with her eyes still half-closed. The two blue ticks pop up within seconds.

On the third day, he sends her a voice note which says, ‘I feel if I don’t try to lock something down then we won’t meet up because – well, I DJ quite a lot, actually. I have a few residencies around town and I play Thursday, Friday, Saturday. And I also do radio once a month, and that’s Wednesday. So as you can see, along with the old nine to six with my day job… Long-winded question is I was wondering if you’d like to just keep it simple and meet up and go for a walk on Saturday, if you’re free? And if you’re not free, maybe I could work around what you’re doing. I thought I could walk you along the canal. Yeah, I’d really like that, so let me know if you’d like to do that. Cool.’

She texts her reply. I’m v flattered that you suggested a weekend date, but I’m up north this weekend, visiting my friend Kelly 

It’s because I actually think I might like you. I just remembered, I get home early on Wednesday. You around 6/7?

Should be!

Let’s try it. Shall we… not talk tomorrow? To keep this al fuego? Or am I talking nonsense?

I’m gonna talk to you if I feel like it

You’re grand.

The day they’ve planned to meet up is hot. She checks the weather forecast on her phone and sees that it’s scheduled to be thirty-four degrees at six. This significantly limits her outfit options. He sends her a video of him on the plane which is bringing him back to London. He’s wearing a grey t-shirt, and thick black-rimmed glasses. There’s turbulence, and he pulls faces as he’s jiggled around. At the end of the video, he grins and she sees that he has a tiny gap between his two front teeth. This is the most excited she’s been to meet someone since the cyclist. She puts on a black vest and black shorts with a zip that runs up the middle. She’s ready an hour early. She has a small glass of cognac, and waits.

***

After their date, she types his DJ name into Google. It doesn’t take long to find his radio show. He told her his slot starts at ten. It’s nine forty-five. She makes tea, and gets herself comfortable. The quality of the link she’s found isn’t great, but soon enough, she hears his sweet little lisp, introducing his set. She grins. She’ll never tell him she did this. She probably won’t even tell Kelly.

‘This is not the best use of your time, is it?’ she whispers to herself.

Chaos show! he texts her. Pissed off!

It sounds alright to her.

Oh no! What happened?

Getting a beer and getting focused. Brb.

Within seconds, he sends her another text. Usually I can tell within about 2 mins if someone fancies me. With you, I was none the wiser after 90

This bothers her quite a lot. What did he expect? A love declaration after one date?

I bought two scratch cards earlier for our date, you know, he writes. It felt like a lucky day. But as I said, I didn’t really have much idea if you were feeling it or not.

Stop! she thinks. You’re spoiling it!

He calls her then, and they talk nonsense for an hour and a half. They arrange to meet for lunch the next day to continue their chat. Her eyes and face hurt after she hangs up.

***

She picks up lunch for them from a vegetarian place halfway between her house and his house. He leaves her waiting on his doorstep for too long, and she’s hot and on edge by the time he comes down for her. He gives her a big smile and looks her up and down with appreciation. In his room, he tries to give her a tenner, and she bats it away.

‘Aww! Your treat? That’s so nice. Thank you, how sweet.’ He’s overdoing it.

He lowers his face to look up into hers, and she turns away, suddenly shy. When he smiles, his eyes get very small behind his glasses.

His room is stuffy and smells like vinyl cleaner. He has one of those open wardrobe rails, and she can see lots of patterned shirts and jackets. He has a short-sleeved shirt on, which she usually can’t deal with. On him, it looks jaunty. Inexplicably, in this heat, he is also wearing socks, little oatmeal-coloured ankle ones. There is nowhere to sit except the edge of his unmade bed, so she perches there, and awaits instruction.

‘Cutlery?’ he asks.

‘I don’t really fancy eating hummus with my fingers.’

He laughs loudly and heads off to the kitchen.

She stands up and gives herself a tour of his bedroom. He has nice things. A floor-to-ceiling bookshelf is crammed with vinyls. My dad would’ve liked this, she thinks. There’s a postcard depicting Brighton on top of a set of drawers. She flips it over and then feels guilty and flips it back, without reading it. She can hear the DJ laughing with his housemates. She briefly contemplates going out to say hi, then immediately decides against it.

On his bed, she’s hungry, but wary of spilling hot sauce on his covers. She’s a little wary of being in his bedroom at all. They haven’t kissed yet and it’s hanging over them. He has made various jokes about it. He keeps making lingering eye contact or touching her bare arms for no reason.

Let’s get it out the bloody way, she thinks.

She puts the box of food down on a swivel chair next to his desk and feels him relax.

‘Lie down?’ he says.

It’s a tightly choreographed routine and she knows it well. She inches herself down into the crook he’s fashioned for her out of his body.

‘That’s better,’ he says.

Better than what? Finishing their lunch and finding a way to make contact naturally?

‘Mmm,’ she says.

She is stiff. He’s closed his eyes.

‘You’re more shy than I thought you’d be,’ he says. ‘It’s cute.’

What he’s really saying is, How come you’re not instantly champing at the bit at the prospect of a lunchtime quickie with me, when we’ve had all these days and days of false intimacy over text?

‘It takes me a minute,’ she says.

He has his hands laced across her stomach and inches one under the fabric of her top, murmuring a little as he touches skin.

Her head is positioned at a weird angle and is all she can think about. She’s not crazy about lying flat on his bed at one thirty on a Wednesday afternoon. He’s told her he has less than an hour before he has to get back to work.

‘I like that,’ she says, pointing to a framed print above the chest of drawers.

‘I like this,’ he says, his finger stroking her silver belly ring. ‘Retro.’

She laughs. ‘I know, I’m so tacky. I got it when I was sixteen.’

‘It’s cute.’ He nuzzles his face into the fold of her neck.

She sits up, leaning on one elbow. He copies her. They look at each other. He closes his eyes again and inhales. She will not make the first move. He lifts his free hand and caresses her cheek with the back of his fingers.

‘So soft,’ he breathes.

‘Aren’t most faces soft?’

‘Yours feels like velvet.’

This comparison reminds her of when her high school boyfriend described his feelings for her as ‘his heart being wrapped in velvet.’ She was confused then and she’s confused now. Velvet doesn’t even feel nice.

‘I’ve been dying to…’ the DJ says, leaning in and grazing her lips with his ‘… do this.’

***

The next day, after work, the DJ asks to meet her in Hackney Downs. He says he’s picked up ‘fancy’ apple juice and crisps. She ties her hair at the nape of her neck and puts on her coral lipstick. The sun has given her cheeks a reddish tint, which looks quite attractive in some lights, and quite terrible in others. She knows he’ll say nice stuff to her regardless of what she looks like.

Wearing some questionable blue shorts, he texts. Was gonna change out of them and then thought ‘she can take me as I am!’

She spots him from about ten metres away. He is half-lying against a tree, legs crossed, ankle to knee. He is doing that thing that she often does herself: making a conscious effort to look unselfconscious. The blue shorts are less of a problem than the fact that he is wearing trainers in the exact same shade of blue. She can see the shape of his bunions through the material of his shoes.

‘Hello knees,’ she says, leaning down to give him as much of a hug as she can manage.

‘Do you hate them?’

‘Not at all. You look very jaunty.’

‘Eee. Not the look I was going for…’

She plonks down next to him and helps herself to a handful of crisps from the open bag.

‘Nice to see you waited for me,’ she says.

‘I didn’t.’ He does an exaggerated wink.

He looks completely different today. She misses his smart Acne joggers. He lifts his leg and uses it to surround her, then pulls her over so that she is leaning on him. She’s trying to convince herself that she’s not giving him a fair chance and that he has more qualities than she’s giving him credit for. She’s not willing to admit their incompatibility yet. Before they met, it was increasingly intense and exciting and she’s waiting to see any evidence of this in the actual real person draped all over her right now.

‘So, are you down for getting some food?’ he says, tickling the inside of her elbow.

‘Always down for getting some food.’

‘I was thinking… souvlaki.’

He says souvlaki in a strange accent which doesn’t belong to him – the same way he pronounces Montenegro – and it makes her not want to eat souvlaki with him.

‘Sure,’ she says.

‘You don’t want souvlaki, do you? I can tell.’

‘No, I do. That sounds great.’

‘There’s this place in Homerton which just opened. It’s meant to be amazing.’

‘You can’t argue with amazing.’

They meander over to the souvlaki place, which is imaginatively named Souvlakiland. On the way, he stops to buy a beer from the corner shop. While he drinks it, he says, more than once, ‘I’m really enjoying this beer.’

At Souvlakiland, they order three wraps: two chicken, and one spare pork one, which he assures her he will eat in the morning. He pays, and says, ‘You’re very welcome,’ when she thanks him.

The food is truly excellent. The meat is salty and hot and the tzatziki sauce is fresh and tangy on the warm pitta. She digs in with pure abandon. As they walk and eat, she almost forgets he’s there. Every time she gets the extra surprise of a crunchy chip, she is thrilled. She looks behind her to see him struggling to fit his mouth around the generous wrap. He looks cute under the streetlights and she feels playful now that her belly is on the way to being full.  

They run into someone he knows a few feet from his house. A short boy with long, dark hair and a tank top. The DJ doesn’t introduce her, and she stands awkwardly while the two men talk. They do a weird handshake when they say bye.

‘Who was that?’ she asks, softly.

‘My old housemate. I hate him.’

‘Oh.’

They are standing on the DJ’s doorstep now. He leans against the door, and tells her the ins and outs of why he hates the man they just ran into so much. It’s a long story, and she doesn’t really care about hearing it. Why can’t you tell me this inside?

He hasn’t reached for his key and his body language is all off. Realisation hits. She’s not going to be invited inside. For whatever reason, he’s decided the night is over. Her time is up. It’s not even eight yet. She doesn’t have any other plans.

‘Well,’ he says, at a natural pause in the narrative. ‘I’d better go and sort my records for tomorrow.’

She rocks back on the balls of her feet and says, ‘Kay. Night.’

They don’t hug, and they certainly don’t kiss. As she walks herself home, she pulls faces into the night air.

***

‘Morning!’ A voice note from the DJ sent at 7:30am. ‘Thanks for coming to Souvlakiland with me, what a Friday highlight! I think you’re a little babe, and you make me laugh, but I don’t think we have enough common interests to keep this fire burning. Good luck with the writing. I don’t need to read your book to know you have talent, so please keep pushing your work, you will get there. Un bacio!’ He says un bacio in a strange accent which doesn’t belong to him.

Souvlakiland is taken from Mate, the dating memoir that Silvia Saunders is currently working on.




Book Review: Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile, by Alice Jolly

Many moons ago, at my
special measures secondary school, my love for history was most definitely not
ignited. We learnt by rote modern German history in the main, with a thimbleful
of revolutionary Russian just to mix things up. Fascinating as modern European
history undeniably is, my historical knowledge of the UK was … lacking. Not any
more. Not thanks to novels. So I was at first happy to be reading and reviewing
this book. Having been a fan of historical fiction for many a year now, I was
drawn to its bulk. Nothing like a big, fat story to get lost in. Give me any
era, from commercial to literary, but I love especially the Tudor period, my
biggest loves being Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel, different ends of the literary
spectrum. So hurrah to receive a copy of the beautifully packaged Mary Ann
Sate, Imbecile
.

But I hadn’t quite
computed the fact that the 600-odd pages were written in vernacular prose
poetry. I love poetry, but not 600-odd pages of one poem. And I thought: am I
clever enough for this? Can my soggy old brain compute? The literary and
literal heft of the book felt off-putting, the narrative told in the voice and
language of a Victorian orphan in the Stroud Valleys of the 1830s, a plain slip
of a girl with a hare lip. An apparent imbecile. Not Tudor, nor very linear.
Was such a book for the likes of me?

But soon the rhythm and
pace and language of the narrative opened up Mary Anne Sate’s tale, and there I
was in rural Gloucestershire, as if being whispered the story from the
protagonist. Tiny, hare-lipped orphan Mary Ann Sate – persecuted for her “devil’s
mark” and dismissed as a halfwit – is taken in by Mr Harland Cottrell as a
servant in the Stroud Valleys of the 1830s. Living in total obscurity, she dies
without leaving a trace, it seems, beyond a single line in the local death
register: “Mary Ann Sate, 9 October 1887, Imbecile”. But Mary Ann was cleverer
and more observant than those around her credited.

With the inevitable march of industrialist England playing out in the background, the burgeoning trade unionism, the Chartists, the history is very much a minor but important character in the novel. Mary Ann narrates her childhood and adolescence, living within numerous households, experiencing the whims of her masters – sometimes kind, often cruel, her harelip and alleged imbecility often commented upon. But as we learn, Mary Ann is not an imbecile. She is a storyteller, and she is a scholar, a reader, a dreamer, a visionary, though not any of these things openly – someone from her sex and station wasn’t allowed to be any of those things, not in those times, maybe not in ours. She’s not a Christian but she sees angels, like Blake. She writes like Gerald Manley Hopkins, infusing observation of natural world with spirituality. Blake and Hopkins are a potent mix. This is history from the point of view of the forgotten, the unimportant, the millions of people who’ve walked the earth before us who never get the chance to get into history books. Fictional, yes, but upon finishing the book I raised a drink to the many women who worked, mothered, dreamt and died before us, all but forgotten.

Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile is published by Unbound.




Queen Awkward

Check out other articles from this memoir

The Irishman has twinkly blue eyes and a freckly forehead. His hand shakes a little when they clink their glasses together. Conversation flows. He writes too, loves to read, is in a band. They talk about how their respective parents met, their favourite authors. She mentions an obscure artist she’s been researching, and he audibly gasps.

‘Henry Darger? No way! I’ve been fixated with him recently.’

They buy round after round. Last orders are called way before they’re ready to leave.

‘Ah man,’ he says. ‘Guess that’s our cue.’

She shrugs sadly and follows him out. Her stop is right next to the pub, and he waits with her for the 56. When it arrives, they’re still chatting a mile a minute.

‘Thanks for coming out,’ he says, as the doors slide open.

‘Of course!’

He leans down and they kiss. She touches his tongue with hers for a second. It’s a good kiss. 

***

She finds that she’s excited to see the Irishman again when the time comes. He’s waiting for her on a pub rooftop, and looks handsome in the low evening light. With a wide smile, he excuses himself to go and buy their first beers of the night. She relaxes. She enjoys most first dates, no matter who they’re with. Having a drink with a stranger is exciting, a fun social experiment, and anyone can be on their best behaviour for two hours. Second dates show you who you’re really dealing with.

The Irishman reappears and presents her with a pint of pale ale.

‘Thanks.’

‘So,’ he says. ‘I have some friends staying with me this weekend, and we were thinking of going to this jazz night later.’

She frowns. He’s already making an excuse to leave early. He has other plans.

‘And I don’t know much about your taste in music yet, but I thought you might like to come too?’

Her eye is watering and he leans across the table to wipe the tear away with his thumb, an intimate gesture that she likes.

‘Sounds good,’ she says. ‘I could do a jazz night.’ 

He talks non-stop, lengthy stories about his schooldays and his childhood friends and all the trouble he got into as a teenager. He makes her belly-laugh. It’s mostly his accent that does it. The things he’s saying leave less of an impression than the way in which he says them.

She tells him about the week a couple of years ago when she thought she was going blind.

‘I was sitting on the bus, on my way home from work, reading, and the words on the page started to swim, and I felt super dizzy and faint. So when I got home, I put bags of camomile on my eyelids and lay still all afternoon, but I still felt shit, so my housemate told me I should probably go to the GP. The doctor did a million tests on me, and sent me to the optician and to get an ECG and stuff, but in the end he had to tell me there was nothing wrong. Turns out I was just stressed. My body was trying to tell me to have a break.’

‘That reminds me of when I thought I was going blind.’

It seems quite an unusual coincidence that they’d both had a period of worrying they were going blind.

‘What happened?’ she says.

‘Well, I kept getting these floaters in my vision. I tried not to panic, but I was scared shitless.’

‘Was yours stress too?’

‘Not exactly.’ He pauses to snake a hand around her waist. ‘I had quite a lot of facial hair at the time. In the end, I worked out I could just see bits of my beard from the corner of my eye.’

She chokes out a laugh.

‘Serious business. I had no idea what was happening to me.’

He makes an excuse for them to go back to his place before the jazz, something about his phone charger.

***

At his house in Dalston, they run into one of his housemates on the stairs.

‘Oh, hey,’ the Irishman says, cheerily.

The housemate grunts something in return.

‘Would you like some wine?’ the Irishman asks her, once they’re in his bedroom.

‘I think I’m set,’ she says, but he mishears her and comes back a few minutes later holding two tumblers of red wine and a half-empty bottle of Echo Falls.

He pushes his bedroom door closed with his foot, and she thinks, Oh-oh. Walking around the room, she feigns interest in a few of his possessions, until she sees one that truly does interest her.

‘Tom Petty?’ she says, holding up a DVD. ‘He was my dad’s favourite.’

‘Ah no way. I was in a Tom Petty tribute band for years.’ He peers at the cover. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever watched that.’

He flops onto the bed, and she follows suit. They kiss gently, their free hands tracing shapes on one another’s arms, pausing only to put down their wine. He pushes her shoulder softly so that she falls flat, head on the pillow. From her new angle, she notices a shiny brown hair pin on his bedspread.

Feeling her tense, he lifts himself off her and asks, ‘Shall we take it easy?’

She nods. ‘I’m pretty slow.’

His phone rings and she listens to him make plans with a very tipsy-voiced girl to meet in the pub around the corner.

‘Okay, we’ll be there in ten.’

His friends are Irish too, two girls with huge grins and easy laughs, who have clearly been drinking all afternoon. She takes to them immediately, enjoys their company so much that she almost forgets she’s on a date with the Irishman and not them. 

‘We’re bladdered,’ one of the girls declares after half an hour. ‘Walk us home?’

The Irishman looks at her for approval and she nods.

‘We’ll come back out and get food afterwards,’ he promises.

Once they’ve dropped the girls off, they go to a cashpoint and then a kebab shop, which he claims does the best shawarma in Haggerston. They eat hungrily at an outdoor pub table, facing each other.

‘There are so many pretentious readers out there,’ he says, ‘that will struggle through these huge modernist tomes, just so they can tell their friends that they’ve read them.’

‘Ugh, I hate those people. Like, who genuinely enjoys Infinite Jest?

He stops mid-bite. ‘I genuinely enjoyed Infinite Jest. It’s good, you know.’

She rolls her eyes and he laughs with gusto.

Tugging a piece of chicken from his wrap, he says, ‘I’ll lend you my copy, then we’ll talk.’

‘You’re expecting to still be talking to me in three months? Because that’s how long it’ll take me to get through it.’

‘A boy can hope.’ 

A sliver of red onion gets stuck to the roof of her mouth and she runs her tongue over it. She tilts her head to the side and looks at him as he continues to reel off books whose reputation precedes them.

Once the tin foil in their hands is empty, he offers to walk her home.

‘It’s a long way,’ she says.

‘I don’t mind. Let me get you halfway at least.’

As they make their way towards Hackney Downs, he reaches for her hand. She holds onto it like a child would, clutching two of his fingers with all of hers. There is a faint worry in the back of her mind that the cyclist will happen to be passing on his bike and see her holding another person’s hand. She’s not sure whether he would care, or even if he’s in London, but either way, the thought makes her squirm. Hand-holding is something of a statement for a second date. She becomes quiet, giving only one-word answers to the Irishman’s questions. He turns to her, just before her local pub, and kisses her. She really panics then, anyone could see them.

She breaks their contact and says, ‘Are you leaving me here, then?’

‘No,’ he says, confused. ‘I just wanted to kiss you.’

***

For their third date, they agree to go to the cinema, where they’ll sit in the dark for two hours, unable to chat, both on pins until one of them is brave enough to reach for the other’s hand.

She picks out a cropped jumper and high-waisted flares, and slicks on some coral lipstick. She ties her hair back and spritzes her neck with Tom Ford.

She sends a photo of herself to Kelly and texts, Do I look okay?

Is that hair clean…?

Yes!!

Doesn’t look it

Well it is

It’s mild outside, so she decides to walk to the pub they’ve arranged to meet at. She slows her breathing as she walks past Iceland. Google Maps tells her she’s a couple of streets away. She tries to picture the Irishman’s face. Last time they met, they joked about how when you don’t know someone very well you forget what they look like in between hangouts. When you think of them, you have to focus on one feature and build up the image of them from that. For him, the one feature she works from is his silver tooth. He has that freckly forehead too and a few strands of grey hair running through the black. She is thinking about his salt and pepper hair when she sees a tiny, grey French bulldog. It’s a beautiful puppy, and her gaze runs up the lead attached to its leather collar to see who the owner is. Her heart bangs against her ribcage. It’s the cyclist. He’s in shorts and his beaten-up black Vans, and hasn’t seen her. He’s waiting to cross the road. The lights change to red and she stands still as he strolls across to her side. She can’t move. He has his earphones in and is looking down at his phone. Not for the first time, she reflects that there must be some people in his life who he replies to immediately. As he approaches, she peers up at him, giving an awkward little wave.

‘Hey,’ she says. ‘Hello.’

There is no sign of recognition as he politely says hi back, and then his features fall into a smile.

‘Hello you!’ He leans down and kisses her, square on the mouth. ‘I was just texting you.’

It seems highly unlikely, but she says, ‘Well here I am.’

I wanted to see if you were free to hang out.’

That’s all she wants to do, all she’s wanted to do since they started talking all those weeks ago. Now he’s right in front of her, out of context, like seeing your schoolteacher in the supermarket. She peers over his shoulder. She can see the pub, and the Irishman standing outside it, waiting for her. Please don’t look over here, she thinks, furiously. Keep your head down, don’t look up. Her face is hot; she’s sure she’s blushing.

‘Erm,’ she says. She shifts from foot to foot. The dog is looking up at her, enquiringly. ‘God, he’s cute.’ She ducks down a little, goes to pet him, changes her mind.

‘Why are you being weird?’ he says. ‘Do you want this to be weird?’

She exhales. ‘No, of course not.’

‘Are we cool?’

‘Yeah, I’m just awkward.’

‘So what are you doing now?’

She’s sweating. She’s a few minutes late to meet the Irishman, and now she might have to do a lap of the block to put some time and distance between the two men.

‘I’m just meeting…’ she says, and lets the sentence trail off. She can’t lie. She wouldn’t know what to say.

He runs his eyes over her, her bare midriff, her lipstick. He raises an eyebrow and grins. ‘I see.’

‘Maybe tomorrow?’ she says.

He dips his head and kisses her twice.

‘Have fun!’ he shouts over his shoulder, as he walks away. ‘Queen Awkward!’

She’s flustered when she greets the Irishman. He leans down, aiming for her mouth, and she gives him her cheek.

For the first twenty minutes of their date, she hardly pays attention to a word the Irishman says. She excuses herself to go to the bathroom, and, once there, checks her phone.

Call me! Maybe after your date ;) She cringes, feels a shiver of unease run down her spine. She clicks on the thumbnail picture of the cyclist, enlarges it, zooms right in. She has it memorised, knows exactly what he looks like without having to focus on one particular feature.

Queen Awkward is taken from Mate, the dating memoir that Silvia Saunders is currently working on. 




Book Review: Good Day?, by Vesna Main

Vesna Main’s latest novel, Good Day?, is a masterpiece of understatement and inquiry into intimacy, fidelity, memory, and the business of fiction itself; a novel within a novel, told entirely in dialogue between husband and wife. All we know of the couple is that the wife is a writer, her husband is an academic. They’ve been married for twenty-four years, and have two grown-up children, rather, in fact, like Richard and Anna, the protagonists of the wife’s novel.

The exchanges take the form of the
husband’s commentary on the novel his wife is writing which focusses on Richard’s
revelation that he has been visiting prostitutes for the last eight years. Right
from the beginning, the gender lines are clearly drawn. The husband sympathises
with Richard, complaining Anna is “controlling”. The wife claims Richard gets
what he deserves. As the story progresses, conversation meanders from the
fictional marriage to the husband and wife’s own relationship, fragilities are
exposed, the boundaries between fiction and reality begin to dissolve.

– So Anna’s not me? [The wife
says.]

– More or less she is.

– Are you Richard?

– You’re building him out of me.

Despite the husband’s misgivings,
the wife cannibalises their marriage to flesh out characters and furnish them
with backstory: Richard is given her husband’s job and boss, two grown-up
children hover in the wings, a scene from the wife’s previous love affair is
exhumed, and intimate details of their first meeting are lifted hook, line and
sinker and inserted into the novel. Truth and fiction blur the role of reader
and writer in a never ending hall of mirrors until the reader can no longer
sure which novel they are reading, only that their presence is vital as a moral
arbitrator, voyeur and literary critic.

– Who are you writing for? [Richard
asks.]

– An intelligent active reader,
someone who is prepared to make an effort. [Anna replies.]

It is both story and commentary on
the literary process; the surveillance and compartmentalisation of our modern
lives. There are the clever self-referential texts to the wife plagiarising Vesna
Main’s work, Richard has his own alter ego called Alan Roberts, a prostitute
called Tanya is mistaken for a student. Anonymity is an aspiration; allowing characters
to act out fantasies without taking responsibility. Surveillance is ever
present in the form of the couple’s friends and children; a reminder that the
ultimate goal of any surveillance society is not only to remind us of the
watchful eye, but to inculcate self-censorship into its citizens.

– People who know us will
recognise it is as you and they’ll assume the story is ours.

– People who know us will be able
to see this is fiction. [The wife replies.]

The sole use of dialogue as
narrative structure reduces the plot to its essential elements without
compromising or diminishing the story in any way. In fact, stripping away
descriptions, settings and narrative summary, allows the voices to burn more brilliantly
in the darkness, and starts to make other novels look a little bloated by
comparison.

Good Day?’s meta structure raises serious questions about fiction
and ethics: how much of fiction is really fact? Who do joint memories belong
to? How much of a writer’s life can be brought into the work without compromising
those they love? And, through the other end of the telescope, it asks what
effect fiction has on our own lives. At one point in the novel, the wife says: “This
story makes me question our own life, our own marriage.”

In Good Day?, Main has created a clever, and thought-provoking story
which engages as it delights. Its deceptively simple prose slices through
layers of thematic enquiry to address contemporary concerns over identity,
gender and representation. For all this, it’s an easy and compelling read, as
tense as a thriller, twisting and turning, right down to its last postscript.

Main, whose work includes a collection of short stories, claims to admire the work of Kafka, Sebald and Beckett. The influences are clear in Good Day?, the sparse minimalistic prose, diversionary, experimental, all wrapped up in a luminous dialogue.

Good Day? is out now from Salt.




Book Review: Trans Like Me, by CN Lester

Ever wondered what life is like for trans people? Trans Like Me will give you an insight into the trans experience, not by rummaging in the voyeuristic detail that delights the tabloids, but because CN Lester gives a frank account of their own life.

As well as being an LGBT and transgender rights activist, Lester is an
academic, and a classical and alternative singer-songwriter. They share their
everyday experiences of living and working to illustrate what everyday life is
like living as a trans person, having to navigate between the prejudices and
abuse, and being part of a supportive trans community.

Who knew that if you want to transition, there’s this
jumping-through-hoops process called the Real Life Test? Who’s heard of the
Orwellian sounding governmental Gender Recognition Committee?

Trans people, that’s who! Perhaps largely because – as Lester points out –
there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Trans people and their lives are
“far more likely to be written about [their italics] as an ‘issue’ than
we are to be recording our experiences and insights as equal participants”.

The book goes a long way to changing that and setting the record straight,
debunking pop science – “flawed methodology of all kinds, tiny sample sizes,
incorrect forms of analysis, guesswork and unexamined bias” – to show how
skewed and distorted our everyday assumptions about sex and gender really are.

Maybe it’s because, as a woman, I’ve been getting upset about these
“studies” for decades. But how delighted was I to read what I’ve always
suspected about male and female brains!

“Not only is there generally great overlap in ‘male’ and ‘female’
patterns, but also … Neuroscientists can’t even tell them apart at the
individual level.”

Lester challenges the dull and limiting gender stereotypes that blight
all our lives.

“We need to wake up to the fact that treating sex as a fixed and
oppositional binary is not only a distortion of reality, but is doing active,
extreme harm to a significant percentage of our population.”

Trans people – like so many other groups in the story of humankind – have
been largely written out of history. Lester goes some way to rectify this (while
also being irrepressibly hacked off about the film The Danish Girl, which I haven’t seen).

They detail
stories and writings from the 1900s, and “other” genders featuring in the
Byzantine Empire, as well as Ancient Greek and Roman culture, and the role of
Castrati in European music.

“There have
always been people and categories of people that have troubled and challenged a
strict binary of male and female,” they write. And they ask, “What would it
mean, to trans people now, if our history were common knowledge?”

All of this is interesting and informative, and alone makes Trans Like
Me
worth reading. But even better, the book is very readable even though
the author’s an academic!

There were a few points at which I found the extent to which the word “which”
was overused, very irritating! But Lester more than made up for that with their
conversational tone, friendly, intimate voice, and moments of beautiful writing
like their description of what body dysphoria feels like: “like missing a step
in the dark … It’s not wanting a different body: it’s knowing how your body
should be, and living with the continual pain of discord, as wrong as a broken
bone”.

I hope to read more from CN Lester in the future – perhaps about trans history. And in the meantime very much recommend this book if you enjoy well researched non-fiction that marries facts and data with lived experience.

Trans Like Me is published by Virago.




Open

I’m by Boots! Can’t wait for a £20 beer!

They meet at Euston, and Kelly offers up one of her rare hugs. The plan for the day is to stay in the flat, drink, chat and giggle. If they go out, it won’t be for long. They make these trips to each other’s cities about twice a year, running across platforms to meet at a station Burger King or Paperchase. Silvia looks forward to the easy company, the in-jokes, the relief of being around someone who’s known her in all her various versions.

When they let go of each other, Kelly says, ‘Aren’t you going to offer to wheel my suitcase? Such a shit host.’

‘Give it, then. Did you bring your curling wand?’

‘I’m not doing your hair.’

That evening, Kelly curls both heads of hair: her friend’s dark one and her own white blonde one, and they venture to the pub closest to the flat.  

They stopped bothering with the trip into central London a long time ago. They’re just as happy on the sofa as they are in a cocktail bar. Happier. Given half the chance, they’d still spend their time together in their childhood bedrooms, singing along to Ciara songs on MTV and writing messages to one another’s love interests on MSN.

‘You need to get back out there,’ Kelly says, propped up against the bar. ‘What about him?’ She points to a tall, bearded man, reading a newspaper.

‘Why’s he on his own on a Friday night?’

‘He’s been stood up. You can comfort each other.’

They order vodka sodas and set up shop at the booth closest to the newspaper guy.

‘Can you see which paper it is?’

Kelly slinks down in her seat with all the subtlety of a cartoon detective. ‘It’s a big one. Looks serious. Definitely not the Metro.’

‘Great.’

‘He looks brooding. Like he’d do well on Countdown.’

‘I’m going to pee.’ She pushes her drink closer to Kelly’s. ‘Don’t do anything.’

When Silvia gets back to their table, approximately three minutes later, it’s empty. She walks over and stands awkwardly next to Kelly at the newspaper guy’s booth, waiting for a break in conversation. They seem to be talking about Brexit.

‘Oh. You’re back,’ Kelly says. ‘This is…’

The boy tells them his name in a strong Scottish accent, then sighs. ‘I’m waiting for my mate. He’s the worst. He’s just text me that he’s on the wrong bus.’

When the friend arrives ten minutes later, he’s compact, of indistinguishable age, and dressed in pilly, well-loved jogging bottoms. He has salt and pepper hair in a stiff little quiff and greets the girls as though they’re old friends.

‘We should get moving actually,’ Kelly says. ‘We want to get to that bar, don’t we, babe?’

The guy with the quiff says, ‘Maybe we’ll come too.’

‘Mate, you just got here,’ the newspaper guy says.

The quiff guy grins, revealing a set of impeccably white, straight teeth. He gives off car salesman, estate agent vibes. ‘Girls, shall we get together later then? At Farr’s?’

The bar story is a lie. The girls want to go and get pizza. It’s eleven and they’re hungry and have got their content for Instagram. For them, the night is drawing to a close.

Kelly takes the proffered phone and taps away at it. ‘There. Let us know.’

‘Bye!’ They all call to each other.

Outside, in the cold, Silvia narrows her eyes and says, ‘You gave my number to the wrong fucking one.’

***

It’s three weeks later when she eventually texts him back.

Ready for that drink now, if you want?

He replies within minutes and suggests a tiny pub in Stoke Newington for the following Friday.

Thursday? she tries. She’s in no hurry to give up a Friday night to a man whose face she can barely recall.

Let’s do it!

When the Thursday in question comes around, she’s nervous. She has two whiskies in a row and calls Kelly incessantly. Together, they decide that she shouldn’t dress up, so she puts on a red jumper and her Levi’s.

As she’s about to leave the house, a text comes through.

Running late! Sorry! Can we say 8:30 instead?

She looks around the room in dismay. They scheduled the date for seven thirty, and it’s seven, and she’s tipsy, and already has no desire to go.

Are you serious?

Need to quickly shower!

She’s furious. Let’s just leave it, shall we?

I don’t want to leave it! I can try for 8:15!

You needed to try for 7:30, mate

Are you actually annoyed??

Lateness is my worst ever.

Gosh! In that case I can do 8 I think!

She pours herself another whisky. She already hates being ‘back out there.’

***

She gets to the pub for ten past eight and can tell immediately that he’s not there.

You’re late to the already rescheduled later time of 8pm?

She doesn’t think she technically has the right to speak to this stranger in this way, and presses send anyway.

2 mins!

She sees him from afar and realises with a jolt that she might actually be taller than him. And she’s five foot three. As he approaches, offering a jaunty wave, she notices what he’s wearing. It’s a tweed three-piece suit, with a red silk cravat popped just over the waistcoat. His quiff is erect and ready for action.

He kisses her on both cheeks and doesn’t apologise for the fact that he’s this late because he was spending half an hour putting on formal wear.

‘Didn’t you say you were working from home today?’ she says, nodding at his apparel.

‘Yeah, why?’

‘You’re a bit… smart.’

He pushes the pub door open and motions for her to go inside before him.

‘I only have two variations – joggers or full suit.’

‘Right.’

He greets everyone behind the bar as though they’ve known each other for years, and they probably have. He’s a lot older than she remembers, looks to be in his early forties. She thinks very clearly to herself, What are you doing here?

‘Vodka soda?’ he asks her.

‘I’ll have a whisky actually, please. With ice.’

The shorter the drink, the shorter the date.

As they wait to be served, he begins to tell her a long-winded anecdote about why he hates pubs that don’t have bins by the tills. It is an incredibly boring anecdote, and she thinks, I am bored out of my fucking mind, to make herself laugh.

Every time she finishes a drink, he jumps up and comes back with two more. He doesn’t leave any gaps for her to speak. He tells her about three separate friends he went to college with, in vivid detail.

‘So Dan gets up and starts pacing,’ he says, standing up and demonstrating. ‘And then he goes back over to the bed and picks her up.’ He mimes picking a woman up. ‘And they just start fucking again,’ he says, jerking his hips back and forth with gusto.

She feels her face getting hot. His hips are still doing their mad dance.

He pauses and looks down at her. ‘I’ve been talking a lot, haven’t I?’

She nods, and he takes his seat.

‘Tell me about your day,’ he says.

‘Eh.’ She’s past being polite, if she was ever there. She checked out as soon as she saw his suit.

‘Your friend told us the other night that you’d just broken up with someone,’ he says.

‘I have.’

‘Still in love with him?’

‘What kind of question is that?’

‘The reason I ask is -’

Here we go.

‘- my situation is a funny one.’

She places her chin in one of her hands. ‘Go on.’ She couldn’t care less if he tells her about his situation or not, but it can only be an improvement on hearing about Dan’s sexcapades. She takes a big swig of whisky and readies herself.

‘I’m open,’ he says, and waits for a reaction. ‘Well, we’re open. Me and my girlfriend.’

‘Okay.’

‘How does that make you feel?’

She shrugs. ‘It doesn’t make me feel anything. Good for you.’

‘So you’re cool with it?’ He beams. ‘Amazing.’

‘It’s your business.’

‘Not the jealous type, then?’

She clears her throat. ‘I’m going to the bathroom.’

She pushes her chair back and stumbles off to the toilets. After she pees, she takes stock of her reflection in the dingy mirror above the sink. She tucks a stray strand of hair behind her ear and bites away a flake of dry skin from her bottom lip. She’s left her handbag with her comb and lipstick in it on the back of the chair.

She makes her way back out to him, an excuse ready. She has an early morning, her mum just called, she’s made a resolution to not drink more than five whiskies on a weeknight… Anything to leave.

‘Hey, so -’ she starts.

On the table in front of her, there is a fresh glass of whisky and a small shot glass, brimming with clear liquid. He’s grinning, excited at the decision he’s made.

Fuck. She’s shaking her head, involuntarily.

‘I have work in the morning,’ she says, feebly.

She picks up the shot and sniffs it. The familiar scent makes her stomach flip. The mere whiff of aniseed makes her gag. She gags now. He laughs, loudly.

‘What are we toasting to, exactly?’ she says.

She can’t believe that this fully-grown man can possibly think this date is going well.

‘Being open-minded!’ he says, running his hand through the front of his hair, and flashing his big, square teeth. He gingerly lifts his shot for her to clink with her own.

She can think of few things less appealing than cheersing to his open relationship with shots of sambuca, and yet she finds herself doing exactly that. The drinks have been bought. She’ll finish them off, make sure he doesn’t wander off to the bar again, and then leave for real.

‘Would you say you fancy me?’ he says, with no preamble.

‘Oh god.’ She sips her whisky. ‘Really?’

He nods with vigour.

‘No.’ She leans back in her seat and maintains eye contact. ‘No, I can’t say that I do.’

‘Oh.’ He blinks fast. ‘I might grow on you?’

‘I’m pretty instinctive.’

He exhales, his breath pungent with alcohol. ‘That’s disappointing.’

‘I think this might be a good moment to get going,’ she says.

She’s immeasurably glad that it’s not a Friday. She’d be absolutely furious if she’d spent her Friday night doing this.

He gathers up his wallet and phone, and makes a big song and dance of shouting goodnight to all the bar staff.

As they make their way outside, he dares to say, ‘Sure I can’t tempt you with one for the road?’

He’s easily spent sixty, seventy quid on this strange failed evening, and doesn’t appear to be bothered about it in the slightest.

‘I’m going this way,’ she says, pointing in the opposite direction to the one he came from.

‘I’ll walk you.’

‘You don’t know where I’m going.’

‘We’ll go wherever you need to be.’

‘I’m really fine.’

‘You’re going to walk the whole way? It’s late.’

‘I always walk home.’

‘Let me put you on the bus.’

Jesus.

‘Fine.’ She picks up the pace. There’s a stop right around the corner.

‘I live in a converted church, did I tell you that?’

‘Nope.’

‘I think you’d really like it. Wanna see?’

‘A photo?’ She already knows the answer, but wants to see if he’s stupid enough to say it out loud.

‘In real life. It’s only a few streets away.’

‘I’m not coming to your house.’

He takes her arm, gently. ‘Not for any seedy reason. I genuinely think you’ll appreciate the architecture.’

She hasn’t expressed an interest in architecture or houses or churches or, really, anything in the three hours they’ve been together. There is no reason for him to think she’d like his converted church.

‘No,’ she says. She jerks to a halt next to the M bus stop.

‘So you don’t want to quickly pop in?’

She turns to face him, pats his forearm, and says, ‘Night!’

He begins to shift from foot to foot and she thinks, Please no. Please don’t. He rolls backwards and forwards on the balls of his feet.

‘Don’t.’

‘Don’t what?’ he says, smiling.

‘Try to kiss me.’

The expression on his face changes instantly. ‘Why did you say that?’

‘I just didn’t want to have to dodge it.’

‘Fuck,’ he mutters. ‘Well that’s changed the mood.’

What mood?

‘Were you going to try to kiss me?’

‘Probably.’

‘So no harm done, right?’

The 106 is pulling in, and she’s ecstatic at the sight of it.

‘I’ll text you over the weekend,’ he says. ‘We should hang out again.’

‘See you.’ She does a half-jog to the open door of the bus.

As she makes her way up to the top deck, she breathes out, hard. She peers out the window and sees that he’s still standing at the bus stop.

Why did I want to get back out here again? she texts Kelly.

Open is taken from Mate, the dating memoir that Silvia Saunders is currently working on. Read the first instalment of this column, Sage.




Interview with Mazin Saleem, Author of The Prick

Manchester-born Mazin Saleem, a contributor back in 2013 to Litro’s Mystery issue, has since crafted various fiction and nonfiction pieces that have appeared in Open Pen, The Mays, Little Atoms, Talking Book and The Literateur, among others. Today he talks to us about the recent release of his novellette The Prick, a humorous narrative that revolves around a rescue, guilty friendships and stereotypes.

Litro: Often your writing has held interesting philosophies – I found “The Utopia of Sleep” and “The Empire Cashes Back” most intriguing and now with The Prick have you brought another satire to the table? What was the inspiration behind the novelette?

Most of my favourite books are funny. Not “The Big Bumper Book of Jokes” funny. But they have a sense of humour. So they were my inspiration in the sense that you like to write what you read. Though I’ve written more serious stories – “Then Somebody Bends”, for example, in the same series as “The Empire Cashes Back” – there needs to be a formal reason for adopting such a tone. (Not an extrinsic reason, such as an expectation of what good or grown-up writing is meant to be like.)

The idea of a satire is tricky, because it implies an overall point, that deep down the jokes are being serious. The Prick has some serious parts, but its main point, I hope, is aesthetic: have I done something fun and interesting with the story?

Litro: Roland almost sounds like Will’s antithesis. Could you tell us a bit more about the two characters and the nature of the strange bond they form?

Will and Roland first meet when Will is about to drown in the sea, but then Roland saves his life. For one character to rescue another, especially a man rescuing a man, you already have an angle to their relationship, an “in”, as well as a steep, acute power dynamic.

What having one character in debt to the other does is that it gives you a certain amount of sublimated hostility to work with when writing their story. Debt and guilt share a long history – you used the word “bond”. The way their relationship starts means they have a reason to be connected, to keep orbiting each other, despite the bad behaviour that ensues, in the days, weeks, years to come.

Litro: Your chapters are named as “That Day”, “A Week After that Day”, and so on and so forth, establishing an awareness of the passage of time for the reader. It also seems like they wish to draw attention to the “everyman” quality of the narrative. Would you say that the eponymous protagonist in the novelette is more common in the real world than we think?

I like everything in a book to be pulling its weight, chapter titles included, if you’re going to have named chapter titles. With each expansion of the time-frame being highlighted, the reader is not only placed chronologically, they’re continually reminded of “That Day”, as Will is. And there’s a bit of exasperation, too, on the book’s part towards the characters.

Because Will and Roland together are meant to form a microcosm of one of the key drives in people, I’d say they’re pretty common. But the Wills pass by unnoticed, maybe even by themselves, while the Rolands more obviously and intentionally stick out.

Litro: The novelette form isn’t the most common of formats but you used this for The Prick. How do you feel this complements the narrative?

A longer book would have probably entailed more sympathetic characters. Acid flavours are better in smaller amounts. Sympathetic as opposed to likeable: I think any story can last for a long time with ‘unlikeable’ characters, meant in the sense of ‘would I like them in real life?’. What I mean more is that the longer a story, the more the need for varieties of tone, whether in the writing itself, in the characters, and in how you want the reader to feel about them.

The length also gave me a chance to make more noticeable structural choices. You might spend ages building some architectonic grandeur to your 1000-page novel, but I think most human brains struggle to take in or detect structure at that level, not unless you’re rereading and studying the book. With a short book, patterns are hopefully more visible: how each chapter is similar or different to the others, what the narrative transitions are, who is active now and who passive, and why.

Litro: Your style is very descriptive and visual – how difficult is it to find a balance between writing just enough to paint a picture for the reader but not go overboard so that the text retains its element of humour?

The best is to combine the two. TV’s trained us to find most humour in dialogue, which is definitely a great way to do it. But you can have funny description or tonal shifts, or paragraph breaks as the humour version of enjambment in poetry.

Question is, what will the long-term impacts of the internet be on writing fiction? It’s not long now till almost all of a human life, from the banal daily details to the most emotional stuff, will be able to be told through the text you composed in some form or other, lives defined by the written (more properly, the typed) word in a way that’s never happened before in history. On the other hand, there’s the visual side of the internet, let alone of TV and film. Like John Berger said, the rise of mass-reproducible imagery was a paradigm shift. So, in this context, can a writer still write descriptively well? Is there any point?

Litro: During the course of writing The Prick, what did you find most challenging? 

Most challenging was staying under the word-limit, haha, that’s for my editor. Habits as a writer I wanted to work against with The Prick was my habit of writing summary rather than scenes (the book is seven long scenes with some extras), or, when I do write scenes, writing them blow-by-blow, like a lot of us do, as if we’re transcribing a TV show we’re watching in our heads. The challenge instead was to write the scenes in ways that only prose can do.

Litro: Can we expect more such novelettes from you in the future or do you find yourself more inclined towards other formats?

Some from column A, some from column B. In Eleanor Coppola’s book Notes, about her experiences during the making of Apocalypse Now, she describes her husband Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas waxing lyrical about the future of films, how we’ll one day break out of the stricture of “feature films” and “shorts”, that there’ll be films of 50 minutes long or 70 or 30 seconds long. And the democratisation of distribution in films/video has allowed that, anything from Vines to four-hour YouTube film essays.

That these categories still apply in literature, though, that a publisher won’t see the financial point in putting out a book that doesn’t fit into a standard novella/novel limit only takes a successful proof-of-concept to be dismantled. Open Pen provides one.




Book Review: The DNA of You and Me, by Andrea Rothman

The DNA of You and Me is the story of scientist Emily
Aspell as she looks back on her life and beginnings in the world of science
just before she is about to receive an important award for her work in olfactory
research. An award that summarises what her life has been all about, the points
of no return and the choices made along the way.

Smell is an illusion,
my father used to tell me: invisible molecules in the air converted by my brain
into cinnamon, cut grass, burning wood.” And so, it starts. Recently graduated,
Emily moves from Chicago to New York to work in Justin McKinnion’s lab only to
find out she is joining Aeden Doherty and Allegra Meltzer, a team conducting
very similar research on the sense of smell. Aeden almost immediately tells
Emily that she’ll need to find a new topic to research. Let the war begin!

It is here where Rothman, a scientist herself who studied
neurobiology and olfaction, completely submerges the reader in the fascinating
world of microscopes, test tubes, petri dishes and testing mice. She makes the
world of scientific research exciting and accessible to the everyday reader. We
witness tensions among colleagues, the fascinating lab politics, the pressure
of conducting experiments and the need to get results ahead of rival labs. The
novel brilliantly depicts the speed of the race for knowledge that has the
improvement of human health at stake. I have no scientific background at all
but the atmosphere in The DNA of You and
Me
felt real and I think that is a huge achievement.

It is no surprise that Emily and Aeden will move from
colleagues to lovers. Their relationship is far from standard, and it is sometimes
rather uncomfortable to witness. Emily has fallen for him but Aeden keeps the
relationship secret, cold and detached. On their sexual encounters, Aeden
performs some very questionable behaviour, leaving Emily constantly sad, hurt, confused,
and feeling lonely. She is in love, but he is reluctant to take the relationship
outside the lab’s walls. Is this your conventional love story? No. And the
reason it’s not is Emily Aspell and what she represents as a female character.
As the story progresses, Aeden is finally ready to take the relationship to the
next level and settle down. But it comes at a cost. He finds a new job in a new
lab away from New York and wants Emily to come along, to “Choose us”, as he
puts it. In convincing Emily to go with him, there is a serious ethical breach
involved that I will leave to the reader to discover. Emily chooses her work,
her lab and to stay true to herself.

In recent years, we have been flooded with discourses stating
the importance of empowering young women to take roles that are traditionally
male dominated. Science is just the perfect example. In creating Emily Apell,
Rothman is a step ahead introducing a character that truly reflects the life
choices that women are making in today’s world. Emily is passionate about
science and will eventually face the ultimate question of choosing career vs
family life. I hope women reading The DNA
of You and Me
will be inspired by Emily’s character to take absolute
control of their lives, to think big and find their place in the world. It’s ok
to be unconventional and to not follow the path that society expects women to
follow. It may be a road of tough choices, but it is ultimately a rewarding
one.

A highly entertaining read with the bonus that you will learn a thing or two about research on the all-important sense of smell.

The DNA of You and Me is out now.




Sage

She’s only going because it’s Thursday night and she hasn’t seen anyone since Tuesday. He’s Swedish, an inch shorter than her normal 6’2 lower limit, and has impeccable manners. Their conversation is very much surface level; they bonded over their mutual love of herbs. Sage in particular. They were going to meet up the week before, but she couldn’t face it when the time came, and cancelled very last minute, claiming that she’d got out the wrong side of bed that morning. What had really happened was that Instagram had suggested him as a possible friend, based on the fact that she had his number saved in her contacts – how are they allowed to do that? It seems such a violation of privacy – and she’d gone through all his pictures, right back to 2014, and didn’t like the fact that he used to have bleach blonde hair and did naked yoga.

But he sent her a well-timed text a few days later, saying, hi! how are you? having a better week? and that small show of kindness had been enough to thaw her.

She’s late, and warns him that she will be there at least fifteen minutes after the time they’ve agreed.

no worries. if i get there before you can i get you a drink?

‘Aw,’ she says under her breath. ‘That’s nice.’

She doesn’t have any wine or cognac in the flat, so will have to do the nice-to-meet-you dance completely sober. She checks her hair in the mirror and frowns. She takes it down and puts it back up again, much higher on her head. She pulls it tight and winks at herself. She applies a little lipstick and tries on two different jackets, settling on the one she wears every day. She looks like a slightly glossier version of her normal self. It’ll do.

She can either get the bus and be there in fifteen minutes, or walk and be there in twenty-five. It’s the first time she’s left the house all day and the fresh air is invigorating. She strides off towards Homerton with purpose. It starts to drizzle as soon as she passes the bus stop.

‘Fuckin’ell,’ she mutters.

She’s already decided she won’t fancy him. Still, she checks her face in her phone screen before she pushes into the pub: the Chesham Arms, which he’s been consistently referring to as Charms. She peers around the corner and sees him at a tiny round table right by the door. His hair is cropped and not bleach blonde at all.

‘Hi,’ she says, reaching across the table to hug him. ‘So this is the famous Charms!’

‘Sorry?’ he says, in a very pronounced Swedish accent.

She’s well aware that he’s Swedish, and yet his voice comes as a surprise.

‘I’m just saying we’re here, at Charms.’ She sits down and places a hand around the whisky and ginger she asked him for.

He smiles and nods. He doesn’t say anything.

Oh god, she thinks.

‘I’ve walked past this pub loads of times. I always think about coming in, but never do.’ She plays with a strand of baby hair on her forehead.

‘You’ve never been here?’

‘Nope.’ She told him that she’d never been here the first time he suggested the Chesham Arms, and also the second time he suggested the Chesham Arms.

‘I like it.’

‘So.’ She’s stuck. ‘Good day?’

‘Sorry?’ he says softly, leaning in to hear her better.

‘Your day. Was it alright?’ She tries to enunciate clearly. It’s always strange to be reminded that she has an accent herself.  

‘It was quite shit.’

‘Shit?’

‘Chilled.’

‘I had a nap at four thirty,’ she says, and isn’t sure why. ‘I couldn’t stop watching that video of Trump with the toilet paper on the bottom of his shoe.’

‘Oh?’

‘Have you seen it?’ she says.

‘No I haven’t.’ His face is expressionless.

She thinks of showing him the video on her phone, then decides against it, in case she gets a notification from the dating app while he has her phone in his hands. The dating app that she met him on.

‘Look it up. It’ll make your day. It’s definitely the best thing that’s happened to me today.’

‘Okay. I will.’

‘I meant now.’

He obliges, then places the phone on the table between them. The video takes forever to load and neither of them speaks while the wheel of doom goes round and round. Eventually, the seven-second clip plays, and he laughs the appropriate amount.

This leads to a political discussion she’s not in the mood for.

‘I read somewhere that we only viably have ten years left,’ he says, his longest sentence yet.

‘Before the end?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I heard it was closer to eighty.’

He murmurs something, which doesn’t sound important enough to merit asking him to repeat.

‘It wouldn’t be such a bad thing, if it’s true,’ she says.

He laughs, even though she wasn’t really making a joke.

‘Two of my friends have just had babies,’ she starts, and then wonders if she should really go down this road on a first date. She has nothing to lose, so continues. ‘It really affected me. I don’t know if I could cope with bringing a tiny new person into this mess.’

He sucks in a breath, agrees with her. ‘Children scare me,’ he says.

‘They’re just the same as grown-ups. There are some great ones and some less great ones.’

‘I’m learning how to be around them. When I was last home in Malmö, I hung out with my nieces and nephews and we had fun I think. I pushed them on the swings, did yoga with them…’

She raises an eyebrow and sips her whisky. ‘You like yoga?’

‘It’s good for me.’

‘Do you meditate?’ She’s thinking of the cyclist and the short-lived stint of meditation she tried herself in an attempt to feel closer to him.

‘I find what I need from yoga. I like to swim too.’

‘Where do you swim?’ Why is she asking him this? She’s never going to go there, wherever he tells her.

‘There’s a pool right next to my office. And when it’s warm I go to the lido at London Fields.’

‘I can’t swim.’ She always seems to find a way of inserting this into conversation on first dates, quickly followed by: ‘I can’t cycle either.’

‘That’s a shame. If you did, there’s a really nice pub along the river Lea I could take you to.’

‘Only accessible by bike?’

‘Well no, but it’s a good ride.’

‘I’m a pretty sedentary person,’ she says. ‘I like being inside.’

‘Do you want another drink?’ He points at her almost empty glass.

‘It’s alright, I’ll do it,’ she says, reaching into her jacket pocket.

He shoos her hand away and stands up. She’s pleased. As much as she considers herself to be a feminist, a free drink is a free drink. She peers up at him while his back is turned, assessing him. He has an impressive build, his shoulders wide, and everything in proportion. She can’t make her mind up about his face. He has those very light brown eyes which look almost grey in some lights, and a sweet little mouth. His nose is a good nose. He has a full beard, and it’s so long on his face that she can’t tell how thin his upper lip is. Quite thin, she thinks. He purses his lips while she talks to him, and it makes him look pretty, feminine.

He comes back to the table and hands her her drink. The first one has worked its magic and she’s determined to enjoy herself. She asks him about his job.

‘I like it a lot. There are some good days, some bad days, but it’s good to have both,’ he says.

‘What was your worst ever job?’

‘My worst?’

‘Yeah. I worked as a bartender while I was in college, and was so shit at it. I once gave a whole football team out-of-date Heinekens and one of them noticed and complained and I had to give them all free ones for the rest of the night.’

He cocks his head to the side. ‘I had a job in a factory for two years, cleaning parts. I’d go home and cough up black stuff every evening.’

‘Grim.’

‘I used to be able to listen to the radio while I did it though.’

He stands up abruptly and walks outside.

‘Bye,’ she says, under her breath.

Came out with that Swedish guy, she texts Kelly. Am bored to tears. Should’ve stayed home

I thought you said you were gonna watch the whale documentary tonight!

Stop pushing that bloody documentary on me

He reappears. ‘Wanna sit outside?’ he says.

‘Oh. Sure.’

In the pub garden, a beautifully-behaved black and white Whippet is weaving in and out of people’s feet, and provides the perfect distraction. Her collar says NINA.

‘Hey cutie,’ she says, stroking her ears. ‘Who’s so lovely?’

It starts to rain again, quite heavily this time. The smell of wet earth rises and changes the mood of the evening. She relaxes. He’s sweet, attentive; she’s out the house.

Enjoy yourself, man, she thinks. Be present.

‘What’s next for you?’ he asks, after a few moments of quiet.

‘You mean in my life?’ Her heart rate quickens at this question that she’s been dodging for weeks now.

‘Yeah. What will you do?’

‘Ah. I don’t think I can answer that. Do you know? Does anyone?’

He reaches his hand out from under the awning to feel the rain on his skin. He smiles, dreamily. ‘I’m quite happy where I am.’

She feels jealousy burning her cheeks. How novel to be content, to not want, wish, daydream about being somewhere else, in some other situation. She senses him looking at her nearly-empty glass. He’s finished his.

‘You want another?’ he says, right on cue.

She shakes her head. ‘I should get going, actually. I can’t have a headache tomorrow, I want to get up early to write.’

He doesn’t try to hide his disappointment. ‘Oh,’ he says. ‘Okay.’

She picks up their two glasses, and stands. He doesn’t move. She looks over her shoulder at him as she makes her way back into the interior of the pub. He gets up slowly, takes a long time to button up his jacket, then bends to pet Nina. From her vantage point, she examines him again. He’s not for her. Not her thing at all.

Eventually, he follows her. She exits the pub before him, then waits to see which direction he’s going in. He points towards a lamppost where a bike is chained. She accompanies him to it. It’s the polite thing to do.

‘It’s so skinny,’ she says.

‘My bike?’

‘Yeah, really streamlined. I’m into it.’

He places a hand on the handlebars and strokes them.

‘So,’ she says, watching him set the bike free. ‘I’m going the opposite way to you.’

This is the worst bit and she wishes she could skip it. He abandons the bike, lets it fall back against the lamppost. She has the unwelcome thought that he’s about to take her by the shoulders and lower his thin upper lip towards hers. She’s not in the mood to dodge a goodnight kiss, so she pushes herself up on her tiptoes and reaches for a hug. He hugs her back, and his arms feel comforting in that way that she misses.

‘It was really nice to meet you,’ she says.

‘Yes. It was.’

She thinks again how mismatched his soft voice is with his large build.

‘Well.’ She begins to edge away.

‘This is for you,’ he says, with no preamble, putting his hand inside his jacket. He pulls out a bunch of leaves and hands it to her.

She gazes down at it, confused, before she realises what he’s given her. It’s a bunch of sage. It’s so thoughtful and unexpected she can only look up at him and smile. A real smile.

‘It’s from my parents’ garden in Malmö. I brought it back for you.’

‘No!’

‘I thought you’d like it.’

She holds it against her chest. ‘This is so nice, thank you.’

‘You’re welcome.’

She almost wants to give him another hug, then decides it against it. ‘Get home safe,’ she says instead.

‘You too.’ He looks at her wistfully, the corners of his eyes wrinkling up.

He mounts his bike and she hurries round the corner, the cold air painful as it hits her fingernails. As she walks back to her flat, she keeps looking down at her gift. She grins the whole way home.

She’s already in bed when his text comes through.

i was so nervous meeting you today. not sure why. probably because i haven’t been dating for 6 months and i had high hopes about this one. i’m sure you noticed :) i think you’re really cool and i liked you a lot. it would be fun to do something again but maybe in a different setting, nature or something maybe. what do you say?

She forwards the message to Kelly, and writes, Babe! What am I meant to say??

Just be honest?

She doesn’t want to be honest, but after fifteen minutes he sends another text.

it’s also totally fine if you don’t want anything more. just let me know

He can see that she’s read both messages and is online. And she knows all too well how shit and confusing it is to be ghosted after what you thought was a great date. She drafts a text, and sends it quickly, without thinking too much about it.

The next day, she tears a handful of the furry leaves from the stalk, and chops them finely. In a frying pan she melts some butter, and fries the sage with a generous sprinkling of salt. She mixes the concoction with some pumpkin gnocchi and eats it on the sofa, her feet on the coffee table.  

 

Sage is taken from Mate, the dating memoir that Silvia Saunders is currently working on




Treading the path of loss: Thoughts on A Small Dark Quiet, by Miranda Gold

Psychoanalyst Adams Phillips writes, “Our lives are defined by loss”. For when we lose things they disappear, yet we remember, recall, and, in turn, we become inhabited by that which is no longer there. Lost things live on in us, vacillating between absence and presence.

Set in a crumbling post-WW2 London, A Small Dark Quiet by Miranda Gold is a book about loss, a delicate, haunting meditation on a generation both engulfed and shattered by war. The Allies have been victorious, and everyone should be celebrating, but inside the tiny house in Llanvanor Road, Sylvie has lost one of her twin sons at birth; she seems to be losing her mind. Two years later, Sylvie and her husband Gerald adopt little Arthur, a concentration-camp survivor, as a replacement for their dead baby. The child has been dispossessed of his own identity, is given the name of the deceased twin. He is “someone else’s little someone”. The father, Gerald, has also lost, or is trying to lose, his family’s Jewish identity. The book translates intelligently the unshakable fear Gerald still feels of being Jewish in Europe. His hands shake relentlessly and he is suffering from what we would now diagnose as PTSD. The war is over, yet things for the family will never be the same again. It is, Gerald believes, “tabulae rasae … records had been scattered, blanks left pending…”

A Small Dark Quiet is also the story of how we fill these blanks, how we live with the real and metaphysical horrifying gaps, described by Edna St Vincent Millay as the “hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night.” “Let’s find her smile. Let’s find her smile,” Gerald repeats cruelly to Sylvie in their kitchen, trying to recover, resuscitate, the Sylvie he once knew. “My Sylvie had a nice smile,” he says.

Interweaving scenes from 1950s and 1960s, darting between Freud’s mourning and melancholia, as the book advances, author Miranda Gold reveals the stories the characters have told themselves to make sense of their trauma. Each of them tries to deal with their past selves, those which they have relentlessly tried to get rid of, as Roxanne Gay describes, “I buried the girl I had been because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere.” We follow Arthur through his own attempt to build an adult life, to understand where he belongs. We meet other characters living with “small dark quiets”: a Polish caretaker with a number tattooed on his arm. Lydia, Arthur’s lover, who is repairing her own past by playacting the role of her previous employer, Mrs Simons. Lydia was the Simons’ nanny, and has stolen the family’s two dolls, and now, grotesquely, pretends they are her children.

In the novel, the strongest, most haunting image of loss and its replacement is the infant Sylvie fabricates from twigs and minuscule buds of white flowers to replace (or make living) her dead baby. This “twig baby” encapsulates “the story of the other little Arthur that Arthur never was…” In the novel, Sylvie believes her baby is buried in the park and visits the grave every Thursday, trying to find “a grave that would keep him.” In one exquisitely painful scene, she takes Arthur to the park; they dig in the soil and grass, hands muddy, trying to find the baby. Gold’s visceral image is macabre and tender, frightening and soft. Sylvie clutches a bundle of twigs, placing her hope, her longing in withered ivory petals.

In A Small Dark Quiet, Miranda Gold’s force is her concentration on ordinary darkness, the banal, yet ruthless effects of war and trauma on the everyday. In keeping with this focus on the intimate life of a family, the book takes place in restricted locations: Llanvanor Road, the park, Arthur’s workplace, the squalid room he rents when he seeks independence and meets the unstable Sylvie. Yet, while the cast and places of the book are clearly identified, the writing darts endlessly back and forth in time. Whilst this is in keeping with the effects of trauma, which exists outside of time, the latter part of the book can be confusing to follow.

Overall, however, A Small Dark Quiet is a highly perceptive, beautifully crafted, lyrical book, highlighting aspects of the trauma of WW2 often ignored. Books like this must be written and read, for as the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel warned years ago, “to forget a holocaust is to kill twice.” This is a loss we cannot neglect.

A Small Dark Quiet is published by Unbound.




When fast didn’t matter: the Lausanne Typewriter Museum

On top of the small mirrored table set out for special exhibits, a vintage Hermes 3000 typewriter still rattles from the blow. Museum owner and director Jacques Perrier has just smashed his palm down on the mint green keyboard, and the dozen or so tarnished keys that converged on the paper are now clumped together and stuck. He has seen children do this, he explains, extracting each typebar from the jam, but it’s the cackling of the parents he has never understood.  

We are halfway through the tour of the Lausanne Typewriter Museum, which is only minutes from the city’s main attraction, the Olympic Museum – by any other measure, a lot further than that. In place of state-of-the-art installations designed to evoke fist-pumping or tears, the Typewriter Museum documents history with little drama, or in any case less. Once Jacques has restored order to the Hermes, he attempts a second, more composed response to my question about the NE PAS TOUCHER SVP sign on a nearby shelf. “The sign is meant for the people who don’t know how to touch a typewriter,” he says, leaving the obvious caveat, about their growing numbers, unsaid.  

There was a time the collection looked forward, when Jacques’ father was building up the typewriter repair business he would eventually hand over, just before the personal computer took off. Jacques adapted, turning to electronics, and today fixes computer printers in the workshop across the parking lot. But every so often, a request draws on his roots – usually for an appraisal of someone’s estate, though once for some on-set coaching on a big-budget movie that cast a nostalgic eye on the world he still inhabits. A few years back, a hotel concierge in Montreux even called in a rush job for a guest whose name he couldn’t disclose. After Jacques applied a bit of gentle pressure, the driver who was sent with the broken machine assured him that Jack Sparrow, wink-wink, would be ever so grateful.  

For the most part, the typewriters that cross Jacques’ hands are housed where we are right now: in the basement of a low-rise building at the end of a treeless cul-de-sac. There is enough room for a few hundred gems, along with clusters of adding machines, hole punchers and other widgets of the mid-20th-century office. Space, time and funds permitting, Jacques could imagine a permanent exhibition tracking office life through the decades. Some of these objects, after all, did more than punch holes. Did I know, for example, how important the typewriter was to the rise of women in the workplace? I think of pencil skirts and grabby hands, and suspect I’ve been told a different story.

A number of shelves are packed with Hermes, the Swiss manufacturer known for its mechanical precision (“A country of watchmakers,” Jacques says, with a shrug). The purported list of fans includes Hemingway, Steinbeck, Kerouac, Ionesco, Frisch and Plath, with the 3000 and Baby models stirring up the most affection. Swiss artist and musician Dieter Meier, of Yello fame, even penned an ode, Hermes Baby: Confessions of a Fetishist. I discover this only at home, but get a hint of the fervor when Jacques grabs the first Hermes in reach to show off its innards.

In and around the talk of daisy wheels and ribbon spools, my own memories dislodge. It’s easy to recall the snap of the keys and the grinding carriage, less so the physical force and conviction once needed to commit words to print. Jacques points out that the very first, so-called invisible models didn’t let the typist see the paper until it was removed. The inability to review, let alone edit, work in progress is unthinkable. In some kind of displaced panic, I later buy the last two packs of Tipp-Ex correction sheets in the workshop.

I save the most scorn for the index typewriter, launched in the 1880s as a portable alternative to the (now) classic keyboard models. Through a point-and-select mechanism that conjures up a clunky GPS scrolling knob, the device allows for one-handed typing, one painstaking character at a time. “Ah,” Jacques interjects, tilting his head, “but that’s society’s problem. Back then, the day started when the sun rose and ended when it set. ‘Fast’ didn’t matter if it made clean letters and it worked.”

The philosophical asides break up the technical interludes and, like the visit itself, come free. To supplement the collection box, the museum has hosted type-a-thons, concerts and, implausibly, the odd fondue night. Once, Jacques invited Paul Auster to the museum after meeting him at a reading, but at the last minute the famous typewriter fan fell ill and had to cancel. At least he’ll always have those few minutes of conversation and, of course, the signed book. Still, he wonders. Maybe if he had tried harder, he could have hosted Auster – could have met Jack Sparrow. “I’m not so good at playing the game,” he concludes, his activist t-shirt peeking out from beneath his work coat.  

When we get to the international section, I stand over the 1939 German model and almost miss the “SS” symbol above the 5. How prim and insidious it looks: a machine used to destroy, not create. By the time we get to the Greek, Arabic and Korean typewriters, and the Braille writers, Robotypers and stenotypes, I could use some air.  

Jacques yanks the paper out of the Hermes 3000 and starts imitating some of the younger visitors trying to reinsert it. He shoves a corner into the type basket, scratches his chin and then places the sheet on top of the carriage. The biggest laugh comes when he covers the keyboard like a blanket – because it’s slapstick and funny, and also a little bit lonely, being one of the few people left who know how.

Lausanne Typewriter Museum (Musée de la machine à écrire), by appointment only