From Stubborn Archivist

Read Litro’s review of Stubborn Archivist, and Cindy Withjack’s conversation with Yara Rodrigues Fowler.

*

The IBS got her in the morning. She was stuck on the toilet like she often was before work. She brushed her teeth sitting down. It was probably the caffeine, or the dairy. Maybe it wasn’t even IBS. She’d heard a radio programme about bowel cancer the other day, but you had to have blood in your shit for that and she didn’t have blood in her shit. Just water.

She stood up. Her parents had already left the house
for work. She touched her belly over
her blouse and felt
its bubbling. She put on the blazer
with the wide
sleeves. She went down the stairs
and put her shoes on to leave. The thing about dressing like this
and having a face like
this is that
no one thinks you are
the source of the gas on the tube.

Twenty-five minutes later, at the end of the West End street
she walked through big glass doors
and swiped her swipe
card. Standing in the lift she would remember
to feel grateful.

It was unusual
to get a good job like this straight out of uni.

In the lift, she
thought to herself
– It is unusual, and I am very lucky.

Or, as her dad had insisted – But they are very lucky to
have a young kid like you with your languages and your cultural know-how.

Sometimes she got gas in work meetings but so far it had been manageable. She was a researcher for a new documentary about plastic surgery in Brazil. All the women in Rio were getting plastic surgery – in their butts and tits and noses and out of their stomachs.
Her job was to find
potential participants, to make
sure they were the best
ones and then get them to agree to appear on the show. They had given her her own thick plastic landline telephone with the curly wire that called Rio directly and a desk and an email address
and a chair she could swing
her feet under. We want ordinary women, the producer
Fiona had said in the kick-off
meeting. Women who have been saving for months and months,
who are going into debt, you know?

Mmhm.

Her first task had been to use online directories to make a spreadsheet
of all the beauty
salons and surgeons
and pageants and modelling
agencies in Rio. Today she would
begin calling the salons.
She scrolled up and down the spreadsheet. She dialled the number of the first
salon. Typed it in, typed it wrong,
typed it in again. Beep

She waited. She heard a click and an older woman’s
olá bom dia voice on the other end. She took a breath –

Bom dia. Eu sou uma jornalista
inglesa –

She looked around the office. Her feet under the chair. She could
have been saying anything.

Bom dia. Eu sou uma jornalista
inglesa –

The woman on the other end was the owner of the beauty salon. She did not hang up the phone.

So, that afternoon, having spent twenty years spelling
out her foreign name to
English people, she spelt out her foreign name over the phone to the woman
in the beauty salon.

She said – I’m sorry it’s quite long and it’s got an English bit in
it. Sorry –

Her email address was a nightmare. She braced
herself before announcing its
interminable phonemes, steeling herself for the relief of the @.

She was always careful to reassure the participants that they would come off well.

That morning she had come in late (there’s no point you being
in before people are up in Brazil, the producer had said) and so that evening she left the office
late when it was fully dark.

On these
days, when she came home late after calling
Brazil on the plastic landline
telephone, she always got a seat on the tube. She played
tetris. Sometimes she played candy
crush. She had one audiobook
on her phone which she listened to on repeat.

Elephant and
Kennington
This station is Oval (no it’s not)
Clapham
Clapham
Clapham

Clapham

At home at the house,
she found the
bowl of spaghetti with
toma- toes and cheese covered in clingfilm that her parents had left out on the stove
for her. She unwrapped it and touched it with
her finger. She held
it under her nose. It smelt
wholesome with the taste of bay leaves from the garden.

She put the bowl of spaghetti in the microwave. Her
parents had not heard her arrive.
They were still watching
the news on the sofa. She leant on the kitchen
counter with her eyes closed. She heard the ping. She went up the stairs
quietly.

In her room, she took off her skirt and her tights. She ate the warmed up dinner under the covers in her childhood bed. She opened her laptop and turned on a TV series that she had seen before. She closed the curtains. When she finished eating, she left the bowl on her bedside table and opened tetris on a second window on her computer. She closed the curtains. When she couldn’t focus her eyes anymore she turned the volume  low so that the TV voices became speaking sounds with no words or phrases.

And in the night images of the pink and yellow shapes slotted and reslotted in her mind and when she went to sleep they covered the faces of all the people in her dreams.

*

The above is an extract from Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler, which was nominated for the 2019 Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award.

For more on Stubborn Archivist, visit Little, Brown.

Read Litro’s review of Stubborn Archivist, and Cindy Withjack’s conversation with Yara Rodrigues Fowler.




500 Year Anniversary: Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre

Picture Credits: Emissive and HTC Vive Arts

It seems fitting that the current Louvre exhibition has surrounded the Renaissance man who saw himself as a scientist with all the latest in new technologies to commemorate the 500-year anniversary of his death. Although the Mona Lisa is absent from the exhibition (it has remained on view in its usual display case for all to see in the Italian Renaissance galleries of the Louvre), access to the iconic painting is available by dint of a virtual reality headpiece. In some ways, it’s actually better than viewing the real painting behind its thick bullet-proof glass covering at a distance, usually behind a bustling throng of visitors. 

The virtual reality experience allows you to get as close as you would like to the painting while a soothing voice unpicks its secrets. You learn, for instance, that the reason why the Mona Lisa never travels abroad is that a single journey could be fatal to it. Da Vinci spent the last ten to fifteen years of his life painting it (alongside two other masterpieces) during his final stay in the employ of the French king François I. When he died, Leonardo gave his last three paintings to one of his pupils who promptly sold them at an exorbitant price to the king. François I cherished Leonardo’s work as much as Louis XII had, to the extent that he installed the paintings in his favourite room, his lavishly decorated bathroom.

As you can imagine, years of exposure to hot steam did little to strengthen the poplar panel on which the Mona Lisa is painted. It warped the painting into a permanent convex shape. It is currently so fragile that a split at the back of the wooden panel still threatens to break right through Mona Lisa’s face. Apparently, even a small temperature difference during a trip abroad could snap the whole piece in two. While the lapis lazuli paint underneath is still intact today, the coat of varnish that covers the painting has darkened over time, making the silk veil covering Mona Lisa’s dress seem opaque rather than translucent. 

Another novelty in the exhibition’s scientific display apparatus is the widespread recourse to infrared reflectograms, a technique that makes the drawings underneath the painting visible to viewers. Reflectograms pick up on the carbon signatures of the drawings so that you can see the graphite without the overlying coat of paint. This allows the viewer to perceive any pentimenti, changes that Leonardo made to the drawings as he executed the paintings, but it also allows you to see the murkier parts of the paintings, those cast in shadow by the chiaroscuro technique that Leonardo used to such astounding effect. There were reflectograms of all the major paintings that could not be present at the exhibition but also of those on display. The only pity was that the reflectograms weren’t placed side by side with the finished paintings to make comparison easier.

There were a larger number of Leonardo’s scientific drawings and notebooks on display, including Vetruvian Man, probably the most famous drawing in the world. It almost didn’t make it into the exhibition, becoming the object of a polemic, France and Italy being at loggerheads in the current political climate. Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi was supposed to be delivered but hasn’t arrived yet. Another Renaissance version of the painting is on display though; ditto for The Last Supper which was of course impossible to present at the exhibition as it is painted onto a wall in the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan. (There was a tendency in the Renaissance to place themed works in appropriate places: The Last Supper was deemed ideally suitable for the church canteen. El Greco’s The Disrobing of Christ was similarly painted for the ecclesiastical cloakroom of a church in Toledo.) 

Picture Credits: Antoine-Mongodin

The French king Louis XII liked The Last Supper so much that he attempted to remove it from the wall of the refectory to bring it back to France. He failed to do so and the mural has remained in its original setting ever since, fading slowly year after year. The technique of fresco painting is something that Leonardo was entirely new to when he began the mural and he quickly discovered it didn’t suit his painstaking, slow-moving approach. To make the fresco adapt to his slow delivery, Leonardo used various chemicals which haven’t aged well. Leonardo’s scientific turn of mind pushed him to experiment relentlessly, proceeding by trial and error. There are errors in his military drawings too, those he drew for Lodovico Sforza, the duke of Milan. Some have argued that these mistakes were put in deliberately so that others would not steal his secrets and take the credit for his inventions. He also wrote from right to left, possibly as a way of perplexing spying eyes.  

Although Leonardo is known today mostly for his paintings, historians argue that he was really more of an engineer who liked to paint. He tended to leave his paintings unfinished as soon as the prospect of an engineering position cropped up, leaving the commissioners of his paintings in the lurch. He left his first major commission in Florence unfinished to enter the employ of the Duke of Milan, a man who was mostly keen on waging war. 

As a military engineer, Leonardo devised the most brutal military weapons alongside the first known tank, portable bridges and other strategic weaponry. He even invented a monster-sized crossbow that was 27 yards across. It was never built, however, and was probably designed to fire large stones or primitive bombs that would explode on impact. 

After Milan, he moved on to Venice and finally back to Florence where he became obsessed by a longing to invent flying machines, hundreds of years before the first engineers devised airplanes. Observing birds, he understood the way their wings worked through flapping but also using subtle feather movements that captured air. His later drawings show a willingness to devise flying machines that attempted to harness the forces of nature: using wind and air, rather than trying to counter the force of gravity.

Although few of his inventions ever saw the light, recent attempts to construct some of his drawings have been fruitful. Leonardo can be credited with having invented the ancestor of both the hand-glider and the helicopter. He also he invented what is called an ornithopter, a machine based on the working of bird wings. 

Understandably, the exhibition at the Louvre tends to favour the painter in Leonardo, pointing out that he wanted to elevate painting to the level of the most prestigious sciences. In his day, poetry was placed as highly as mathematics in the hierarchy and there was no real distinction between the sciences and the humanities. Leonardo called painting “the divine science”.

The curators of the exhibition are at pains to emphasize Leonardo’s passion for painting, disqualifying the long-standing idea that Leonardo was interested mostly in conception to the detriment of execution. The small number of paintings attributed to Leonardo (between 15 and 20, according to most contemporary experts) does not reflect a dilettante approach to painting; on the contrary, it shows how slow, meticulous and earnest he was about the technicalities of the art. He often spent several years painting the same picture. The Mona Lisa, for instance, was started circa 1503 and ‘finished’ circa 1517. Some experts argue that he didn’t see it as finished when he died in 1519. He would have agreed with E. M. Forster that a work of art is never finished, it is only abandoned. Most artists would agree in fact. The French painter Gustave Moreau used to add finishing touches to his paintings no less than thirty years after he first ‘finished’ them. Henry James was known to modify the sentences in his published novels when he found copies of them in other people’s homes. 

The curators of the exhibition in the Louvre are so keen to emphasize Leonardo’s devotion to painting that they opine that the unfinished paintings (those left half painted with the drawings left apparent) were part of his sprezzatura, his lightness of touch, his rumbustious spirit of endeavour, something which Leonardo called his “componimento inculto”, a sort of intuitive composition that included movement and unfinished sketch-like compositions. 

Basing their point on the thousands of drawings and the tumultuous preparatory drawings on the panel of The Adoration of the Magi, the curators argue that Leonardo was an artist who constantly changed his mind, reworking compositions endlessly. But the theory really only works for The Adoration. As the reflectograms show, Leonardo’s other painted compositions vary little from the initial drawings sketched onto the wooden panels that support the paintings. There are a few small pentimenti on another early painting, The Annunciation, but the other paintings follow the original drawn lines very faithfully, suggesting that Leonardo’s compositional quandaries plagued him mostly at the beginning of his career. He later painted two completed two substantially different versions of The Virgin of the Rocks, but only because his commissioners found the first one problematic on a theological and iconographic level: it was objected that the angel Uriel was pointing at Saint John the Baptist rather than Christ. His commissioners failed to appreciate the compositional originality of the first version (the one in the National Gallery in London): Leonardo used the pointing angel to draw the viewer in to the scene to indicate a model of devotion, Saint John addressing his prayer to Jesus. 

Although the componimento inculto theory is enticing, making Leonardo a kind of anticipatory Renaissance Futurist who relied primarily on shifting impulsive intuitions, it’s ultimately more convincing to accept that Leonardo was a perfectionist who never managed to find the time to complete his paintings. He certainly had a whirlwind of swirling ideas on his mind, but he was also a man with no fixed social position at a time when political earthquakes were constantly sending out premonitory cautionary tremors that made Leonardo shift his professional and political allegiances at the drop of a hat. Leonardo was restless and footloose and eager to make a living wage wherever he could find it. He was often pulled away from his paintings by his desire to make it as a military scientist. 

Whatever the case may be, the exhibition is certainly very successful in having brought together a large number of his masterpieces, the largest ever gathered: eleven out of around fifteen. It’s actually a world record – even Leonardo never saw that many of his greatest paintings reunited. 




In Conversation with Adetokumboh M’Cormack and Raphael Corkhill: Africa, the Power of Storytelling and The German King

Trailer The German King

Adetokumboh M’Cormack (writer/director/actor/producer) and Raphael Corkhill (actor/producer) talk about their lives, the journey to becoming storytellers, role film has to play in changing the narrative of Africa and their upcoming feature film The German King which tells the true, untold story of the Cameroonian king and freedom fighter, Rudolf Duala Manga Bell, who led an uprising on the eve of World War I against Kaiser Wilhelm II’s oppressive colonial rule.

AM: I remember my first play at the age of 3 at the kindergarten back home in Sierra Leone. I was wearing a mask, fell off the stage and couldn’t wait to get back on! But those early experiences were when I fell in love with telling stories, which stayed with me growing up in Nigeria and Kenya before I moved to the US to train professionally as an actor at SUNY Purchase. Now, I love telling stories that show “us” – specifically Africans – in a different light from the negative and stereotypical images we typically see: terrorists, scammers, drug dealers and child soldiers. We are dignified, proud, smart, so many of us are regal, we have a rich history. But the experiences that I have seen on film do not reflect my own experience, and so I really felt the need to tell a different narrative.

RC: I didn’t start acting until after university so you have a headstart there! I did other kinds of performance: I grew up in London and South Wales and was a chorister in the Queen’s personal choir, the Chapel Royal, I played the ‘cello in various orchestras before becoming a professional DJ, which is how I made money while at college at Princeton. But storytelling, specifically through acting, has been a constant presence in my life. Remind me – how did you first learn about King Rudolf?

AM: It was probably just after the fiftieth time I had an audition to play a terrorist. Growing up I saw these amazing stories like Braveheart or Gladiator – all these really amazing heroes… who were white! It seemed that time and again we were being told that our African heroes did not exist of course they existed – we just hadn’t had an opportunity to tell their stories. So I started researching African heroes and thousands of stories came up. I just gravitated to King Rudolf. 

RC: When you first told me about his story it was like you were uncovering layer upon layer of history and heroism. The fact that King Rudolf not only knew Kaiser Wilhelm II personally, but they’d grown up together as young men and been close friends; the fact that their sons also later grew up together in Germany as friends; the fact that King Rudolf’s identity and loyalties are pretty divided as a result of his early experiences all were evidence of this.

AM: You have this Cameroonian prince who grew up in Germany with Wilhelm and was pretty much brainwashed into becoming German – he spoke German, dressed in a German way and felt German to his core. Then he came back to Cameroon to become king after his father passed and started seeing what tyrannical German rule was doing to his people. Subjugated, enslaved, killed. Not just in Cameroon but also in what is now called Namibia – the near extermination of the Nama and Herero peoples. 

We are especially keen to partner with investors who seek who understand the power of underrepresented perspectives to shape and strengthen group identity, cultural richness and social cohesion the world over.

Adetokumboh M’Cormack

RC: The way their relationship is shown in the film also reveals a different side to Kaiser Wilhelm. He was very much the cruel, irrational dictator he is generally presented as. But the story also shows the nuance of his character: the deep love he has for his family, the duty he feels towards Germany. Even the warped sense of betrayal he feels after King Rudolf’s uprising. Ironically, those same factors motivate Rudolf, the main difference of course being that Rudolf’s eyes are wide open, whereas Wilhelm is blinded by his own insecurities. The narrative Wilhelm created for himself was crystal clear in the script and the film asks us to consider our own narratives and prejudices, which can sometimes be buried quite deep.

AM: The more I read about King Rudolf’s life, the more I realized we were so similar. I had a bit of an identity crisis when I came to America and I remember for the first time being called the N-word. I remember turning around being like “who are they talking to?” To realize that I was that N-word that these people were talking about – in their eyes that was how they saw me. It was a really interesting thing to see that as much as I thought of myself in a certain way, at the end of the day, those who hated me because of my skin color or those who didn’t understand me because of my skin color saw me in a completely different light than I saw myself. 

RC: In the same way that an individual can experience a real split between their self-image and the way the rest of the world sees them, so entire regions can experience the same disconnect between the way they see themselves and the way they are characterised throughout the world. The German King seeks to undo that completely. In fact we go through that process with Rudolf as we see him wrestle with his loyalties before coming to the realisation that he must do everything possible, whatever the cost to himself, to fight for justice, and sacrifice his own freedom and wellbeing for that of Cameroon. 

AM: Building on the buzz from our short film, which has now qualified Academy Award consideration, we’re definitely going to dive deeper into the relationship and complexities of the friendship between King Rudolf and Kaiser Wilhelm in the feature-length film. And we’re also going to see some of the other people who were instrumental in bringing about change. The Africans who fought in WWI, and also ones also on the forefront of bringing about the end of German colonial rule within Africa. We start shortly after the Scramble for Africa so you get to understand why the colonial powers were in Africa in the first place.

RC: The script is ready, the budget and schedule are set, and we’re chomping at the bit to start shooting. Of course, to do justice to the story and King Rudolf’s legacy, the film requires financing and we are currently seeking investment. In addition to the drama and intrigue of this epic moment in history, the film will have powerful battle sequences that portray the violent nature of German colonialism and the Cameroonian uprising. We are especially keen to partner with investors who seek to retell the narrative of Africa, who wish to give a platform to minority viewpoints, and who understand the power of underrepresented perspectives to shape and strengthen group identity, cultural richness and social cohesion the world over.


Adetokumboh M’Cormack was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone and began his career as an actor at the age of twelve. With a background in Fine Arts from Purchase College Acting Conservatory in New York, His credits include leading roles in movies like Columbia Pictures’ blockbuster Battle Los Angeles, Blood Diamond alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, and Captain America: Winter Soldier. He has also starred in hit TV shows like Lost, 24 and NCIS and currently voices the character ‘Isaac’ on the Netflix animated tv series Castlevania. Wanting to tell more stories about people underrepresented in mainstream media, M’Cormack also writes, produces and directs. His works include the award winning short film Irish Goodbye and October 96.

Born in the UK, Raphael grew up in London and South Wales. He went to United States to attend Princeton University where he studied history with a focus on colonialism in West Africa after which, winning a full scholarship, he went on to attend drama school at the University of Southern California. Followng this he established himself as a video game voice actor during which time he worked with Adetokumboh. In 2014 Raphael moved to New York to focus on film, television and theatre, playing the role of ‘Hamlet’ in the groundbreaking play United States of Banana by the eminent Puerto Rican writer Giannina Braschi. Raphael’s onscreen work includes The Blacklist (NBC), Happy! (SyFy), The Hunt (Amazon) and, most recently, an acclaimed performance in The Goldfinch (Warner Bros.) alongside Angel Elgort and Nicole Kidman.




Chasing Tedine

Picture Credits: Joe Lodge

There are two types of churches in Italy: the kind that have plastic, sham, charlatan candles, and the kind that have real, waxy candles with thick black wicks. I spent half of my five-week trip to Italy searching for genuine candles, the kind that feel smooth and solid in your hand, like holding part of the actual weight of a soul, only to walk into some of the world’s most important churches – Saint Francis of Assisi’s Basilica and the Duomo in Florence – to hold some battery-powered impersonation. I must admit I wanted to turn my nose up at the knock-off candle, ignore it, move on, and sneer at the spuriousness of it, but I still donated the euro, still plugged that false candle into its electrical slot, still prayed to God for my deceased Grandmother, only to come up short from the visions and memories of her that I so desired.  

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, Tedine Greenwald, was a Cajun queen and a vision of Southern excellence. Traditional to a T, she adorned pearl earrings (clip-ons only, it was a sin to maul the body), lived on the back of a golf course, belonged to the Country Club attached to it, married young and taught Geography at the local high school in Crowley, Louisiana, cooked a homemade dinner for her family every night, and sang swing songs from the sixties in the kitchen while she baked. She was a good, Catholic woman, married to a good, Jewish man. She loved to travel to foreign places, indulge in luxurious, worldly cuisines, and explore historical monuments, always searching for a place where she could see God’s great works in person. To her, man-made beauty was just as important as natural beauty, as all of it was a sign of God in her life. Her Jewish husband, my grandfather, was as good a man as she was a woman, and followed her dutifully into every church, museum, palace, or nature preserve, noting on the artistic value of sculptures and architecture.

Whenever they returned home from another one of their extravagant, romantic, and elegant trips, they always sat my sister and me on their laps and told us about their favourite places: Notre Dame in Paris, the Duomo in Florence, the Basilica in Barcelona – all churches. From this, I learned that religion can never interrupt beauty, whether Catholic or Jewish, you can always appreciate art for being art. My grandmother just especially loved how connected it made her feel to God.  Walking into these cathedrals in Italy, I searched for a connection to my Grandmother. Tedine, or Teddy Jean, or even T.J, as she was known to friends. She was a proud woman, standing at four foot eleven (just like me), the only woman in the family to have musical talent (just like me), a fantastic baker (just like me), and kind to a fault (just like me). She passed away seven years ago, buried in a Catholic graveyard, blessed by a priest for all her good deeds on earth. I’d always dreamt of more time with her, time for her to be proud of the woman I’d become, instead of the sniveling, sensitive young teen I was when she knew me best. Italy was her favourite country; Florence, her favourite city. Cathedrals were her favourite thing to visit, and she’d always light a candle in memoriam of her deceased mother. I’d hoped that by visiting the places she loved most, lighting candles in her honour, I’d find some semblance of a memory of her.

I was spending a month in Spoleto, Italy, studying creative writing and modern representations of medieval times, visiting other ancient cities on the weekends for an immersive, inclusive, artistic experience. In Spoleto, in the first few days, we embarked upon a walking tour of the city that led us to the main Basilica, only to be sped through without a moment to look for candles to light for her. We made our way through central Italian mountain towns, Gubbio, Assisi, only to find that the candles there were as plastic as the Barbie toys she’d given me to play with when I was younger. I’d walk into these magnificent cathedrals, plagued by visions of her, only to have them extinguish under artificial light. I would plug in one of these imposter candles, cold and hollow in my palm, into a designated slot and watch the battery power up the little dot of lustrous electricity. If I focused on this glow enough, I could see her, sitting by the Meyer lemon tree, on a wrought iron chair, the French style: winds and twists of metal in fleur de lis and spirals, rosettes and diamonds, on a pale stone patio, her hands folded peacefully in her lap. She would smile and call me forward, a child to sit in her lap. This image was only found in the luminosity of a Romanesque candle, extinguished when the battery ran out. Maybe real candles are too dangerous for the frescos in the Capellas, or too expensive for the piety of the Church. My visions seem more of an imaginative exercise and less of a concrete memory in the artificial luminescence of battery-powered plastic candle, like a Meyer lemon grown in a lab, chemicals and pesticides, not like the kind in my grandmother’s garden. 

Every cathedral holds a tomb for her final resting place in my mind. Every basilica a step closer to Heaven, to finding that good Catholic woman’s graces and spirit. Every candle I switch on an attempt to light a memory of her. How can I reach the dead after death? How do I become closer to my blood, the blood of mine which has already left this bodily earth? I can’t touch the soft, freckled body of my grandmother anymore; I haven’t touched her in seven years. I can only attempt to recreate the glow of her soul, this desire sprung through these on-off switches of candles. I want more than the earthly remnants of the traditions she’s left behind. I can plug in a million candles, and never have enough memory of her. I can go to Cathedrals all across Italy, slide them into a designated slot, but electricity doesn’t run up to Heaven. I assumed the problem was the artificiality of the candles, that if I had a real candle with a real flame, one that produced warmth and happiness, I could somehow summon my grandmother – maybe through a flood of forgotten memories, or even that I could interact with her heavenly presence. I thought that a real flame would serve as a gateway and she would come through to me.

I finally found a real wax candle for her in Ravenna, at the Chapel of Saint Andrea. A city she’d never been to while she lived, yet the kind she would have adored, filled with history and meaning and beautiful mosaics from the 500s AD. The church was grand, expansive, rebuilt in the 1700s after a failed restoration attempt left it crumbling, so it wasn’t as baroque or gothic as other medieval churches I’d seen in Italy. It was larger, more grandiose, with huge marble pillars, ample amount of light, with capellas dedicated to more modern popes and saints. It didn’t smell musty and dark as the older ones did, but cleaner, brighter, crisper, almost floral, like a banquet hall in a palace lined with fresh daisies. Upon walking through huge wooden doors, I gasped, zoning in on the tiny, wobbling flames in the distance. I walked all around the massive church, finding the perfect altar to summon Tedine. I prayed sacred prayers, watching them float up to Heaven in the lucid, transparent smoke. 

She was never made more real to me. I still cried at night. I did all the right things in my quest for her – I came to Italy. I ate her food. I drank her wine. Did what she would have loved. Lit candles to her memory, beckoning her spirit back from Heaven. I listened to other’s ridicule. I engaged in their celestial debates, asking “is Heaven even real?” and “Does God even exist?”. I stood idly by while they jested at Holy altars. Shrank at their sneers when I plugged in the plastic candles for her. Observed silently as they laughed at praying nuns, called out the hypocrisy of the church, and turned their eyes away from images of Jesus. I said nothing, just silently prayed to Tedine. I don’t care if they don’t believe that I can reach her, reach God, reach anybody after we die. Science is often proved wrong. We are more than dust floating endlessly in a never-ending universe. Matter cannot be created or destroyed, after all. 

 And in Ravenna, when I paid that one-euro coin for a real, wax candle for her, held it to a flame, and carefully placed it in front of Mary Magdalene’s image, still she sat in front of the lemon tree – a memory. I wanted her presently, I wanted her in front of me, I wanted divine presence preaching love – Saint Tedine, are you out there? 

Some miracles are harder to spot than others. 

To be a saint, you have to have lived a Godly life, been loved by all, and performed miracles before and after death.  Theodora, my all-time favorite historical figure, who I’d come to Ravenna to see her holy mosaic, was never officially named a saint. In her mosaic, she was depicted with a halo, which was sacrilegious since she wasn’t (and still isn’t) a saint. Her people just loved her so, so much. But apparently instilling religious freedom throughout your entire empire and starting the first ever shelter for abused women and children isn’t a miracle, just an act of goodness. Theodora was a woman I always connected to, since hearing about her in my eighth grade history class. She was a young girl in the Byzantine empire, an “actress” (she was a nude dancer). She caught the eye of the emperor, Justinian, and charmed her way into his heart. Her wisdom was recognized instantly by him, and she sat on the head of his advisory council. She wasn’t just a pretty face – she was powerful, inspiring, and dedicated to improving the lives of people in her empire, especially women. My friends and I even formed a girl band named “Theodora”, to recognize her supreme girl-power-ness. My trip to Ravenna was more of a pilgrimage, a religious experience to see the portrait of this non-saint. Her image was glorious, divine, sanctified, and moving. This byzantine woman, adored by all, was adorned in colorful stones – tawny, ember, shamrock green, and dandelion gold. She was embellished with a highly decorated cape, wearing a beaded headpiece, golden slippers, and a bejeweled collar. And, she had the halo, the recognition of her miracles, whether the Catholic Church saw it that way or not, her people did. I saw her that way as well – I left the basilica with salty, wet tears streaking through my makeup, wiping at them frivolously, awestruck. 

Tedine may not be a Saint according to the Catholic Church either, but she is in my eyes. She was the best Catholic I’d ever known. She’s the reason I have a medal of St. Christopher in my car, even though I’m not actually a practicing Catholic. Everyone who ever met her loved her. To me, her life alone was a miracle, the family she created, my family, was a miracle. And after death, she inspires me every day to be a woman who she would be proud of, instead of the mediocre thing I was before her death. Isn’t that a miracle? Isn’t her impact alone a miracle? I wanted Saint Tedine to perform another miracle, to come to me after her death. I saw her once: three summers after she died. Tedine was an artist, several of her pieces hang on the wall of the study in my house. I was staring at one, a still life, a pastel-painted vase of flowers, violets and pink peonies and pale baby’s breath. The room caved inwards, the walls surrounding the painted turned plain and white, and the painting shone with the kind of divine rays of sunlight that depict Jesus in paintings. The room felt warm – like the flame of a candle. I found her here, in her artwork, and I haven’t stopped looking for this feeling, this otherworldly visitation by her spirit.

I don’t understand how to find her. Not in Florence, her favorite place in the world, or Ravenna, the city she would have loved more than Florence had she ever got a chance to visit, or in Crowley, her hometown, or in the pictures of her or the pictures of the Saints she gave to me. I chase the memory of Tedine across the globe, donating coin to her, lighting candles for her, only to come up short in visions of her. Every day, I live for her memory, trying to accomplish what she would have been proud of. I know she’d be proud of where I am now, I’ve become more of the kind, caring, intelligent, and strong woman that my grandmother was. I become more like her, and I seek her closeness as I find more of her in myself.

 My grandmother loved to read. I wonder if they read essays in Heaven. 




Her Misfortunes

My mother has never been much of a cook, though I remember once when I was seven and we lived in Tufnell Park she baked a delicious bread and butter pudding and she also made ketchup because we ran out. I was very impressed that we could make our own ketchup. Apart from this my mother did have one life-long culinary triumph—dosai, a food from ‘back home’, as she always called it, by which she meant Tamil Nadu, in India. These days, nearly four decades on, she doesn’t cook at all, other than stirring ready-packed store-chopped vegetables in a pot and eating that with toasted rye bread. Sometimes she pours V8 vegetable juice out of a carton, puts black pepper in it, and calls it soup.

One day she called me to say she’d found a large tub of rice while she was rooting through her kitchen cupboards. The kitchen, like the rest of her house is filled with multifarious clutter, but as she neither cooks nor has dinner guests, it is particularly difficult to understand the large collection of implements in this room. There are drawers overflowing with plate sets, mugs, cutlery and saucepans, chapatti tawas and empty jam jars, glass blenders and large traditional stone grinders electrified for the modern Indian cook. She throws nothing away, and everything she owns comes in multiples.

The rice she found she wouldn’t throw away either, though it had probably sat in its clear plastic tub for some years. She had said she shouldn’t eat rice, because it’s bad for her diabetes. But rice is also one of the three key ingredients ground together to make dosai batter (which is then spread in circular motions on a hot griddle like a pancake). She said if she didn’t use it, weevils would form in them, out of the rice dust. ‘Back home’ she would have spread the stale grains out in the sun, to kill any tiny interlopers, but in London it was winter, and there was no sun. The Wikipedia entry for spontaneous generation, or the formation of living things from non-living matter (like dust), asserts this is an obsolete idea. It may have vanished from science three-hundred and fifty years ago, but it is still as real to my mother as it was to Anaximander in the sixth century BC.

There were probably two other reasons she decided to grind that rice into a batter that day. One was that she could never turn down a dosai, despite her diabetes; the second, perhaps, that the prospect of our favourite meal would assure an extra visit from me, and with me her only grandchild, my teenage daughter, who is increasingly disinterested in spending time with adults. My mother is lonely though she says she is not. I have long thought it paradoxical that though she seems to enjoy being social, she has never made any effort to socialise. That was okay when she used to go out to work. These days, the only people she speaks to with any regularity is the Sikh shopkeeper who sells her rye bread (in Hindi), the staff at a South Indian supermarket, where she buys mango and ginger pickles (in Tamil), her doctor’s receptionist (because of the endless medical tests of one sort of the other), and my brother (both in English). My brother has lived with her since she had her heart attack.

In the three years in which she has been retired and, ostensibly, convalescing, my brother has been becoming increasingly angry with her. “Abusive”, she says, “so I might as well not tell him anything”. My brother is by nature a gentle soul, who I know would have to be pushed to the limit before he’d get close to what could be called abusive, if at all. I worked out that my mother was being cruel to him; and by return, he snapped at her. I don’t want to doubt her word, but the things she says are becoming increasingly inexplicable. One night she emailed me to say he wouldn’t let her eat diabetic jam, because it was made of fruits; and that when she had made falafels (from the freezer; in an air fryer), he’d “run into the kitchen like a monkey and snatched them from my plate.” He said she’d offered him some. “I can’t take this crap anymore”, he told me.

A few months before all this started happening, my mother had performed badly on a memory test the hospital had given her, and then a follow-up scan said her brain showed degeneration that looked like Alzheimer’s disease. I spoke to friends whose parents had various forms of dementia. For some of them, their behaviours had changed, almost as if whatever it is that reins us in from talking or acting inappropriately had been overridden, such functions lost in amongst the disintegrating quanta of our brains. One friend said she was now keeping her father away from her young nieces, because he started to talk to them suggestively. A work colleague whose parents came from Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province told me her forgetful father was essentially kept in a stupor by her mother, who claimed she couldn’t read English, but knew well what doses of medication she was giving him. “When he’s ‘with it’ he’s bloody nasty to her, mate”, my colleague said. “It’s calmer when he’s sleepy.” 

The root of the word ‘dementia’ is the Latin demens, which means ‘out of one’s mind’, but also sounds a bit like ‘demons’. I’d always thought of it simply as a state of forgetfulness, because ‘dementia’ makes me think of the Italian dementicare, which just means ‘to forget’. I had no idea dementia could do these other things too, so I called my brother and asked him to speak kindly to our mother. “Like you would a child”, I said, “because, I don’t think she can help it”. When on three separate occasions over the course of one week she’d called to say my brother had started returning home very late from work (“he said he’s going to some kind of therapist, but what therapist would he go to so late at night?”)—I wondered if this was his attempt to gain some respite from her jibes, and from repeating himself ad infinitum. He’d apparently stopped telling her where he was going after work because he says she’d only forget, so he didn’t see the point.  I could see how this would offend her —my mother has always been quick to take offence—but I also imagined her suspicions were being augmented by the formulaic Indian soap operas she watches, on her own, for most of the day. Some are about Hindu gods and demons, others are contemporary stories. In either, in-laws are cruel, hearts are broken, murders are plotted, family wars are waged, children abandoned, and property fraudulently changes hands. Laboured monologues of woe are captured from several camera angles. All this my mother finds endlessly captivating.

***

When my mother was a small child, back in South India, her mother hired a maid who helped with her, and her younger three siblings (two toddlers and a babe in arms), and sometimes her seven older siblings too. There might have been two more children in the maid’s charge, but they had died in infancy by then, early pregnancies of my newly-wed grandmother, when she was just thirteen, and my grandfather was twenty-six. This maid used to comb my mother’s hair, smothering it in coconut oil and pulling it taut into plaits with ribbons interwoven into the ends. The ribbons would be used to loop the plaits and fix them with a bow near the nape of her neck. My mother called the style ‘bus handles’. My mother was always striking to look at—first cute, then beautiful, with bee stung lips, worried hazel eyes (the size and shape of a Slow Loris’), and a neck as fine as a ballerina’s. Despite her cuteness, her maid was cruel to her. If my mother fidgeted she’d hit her hard on the head with the comb, or with her knuckles. My mother told this story when my brother read maths at university, when I took advanced maths at school, and recently again, when my daughter did the same. Each has been an opportunity for her to tell us that it was those knocks to the head that were the reason she was never any good at maths. She studied humanities and became a librarian. It was my father who paid for her library science degree. He would be responsible for far more serious head injuries that she was to sustain over the years of her marriage to him. Once, when I was ten and watching TV I heard her call to me from the garden. I can’t remember what I was watching, but I didn’t respond. When I saw her a few minutes later, she was sitting at the edge of the bed in the room in which my cousin was staying. My cousin was a nurse. This was lucky, because my mother’s forehead was dripping with blood from a gash that would need seven stitches. My father had hit her with the metal end of a hose-pipe. I think she had asked him for a post-box to be attached to our gate, because letters had been going missing. He didn’t want a post box. I am not sure where my father was at that point. At times like those he usually went somewhere to cry bitterly. She’d never really tried to leave him, which I always found surprising, except when I was two and she swallowed a lot of paracetamol and her stomach had to be pumped. It had been a momentous decision to marry him, a decision that meant she’d had to follow him—first to London, and then to his native Trinidad. She’d had to leave her family back home: her father who wanted her to marry her first cousin when she was sixteen (her sister married his brother); her perpetually sad mother, to whom she couldn’t bring herself to say goodbye; a younger sister, whose marriage prospects my mother all but ruined by dishonouring her family in this way; and an older brother, who had epilepsy, and who helped her escape. When she finally went back home five years later, she took pleasure and delight in impressing her father with the wit of my four-year-old brother. He was a funny, clever, Slow Loris-eyed boy with an easy buck-toothed grin and a mop of curly black hair. Importantly, he could recite the adventures of Hindu gods and goddesses—proof that she had raised him well despite marrying badly. I was with them too, a two-year old in red corduroy bell-bottomed dungarees, according to the photos she took on her 110 film cartridges.

That little girl was the child my father wanted —not me, in particular, but specifically not a son. He’d wanted a first-born to be a girl. I don’t remember a huge amount about him, but I know that had been his dream, so much so that he had even chosen for his unborn child, this daughter, the name Sapna. It was a Hindi word, meaning ‘dream’, which was derived from Sanskrit but which had older Proto-Indo-Iranian roots, so that Swapnas, the proto-Indo-European became the Old English Sweven; likened to Somnus, in Latin, and Hypnos, in Greek. Perhaps my father would have gotten angry even if his dream had come true, it’s hard to tell, but he was angry at my brother, and he was angry at my mother (and when in 1974 he became really angry and threw my brother across a room, when he was not quite two, it was two years too soon for the Act against domestic violence to be enforced). But with the exception of my tenth birthday, which he ignored, he loved me, the dream daughter, to the point of extreme calmness, of rare sanity. 

Still, when we were a little older, living on his island now, I defended my mother as much as my brother did, though we did so in different ways. One day, during another senseless altercation, my mother fought back, which shocked my father. I chased him from her—around the garden, past the mango and papaya trees, through the scotch bonnet pepper plants and pumpkins and avocados, and all the way swinging a machete that was bigger than I was. This must have shocked him even more. When I caught up with him, I remember nicking his back. At that place, his black skin opened in a diagonal, fading to pure white, before the wet redness slowly seeped though. A wound in the colours of the Trinidadian flag. A mark of my loyalty to my mother, if not to my new country. I can’t remember what happened after that. I think I ran. But I still don’t think he got angry at me. My brother’s main defence of my mother would be to move her away from my father some years later, with the excuse that he wanted to go to back to London, to study mathematics at university there. My mother and I went with him. My father cried bitterly. He cried often.

***

I have only ever seen my mother cry once. It wasn’t when she was attacked; or when she took the overdose. It wasn’t even when her mother died—then, she pragmatically bid my brother and I goodbye, and boarded the plane that took her the nine-thousand miles to my grandmother’s cremation. The only tears I had ever seen her shed was the day my father died, when I was fifteen, and he was fifty-seven. My mother was forty-four. Before she’d refused an arranged marriage, the astrologers who cast her horoscope declared that her planets were misaligned. Whoever she married, they said, would die before his time. She’d never had a relationship before my father, nor since. After he died, increasingly, she kept herself to herself. 

In his memoir, Istanbul, Orhan Parmuk wrote of his mother that ‘her misfortunes had forced her to mount a sustained defensive posture in the face of society’. I found myself drawn to that line, and kept coming back to it, because it seemed so perfectly to encapsulate too the roots of my mother’s derisions and delights; the way she refused to truly be a part of any of the societies in which she lived, especially the one she had been born into. I often joke, though I don’t really find it amusing, that I have the only Asian mother who doesn’t cook. But my mother has always flaunted those things that marked her as different. She did so since she refused arranged marriages on ethical grounds (“Why should I be on the cattle market?”); and then through the four migrations between three continents she would later make. It was the young boy in Archway who spat at her (and called her Paki) in 1973 who inspired her to ditch trousers in favour of her native sari, which she wore always, henceforth. Her defensive posture in the face of all societies was the reason she would never, ever admit she didn’t know the answer to a question (unless it was a mathematical one). It is probably the reason she isolates herself still, and lives instead through the calculable vicissitudes of predictable soap operas; or better, the tales of gods and demons in which victory for the righteous is assured, and the wicked are punished—snared, ultimately in karmic traps of their own making. 

The last time I visited my mother it was my birthday. She had asked me what I wanted the week before, but on the day, I think she forgot. She and my brother argued while he made his breakfast, and he left, saying he was going out for a walk. My mother and I spent the day together, drank strong south Indian coffee (but ate no dosai, because batter had gone wrong). We talked about uncles and aunts back home, and got stuck in traffic while we drove to the local recycling centre—my attempt at encouraging her to clear some of her clutter. From the passenger seat, she stared at the car’s clock radio, registered the date, and asked if it was correct. I told her it was. She still didn’t wish me a happy birthday, but she did remind me that I was born very early in the morning. “You came out much faster than your brother”, she said. “He struggled a lot.” 

It affected me deeply that she may not have remembered the date, the day I was born, though I was aware I should expect it. Late that afternoon, as I was leaving her house, I asked her if she knew it was my birthday. I needed to know, and I hoped it didn’t sound accusatory. “I know”, she replied quickly, determinedly. She walked up to me and kissed me, and then asked me to wait, while she rushed upstairs saying there was something she’d ordered online. She’d been internet shopping by mistake, of late, so that unopened Amazon boxes now added new cardboard clutter, dotted around the house. When she came downstairs my mother was holding a bracelet still in its wrapping (“I thought I’d ordered something else, but you might like it…”). I don’t know what she thought she was ordering, but arranged on an adjustable string were beads in the shape of stars and a series of spheres, each decorated in the colours of the eight planets. In the centre was the largest bead, painted crepuscular yellow like the sun at last light.




Ugly in yellow: Memory as fallible

Picture Credits: Holly Lay

There is a vivid mundanity to the remembered details of a childhood interspersed with abuse. 

I can picture myself put back into the body of my twelve-year-old self, my back against my mother’s pearl Mazda in a Macy’s parking lot in Lewiston, Idaho during a break at my brother’s basketball tournaments. I can feel the scratch of the seats sitting next to her in the same car, my childhood best friend seated in the backseat, the shadows rapidly passing through the trees onto our faces.

Both of those memories end with a fist, or an open hand, once or twice or five times against my temple, against my chest. If I start to think about it, it all blurs together: suddenly I can feel a kind of phantom body, an overwhelming but distant feeling of her hands pulling my hair out from the roots, pushing me against a doorway, wiping my panicking and tearful face with the back of her hand.

***

I struggle with how to depict trauma without inciting pity or disbelief. I think of reading a review of Joan Didion’s “A Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights,” books about the deaths of her husband and daughter, respectively. The reviewer had the audacity to call Didion self-indulgent, quibbled over her addition of details she couldn’t be entirely sure happened. I was struck with the thought that this reviewer could not possibly know the confusion and pain that comes with remembering the difficult, could not understand the need for artists especially to make their memories concrete somehow. I think of Didion in her Upper East Side apartment, imagine the urgency she must have felt, the need to get it right.

When I recall specific incidents of violence or emotional abuse from my life, I am never entirely sure that I have all the details correct. Was it Autumn the day my mother hit me in the Macy’s parking lot? Did I say something to spur her? Was I actually 12, or perhaps 11, or 14? I don’t know. I won’t ever know. What is memory in the mind of a person who experiences a trauma? It is a double exposure, an imprinting of feelings over facts. It is fading and blurred over by time. It hides, as emotional memories do, behind the eyes, in the almond-shaped set of neurons we call the amygdala. 

***

I do know what started the fight in that parking lot: a yellow dress. I walked out of the dressing room, and my mother remarked that I looked ugly in yellow because of my pale, milk-like skin tone, that perhaps we should buy it for my friend Emily whose skin was tinted olive. I remember being upset, remember a feeling of emptiness, remember walking out of the store empty-handed, remember what happened when we got to the car.

I remember all these details, but I am sure of none of them. I know I didn’t wear yellow again until I was 18, that the mustard yellow jacket I finally bought was a kind of revolutionary act. I know that when I brought it up, my mother had no recollection of that day, however many years ago. And so memory remains fallible, by nature unvalidated. 

Understanding memory as a kind of fickle beast seems like it wouldn’t be comforting, but oddly enough, it is.

Since 2013, scientists who research memory have come to an understanding that recalling a memory changes it, that our memories are not stagnant. Neuroscientist Daniela Schiller is an expert in this area, her desire to solve the “problem” of painful, hindering memories tied to her father’s unwillingness to speak about his experience as a Holocaust survivor. In an interview with The New Yorker, she said that she believes memory is “what you are now, not what you think you were in the past. When you change the story you created, you change your life. I created the story and brought these memories together, and now my past is different from the past I had before.

***

The past I had before was one wherein I didn’t understand the many moving parts of a legacy of generational violence. I couldn’t see, when I was a child, my mother as a person. I don’t remember how I thought about it then, my current understanding of the legacy of violence in my family tinting the memory, imbuing it with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how older generations pass things on.

I no longer have the mustard yellow jacket that meant so much to me, that represented a belief in my own beauty, and in my own memory of being made to feel ugly, that didn’t need to be validated. And I still feel incredibly jealous of people who are able to recall childhood memories without fear, and of people who know what it is like to experience a mother’s unconditional love.

What is most different now is this: I am content to live in the details I do remember, and I am not scared of the idea that they might be fashioned by my brain as a defense against fear. My memories are fallible, yes—they are undoubtedly human.

I colour in my own humanity with the memories I recreate as my current self, not the child I was. I create the story.




Book Review: Map of Another Town, by M.F.K. Fisher

Best known for her food writing, in Map of Another Town the American writer M.F.K. Fisher takes us on a virtual tour of the French town of Aix-en-Provence. She first moved there not long after the Second World War, taking her two young daughters with her, and this book covers two periods of the family living in Aix.

Fisher
covers many aspects of living in Aix and paints a vivid portrait of the town
and its inhabitants. We meet various people, from her inimitable landlady
Madame Lanes and her head servant Fernande, to the stately waiter Ange, who
works at The Glacier where Fisher and her children often eat. Mary and Anne,
her daughters, are ever present in the book and we see them growing up through
the two periods of residence, which took place some years apart. When the
Fisher family first moved to Aix the effects of the Second World War were still
being keenly felt, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the townspeople.

Describing
Madame Lanes, she writes: “She was on guard when I first knew her, wary but
conscious of the fact that she had survived the Occupation (which was really
three: German, then Italian, then American) and had escaped trouble in sprite
of being such a staunch worker on the Underground for all of its duration. She
was remote and hard … When I saw her next, in 1959, she was younger. A year
later she was younger still.”

The
book is structured into twenty chapters, each of which concentrates on a
particular theme, such as the lively main street in the town, or the two cafés
that Fisher and her daughters frequent. Most chapters are subsequently split
into three or four shorter essays, all loosely linked by the chapter’s theme. I
really like the way the book is structured. The reader is taken back and forth
through time, and is able to wander around the town with certain characters
crossing our paths time and again, like old friends. One minute you are
wandering down the Cours Mirabeau listening to the great fountains, the next
you might be stepping down carefully down the narrow, slightly eerie Passage
Agard, where the daughters think they are being haunted by a gypsy woman.

Regular
readers of Fisher’s work will be used to her delectable food writing and there
are some delightful flashes of it in Map
of Another Town
– she can make even the simplest ham baguette sound
absolutely delicious. Describing one of the great pastry shops in the town, she
writes: “the shop always smelled right, not confused and stuffy but delicately
layered: fresh eggs, fresh sweet butter, grated nutmeg, vanilla beans, old kirsch,
newly ground almonds…” If I close my eyes, I am transported into that bakery
and I can smell it.

What really works for me in this book isn’t just Fisher’s writing (full disclosure: I was already a big fan of hers) but the way she takes us off the beaten track and away from the tourist attractions, really introducing us to the life and the heartbeat of the place. We meet doctors, tramps, priests, neighbours, students, shop owners and more, all of whom are described with intimacy and in Fisher’s trademark style. I have never been to Aix but after reading Fisher’s descriptions and after tracing her own personal map around the city, I would love to visit there myself and seek out some of these places – and ultimately create my own map of this town.

Map of Another Town is out now from Daunt Books.




A Minute with Zack de la Rocha

Picture Credits: Alexis Gravel

On
the day I met Zack de la Rocha, I made a conscious choice not to be tear-gassed.
Some people were tear-gassed that
day, the anarchists and hard cases who showed up in DC with actual battle plans
and gasmasks slung over their shoulders. They were down the block on F Street
taunting the police at the barricades. I was on E Street, on a more
domesticated path, walking in a slow, orderly parade of 30,000 demonstrators
who were trying without much success to muck up a big meeting of the World Bank and International
Monetary Fund.

That day – April
16, 2000 – would be remembered as “A16” in the annals of the anti-globalization
movement. I had driven to DC from New Jersey the night before with Jake, a
journalist friend. We stayed in a Holiday Inn downtown, and in the morning, we
walked over to the Mall, jumping into the demonstration at 10th Street. The
march was already underway, a big slow-moving parade headed down E Street.

Already
this protest didn’t feel like others I had attended. There was an edge to it, a
whiff of violence and unhinged possibility. In those days, the style of Leftist
street protest was carnivalesque – a potent form of edgy performance art
that was part block party, part Mardi Gras, part Red Brigade street action. At
the center, you would find a peaceful street festival with giant puppets, drum
circles, and floats, but around the fringes, the anarchists and hardcore
revolutionaries were prowling, searching for weaknesses in the State’s armor.
Often the boundaries between these two demonstrations were fluid, but on this
day, the organizers had managed to literally channel them down different,
parallel streets. The street party followed the police-approved parade route on
E Street, pulling most of the demonstrators behind it in tow, but one block
away on F Street, where the barricades were actually set up, the anarchists
were fighting a running battle with the police.

If
you had asked me that day in Washington why I was there, I would have shared a
few David-and-Goliath stories about Indonesian labor organizers and Central
American campesinos standing up to global corporations. Like many American
liberals after the Berlin Wall fell, I was finally waking up to the great
circuit board of connections linking me to people throughout the world.
Globalization was forcing liberals like me for the first time to stare down the
long supply chains that stretch from our supermarkets and big box stores back
into steamy tin-roofed places where children work fourteen hours a day in a
textile mill and labor organizers end up in a ditch with their throats cut.

I
glanced over to the left, and there was the lead singer of Rage Against the
Machine, the poet revolutionary of ’90s rock music, walking abreast of us in
the crowd. In my wildest fantasy of meeting Zack de la Rocha, I could not have
pictured this more perfectly.

I am of that
generation that cares about authenticity in popular music. As a proud son of
New Jersey, I had grown up on apocryphal stories about Bruce Springsteen
materializing in the crowd at some honkytonk bar in Arizona and then jumping up
on the stage to play with the house band. At a U2 concert in the mid-’80s, I
had cheered as the band brought a teenage boy out of the audience, strapped a
guitar around his neck, and let him play along to their cover of Dylan’s
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” To see Zack de la Rocha on the street in a hoodie
marching against global capitalism – just one of the proletariat – confirmed
everything I believed about the power and potential of rock music.

He was so close I
could reach out an touch him.

At that stage of
my life, I could count the celebrities I had met on one hand, so in my naïveté,
I formulated a plan that in retrospect was quite silly: We would pretend not to
know who he was, start up a conversation, and then hang out with him all day.
But before I could say a word, Jake was pushing up to Zack to ask for his
autograph.

The moment was
spoiled, of course. In the end, despite the hoodie and the prince-and-the-pauper
routine, Zack de la Rocha was a rockstar and we were fans, and no amount of
political solidarity could erase the uncomfortable wall separating us. He
quickly scribbled his autograph and then disappeared into the crowd without
uttering a single politically significant word.

*

Seventeen
years later, I am watching a YouTube clip of Rage Against the
Machine’s first public performance, in an outdoor pavilion on the campus of California State University on October
23, 1991. There they are, fresh from the womb and already a perfectly formed
rock band. Zack is bolting around the stage like a pinball in play, wearing a
long-sleeved sweatshirt. Tom Morello leans into his blistering guitar riffs.
Students and teachers are walking past the stationary camera, mostly ignoring
the band, but a few students are facing the stage, obviously aware that
something epic is popping off in front of them. For everyone else, it’s just another
day on the quad.

In the mid-’90s,
I thought that rock music was wildly incongruent with the zeitgeist, so I was –
and continue to be – mystified by the mass appeal of Rage Against the Machine. There
we were, in the midst of unprecedented prosperity and a genuine technological
revolution, but our popular music was awash in angst and suffering and
impotence. Whatever the mass psychology underlying the “nu metal” movement,
Rage was trying to both harness its political potential and monetize it for consumer consumption. Their very existence in popular
music seemed unsustainable to me.

Rage was always
overestimating the political commitment of its audience. You can hear it in
Zack’s rhetoric in the 1990s, in his tendency to regard his fans as an untapped
ocean of radical political energy. “We’re not going to play to the [mainstream]; we’re going to
hijack it,” said De la Rocha, in a 1997 Rolling
Stone
article. “The tour is going to incorporate everything which the rich,
wealthy classes in America fear and despise. Each of the 20,000 people in the
audience will be reminded of their independent political power.”

Did he actually
believe that effective political action could cohere in a mosh pit? He seems
unaware (though how could he be?) that many of the kids who bought tickets to see
Rage and other nu metal bands in the ’90s were on a more visceral trip. This
was made obvious to the world in July of 1999 when the Woodstock ’99 concert
ended in a flaming riot. Earlier that day, Rage played a “blistering” set and
lit an American flag ablaze. At the end of the concert, the mostly male
concert-goers torched big piles of garbage and trashed the place. Some women
were raped in the ensuing melee. People were beaten up. The police were called
in to restore order.

Rage could never
escape the marrow-deep contradictions of its devil’s bargain with Big Music. It
didn’t matter how stridently they campaigned for justice for Leonard Peltier or
Mumia Abu-Jamal in between songs, they would always be the band for upper middle
class white kids who fretted over their sweatshop t-shirts and Nikes. The money
from millions of record sales would always flow out of that sea of disposable
income from the most privileged and affluent society in human history. There
would always be Rage fans who grabbed ass and kicked ass at their concerts, whose
politics were smashy smashy.

After I finish
watching the video, my wife reminds me that it’s Monday – Trash and Recycling
Day. I sort of drift out of the house on autopilot, and before I realize it, I
am standing on the curb in brown crocs and blue-and-white-checkered pajama
bottoms holding the blue recycling bin in both
hands. In the moonless dark, the cul-de-sac looks like an ancient Stonehenge
circled by giant stone monoliths, a place of solemn ritual. I am deep in the
priesthood now, with my Ph.D. in English and my academic career and my slouchy
dad bod, and my eight-year-old daughter asleep in the house behind me – a life
like the one my parents had, but with a lot more plastic crap and stress.

I am thinking,
what was it about that period from 1999 to 2001 that so captivated my sense of
idealism? Why was I, at 34 years old, marching with anarchists and Guatemalan
campesinos and the Socialists Workers Party?

It is difficult
for me to resurrect the feeling I had on that day. The early 2000s have already
sunk into a hazy miasma, in part because 9/11 so decisively divided my sense of
personal history into before and after. Ideology decompiles our
experience of time and then reassembles it according to new hierarchies of
importance. From somewhere, I learned that whatever we were anxious about before – Y2K, the Dot.com bubble
bursting, Saddam Hussein, the thoroughly fucked-up 2000 election, the Battle in
Seattle – all of this was trivial when measured against the shadow of those
falling towers and what happened after.
I do remember believing that we could make a crack in the endless dream of
consumer capitalism. I remember being gripped by a persistent uneasiness. I
knew something was wrong with the world, but I couldn’t quite name it yet.

And here I am, nearly
twenty years later, standing at the curb, still wracked by the same anxieties.

In quiet moments
like these, the angels of my repressed desires step forward out of the
darkness. Sometimes it is Tyler Durden, who wants to whisper prophecies in my
ear:

“In
the world I see – you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around
the ruins of Rockefeller Center,” he says. “You’’ll wear leather clothes
that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu
vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you’ll see tiny
figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of
some abandoned superhighway.”

This
is what happened to
some of us, the last-wave Boomers and first-wave Gen Xers who only
halfheartedly embraced the lifestyle our parents bequeathed to us; who moved to
the suburbs with our irony still intact; who somewhat reluctantly took jobs
inside the vast interlinked bureaucracies of corporate-academic-government
power; who feel aggrieved by our rampant consumerism and tormented by our long
commutes; whose true politics are still formless, still without a name or a
party; who now find ourselves struggling to recall lines from late-’90s cinema
in the dark to find metaphors for our lives. We fell asleep, but only halfway,
and we keep trying to wake up.

Sometimes it is
Morpheus, in his beautiful black trench coat and those cool stemless
sunglasses:

“You take the
blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you
want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland, and I show you
how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Do I really want
to know how deep the rabbit hole goes? Somewhat. Yes. I want to know.

Our fathers dreamed
about being John Wayne and Neil Armstrong, but we fantasize about tearing down
the system, or what it will be like after it falls on its own. For us,
patriotism is dead, eviscerated by the zombie apocalypse. It’s all dystopian
downhill from here. Post Skynet. It’s as if we are stuck inside of a
never-ending fracture, like a windshield struck by a big rock – after Watts,
after ’68, after Watergate, after the fall of Saigon, after the Great
Recession, after the never-ending culture wars and the never-ending War on
Terror, after the city-busting hurricanes and each heart-wrenching school
shooting. The web of tiny fractures grows and grows.

Sometimes it is
Zack de la Rocha, performing in front of a choir of angels, if angels singing
sounded like a chainsaw cutting through sheet metal.

Tonight it is
Neo, who flies stealthily out of the darkness like Superman and is suddenly
standing there in the cul-de-sac, dropped from the sky. He has a message for me:

“I didn’t come
here to tell you how it will end,” he says. “I came here to tell you how it
will begin.”

Despite everything I know – despite all of the
compromises I’ve made along the way – I still so badly want to know how it will
begin.




Some Sunken Cities

Picture Credits: Michael Gaida

On the train to New Orleans an Amish couple, Esther and Ray from Ohio, say they are going on west to El Paso and a shuttle bus to a Mexican clinic. Low-cost cancer cure for Esther using cyanide from apricot pits.

Train horn signals (= indicates long horn, O short horn)
= Train stopped.

Esther and Ray
tell a story: they were in a friend’s car and he hit a deer. The airbag hit Ray’s
face. The patrolman took them to a motel. It was called The Dead Deer Lodge.
Their guests all came from deer collisions. They had a tea and aroma therapy
lounge for PTSD. The sign had a deer in a casket.

= = Train releasing brakes and proceeding.

In the observation
car a slender young woman with glasses who looks like a middle-class college
student tells the stranger next to her that she knows he isn’t a criminal,
because all her brothers have been in prison or killed someone or run drugs.
That’s what she’s doing now, on the train, for her boyfriend. You could come in
on it if you want. But I see you’ve got something going there, she says to the
guy, looking down at his crotch. I’ve got a condom if you just want to go in
the bathroom and do it.

OOOO Request signal, or give signal.

When they return
one of the porters approaches them. I had my twenty dollars of tips on the
table back there, he said. The money is gone. You’re the only people who have
walked through there.

OOO Train stopped, is backing up.

She says, are you
saying we took your money?

The porter says,
yes.

= = O = Approaching a public crossing.

Later, when the
train can’t continue due to flooding, the bus driver says her first husband
killed himself drinking cyanide from a coke bottle. She says “SIGH-nied” and
drives with two fingers while texting and drinking coke over the twenty-four-mile
Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, longest continuous, she says, veering a little to
point out a gator slumbering under a green mold trestle. She wears Elvis wraparound
shades with rhinestone crosses on the sides and takes two unscheduled vape-breaks
to selfie with passengers, feed the diabetics and “take a piddle.” The first
stop is to Buck-Ees, which boasts “world-famous bathrooms” and caramel corn, knives,
pepper-spray, jerky and energy drinks, and then the Tiger Stop, with a video
sign that reads, LIVE CAMEL. They used to have a LIVE TIGER, she said, but the
tiger died and they got the camel. The store also features knives, jerky,
pepper spray and energy drinks, and the live camel, in a stinking pen outside.

Alma Twohig
Nobles Salvant
Ruck Bulloco, and the whole company of Jefferson Home Hook and Ladder No. 1.

The next bus has a
more sober-seeming driver, but she turns on a heavy-metal radio station and
plays it loud enough for the passengers to hear. At a stop for new passengers,
someone leaves a purple bag with a keyboard case outside the luggage hold on
the sidewalk. Is it coming, or going? Over the intercom the driver says, if you
are a passenger on this bus with a purple bag and keyboard case, please come
forward so I can load your luggage.

Will the owner of
the purple bag and keyboard case please come to the front so we can load your
luggage?

Who has a purple
bag and keyboard case on the sidewalk?

There is a purple
bag and keyboard case outside the bus.

I am going to
leave a purple bag and keyboard case on the sidewalk.

A purple bag and
keyboard case.

A purple bag and
keyboard case.

A                     purple              bag                and           a               keyboard              case

The door wheezes
shut and the bus lurches away. A young man runs to the front and the bus stops.
He seems affronted, shocked. Even amazed. He says, I didn’t understand it was
my purple bag.

They load the baggage.

Ellen, consort of J.G. Rogers
Elise Blaise
Catherine Huth

Downtown is the
Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, with a display called The Underground
Gallery:

“Visitors to the
Richard C. Colton Jr. Underground Gallery shrink to the size of an insect with
gigantic animatronic bugs, oversized exhibitry and surprises around every turn.
Feel what its like to be the size of an ant while learning about the huge impact
bugs have on the environment we all share!”

It is dark, and
cool. Giant mechanical bugs lurch out of holes. Human footsteps thud overhead.
It does not convey an insect’s view as much as a child’s in a funhouse. Or a
very particular adult experience, perhaps that of a serious actor acting a role
on the set of a low-budget monster film from the 1950s (Them, or It Conquered the World, or Invasion of the Crab Monsters):
a determination to be a professional, play it for real no matter how fake it
seems. There was always the hope that on film, it would all come alive.

The house across
the street is tilted like in a fairy tale. The landlord is working hard to paint
the front porch bright white. He will rent it immediately for eleven hundred a
month. The desire to stay in New Orleans, even as the next storm bears down, is
strong. Not just visit, but live there, in that crooked house. Be that serious
actor in a low-budget horror movie about the end of the world. Maybe it will
all come alive on film, or as a story. Be remembered, like those movies, as a brave
crazy thing, hopeless at the time.

Down the block,
names on the tombstones in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1:

Coashtie Dark
Amelia Siren
Sande Shurnway

The air is thick,
sweet and peppery. Everything has a touch of green mold. A green gecko or
chameleon on pink brick. Mardi Gras beads on trees and powerlines. Grackles
with vertical stabilizers like planes, that swoop and screech over several tarnished
syllables.

Telesphore Bourque
Rene Clerc
Davis Herrod
Aurora Arceneaux
Elizabeth Wolfaith
Mantin Shutard
Annetta Bouintine
Regis Chandris

At the Voodoo
Museum dollar bills are rolled into tubes and inserted into wooden spirit dolls
to satisfy wishes. Weeks later that area will be flooded again. Everyone knows
it will happen again, and again, but still are affronted, shocked and amazed
when interviewed on TV.  Oh my god, one man
says at the rapidly-darkening sky. The olive-green street cars plow through
waist-deep water. They run on electricity from overhead cables. The seats are
wood. At the end of the line they flip over to face the other direction. The
driver walks to the controls at the opposite end and goes back again. Is there
one named Desire.

Edwin
Given                       

                                            
Eule Prytania                               

                                                                                                            Kendal
Keyes

                                                                                    Marguerita
Freudenstein

        Praeger Fontaine         

                                                
George Mekas                          
Aaliyah

                      M. Koenig                 Regis Chandris           

                                                                                       Nicholas
Dominique     

                                                                                                                  
T.J. Earhardt

James
Hederbon                                         

                                                                                           J. Tarbato

                                            
M.K. Karschendiek

The New Orleans
Home                                                                               
 

for
Incurables




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.




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?




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.