Just Noise – The Barbarian Thrill of Noise in Music


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,

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?

Litro #154: Cuba | ‘Off The Page’


It is an almost universally accepted cliché that a poet´s career is a solitary one; Dylan Thomas would talk about a “sullen art”, even if he was an energetic communicator of his own verse in public readings. It is precisely when reading or saying verse before an audience that the poet has one of those precious occasions to question the craft, a craft which is normally attached to the written page and embedded in the literary tradition.

Actually poetry antecedes literature, the letter and, obviously, the printed book. Sometimes we forget this when we’ve devoted more time to the page. For thousands of years poetry was closer to dance and music than it is today. The instruments and functions of the poet underwent a progressive reduction until poetry became, practically speaking, a matter of words fixed to a sheet of paper or a computer screen.

That could account for the fact that improvisation is not one of the most frequently used tools of the craft. As a matter of fact, outside of jazz and happenings or a few theatrical exercises, improvisation does not have such a good reputation in an art and literary world which is still overseen by academic and utilitarian perceptions of creativity. Slowly, slowly, who knows throughout how many centuries and cultural operations, improvisation has become almost a synonym of sloppiness, lack of preparation or concept, in other words a deficiency in craft.

We look around at the other sister arts and wonder how specialization and pre-meditation become naturally necessary for the creative process. How much improvising do we need at the point zero of creativity? While avoiding a general overview of that which, again, Dylan Thomas called “the history of the death of the ear”, I would to try to understand how the theater, music and dance can become a common area for a renewal of the perception of poetry and, eventually, the writing of poetry.

Perhaps it all begins when you feel a certain discomfort in the notion of poetry as a literary genre; how is it that an open source of knowledge, able to inform our perception and production of sounds, colors, feelings, movements, not to mention ideas, can be enclosed in only one type of mental structure or discourse? You can say, of course, that such is precisely the magic, flexible condition of the poem: to contain worlds within a few letters. And that would be right, yet a poem knows that there are other worlds before and after its completion. If poetry is not only a literary genre, then what is it or what more can it be before and beyond the page?

It is crucial to notice that other artists also feel the same discomfort within their respective limits of specific arts or genres. Watching a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, say Mirror, or reading Artaud as he describes the actor as “an athlete of the heart”, or listening to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, or looking at a painting by Rothko, one feels that there is more to it than the use of a single artistic structure or craft. There is such a flow of meanings, such an interaction of those methods of “doing” that we call techniques that one single specific art form would not be enough to encompass works of the kind. Furthermore, we can observe in them the common trait of improvisation.

I started to study improvisation in the theatre; even if in Cuba a strong tradition exists, especially in the country side, of stanzas improvised to the accompaniment of folk music, a “literary” poet very seldom is expected to do so: he or she is supposed to write and not to sing aloud whatever comes to the mind in rhymed form.

I was lucky enough to find a man whose theatrical method was based on improvisation, not exactly as a technique but as a source of self-knowledge as well as of comprehension of the Other. His was a mirroring method based on a You and I line of attention. In his view, spontaneity could be learned and practiced deliberately sometimes leaving to the artistic result the possibility of being just that, a result and not a goal in itself, however valuable.

The thought that all what we do must serve a purpose and bear some gain has contributed more than any other artificial or natural disaster to keep the human species in a state of bondage and art is one of the few windows left to a world of non profit. Art must be profitable in itself or not be profitable at all. That is probably why we look for an alternative to the bondage of profit and start to think of art as a process and not as a factory of artistic results. In this moment, the practice of improvisation becomes crucial.

This man came from a theatre family and had been working for years on behalf of sincere and playful acting. I saw him once as the Fool in The Twelfth Night, playing between stage and audience, making fun of the characters as well as of his fellow actors attracting the audience towards the embarrassing wonder of look- at- yourself- looking- at- the- theatre. He emphasized the meaning of theatre as something related to the action of looking. His name was Vicente Revuelta.

He encouraged the use of live music and singing and eventually with a couple of professional actors and a bunch of amateurs, we managed to assemble a Brecht Cabaret: one small piece about a beggar, an emperor and a dead dog, one poem, “Baal”, an acting exercise based on Auden´s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”, two songs from Mother Courage and some drumming and dancing. And one collective creation: an acting exercise based on Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.

Drumming and dancing was sort of an informal action also happening before and after the show. At a certain point of the night, while the performers were singing one of the songs, they shared bread and tea with the other participants—that is, the presumed audience or public which was all over the place sitting, walking or standing inside and outside of the open barn-like garage.

We were learning the interaction between improvisation and result, between process and structure. The night show arrived after a day of improvising and was improvised in itself from a structure of text, music and action.

We can see improvising as a departure from clichés as well as an investigation of clichés, not only in the intellectual arena but with physical movements and the expression of emotions.

One cliché about improvising is that it doesn’t need a structure, that it is even the opposite of structure. Actually structure and improvisation are close relatives, like brother and sister, like delicacy is related to strength, as in smell or sound.

You can improvise about a commonsense idea of what a structure is or should be: something firm, fixed, symmetrical; as much as you can write the structure of a play using a series of clichés about improvisation: you don’t know what to do now or next, you go crazy, act like an animal, crawl, howl, uttering unintelligible sounds…

Improvisation can surely make us look ridiculous, on the stage as much as in everyday life. It can make us be ridiculous. Since the idea of what is or is not ridiculous is also based on stereotypes, it can be improvised upon.
Musical premises exist to be defied through improvisation. Can “pure” and “spontaneous” coexist in the interpretation of, say, flamenco? How original is swing? How somniferous should lullabies be? Anything, from blues to Bach, is indeed improvisable and thus translatable.

Translation is also a form of improvisation; no one word means the same thing at all times and places. Only at a specific time and place does the word have a specific meaning. In Heraclitean fashion, improvisations are often described as flux away from crystallization. Then, how can the structure flow within improvisation? It is a topic that has triggered such books as Finnegan’s Wake, with a structure as flexible as sound can be. The sound of the words is just as important as their meanings—that is, we can understand sound as meaning.

I feel moved and encouraged by the fact that such people as Aristophanes or Sophocles were and are still considered poets; at the same time, it puzzles me how in Shakespeare’s time a poet was apparently a different thing from what Shakespeare himself was, not to mention Omar al Khayam, an astronomer and mathematician who is better known as a man wrote a number of songs for his friends. And how “off the page” are Carroll’s adventures improvised while drifting in a boat with two kids?

The ways of poetry, in fact, wander a lot outside the literary reservation, though there is no Poetry Channel to inform us about such possibilities.

Spontaneously methodical, as E. E. Cummings would put it, improvisation opens a view towards the building of a structure, whether in book, song, or dance choreography, which does not rely on preconceptions; structure thus becomes part of the erotic phase of conceiving work as a tool of happiness or, if you prefer, as fun. All this, of course, is a cliché about improvisation, one that the page very well permits.

The other side of the Wall that protects poetry against improvisation may also be covered with beautiful clichés because we are producers of preconceptions and concepts; writing could be conceived, from this perspective, as a mental machine within that other machine that the writer is.

Then, in dance or painting we observe the same production of common places. Now they are not only intellectual but also executed through movement, rhythm, colour. It is precisely because everything, around us as well as inside us, is so full of clichés that improvisation exists at all.

The Japanese renga is a combination of improvisation and stereotypes about season, nature, time of the day, weather and other common perceptions of life. A group of poets gather to compose, one haiku after another, a sort of cantata inspired in the moment by using those stereotypes as basic, imaginative tools.

The structure of renga can be applied to another flexible and marginal space such as the cabaret, and the initial process of translation from, say, nature into words can be re-translated then into music and dance spinning around a subject. Once I participated in such an experience focused on the topic of translation. An actor or dancer improvised a haiku departing from a clichéd posture of how she or he imagined a poet to be. Then, the music tried to grasp the essence of the poem while a second dancer or actor improvised. A second poem would then materialize from the image of the actor-dancer.

Whereas the experience of traditional renga could be for a contemporary poet no less uncommon than playing with a jazz band or acting in a play by Artaud, it is also a fact that the participation of the poem itself in music, theater or even dance is not so rare. Poems travel all the time and they are surely more flexible than what very often their authors can be.

Sometimes an attempt can be more impressive than certain predictable results.

Litro #153: Open | Dead Fathers


At the time I barely registered the bottom or the thong, even less the woman to whom both belonged. I was far too high on Yeats. I had discovered him two weeks ago in a classroom in Savannah, Georgia and his words were ringing in my unbelieving head the way temple bells might in the head of a believer. I was soaking in the lake waters of Innisfree, chasing the girl with apple blossom in her hair, delighting in the cloths of heaven…Nothing about that moment in 1988 could possibly tease me away, even if it came dressed as a bottom in a thong.

Now, almost twenty-eight years later, the same moment returns very differently. The first thing to appear is a marvellously round, tanned bottom in a T-shaped green thong. Then the rest of the woman materializes. Long, leathery legs flow earthwards. A slim torso thrusts up. Firm breasts bulge inside the bikini cup. Long, curly brown hair frames a delicate face with high cheekbones… I have a sneaking suspicion that neither she nor her bottom was anywhere near as perfect as I now see them; if they were no amount of Yeats hero worship could have culled me away from them. But I have no desire to tamper with the memory. If it is fiction, then it is one that I wish to believe.

As I continue to look, the sallow sands of Tybee beach arrange themselves round the woman. White, black and bronzed bodies clad in a variety of swimsuits people the beach. A bright late summer Georgian sky spreads itself above an Atlantic gleaming like a starry constellation in the sunshine. Hip hop music surges out of radios. The smell from barbecues wafts in the air.

It is at this point that my father starts to take shape. He has to be the most overdressed person on that beach; he is wearing trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of shiny, black leather shoes. His thick white hair is restless in the breeze. His nose, which is slim and pointed like mine, contemplates the ground as do the astigmatic eyes behind the thick glasses. His parchment-coloured face is abashed. One hand picks on his white moustache. He is the bashful Indian father, far too embarrassed to eyeball half-naked women in the company of his teenaged son.

I see all that now in a way I could not in 1988. Back then, my dad was merely a human receptacle into which I was unleashing my excitement. I have no idea which part of Yeats’ oeuvre I was exulting in. But I can see Dad indulging me with the patience of a loving parent. He had a vague notion about Yeats. Didn’t he do something with Tagore? he asked. He pronounced his name in a way that made it rhyme with Keats who he had read at school. Later that day, at my behest, he picked up my textbook of Yeats’ Collected Poems and dutifully studied it for an hour. He dubbed the poems good. He was an Indian army officer educated in British India. I very much doubt if Yeats’ Irish myths and legends would have made any sense to him. Niamh and Oisin would have been unpronounceable. But Yeats was always going to be good in his book. Anything less would have broken my worshipping heart.

Thus it was that my real father met my literary father. Later that day, I told Dad I was going to be a writer, a poet in the Yeatsian vein. He heard me out with a thoughtful face that softened into a smile the moment I was finished. Most Indian fathers would have balked at the idea. Dad, to my surprise and relief, was happy. I was dreading an earful about the impracticality of it all. (I got that later from my mother.) But Dad never questioned my decision. Not even when I wrote with little success over the ensuing decade, spending his money with abandon while making very little of my own. It was only later that I learned he’d had writing ambitions of his own in college which his family’s tight financial situation had caused him to set them aside in favour of a real job. My becoming a writer was karma for the sacrifice he had been forced to make.

As the years passed, I found more editors saying yes to my prose pieces than my poetry. Finally, I quit writing poetry. But I continued to return to Yeats. Each time I went back I was a different reader—more critical, less reverential, increasingly questioning, frequently dissatisfied… Or, more accurately, I was a different man—older, more cynical, worldlier… I was no longer willing to gloss over the elitism manifest in much of Yeats’ later poetry. I found his dalliance with fascism in the thirties troubling…Yet, even as Yeats’ imperfections piled up, an innate affection kept me going back to him, the kind I have not felt for any other writer. Why Yeats? I have frequently asked myself. I am not into things Irish. The closest I have been to the country is to interview for a job at Queen’s University in Belfast; a job that I did not get. I have admired the work of other Irish writers such as Joyce and Heaney without feeling any deep connection to it. In my own work, I steer away from myth and legend which form such a big part of Yeats’ oeuvre, as well as the spirituality and exoticism that drew him to India. In terms of politics, I am more left-leaning than Yeats ever was…Yet he remains the one writer engraved in my soul. I guess, in life, you don’t get to choose your fathers, natural or otherwise.

Looking back now, I am struck by how my relationship with Yeats mirrors the one with my real father. Dad was my greatest hero right through childhood and adolescence. That started to change as I entered the nineties and began to have girlfriends. The same father, who unequivocally championed my writing career, metamorphosed into the puritanical Indian parent with a speed that was startling. He’d spout words reminiscent of Bollywood melodramas while launching bitter rants about how I was flouting Indian culture and abusing his trust by dating. I doubt if his reaction would have been any different if I were dating Indian girls, but the fact the girls were American really got his goat. Sometimes my mother would join in and I would have the two of them reproaching me. In the end, I got sick of it all and fell back on deceit. That was easy enough while my parents were in India; a simple lie on the phone did the trick. When they were in America, the subterfuge was far more elaborate. I’d tell Mom and Dad I was going to lectures and readings when I was really going out on dates. At times, I would sneak away for an entire weekend on the pretext of attending a writing conference… With practice, I got good at covering my tracks and the bickering ceased.

This was also the time where I got my first inkling of how different I was going to be from my father. On December 6, 1992, Hindu zealots tore down the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya. Dad greeted the news with glee. He was a refugee from Rawalpindi, now in Pakistan, who had lost everything in the Hindu-Muslim violence that accompanied Partition. For him what happened at Ayodhya was comeuppance, long overdue, for the people who had destroyed his life in Rawalpindi and turned him into a poor refugee. Even now I don’t know what shocked me more. Babri Masjid going down or the triumphant mood that engendered in my dad. In all the time I had known him, Dad had never spoken about Partition. Now he erupted like a volcano lying dormant for years, the acrid lava of bitterness steaming out of him. This time I refused to back down and we argued for hours, neither one of us giving an inch. At times, we were incensed enough to trade four-letter words; the first and last time we did that. We quit only when we were far too exhausted to argue any more.

“ Yet even while burning in a blaze of rage I loved my father. I can see that now. For days afterwards, I castigated myself for carrying on in the manner I did. Dad had already had his first heart attack by then and if anything had happened to him that day I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself. As the younger man, with a lifetime ahead of him, I should have been more reasonable. I never brought up the subject again and deleted politics from our conversation altogether. You continue to love fathers even while hating certain things about them. That much is clear to me now.

When he died in October 2004, I was starting a PhD at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. I flew back to Delhi for the last rites. Everyone around me was swept away by the dark flood of grief. I remained stoic, hardly shedding a tear through the cremation and the prayer meetings and the immersion of the ashes in the Ganges. Some people even remarked on how ‘bravely’ I had taken it. A fortnight or so later, I went back to Norwich to dive straight into the PhD. But, as I was to find out later, I hadn’t been spared the grieving; grief was merely biding its time while hovering over me like a silent cloud.

A little more than two months after Dad’s funeral, I came back to Delhi for the Christmas holidays. I was cleaning out my old closet in the family home when I found a card that Dad had given me for my tenth birthday. No sooner had I recognised it than I collapsed on the floor to weep in a way I did not even when Mom passed away six years before. Then Dad was there to provide a semblance of comfort. Now I was desolate with no parent left.

More than a decade has passed since that day. The big assault of grief abated long ago as did the sudden stabs of memory that would cut close to the bone. To paraphrase Yeats, I have grown accustomed to Dad’s lack of breath. Now he exists for me in photographs, in old, yellowing letters, in a cassette tape that is fast starting to unraveI… I dwell on him for a while when I visit the family memorial, or when his birth or death anniversary comes round. Otherwise he returns, more often than not, as a fleeting remembrance. Sometimes recalling him makes me smile. On other occasions it puckers my lips while releasing a long sigh. Most of the time, present or future concerns crowd him out of my thoughts. Yet he continues to reside in me the way only a father can reside in a son. I find myself looking more and more like him as I grow older. I repeat his words and gestures. I catch myself wondering if I have lived up to his faith in me as a writer. The fact I do that more than a decade after his passing means it still matters.

I quit believing in god a long time ago. But every so often a wish to see Dad again rises in the form of prayer and, in that moment, I desperately want to believe in an afterlife. The prospect of a joyful re-union at journey’s end; that would make even death appear less daunting.

Essay: The Wreckage of the Nation State in an Age of Global Migration


Translation: F. Graham

When I was growing up in a neighbourhood of Greater Stockholm with one half-way decent pizzeria, where the odd car would be set on fire from time to time, there was an anecdote – most likely apocryphal – that circulated among our immigrant parents: some acquaintance’s child had told their parents that they should ring the NGO ‘Children’s Rights in Society’ at the least threat of a smacking. Underlying that anecdote was the fear that Swedish schools were teaching us things that turned obedient children into the sort of bolshie kids who would threaten to ring social services every time they felt disinclined to do something. In our parents’ paranoia, there was a distorted mirror image of one of Sweden’s fundamental principles: this was a country where it was unacceptable to hit children – under any circumstances. That was not something on which there was a consensus in the ‘civilised’ western world and which the ‘uncivilised’ world (the Muslim world in this case) needed to learn. Sweden was the first country to outlaw the physical chastisement of children.

We need to recall the longstanding Swedish attitude to violence against minors in order to grasp the extent to which ‘Swedishness’ has been misappropriated when over fifty men can attack children in Stockholm because they look as though they don’t belong here; in order to grasp that there has been so rapid and radical a change that the defence of Swedish norms can take the form of street violence targeting children, and that the police initially described events as the outcome of a ‘rowdy Friday night’, while the quality daily Svenska Dagbladet called them ‘a disturbance in central Stockholm.’ There are many reasons why it is now apparently socially acceptable to foment violence against minors, but they all come down to dehumanising people seen as different. They aren’t children, but ‘kids with beards’, ‘so-called refugees’, ‘feral so-called street children’ and ‘guest criminals’ (as opposed to ‘guest workers’), to quote just a few expressions from different sections of the commentariat. Over half of Syria’s children have been forced to leave their homes in the course of the last five years, a tragedy so monumental that it is perhaps easier not to view them as ordinary children. And one of the most effective ways of dehumanising people, as we shall see, is the distinction we draw between different types of borders, with certain kinds of migration being viewed as positive, indeed natural, while another type is viewed as destructive, even harmful to our civilisation.

There is arguably no better example of how we in today’s Europe view borders than the ongoing dialogue in Great Britain over its membership of the European Union. In advance of the British referendum on whether the country should remain in the EU, David Cameron, who favours staying in, engaged in negotiations with the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk. In a seven-page letter to the European Council, Cameron wrote that Britain believes in the free flow of capital, whereas the free movement of people must be subject to some sort of control. He went on to propose that ‘when new countries are admitted to the EU in the future, free movement will not apply to those new members until their economies have converged much more closely with existing Member States.’ In other words, by all means let more countries into the EU, so we can export goods and services to new markets and make money out of people, but for goodness’ sake let’s be sure to protect our borders from what these countries have to offer – cheap labour.

State borders are supposed to protect us on this side, but not to apply to us whenever we want to cross over to the other side. This is the same logic that leads us in Sweden to talk seriously about closing bridges and bringing in temporary border controls for those who look as if they don’t belong here, while at the same time assuming that we can continue to benefit from free movement within the Schengen area. The European Union is giving Turkey €3 billion (£2.3 billion) to keep refugees out of the EU – when all the rhetoric around asylum seekers asserts that there is no money available – while promising in return that Turkish citizens can travel to the EU without a visa. The same logic can be seen in the United States, where Donald Trump talks about building a wall between the US and Mexico – which, for some reason, is to be paid for by Mexico, just to add insult to injury. Over the past year, the western world has made use of all the means available to the nation state to keep people out, while its inhabitants keep all the promised benefits of globalisation to themselves. Thus a Swede relocating to China to make more money than in Sweden is called an ‘expat’, a word that has nothing but positive connotations, whereas Romanians moving to Britain for exactly the same reason are referred to as ‘migrants’.

To give one last example, under the new US law, H.R. 158, Europeans who have travelled to Iraq, Iran, Syria or Sudan within the last five years, or who are nationals of one of these countries in addition to being European citizens, now need a visa to enter the US. In principle, this law has created a set of second-class European citizens, those who can’t be trusted. Naturally, US citizens can continue to travel to European countries without a visa. The funny thing about this law is that it is supposed to make it more difficult for terrorists, especially those who have fought with IS in Iraq and Syria, to enter the US (Iran and Sudan are the only two countries apart from Syria that the US deems to be ‘state sponsors of terrorism’, and so get to join in the fun). Yet hardly anyone who wants to enter Syria to join IS flies to that country; instead, they go to Turkey and cross the border there. Naturally, Turkey is not listed (and nor is Saudi Arabia).

Since the concept of the nation state is a western invention, it is the parameters of the nation state that are taken as a basis for presenting solutions to cross-border conflicts. Consequently, countries such as Norway and the Vatican State are invited to the peace conference in Geneva to find solutions to the war in Syria, whereas the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which administers an autonomous region in northern Syria and battles against IS every day, is not. At the same time as Britain prepares for a referendum on whether to stay in the EU, it is are sending delegations to Iraqi Kurdistan to announce that it is quite out of the question for the Kurds to gain their independence, it being ‘in the region’s best interests’ for Iraq, an artificial country whose invented borders are a consequence of colonialism, to stay together. As the world has opened up for some, it has proven important to maintain the notion of borders as something real, something that has always been there and must be defended. According to the sociologist Jörg Dürrschmidt, borders have been transformed into mechanisms for exercising control over people’s mobility, rather than over territory. The researcher Mahmoud Keshavarz notes that borders are being ‘outsourced’ to natural geographical features (such as rivers and mountains), to give a sense of their being ‘natural’.

So now some of us have to have a visa to visit a country for which other Swedes do not need one. A visa that costs money, of course, a tax on the fact that we are not Swedish enough for our Swedish passports. All this because I’m ‘really’ from Iraq, a country that I couldn’t even visit legally before 2003.

The words for those who try to cross a border from the ‘wrong’ direction or in the ‘wrong’ way are always the same: Mexicans travelling illegally to the USA are pollos (chickens), while the smugglers are ‘coyotes’. Iranian Baluchis travelling to Pakistan are ‘sheep’, while the British media have called migrants everything from ‘novoviruses’ to ‘cockroaches’. People simply cease to be human. It is no coincidence that both IS and the Kurds are claiming regions that are not confined within existing borders. The borders of the nation state cannot contain a world in flux, the wars taking place now are not wars between countries, and if we cannot grasp that a century-old notion of what constitutes a state cannot help us solve today’s conflicts, then things will not get any better, and there will be more and more refugees.

And, as there are many who benefit from this old system at other people’s expense, these refugees have to be disparaged in some way. In the language of the far-right Sweden Democrats, refugees are now dismissed as ‘luxury refugees’, having been able to afford to escape their terrible situation. This changes the definition of refugees and asylum applicants from people who have a legal right to support to ‘benefit scroungers’. At the same time, westerners can become expats in the Gulf States or south-east Asia, where they are under no pressure whatsoever to learn Arabic, Chinese or Tagalog, as their British, French or Swedish identity is more important than ‘assimilation’ or ‘integration’.

The counter-argument could be made that these expats are not moving permanently to Dubai, Guangzhou or Luanda; they are only going there to make money, after which they will move back home. The prevailing view of non-European migration to Europe is that migrants will want to stay here forever, that migration is always unidirectional, from the Middle East and Africa to us. The US President, Barack Obama, also expressed this in his State of the Union address in January, in which he described Syria as a region of conflicts going back thousands of years, eternal conflicts that underpin the ongoing war. Such a revision of history, depicting the Middle East as a region prey to endless war, without any prospect of improvement, creates an image of its people as being more or less incapable of living in peace. The Syrians, who, until five years ago, were living in a society that, though totalitarian, functioned smoothly and had a high level of education, are transformed by this discourse into an illiterate, barely human people who have no place in our civilised countries.

What this view ignores is the numbers of first-generation immigrants who return to their countries of origin when peace is restored. Iraq, for example, was one of the ten countries receiving most immigrants from Sweden during 2012, 2013 and 2014, after many years of economic growth, particularly in the Kurdish region (the Kurds are not doing too well at the moment, precisely because of that whole IS thing). Overall emigration from Sweden is at its highest level ‘since the peak years of emigration to America in the 1880s’, according to the Swedish Statistical Office. Of those who emigrated in 2014, over half re-emigrated to the country of their birth. But we understand only what we see; we do not see all the millions who are not here, and it is no coincidence that we do not.

According to the philosopher Seyla Benhabib, human rights have been demolished in the name of the new right of ‘humanitarian intervention’, which comes down to the right to invade a country for its people’s own good. We won’t accept your refugees, but we will bomb your country to pieces: that seems to be the logic. The causal link between ‘humanitarian intervention’ and growing numbers of refugees seems to go unrecognised.

Recently, a UKIP supporter in Britain tweeted that the floods that have hit the country have nothing to do with climate change; rather, the whole island is sinking as a result of over-population. The mantra that we lack space is particularly absurd if you know that 90% of refugees are granted asylum in developing countries, while the United States, a country with a population of over 350 million, has accepted a mere 1500 refugees from Syria since the beginning of the war, and constantly argues that that is far too many. To quote that horseman of the apocalypse Donald Trump, ‘they could be Isis … They are all men and they are all strong (…).’ In his view, the ongoing refugee crisis ‘could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time.’ There are between 2.5 and 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, one million in Lebanon, 1.5 million in Jordan and 300 000 in Iraq, whilst Britain is having a nervous breakdown over 5000 people, and the US would rather embrace Trump’s fascism than accept 1500 Syrian refugees.

The most frightening aspect of what is happening today is that it is merely a test for the real crisis yet to come. There are a number of essays on how the war in Syria is largely a result of the climate crisis; after several years of poor harvests, the regime was no longer able to provide food for its people. We already have a sinking island, Vanuatu, which will soon cease to exist. The climate crisis will make what we today call ‘the refugee crisis’ look nothing short of idyllic by comparison. This has been just a test to see how we, as human beings, will tackle a monumental refugee catastrophe, how we conceive of the role of the nation state when the territory of many nation states becomes uninhabitable. And if our current response is any guide to our future behaviour, the only possible conclusion, sadly, is that we will fail.

Litro #149: Love – Essay: The Black Path


The Black Path, if my memory serves me right, works like an inter-dimensional portal: it slips one from the so-called posh side of the estate to an altogether darker territory. By dark I of course mean unclear, undefined, drenched in rumour, obscured by myth. I once read that the kids of this strange world wander the streets like zombies, wearing puce tracksuits in winter and muddy trousers through summer – the syrup of boiled sweets painted thick on their faces, pale ribs gleaming in the sun. But this is not an accurate representation.

The estate, as a whole, is believed to have previously been the largest of its kind in Europe. Its population currently floats around the 12,000 mark and constitutes a quarter of that of the entire region in which it lies.

Prior to 1936, the land was pasture, but the threat of war brought ordnance factories and a labyrinthine system of eight tunnels used to store ammunition. A decade later, property developers stormed the terrain and a complex suburban wilderness was born. Residential zones sprung up like spewed lava, cooling to reform the landscape. With a little effort you can still locate the tunnels, overgrown and derelict – sacred to the kids who own the edgelands.

The path itself is of chipped and scuffed concrete, punctured with potholes that gather rain and scupper the front wheels of cheap bicycles. It snakes for at least 300 metres alongside a GP surgery, a Sunday league football pitch and one of four local primary schools. On Google Maps, the trail, which some might prefer to call a lane or alleyway, has been coloured a macabre grey and left anonymous. This lack of a label is indicative of a complex identity: a personality disorder of place.

Perhaps most evocative to the wanderer’s imagination are the long-limbed, skeletal trees and rustling hedgerows that line the trackside, casting a tattered shade across the length and breadth of the remote strip. These shadows flicker in sinister patterns, dancing to the ebbs and flows of the heavens above. From a farmer’s field, behind the shrubbery on the southern flank, cattle can be heard: cows grunting, calves chewing, the occasional trill of a horse uttered to disorientate the daring rambler. That mysterious scrap of farmland, I’ve been told, is to be converted into a rose bed of redbrick housing, designed with an end goal of pure symmetry.

My own relationship with the path is deeply rooted in the frenetic, even schizophrenic, adolescent years that pulled my early self into the pieces from which I have been rebuilt. Every evening after school, come rain or shine, I would leave my parents’ house on the edge of town and traverse the three or so miles to my comrades at Spar Park (a shoddy play park at the foot of a steep slope, next to the Spar that we’d pillage like starving pirates).

My journeys began with a gentle incline up a street of large brown properties, over a crossroads and along a channel of neat terraces fronted by meticulous gardens. I know this section of the route like the back of my hand – years of walking to school, to the corner shop, to friends’ houses, and so on, having etched a map of minute sensory detail into the frontal lobes of my brain.

For the first 300 yards, waste-high walls slide either side of the road and rise a foot or so at regular intervals to align with the lay of the pavement. A pedestrian can pluck a popped fuchsia from number 32 and roll it round in his or her palm, before tearing it against the coarse heat of flared vermillion brick. At about 600 to 650 yards, in autumn, rusted pinecones cover a sizeable plot of common lawn and get kicked under parked vans by kids and parents alike on the school run.

Next to the grass, a loose slab can be removed from the curb to reveal a pipe big enough for a litre bottle of vodka. I could go on indefinitely.

Beyond the main road to and from the town centre, I would enter what in the early days of my excursion was less familiar ground. Past a French-mustard pub, frequented by my older brothers, a thinner road breaks away; it surges up and over a railway track and through an industrial miasma drifting from the untold topography below. Trolls have been spotted beneath this bridge. At least once a week, there or thereabouts, a twenty-something male with Celtic tattoos crawling up his neck would skate by and salute me. “Mike boy,” he’d chirp, in a thick local accent. My name is not Mike. No more than 100 feet from the end of the overpass, the estate begins.

Here, I’d enter a residential maze – which has since recurred to me, mutated in dreams – and emerge minutes later at the Triangle, a suburban temple shimmering with the strangeness of its position in time and space. This L-shaped shopping complex is comprised of a pet store, a fish shop, a chemist, a small supermarket and gangs of ghoulish outlaws lurking round corners, conversing in hidden passageways. The commercial signage of this place has remained much the same since the late-1980s.

Finally, having circumnavigated the glass exterior of a big-body-fetish gym, topped with corrugated iron, I’d arrive at the Black Path, gaping like the liquorice-tongue of a crying raptor.


I first met Carl by a fire in the woods. He was stoned from sucking a lung; I was nervous, and despairing of the late hour. The flames rippled like a mirage in the gulping darkness, feeding from a stock of red plastic crates stolen from Co-op. Sandwiched between a broken shopping trolley and a senior bong smoker, spinning tales to the younger lads, we talked about school and Liverpool FC. His rodent features chewed hungrily on reams of dyslexic words, which tumbled unmediated into the atmosphere.
Over the next two years, we spent our evenings and weekends roaming the zones together, passing time and causing trouble. He became a good friend.


To the east of the Black Path, spread between the primary school and the Triangle, is a square half-mile of woodland – a slither of wild suburbia at its best, a warren for the young to explore and claim for themselves, which we did. There are many patches like this scattered across the estate.

In recent months, I’ve read online news stories of sophisticated drug dens fashioned from fallen branches. I was reminded of an afternoon break-in at the primary school, when we hid from a helicopter beneath the foliage of trees. We smoked and popped valium until dark. I’ve also read of barbed-wire traps laid for no discernable reason, but to wound indiscriminately. I thought of a feral ally of ours who had no family and spent weeks at a time sleeping in a tent.

Carl and I soon grew apart, with my parents taking measures to address my failures at school. At a private college in the city, I composed a poem about elm trees and violence on the Black Path. I wrote down some of the stories we’d been told and others we’d forged ourselves. I wrote about late-night bonfires, botched scramblers and insurance jobs; I wrote about fights, girls and police dogs.

Despite our different roads, we would still collide, occasionally, on syrupy dance floors. He was always glad to see me.
Four years ago, while I was enjoying a trip around South America with my girlfriend, Carl was involved in an altercation on the path. I know nothing of the details, despite firing a barrage of questions at old friends. I do know, however, that he fled the country, was tracked down and later jailed for murder, or perhaps manslaughter. He had written himself into a dark history – into the mythology of an obscure and powerful place; I’m not entirely sure he had a choice in the matter.

Last week, I re-walked that stretch of grey and black concrete – that electric ley line. I took photos and moved aside for joggers. I watched a familiar couple tend to a rosy child in a purple buggy. I said good morning to the postman. I sat down on the wet ground and let rain pitter-patter against my hood. I smoked a cigarette for the first time in years. I’m still there now, doing the same old things.

Litro #149: Love: Essay – Dating in Dubai


Last autumn I was in Brazil for conference with colleagues from all over the globe. For the final night, we were asked to wear the traditional dress of the region where we work – and to prepare and perform a regional dance. Coming from the Middle East, my team arrived to the event in abaya (for the women) and dish-dash (for the men). Part of our dance was a spectacular reveal where we whipped off the abayas to reveal skimpy belly-dancing costumes beneath.

For me it’s a fair metaphor for Dubai itself, the city I’ve lived in for a year and a half now. Modesty on top with pleasures of the flesh beneath. The UAE is a Muslim country, but it’s teeming with expats – 85% of the population. Many of these are the lower end of construction workers, taxi drivers and those in the service industry, chiefly Pakistanis, Indians, Nepalese and Filippinos (the employment “caste” system in terms of nationality warrants a separate standalone article or better still an entire book). Yet a healthy proportion are young, party-loving Westerners out to enjoy the tax-free lifestyle to the max for these few halcyon years, before homesickness and family demands inevitably draw them back to their native lands.

Dubai does a lot to draw foreign workers, foreign investment and tourists to the country. It boasts, brags and crows about the biggest mall in the world, the tallest building, the manmade islands and the 7* hotel. So what are the limits, and where are the lines drawn?

It’s worth saying that UAE is no Saudi. The only thing that stops me driving is my lack of ability, not my sex. I’m not required to cover my hair in public. The rule of thumb in Dubai, which you’ll see displayed in shopping malls, is that you should be covered from your shoulders to your knees. But the very reason for the signs in the malls is that they are practically the only place tourists go where this applies. You can be on the beach in your bikini without any hassle. In bars and hotel women frequently wear miniskirts and hot-pants. We don’t go to work like that, but who does in Europe or US?

When it comes to relationships, the policy is to look the other way – up to a certain point. Technically, flat-sharing is illegal and men and women can’t live together unless they are married. Vast numbers of them do. If you are an Emirati/muslim you are more likely to be punished if caught – but no one is really checking. Sex outside marriage is also technically illegal. But unless there is proof, i.e. you get pregnant, again no one is checking. And birth control including the pill is available over the counter. You are however expected to be discreet. Public displays of affection are not tolerated. Snogging in night clubs leads to intervention by the security guards and I once had a taxi driver tell me to stop kissing my boyfriend in the back of his cab.

If you do get pregnant options are slim for those who want to stay in the country. This is part where it gets slightly scary. Some doctors will report you if you are not married, then you face jail and deportation. You can of course go abroad to have an abortion. To keep the baby, you must marry or leave.

Of course all the penalties rest with the woman – whether the issue at stake is immodest dress or a lack of chastity. In the case of rape, the woman is just as likely to be arrested as the man.

The legalities and culture of the country are one thing. But what about the culture of the expats community itself? It’s true that such comparative luxury goes to people’s heads. Dubai residents are known for being consumerist, obsessed with brands and bling. You can’t drive a car, you have to have an enormous 4×4. Handbags must look designer, even if they are fake. Everyone is constantly judging you on your appearance to the point where an abaya seems an attractive relief.

This obsession with appearance smothers all aspects of life. Men and women swap diets and exercise fads – but hardly ever books. Theatre, opera, ballet are all scarce and underappreciated. In frustration with this superficiality I’ve started asking guys who offer to buy me drinks what their favourite books are. The overwhelming response is “I don’t read – except articles on the internet”. Once someone mentioned a Jeffrey Archer tome [shudder].

It’s difficult to get to know people in Dubai. You meet them on a night out and they swear you’ll be best friends forever – and never call. With intimate relationships it’s even worse. There is such a glut of gorgeous, well-toned, well-tanned young things that everyone is always wondering if they can trade up. Commitment just doesn’t seem that attractive a scenario. If you don’t arrive in Dubai in a couple, it’s not terribly likely that you’ll leave in one. There are exceptions but they tend to prove the rule.

As for internet dating – forget it. Again, technically not legal but sites and apps operate. Unlike in the west however, a lot of them are used by guys looking for prostitutes or married men who want a no-strings affair.

And of course there’s the transiency of the place. People know they are not going to settle down forever in Dubai. So why saddle yourself with partner who might not fit with your long-term plans. More than that, this transiency is woven into the very air so it affects all your interactions, even unconsciously. To put in the hard work that a real relationship requires goes against the very spirit of everything that people are looking for when they rock up here – fun, freedom and fast living.

If you’re a young Western guy or even girl, respecting a few rules means you can have the most fun-filled time of your life. For those looking for something more serious, even the endless free drinks of Tuesday’s ladies nights can pall.

Land of Fire and Ice

Photo by Andrea Calabretta
Photo by Andrea Calabretta

“The writer in Iceland is God,” says Hallgrimur Helgason, an Icelandic author speaking from the small screen affixed to the back of the airplane seat in front of mine. I am flying to Reykjavik, and passing the time by watching the short documentaries on the country presented by Iceland Air. I’ve been leafing through a magazine as well, only half paying attention. But now, as a writer myself and a traveller who sometimes picks destinations based on their literary history, I am transfixed.

“This is because of the literary tradition we have from the Sagas,” Helgason says. “Iceland is sort of a writer’s paradise.”

In my bag, I’ve got a copy of Jar City, a murder mystery by Arnaldur Indridason that is set in the capital city of Reykjavik. It was recommended to me by the clerk at an international bookstore I like to browse. But I’ve never read an Icelandic author before. This trip was inspired more by an interest in natural phenomena—the Blue Lagoon, the Aurora Borealis—than by literature.

I flip to the section on history in my guidebook, and as I skim through the country’s Viking origins to the present day, a sentence leaps out at me: Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other nation in the world. Suddenly, my expectations for this trip have shifted. As I fish Jar City out of my bag, I know I will go in search of the literary treasures of this tiny island nation.

Early Icelandic literature can be divided into three kinds: the Eddas, Skaldic poetry, and the most famous branch—the Sagas. The Eddas were mostly mythological stories, while Skaldic poetry (composed by poets known as skalds) was composed to honour nobles and kings. The Sagas, by contrast, relate historic events, sometimes dressed up with fantastic or romantic elements. In Iceland, they are regarded as prose histories of the tenth- and eleventh-century Norse and Celtic inhabitants of the country. The style of the Sagas will be familiar to anyone who has read Beowulf—with plain prose that recounts the adventures of a central hero renowned for his bravery. The Sagas typically place emphasis on situating the individual within his noble lineage and pinpointing his inherited traits. So begins Egils Saga, believed to have been written by 13th-century poet and historian Snorri Sturluson:

There was a man named Ulf, son of Bjalf, and Hallbera, daughter of Ulf the fearless; she was sister of Hallbjorn Half-giant in Hrafnista, and he the father of Kettle Hæing. Ulf was a man so tall and strong that none could match him, and in his youth he roved the seas…

The family trees can get a little complex. But that doesn’t keep people from reading them—evidently nearly every household owns a copy of the Sagas. I decide I’ll head to 15 Hverfisgotu Street, near Reykjavik’s waterfront, which I’m told is one of the best places to learn about Icelandic literary tradition. The Culture House has an exhibit that explores the perspective of Northern Europeans during the time period of the Sagas, which included the Viking Expansion, the settlement of Iceland and the other Atlantic islands, and the transition from paganism to Christianity. But most impressive are the actual medieval manuscripts on display. Scribes used ink made of berries and herbs to write on sheets of vellum prepared from calf’s skin. Dimly lit rooms house these ancient books, opened to colourful illuminated illustrations of warriors and neatly penned lines of text.

I have heard that nearly every Icelander writes poetry, and it is not hard to imagine that this is true in the cosy coffee houses that line the streets of downtown Reykjavik, filled with blonde clientele bent over notebooks or tapping at laptop keyboards. But as I pass an afternoon soaking in a public thermal pool, known as a “hot pot,” amongst locals who come to bathe regularly in the mineral-rich waters, it becomes clear that the oral tradition is also alive and well. The tourists sit quietly and close their eyes, while Icelanders chat animatedly, telling stories in a language that sounds vaguely Germanic, which it is. A common saying goes that the hot pot is to Icelanders as the pub is to Brits or the café to the French.

I look for evidence of a contemporary literary community on the city’s newsstands, where I find a dynamic glossy called the Iceland Review, written in English. There is also the Reykjavik Grapevine, a monthly English-language newspaper. At the weekend, the city’s Kolaportid flea market near the Old Harbour seems like a promising place to look for evidence of book trade, and sure enough, I find a charming corner occupied by wooden bookcases and crates and tables full of paperbacks, some of them American literature in translation, many of them in the original English, and the majority Icelandic books published in Icelandic. My favourite find is a hardcover children’s book called Litlr Isbjorn (“Little Polar Bear”) with careful illustrations of a small white bear and his adventures in the Icelandic wilderness. The bookseller mentions casually that one in ten Icelanders is a published writer.

Street signs lead me next to the National Library, a modern red and white building that stands past frozen Tjornin pond near a traffic circle on Armgrimsgata Street. Its collection contains every book ever printed in Iceland, along with antique maps of the country, and Bibles in more than 12,000 languages. Here too is the Nobel Prize acceptance speech given by Halldor Laxness, the first Icelandic author to win the Prize in Literature in 1955. It reads, in part:

[As I accept this honour,] I am thinking… of that community of one hundred and fifty thousand men and women who form the book-loving nation that we Icelanders are. From the very first, my countrymen have followed my literary career, now criticizing, now praising my work, but hardly ever letting a single word be buried in indifference. Like a sensitive instrument that records every sound, they have reacted with pleasure or displeasure to every word I have written. It is a great good fortune for an author to be born into a nation so steeped in centuries of poetry and literary tradition.

It seems to me—as I read through Laxness’ remarks—that no writer could ask for more. And as I find myself seeing the city of Reykjavik through the eyes of Arnaldur Indridason, author of the Icelandic thriller I’ve been reading, it is hard to imagine traveling to this place without embracing its love for story. There is something about Iceland—perhaps its candlelit corners, or the colour of the sky in winter, when the sun rises at mid-morning—that simply begs to be written.

Much Bothered With Buffalo

Oregon Immigrants at End of the Day.
Oregon Immigrants at End of the Day.

What makes us start writing a diary? The dawning of another year? Or perhaps the beginning of a whole new life? I am sitting in the sunlit Paulson Reading Room at the University of Oregon in Eugene, reading the diaries of women who have been dead for over a century; women who embarked on such a great adventure that they decided it needed to be committed to paper in the pages of a daily journal. As part of my research for a novel which follows the journey of a Victorian woman from Liverpool to Oregon, I am digging into the archives to read the true stories of those who travelled the emigrant trails in the mid-nineteenth century. [private]

At each end of the Reading Room, carved in thick cedar wood, hang triptychs depicting the history of this western state. One of the images shows a wagon train negotiating the Barlow Trail at the foot of Mount Hood. It is a picturesque scene, with the tall trees, mountains and rivers which contribute to Oregon’s astonishing natural beauty. It reveals little of the nightmare of hauling wagons through impenetrable forest, across freezing rivers and down treacherous mountainsides, or the personal tragedies caused by illness, injury and death. In the 1850’s this land was yet to be ‘tamed’ by white settlers, but increasing numbers were tempted to brave the gruelling journey to the Oregon Territory as part of the ‘Manifest Destiny’ to expand the boundaries of the American nation. With the promise of cheap, or even free, land, many saw it as an opportunity not to be missed. For most, the trail began at St. Joseph, Missouri and ended two thousand miles later in the fertile Willamette Valley, Oregon. The popular image of families packed into horse-drawn wagons to cross the windswept prairies is misleading; wagons were small, no wider than a double bed, and only the sick, elderly or very young were allowed to take up precious cargo space. Everyone else walked, and the wagons were usually pulled by less romantic, but far more resilient, oxen. How do we know this? Largely by reading the letters and diaries of the emigrants themselves.

Should we read someone else’s diary? Normally, perhaps not; it’s a repository of secret thoughts, fears and dreams that are never intended to be shared unless they belong to an individual whose life is of public interest, say a politician or a film star. But what about those everyday people whose scribbles in a journal are simply meant as a private means of self-expression, a place to rant about an unfeeling lover, difficult relatives or trouble at work? Sometimes, opening the diaries of these wagon train women, I feel something of an intruder. When I read the entry for 19 May 1853 written by nineteen year old Agnes Stewart, it is hard not to be moved by the anguish she tries so hard to conceal:

“Oh, I feel so lonesome today! Sometimes I can govern myself, but not always, but I hold in pretty well considering all things.”

Agnes confides her private suffering to a journal, not wanting to be seen by her fellow travellers as a weak and complaining girl. Fixing a lantern to the ridgepole of her tent, she sits hunched over her diary at night, desperately missing family, friends and a familiar life left behind. As the entries continue, my impression of the character of this young woman becomes clearer. She is sensitive to the plight of the Native Americans, questioning their treatment by the government; and she is clearly distressed by the discovery of a woman’s corpse, dug up by wolves, blue ribbons still intact in her hair. On days when the wagon train rests, Agnes tells us she is doing laundry, or stewing apples, though she longs to swim in the creek or play leapfrog with the boys. Although it seems that this diary was written only as a private outlet for thoughts and emotions on the emigrant trail, the document was preserved long after the journey had ended, and, indeed, after its author had died. Can we assume that Agnes kept it to remember that turning point in her life? Did she intend it as a record of family history to pass on to her children and grandchildren? As the teenage Anne Frank recorded in her own diary in 1944, “I want to go on living even after death.”

Of course, there were some, like Elizabeth Wood, who started their diaries with the intention of getting published. By the mid-nineteenth century, pioneer journals had become commonplace, although those published had generally been by men. Elizabeth was unusual in that she was female and single, following in the footsteps of successful women travel writers of the time, such as Isabella Bird Bishop with her book A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.

The original diaries written by the emigrant women were small notebooks that would take up little space. Paper and ink was in short supply on a journey across the continent that might take four months or more. Space in the wagons was reserved for food, and essentials such as bedding and cooking utensils. A journal that could slip into a pocket with a pencil would become a treasured possession. Few of these documents have survived, but many were transcribed before the contents were lost, either by the women themselves, or often by daughters, nieces or granddaughters. Here in the archives, I am reading a diary originally handwritten in 1852, and typed up some sixty years later. The ink is faded, the typing uneven and smudged, but this only serves to remind me that this was probably intended as a personal, family document. It is only with the passage of time that the accounts of ordinary people assume the importance of historical commentary.

Some of the diaries highlight the writer’s awareness that she is entering a new chapter in her life, with the potential for success or failure, happiness or grief. Writing on 4 January 1851, Jean Rio Baker starts her New Year boarding a ship from Liverpool to New Orleans, on route to Salt Lake City.

“I this day take took leave of every acquaintance I could collect together, in all human probability never to see them again on Earth. I am now (with my children) about to leave for ever my native land.”

Is she sad at these partings? It would seem so, but there is also a frisson of excitement. Later, when describing awful storms in the Atlantic, Jean writes triumphantly that she is one of the few passengers unaffected by seasickness. Her diary entries are regular, part of her daily routine. Maybe this is an antidote to boredom, or perhaps a method of alleviating fears for her children and herself. Even when her young son, Josiah, dies, she manages to record the event in her diary, noting the exact longitude and latitude where his body, sewn into a white sack, is consigned to the deep. Her grief is palpable, yet Josiah is not mentioned again after this date, his mother’s diary now preoccupied with the illness of another child. Does that daily ritual of taking up her journal help Jean to keep going, to press on with a journey despite the costs?

Jean Rio Baker’s account of life on board a ship full of Mormons heading to Salt Lake City contains fascinating insights into the life of this community. When the weather is calm, and the family are well, she has time to write of the “shameful” behaviour of Elder Booth and Sister Thorn who are thrown out of the church. We are similarly intrigued by her brief mention of three Mormon women who are cut off for “levity of behaviour (with some officers of the ship)”. There are descriptions of meals, musical evenings and stunning sunsets. On arrival in New Orleans, she uses her diary to debate the issue of slavery, and to dissect the social customs of Louisiana society. As her journey progresses up the Mississippi River to St Louis, and beyond on the Mormon Trail to Utah, Jean writes almost every day, despite broken wagon wheels, perilous ravines and unpredictable Indians. She records attending births (including that of her first grandchild) and deaths, nursing those who are injured or ill. When she finally reaches Salt Lake City, she describes her joy and gratitude to God for arriving safely. Yet we also detect a wistfulness that the adventure is over and her diary with it: “and now I suppose I have finished my ramblings for my whole life.”

Whereas Jean completes her regular diary entries despite the rigours of her daily life, other women struggle to find the time between childcare, cooking and laundry. Perhaps Jean, being a widow, has more control over what little free time she does have. Eugenia Zieber writes almost always on Sundays, when the wagon train halts to observe the Sabbath. However, there are several false starts in her journal, where all she succeeds in writing is the date. Her frustration, as well as resentment of those who have lighter responsibilities is evident:

“There is scarcely time, upon such a journey, for those who have aught (sic) that is essentially necessary to do, to keep a diary. It must be done by snatches or at any moment or not at all.”

Eugenia does not explain her motivation for her desire to write. Perhaps she wanted to capture the inhospitable mountains that threatened snow even in July, or wolves that howled on the fringes of camp at night, or the immigrant names carved on Independence Rock. All we can be confident of is that the ritual of setting down her personal thoughts and observations in a diary, on a daily, or at least regular, basis, is important to her.

The more I investigate the journals of these women who undertook the challenging immigrant trails, whether to Oregon, California or Utah, the more I recognise that they were just like us. They record the daily trials of marriage, children and neighbours, domestic chores and inclement weather. Although their diaries document a singular event that shapes their lives, they also reflect the history of an expanding nation, and the role of women within it. These are strong women, whose individual voices speak to us generations later. Glimpses of burgeoning feminism are seen in references to wearing practical ‘bloomers’ instead of trailing skirts. There are joyful descriptions of novelties such as prairie dogs, cacti and buffalo (although the latter may bother the cattle driven ahead of the wagons).

There is (perhaps unwitting) humour, such as in Mariett Foster Cummings’ diary entry in April 1852 on her way to California:

“This I expect is the beginning of trouble. I stayed at a public house and ate fried pudding.”

There is great sadness, as scribbled by another woman:

“I am sick. Sometimes I think I shall not live long. It is hard to die so young and William, my William, who will console him?”

She’s not being maudlin, just realistic; hundreds of women died on the emigrant trails, both in childbirth and of illnesses such as typhoid, malaria or dysentery. Not to mention those who drowned in raging rivers, fell under wagon wheels or were killed by hostile Indians. Acutely aware of the fragility of life, the women cling to their diaries. If they should die along the trail, and be buried in a shallow grave without a tombstone, at the mercy of wolves and buzzards, there will be nothing to show for their lives. A diary at least would leave something behind. [/private]

The Night I Got Lost on the Way Home From China

Photo by Pete (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Pete (copied from Flickr)

“…And I will think of you when I’m dead in my grave”- Tom Waits

The beginning of this century found me, mentally, in exactly the same place where the end of the last century had left me: existing pursued by shame. The shame had followed me all my life, from place to place. This place happened to be the overlit bar of an airport in Amsterdam. Physically I was running from Greece to China.
I had worked in Greece for four months, in a town call Oresties on the border with Turkey and the border with Bulgaria, and the border with Macedonia. Border towns, in my experience, are rough. Triple border towns are… well, you know. I had gone to Greece too quickly, with too little preparation because I was running away from shame somewhere else. I had callously told my family that “I might never come back”, making a deposit in the bank of shame. The journey involved flying to Athens, changing onto a tiny, terrifying plane to Alexandropolis, which didn’t live up to the grandeur of the name, and then getting a taxi for what seemed like forever to my new home. I was dumped out in the dark, over charged, ripped off and lost as usual. “They screw you as you leave the airport”, as good an axiom as Nietzsche ever came up with. 
I lived in a cockroach infested apartment. The couple next door fought, physically, constantly and loudly, the lady upstairs was insane and screamed her way through the night. I went up to her door once and it was covered on the outside with scratch marks from human nails. When I stood on my balcony – yes, I had such a thing, and it was the only place I could escape the army of roaches – I saw the rats, dogs and Albanian illegal immigrants fighting over the food. Never bet against the rat.
 The first day of work I turned a corner and walked directly into the chest cavity of a boar, gutted and hanging outside a butcher’s, so I started my teaching career there marked with blood. There was no way to go anywhere from there. I didn’t drive, there were no buses, there was only the train which I jumped on and used to run away almost the some moment I discovered it existed. That train journey was like a hallucination. I couldn’t get control of my breath. I listened to Cornershop’s song ‘It’s good to be on the road back home again’ (“drinking to my friends and drinking to my foes, for both keep a young heart moving…”, “for I’ve lost myself searching for what I ain’t, it’s good to be on the road back home again, again…”) and to John Cale’s Paris 1919 album (“I suppose I’m glad I’m on this train – again) over and over on that journey.
 But before that I lived in that place for four long months, like a very poor man’s Graham Greene. The town was built in concrete squares. It was built in the 1970s by Greeks returning from emigration to Germany. That hopeful beginning made the reality even sadder, for almost nowhere I’ve ever been has been more ugly. I taught English to teenagers who were more bored even than usual teenagers and the fact was that they had every right to be. They killed themselves at a rate of one or two a month by getting drunk and crashing on small motorbikes. It was ever so slightly like being at war, the amount of young men killed and injured. 
Also, being on the border between Greece and Turkey it was a military town and so pretty rough round certain bars in the nighttime. It was easy for a foreigner to find trouble there, it was sent to your table, compliments of the house.
 It was difficult to get across that border although it was walking distance from my flat. They made sure that when the Greek side was open the Turkish side was shut, and vice versa, most of the time. I did get over once and found that the scene on the Turkish side was a mirror image of what I saw on the Greek side, the same old men with dark moustaches sitting outside little cafes under bird cages, drinking the same short, strong coffee. Same food, same culture – nearly – but I don’t advise saying this too loudly in the little bar district of good old Orestias. This is not an original insight but it is none the less true or important for that.
 I was aware that Greece would collapse economically well before most economists, the roaches told me and the roaches know things we will never know. They made me sign a kind of roach official secrets act to get out of there alive so I can’t tell what they told for fifty years. I got to know them, respect and fear them. People who say they aren’t afraid of roaches mean they aren’t afraid of ONE roach or that they have never shared a small flat with countless thousands of them. Believe me you know who’s in charge under those circumstances. 
I ate Yearas, or Kebab depending on your politics, drank Heineken and went slowly insane for those four months before I fled.

Now I was running away from shame in Greece but it was only the latest in a long list of things I felt ashamed of. My whole life I had moved from one thing to another, then one place to another, never quite achieving what I might have, never quite finishing what I started. Every place I left, every thing I left incomplete left me that little bit more ashamed and I carried that with me all the time so that every new thing I did felt like nothing but a signpost to my previous shameful acts and I became more and more fearful that doing anything made me more likely to be noticed and therefore found out about the things in my past. The past is always present and nothing is ever forgiven – ever. Everyone has it coming and we all have the Devil to pay.
The feeling I’m describing began for me when I was about twelve and I met the Devil. He was just there in the front garden one day and he stayed with me for years after. Later he moved into the background more and dispersed, not so much a physical presence any more, just a part of how I thought and felt. Now you might say, “Twelve, eh, that the onset of puberty, that’s all” and you might be right but I guess I’m like a born again Christian, I just have a personal relationship with the Other Fella and as the Saved say of Christ, if you haven’t met him, you can’t understand. He looked different at different times. Sometimes he looked just like ‘The foxy-faced gentleman‘ from the Beatrix Potter stories.

My friend Kevin had given me a set of two Tom Waits CDs to keep me company on the trip. This was at the time when old Tom was dealing with his Alice in Wonderland addiction and there was an album of slow songs from the theatre production he had worked on based on Alice and another album of rougher tracks in the Bone Machine type of style. I had bought myself a Sony MiniDisc player. It had taken me days to transfer all my music onto the brightly coloured plastic discs or the darker ones that looked more serious and held something like forty-eight albums, an unthinkable amount of data to me back then. I was very attached to this new machine. I have always had a tendency to become attached to an object and to the idea of that object, as if it will be capable of mediating between me and the world, as if that object will provide me with the necessary tools to deal with, communicate with and control my environment.

I feel that way now about my ‘office’ – an iPad and a MacBook – but I have also felt that way about a bass guitar, a Samsung netbook, an MP3 player, a large old-fashioned record player, hundreds of notebooks, several bags (sometimes at once) and a host of other things. At this moment a functioning copy of Microsoft Word would change my life completely.

This could be a hangover from my catholic background to do with the reverence for relics.

I still have that old MD player though it doesn’t work properly anymore and I don’t have many of the discs left but the object itself has some magic about it. I can’t find the disc with the Tom Waits albums on it, another piece of the true cross.

I had flown from Dublin to Amsterdam and had a wait for my next flight to Beijing. So I was back with the Heineken and listening to Tom singing that line that still haunts me: “…And I will think of you when I’m dead in my grave.” Ok, so it’s about obsession, still thinking about something when you’re dead, but there’s a twist to it, a reversal of the idea of remembering the dead which throws that idea into sharper relief like shadowing on a painting. It’s an infinity sign of the connections between the living and the dead. It’s really an example of the magic you can make by editing words together in the right sequence, the difficulty is in catching the little suckers and pinning them down.

I will listen to one album over and over again if that feels like the perfect soundtrack to my mental landscape at that time. There’s a point when an album becomes too moving or appropriate to listen to, so that it’s almost as painful as reading your own work, and another point close by it when an album is perfect for the time. There was a time when I couldn’t stomach From Her To Eternity, and a time when I didn’t want to stop listening to it, when I only felt alive when I heard, “I wanna tell you about a girl…” Amsterdam airport is a ‘quiet airport’, they have no public address system, so I was free to combine drink, music (in my memory you could smoke there also, you could smoke nearly everywhere in that country) and that feeling of being BETWEEN that travel gives you to go somewhere fictional in your head. The time to board the plane came, they changed the gate twice, and I entered that unpleasant mental space of long haul flight that combines all the worst elements of a long train journey with none of the good.

Micro-Narratives of the Everyday

Photo by  Frédérique Voisin-Demery (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Frédérique Voisin-Demery (copied from Flickr)

“Where do novels come from?” Or “Who invented the novel?” Or “What was the first novel?” Or even, “Why did Shakespeare write plays, why didn’t he write novels?” Why does one literary form come to dominate an age rather than another? What are the circumstances that bring a particular literary form into being and how might new technologies – as well as the discourse that surrounds them – shape the novels that have yet to be written? How should we, as writers and readers of literature, respond to the immense challenge presented by digital technology in general and social media in particular? [private]

We live in accelerated world where everybody and everything is continuously available, all the time and largely independent of wherever we might actually ‘be.’ New forms of immediate and intensely inter-connected media mobilise language in conjunction with images and emotive signifiers in a way that seems closer to hieroglyphics (and often almost indistinguishable from advertising) than, say, the dense prose of a Dickens novel. Furthermore, the accessibility of these media means everyone can now ‘be’ (or present themselves ‘as’) a novelist, poet, artist, photographer, film maker, musician or fashion model. We are all – to paraphrase Tom McCarthy – transmitters and receivers, exchanging ideas and information whilst continually augmenting and broadcasting new or updated versions of ourselves. I could tweet to my followers that I am “#writing an article for @LitroMagazine” as I write it. And if I don’t reveal it, the GPS on my phone will show my ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ exactly where I am, as I write the piece. When I check my Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feeds I’m bombarded with data, from up-to-the-moment information from the crisis in Ukraine to a picture of someone’s breakfast to countless trivial and continuous revelations of mood, event, opinion, consumption or action. I read that a prominent YA author is “moving house” while below that a poet announces that his wife’s test results are bad, she has cancer and is being rushed to hospital for treatment. Drama is all around. These ‘updates’ are followed by dozens of comments – words of advice and comfort, arguments and exchanges of opinion, links to other sources – it’s endless and constant. My day has hardly started and already I’m overwhelmed by these micro-narratives of the everyday.

As a novelist, I often wonder how I should try and respond to this new reality. Might the novel – as a form – be too slow and considered to maintain any purchase on our slippery, shifting digital reality? Or are there ways for the novel to engage and absorb these media, making full use of their poetic and dramatic resources while continuing to comment on and reflect our world in a more profound and considered manner?

Novels have not always been with us. Novels are not magical, ahistorical entities that somehow appeared out of thin air. They are the result of a particular set of socio-historical, technological and economic circumstances. Without the invention of printing presses, without the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution, without the emergence of a literate middle class with leisure time, education and a disposable income, the novel would not exist. We also know that the novel is particularly well suited to representing certain types of life as well as certain types of conflict. Ever since Richardson, Defoe and Austen, the novel has tended to focus on the ability of its protagonist(s) to negotiate social rituals (typically class conflicts and marriage) and gain (or lose) private property. Themes of ownership and property have their extra-textual correlative in the aura of originality and authority that surrounds a novel. As a result, the novel is usually seen as the unique product of a single, private individual, an expression of the particular style and manner of that author. As Foucault observed: “We now ask of each poetic or fictional text: from where does it come, who wrote it, when, under what circumstances, or beginning with what design?” Unlike the ancient poets and dramatists, novelists tend not invoke the muse. Novels are not a ‘divinely inspired’ form whose subject matter is summoned from beyond, but one that that comes within and around. The novel is embedded in social conflict; it emerges from and returns to the material world of the author. The circumstances surrounding its production also mean that, unlike earlier literary forms, the novel also tends to be consumed privately, a solitary affair, rather than collectively and publically like theatre or cinema.

Novels have also proven to be hugely adaptable, rising admirably to the challenges of the twentieth century. Modernists such as Fitzgerald and Joyce knew how to use the new communications technologies and mass media to drive their plots and transform the ‘realism’ of the nineteenth century novel into something altogether more dynamic: think of the telephone calls and car accidents in The Great Gatsby or the way Ulysses explodes the ‘everyday’ to become an exhaustive encyclopaedia of almost every possible form of discourse, literary, technical or other. But there is no guarantee the novel will survive the complexities of the twenty-first. Indeed, the novel might end up as redundant and anachronistic as the Horatian ode or the Spenserian sonnet, a static, dead form or – as Philip Roth has warned – an inaccessible minority interest to be consumed by a select few (just like Classical poetry today), entirely ignored by an uncomprehending wider society.

The technological innovations of the nineteenth and twentieth century transformed the structure of society, the nature of our social life, our individual consciousness and our relationship with time and space. Today, the ever-expanding universe of inter-connected new media we inhabit has accelerated these pressures, continuously challenging the more stable and intelligible sense of reality on which the novel traditionally depends. The essence of modernity is speed, but novels are a slow form, they take a very long time to write and can take a long time to read. In a world of accelerated consumption, the novel (rather like good food) remains definitively slow.

In the face of these challenges (although distractions might seem a better word), does the writing of ‘serious literature’ become impossible? And even if we still have ‘writers’ writing ‘literature,’ does anyone still care? Visual images have long since trumped the public imagination. As Lars Iyer comments in his hilarious and influential ‘anti-manifesto,’ ‘Nude in your hot tub, facing the abyss’: “Now you sit at your desk, dreaming of Literature, skimming the Wikipedia page about the ‘Novel’ as you snack on salty treats and watch cat and dog videos on your phone. You post to your blog and you tweet the most profound things you can think to tweet, you labour over a comment about a trending topic, trying to make it meaningful.”

We seem lost in distraction, our capacity for serious thought (and serious art) swamped by a deluge of the immediate. Writing more than twenty years earlier, the French philosopher Giles Deleuze was even more forthright about what he saw as the negative impact of technology on human subjectivity: “This technical world, the larger its power is, the more it seems to drain mankind, like a chicken, of any interior life and to reduce it to total exteriority.” If the novel dramatizes the private, interior consciousness of its characters and represent the complexities of social conflict, how then should writers respond to innovations that have atomised and decentred society, undermining or transforming almost beyond recognition many of the distinctions (such as private versus public, presence versus absence, duty versus desire) on which the novel traditionally depends? For example, where once we had the diary – private, secret, interior, isolated and dangerous – we now have the blog – public, open, external, linked and safe. The very openness of a blog negates its capacity for danger. A diary, being hidden, remains dangerous, because it contains secrets, but the blog? The blog is nothing but a confession, a disclosure, a public-working out, a becoming visible that neuters – through exposure – whatever threat lay behind that which was withheld, isolated, deliberately kept from circulation. It is a paradoxical situation: social media means our society is now more connected, with more opportunities for connection, communication and exposure than ever before. But at the same time we cannot deny that with this process has come a sort of flattening out or a draining of what was once understood as depth, interiority or ‘resistance’. The alienated consciousness of the Modernist novel sought through existential crisis and the transgression of bourgeois norms to determine the underlying structure and meaning of society. But in our postmodern age this presence has been displaced, has become something else. But what, exactly?

In many ways, contemporary novelists – or, perhaps, the wider publishing industry – are failing to engage with these challenges. The popularity of what is called ‘historical fiction’ reflects our culture’s ambivalence about the novel’s ability to represent contemporary society (or even our ambivalence about ‘contemporary society’ itself). Of course, the ‘historical novel’ is embedded in these contradictions (reflecting the fact that pastiche, as Frederic Jameson pointed out, has long been our dominant cultural style) while harking back to a time before mobile phones, (or phones at all) the internet and social media, when communication took place slowly, in one dimension and in chronological order. But it’s clear that we can’t just write historical novels forever (and, indeed, one wonders what the scholars of the future will make of this meme – is the popularity of the ‘historical novel’ not just another symptom of our pessimism towards the future and our inability to envisage positive models of modernity?) What does all this mean for the novelist who still wishes to write ‘to the moment’ and stop the novel from becoming a vessel for nostalgia or escapism?

In his essay ‘The End of the End of Everything: Fiction’s Fretful Futures’ Sam Byers makes a bold case for the novel’s ability to absorb these influences, arguing “the novel, with its access, not only to our emotions but also our meta-emotions, the things we feel about how we feel, is the perfect medium for this conflicted age.” He argues that the novel can absorb almost any form of discourse, incorporating texts and tweets and breaking 24 hour news to great dramatic effect. Indeed, I would argue that although the order, structure and appearance of our reality have undergone a radical transformation, the essence of what motivates us has not changed so much: in the eighteenth and nineteenth century novel, for example, the arrival of a letter or a message was always an important event – and there seems no reason why, in the novels of today, an e-mail or status update should not have the same impact on character and narrative.

If nothing else, the popularity of social media, the endless posting, sharing and retweeting of status updates, events and trends shows how our passion for diverse narratives has not diminished. We still crave stories to make life sensible for us, whether we consume these stories via novels or other media. As a result, the contemporary novelist faces several challenges. First, we should not try to hide from the ubiquity of social media or confine ourselves to writing about the past but rather embrace the extent to which social media acts as both an intensifier of drama and as a new linguistic resource. Internet dating, Grinder and Tinder might have replaced the ‘marriage plot’ of the eighteenth and nineteenth century novel, but our desire for sex and love has not changed (even if we might be facing the disconcertingly dystopian possibility that ‘chatting someone up you met at a bar or party’ has been outmoded by new applications, just as first asking the father for permission to marry his daughter is now a redundant code of conduct). Writers need to recognise that these technologies add another dimension to social interaction. If, for example, courtship used to proceed through letters and choreographed visits, it now takes place in both reality and the hyper-real, with ‘adding’ and ‘following’ and checking out the other’s virtual persona now crucial stages, the equivalent of couples once being allowed to exchange confidences or go on walks together unchaperoned.

taipeiIn Tao Lin’s novel Taipei (2013) the narrator, Paul, first encounters his future wife Erin, online: “Paul first learned of Erin twenty months ago, in January 2009, when she commented on his blog and he clicked her profile and read her pensive, melancholy, amusing accounts on her blog, of her vague relationships and part-time book store job and nights drinking beer while looking at the internet and classes at the University of Baltimore… Paul found and read – and reread with high levels of interest – three long stories, each focused on an unrequited or failed relationship, that she had published in online magazines.” Tao Lin’s novel shows how the virtual has overtaken the real: the characters first ‘meet’ and pursue the other online; they study one another’s online personas and then anxiously try to assess the extent to which the persona ‘matches’ the reality, a behaviour which is both totally new (in that at no time in human history have we been able to access so much information about each other) and, due to its salience, totally familiar. Tao Lin makes the fact that contemporary relationships are heavily mediated in this way a central part of his novel. Paul and Erin even email one another when in the same room as they find it a less challenging form of communication than actual, face-to-face dialogue – or they attend the cinema with friends but “would sit separately during the movie and communicate only through tweets, in service of making the experience ‘more fun and interesting.’”

The novel has its extra-textual echo with @tao_lin whose twitter persona is at times hard to distinguishable from his fictional narrator ‘Paul.’ In Taipei Paul embarks on a drugs fuelled book tour, “texting people and asking on Facebook if anyone within fifty miles wanted to sell them drugs” just as Tao Lin spent much of his recent UK book tour tweeting requests for people to bring him drugs or money. As a result, Taipei seems less like a unique, singular artefact and more like a supplement or an appendage to a larger social media presence. But at the same time, we cannot dismiss Taipei as just an accessory for some sort of hipster celebrity. Nor is Taipei an ‘anti-novel’ subverting or overturning all the expectations and conventions of the form. Peel away the drugs and hipster trappings and Taipei is actually quite traditional and sentimental, following the attempts of an alienated young man to integrate himself into a society as he struggles to balance parental expectations with the demands of his social milieu. The novel is very much a modern ‘love story’ tracing – as it does – the arc of his relationship (while avoiding traditional moments of crisis or change) with Erin from Facebook friends through ‘ironic’ Vegas marriage and eventual disenchantment. Tao Lin’s ability to engage with social media as part of the reality of ‘lived experience’ is undercut with more critical reflections – such as the narrator’s feeling that “technology had begun… to mostly indicate the inevitability and vicinity of nothingness” – and these reflections prevent the text from aligning itself too closely with these other forms of media. The fact that Paul continually thinks of himself using metaphors borrowed from technology – “the hardware” of his brain, his eyes compared to a screen, his memory to a zip file – implicitly critiques the impact of this technology on human subjectivity.

As a result, Taipei retains a measure of critical distance even if it also stands as an example of just how far our subjectivity has been sculpted by these media-technologies. It offers one example of how the novel might sustain and rejuvenate itself in the face of social media, showing how the novel can absorb these forms and practices, rendering them – through narration, dramatization, distance and reflection – with the clarity we need to see them afresh. [/private]

Year of the Prince

Ben Crystal shares exclusive fragments from his rehearsal diaries on playing Hamlet, and considers where Shakespeare might be headed next…

Hamlet, University of Nevada, Reno
Hamlet, University of Nevada, Reno

It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself: [He puts his hand on his heart] I will never play The Dane. When that moment comes, one’s ambition ceases. Don’t you agree? – Withnail and I (1987)

Back from watching a piece of new writing in the London Fringe, but all I can think about is I’ve been asked to play Hamlet.

Hamlet, Hamlet, Hamlet.

I remember watching Mel Gibson’s cut-to-shreds Hamlet, with Dad. I must have been 14 or 15, studying Macbeth in school and finding Shakespeare dull. I really hated studying King Lear at 17.

Then after playing Ariel in The Tempest, my first experience of acting Shakespeare, it was like light shone down, and I have never had a problem understanding Shakespeare since.

Branagh’s Hamlet came out while I was in university, and I yearned, burned to be in it. It was beautiful, and he’d used the text in its entirety, every word, all four hours of it.

Then watching my first fringe production – in a dark basement in King’s X, produced by the lead, and it all seeming very formal, egotistical, and cack-handed – an ego-project, the kind of thing that now makes my stomach churn.

Then Sam West’s Hamlet, the first professional production I’d seen, full of clapping and moving security cameras on the proscenium arch, the over-seeing of the court played strong.

And Jude Law’s a couple of years ago, which looked stunning but I remember thinking “They’re saying all these beautiful words, but some of the actors don’t seem to know what any of them mean…”

And then the great ones I missed: Daniel Day Lewis so in character he walked off stage never to return, having hallucinated the ghost of his own dead father. Or Mark Rylance in pyjamas at the RSC, and then his second go at the Globe which I did catch, so beautifully simple, playful, wonderful.

This can’t be an ego project. I can’t be a big fish in a small pool, with every word dropping from my lips taken as gold because of my other work in Shakespeare. [private]



Hamlet, Hamlet, Hamlet. The thing about Hamlet, about all of Shakespeare’s parts, is he gives you the most beautiful, ornate frame, and a blank canvas. You can paint whatever picture you want of the character. It is half Shakespeare, half you. Shakespeare drops the golden bread-crumbs, leading you towards the truth, but it’s still you walking the walk.

And the play has SO many questions. Is he mad? Does he love Ophelia?

What is the truth, the reason behind saying these famous words, To be, or not to be… what kind of person needs to speak them aloud…?

I wrote this a few years ago:

Hamlet is considered to be the most sought-after and the most elusive role for actors, and the play remains the most produced of Shakespeare’s works; countless productions, interpretations and re-interpretations have been dreamt up, trying to nail down The Definitive Hamlet.

When I wrote that, I remember thinking: but I don’t particularly want to play it…


Over Skype, my friend Will (a member of my ensemble who learnt all of Shakespeare’s Sonnets off by heart) and I talk about learning all those lines.

Shakespeare’s actors had prodigious memories, despite the booze: both because their culture was filled with more storytelling than ours, and their brains had less input than ours do – no synapse-creating Internet, movies, or adverts. They were the only ones intended to read Shakespeare’s plays – 80% of the people in his time being illiterate – and even they would rarely have read the entire play.

Apparently, there was no scribe/scrivener/copyist on Henslowe’s payroll. We talked tonight about whether they would have copied out their own lines, a centuries old theatrical tradition that was still practiced in the Rep system, and a great aide-memoir. It means Shakespeare’s actors were probably all literate. It’s possible they had their lines written out, or read out to them, but it’s unlikely – paying for scribes would mean wasted time and unnecessary cost.

So they would have written out only their parts – what is the point, if you play Laertes, to write out the middle of the play? What, indeed, is the point in writing out the lines of the other characters in a scene, if you only say one thing at the very end before everyone leaves? It’s a waste of paper (expensive), ink (ibid), and time-consuming (not useful when the play opens in a few days). Better to write out your part and your cue to speak, so you knew when to speak.

And you’d have even less time if you were playing a smaller part, as the full script would be passed to the lead actors first, and they take soooo much time to copy their parts out. So your cue-script, your part, is your entire knowledge of the play until you walk on stage and hear it for the first time.

Some say the first time some of Shakespeare’s actors would have heard the play in its entirety was at the same time as the first audience, and there’s a few companies (my own included) that use this cue-script practice.

It makes for very very live Shakespeare in comparison to the standard, heavily-rehearsed modern productions, where one of the skills you have to develop is not looking or sounding disinterested having heard the lines dozens of times before.


Amsterdam, to run a workshop for Will at a high-school in deepest south Holland. Workshops go well, but I keep thinking about Hamlet…

Re-reading it on the train. If I’m going to do this, the first thing I need to do is work out the biggest mountain first: what is To be or not to be about?

Some people say that if an actor is revealing something about themselves and not the character, then they’re not doing it right, but everything I know about Shakespeare is to the contrary. The frame and the canvas. The frame is the verse, and you bring your self, as openly and vulnerably as possible into the brush, when you paint the rest.

Hamlet is more human, more intelligent, more passionate, MORE, than any other character I’ve encountered.


Coffee with Hilton McRae. I understudied his Feste in a National Tour of Twelfth Night, the producer Thelma Holt having given me my first professional Shakespeare gig. I was a slightly glorified spear-carrier, Orsino’s man, with Fabian’s letter-reading speech at the end. I met him at the read-through, and said:

– Hi, I’m understudying you.

And Hilt said:

H – Oh god, you poor thing.

And walked away.

But the job was a start, and I enjoyed the craft of trying to bring a real, subtle life to an unimportant character. I invented enough stage-business with files and folders to try and help create the world of Orsino’s court, without turning it into Twelfth Night or The Plight of Orsino’s Man.

I enjoyed the freedom of Feste, as he flew around the stage, slid on the floor up to his Lady Olivia, and as the Clown, had free license to do pretty much anything. The way he moved, I realise now, formed the way my Hamlet moved…

My opening line in the play, after Orsino’s famous “If music be the food of love, play on,” was the nearly-as-immortal line “Will you go hunt, my Lord?”, delivered by yours truly.

I agonised over how to deliver that line:

1. Frustration: WILL you go hunt my Lord? (probably inappropriate to be frustrated)

2. Pointed: Will YOU go hunt my Lord? (as opposed to who?)

3. Strong: Will you GO hunt my Lord? (by himself? like telling a child to go play? really inappropriate)

4. I’ve got an idea: Will you go HUNT my Lord? (as opposed to? moping around wishing for Olivia – not bad)

5. Possessive: Will you go hunt MY Lord? showing allegiance: but, a bit much. And, the play is also not called Twelfth Night or Orsino’s Man’s Love for Orsino)

6. Will you go hunt my LORD? (instead of calling him Orsi?)

Eventually, I asked Hilton for advice in the car-park of the Plymouth Theatre Royal, a few days before we opened.

We’d broken for lunch, and I was glum. Even though I had almost nothing to do, the director wouldn’t release me during the next day’s tech run, for a big film audition in London. That’s the problem with actors. We’ve barely started the first job before we’re looking ahead to the next. And we’re already spending the money before we get there.

Hilton stared down at the floor, then squinted up at me.

H – Well, it’s a question, isn’t it?

– Yeah.

H – So… ask the question. Will you go hunt my Lord? Just ask the question.

Hilton lit his licorice rollie, and walked away, as I stared at the space where he was, slack-jawed.

Best acting lesson I’ve ever learnt. The simplicity. That’s the problem with Shakespeare. Because it’s SHAKESPEARE and it’s LITERATURE, and it’s written in IAMBIC PENTAMETER and it’s POETRY, and can be tricky to understand, it’s easy to lose yourself in a maze of over-analysis.

“Just ask the question.” A note I pin to the inside of my head whenever I realise I’m working it too hard.

Hilton has a reputation for being difficult, but he’s not. He just won’t put up with ANY bullshit, WHATSOEVER. And he’s a great believer in how much information is packed into the text and the metre. This means his acting is terrifically truthful, and solidly based. He chases down the life of a character like a Hound.

I tell him about my concerns about playing the Dane, about what to do with the big speeches. Hilt squints at me, in the warm morning sunlight of Primrose Hill. Then in his lackadaisical Scottish drawl:

H – Thingabout playing Hamlet is, it’s not about the bits you normally get to do. It’s about the other bits, the small bits you never get to say…

The great Sir John Gielgud floats to mind. His first gig was as a spear-carrier in a 1921 production of Henry V. Eight years later he performed what people have been saying since was the greatest Hamlet ever. He then played it something like 4 times more, his final at 45.

His style of acting – and speaking Shakespeare – went out of fashion in the 50s with the arrival of Laurence Olivier, the Royal Court, and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. After that, audiences wanted less musical-poetic, more kitchen-sink, real Shakespeare, of which I am a disciple…

But looking back to Branagh’s Hamlet, which at the time seemed so ground-breaking, it now feels grand. Rather than people speaking poetry, the question is why do the characters feel there is no other way to express what they’re feeling or thinking than in poetry?


At the Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival, giving a talk with Don Paterson.

In the Green Room, I meet the great Shakespeare actor Simon Russell-Beale. I tell him I’m about to play Hamlet, and he goes quiet for a moment, before looking me solidly in the eyes.

SRB – Enjoy it. Give it everything you have. And I’ll tell you what they told me: It will change your life.

– How?

He sits back, unblinking.

SRB – It will change you, he repeats.

I sit backstage listening to him and the Archbishop of Canterbury discuss all things Shakespearean, when suddenly he mentions Hamlet and its awe-inspiring hugeness and he name-checks me, as one who was about to undertake this magnificent part, and he wishes me well, and then I’m staring into space and I walk in on myself: it’s actually going to happen.


Hamlet, University of Nevada, Reno
Hamlet, University of Nevada, Reno

Before I leave for rehearsals. Possibly driving everyone crazy talking about Hamlet.

Everywhere I go recently, people seem to have others close to them who are dying, or have been close to death. I keep talking about it, because I have these flashes, these moments of panic when I’m really tired or hungover. It’s not natural to always be thinking of your own mortality. In order to understand Hamlet, I need to get my head into his head. Which makes me reflect on my own.

A scientist at the Hay Festival last week said “the people who will be watching our own sun, which is 4 billion years old, burn out in 6 billion years time, will be as different to us as we are from amoeba.”

Humans generally tend to be uncomfortable with the idea of their own mortality, and seek solace in religion, or “something greater”. But Hamlet doesn’t. He thinks “the rest is silence.”

It’s a concept, like trying to conceive of the size of the universe and the things going on around us every day, while worrying about an unsent email. Our minds aren’t built to cope with the macro all the time. And yet I’m facing it more often than I ever used to.


I start every day of rehearsals with stick work I’ve adapted from Complicité workshops. Stand on one side of the room. Balance a bamboo stick (about 1.5 metres long) on the tip of your finger. Walk across the space. And that’s it. Just take a stick for a walk, without imposing any play or character on it. But when it falls, and fall it must, catch it as if it’s the love of your life falling into your arms.

It’s a beautifully simple, endlessly fascinating exercise. It allows practice in one’s own physicality, and once a certain level of simplicity has been achieved, walking the stick in character, or with another actor who’s also in character, can make for powerful physical exploration. Watching my company members reach into the emotional core of the play, and someone different every day falls apart, surprised at their sudden tears. There should be a warning on the back of this script.

It’s like this play, more than any other, was once a novel, and all the moments, interaction, speech has been boiled down to the bare essentials, that we’re left with the essence of what they’re talking about.

We spend our lives in bubble wrap, trying not to get hurt. It’s good to feel pain, and ache, both in body and heart. It reminds us we’re feeling, sentient beings, that are so good at masking the experience and extremities of life – we have to tear past that screen, in order to be free, open and vulnerable; to begin work.

One of the exercises I run pushes my actors to face the emotional heart of a text. Once achieved, they can revisit their memory of the high stakes/emotional depths, so in the moment of encountering a similarly high emotion in the text, the chord has already been struck and the note is still ringing in their ears. When it strikes again they’ll remember the experience from today, and with practice find it easier to reach.

The process made them see that there’s a blueprint there, written in, and that they don’t have to do anything other than just be honest, truthful, and direct.


…haven’t written a thing in a few days…

…first day off since we opened. let the bruises (like apples on my left hip and lower left knee – I still haven’t worked out where in the show i keep landing badly) heal, my voice recover from this cold, and shrug off a little bit of fatigue, thanks to the opening night party on Friday…

…an amazing show with a nearly full audience…  ELECTRIC to have such a crowd to talk to, to relate to, my friend, as Shakespeare’s monologues were meant to be, not introspective, but live and immediate questions or reflections to and with the Other person in the room: the audience…

…must remember that more. i love the argument in the relationship w the audience in Rogue, the terrible things said in the heat of an argument with a loved one, like Ophelia and I playing ‘I loved you not/i was the more deceived’ in the nunnery scene… the move from humour to explosive anger to self-awareness to apology with explanation in O what a rogue and peasant slave am I… – giving the audience a treat from the clever guy, as he explains what he’s going to do, and the vulnerability when he tells them why he’s going to do it, that he’s afraid…

…the apology, and explanation for getting upset, the trying to calm the angered lover with I have heard guilty creatures… onwards meets with resistance. then the admittance of guilt, to lack of action, and the explanation for that lack of action…

…the scared self-awareness in Now is the verie witching time, and the vile, menacing hatred in Now might i do it…

…the Samaritan call in Too too solid flesh. the knowledge of Now might I do it, but have I been to arrogant with that? am I too knowing? should the action be different? smugness is not attractive in a friend. but to me it makes most sense. answering their question “why don’t you kill him now?”

…the final desperate words to them, You that look pale and tremble at this chance, That are but mutes or audience to this act Had I but time… O, I could tell you. But let it be.

wanting to tell them so much more, everything I never said, that there were hints of in all the speeches…

…this week I think I’ve felt every emotion I have, there’s nothing I haven’t shared, either on stage or off, the only part of me people haven’t shared this week is the porn I look at or checking for zits. oh actually, I think someone saw me today looking at a blocked pore in the dressing room mirror, so I guess it’s just the porn…

i got nothing left.


Back in London after three months away on the most extraordinary journey, and to see a production of Hamlet at the Young Vic. They’ve set it in an insane asylum, and despite knowing the play off by heart now, I don’t understand a word. It makes no sense.

This is a bug-bear of mine. There’s been a tendency in recent years for his plays to be ‘concept-driven’, pushing square pegs into a round holes as we try to keep these plays relevant to new generations of theatre-goers – trying to modernise the piece rather than performing it as it was written – and instead of feeling closer to the play, people leave bored or indifferent.

We forget that first and foremost, Shakespeare was an actor. Second, he wrote and acted always and only for the same group of players. They worked together like ants in a hive for over twenty years. As they played together, both actors and writer developed their working relationship into a finely tuned, honed muscle.

If Shakespeare’s actors had their lines in advance, if they came to rehearsal with the words already learnt, lines that had been written to suit their own personal skills, then perhaps they could mount a new play in a few days. Maybe a day…?

What matters are the years and years of experience; working in each other’s pockets, that ensures both repetition and difference. The knowledge and practice that accrue from working in a single company ensure both continuity and innovation. Tremendously intense collaboration between actors and their author.

Russian and Swedish theatre companies spend months, sometimes years working in this way, forming such an ensemble, before beginning more formal rehearsals towards producing a play. With Shakespeare at the heart of our poetic, theatrical and linguistic heritage, perhaps we should do the same



To a pub in Angel for a friend’s friend’s birthday.

Sam West turns up, who I haven’t seen for years. He asks what I’ve been up to.

– I’m just back from playing Hamlet, I say.

His eyes widen, and deepen – a reaction I’ve become used to, from meeting other Hamlets. It’s a look, like people who’ve run a marathon, but without the time competitiveness, or people who have claimed the summit of Everest to see what the view is like. A quiet brotherhood.

Sam and I go out for a cigarette.

S – It changes everything. Your life, your career. I was offered Angelo and I thought, “Well, great. You spend 3 hours on stage as Hamlet. Why would I spend all my time in the dressing room in Measure for Measure?”

Ha. You can understand why Johnny G(ielgud) played it so often.

S – The difference is John never filmed it, and didn’t audio-record it until much later. If you wanted to see him, you had to go. I performed Hamlet 120 times, and a musician friend of mine said to me:

“How can you do that?”

I said, “well, what’s your favourite piece of music?”

“Bach,” she said. “How many times would you like to play it?”

“All my life,” she said.

“Exactly.”  [/private]

Pacification and its Discontents

Major Priscilla Azevedo (Photo by Bruce Douglas).
Major Priscilla Azevedo (Photo by Bruce Douglas).

2 September 2007. The thieves came as she was leaving for church. Dressed in civvies on her day off, Priscilla Azevedo, a 29-year old captain in Rio de Janeiro’s military police, sat parked in the driveway of her house in her green Ford Focus. As she waited for her mother and grandmother, she saw two armed men approaching. A gun pointed at her head, she surrendered the vehicle. She was blindfolded and driven away. In the boot of the car, as yet undisturbed, was a bag containing several police diplomas and service commendations. She started to pray, and one of the men ordered her to be silent.

They drove her to Morro do Castro, a favela in Niterói, a city to the east of Rio across the Guanabara Bay. The car stopped, and Priscilla was taken out. Five more men appeared. They took turns issuing threats and pressing a pistol against her cheek. Certain she would be killed once they discovered her true identity, she tried to flee. She broke into the home of an elderly couple, but they were frightened by the intruder and chased her out with brooms and shouts, back into the hands of her captors. [private]

By this time, the kidnappers had searched the vehicle, which contained five reais, a mobile phone, an old pair of trainers and the bag full of police material. Pleading desperately with the enraged men, Priscilla told them they belonged to the wife of her lover, a married policeman. They threw her in the boot of the car and she waited for them to set it on fire.

But the fire never came. Abandoned briefly by the gang, she managed to force the boot open and escape. This time she called for help at the first open door.  The boy living there untied her hands, and let her call the police. A day later, Captain Azevedo returned to the favela to assist in an operation that concluded with the arrest of five of her kidnappers. “Of course I was afraid,” she told me when I met her one sunny Friday afternoon in Rocinha, a massive, sprawling favela in Rio’s picturesque Zona Sul. “But fear has its benefits. It stimulates you to survive.”


The last time Eunice de Souza saw her brother alive he was on his way to buy lemon and garlic for the fish he had caught earlier that day. Amarildo de Souza, a 47-year old bricklayer’s assistant and father of six, left his small breezeblock home in the Pocinho neighbourhood of Rocinha on the evening of 14 July 2013. Around 6pm he entered the Bar do Júlio, a small corner-shop down an alleyway close to his house. Inside, five customers sat drinking beer and eating a fish stew, keeping half an eye on the TV coverage of the Flamengo v. Vasco football match.

A local resident popped into the bar, and asked Amarildo to help her carry some bags up the steep slope. On his return, Amarildo boasted he’d just received 30 reais for his efforts; a good day’s work for a man whose monthly salary rarely rose above 300 reais. Then, a group of eight military police officers, led by Douglas Vital, known locally as “Monkey Face”, entered the bar, asking to see Amarildo’s papers. The customers in the bar thought it was a strange request as Vital and Amarildo knew each other. Vital then asked Amarildo to accompany him to the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP), the local police station established in the favela a little over a year earlier. Júlio, the bar owner, and another customer, Luiz Carlos, asked Vital why they were taking him. “Don’t you know who I am?” Vital said to Carlos. “I’m Monkey Face”.

As the police officers left with Amarildo, one of the customers, Luciana, climbed up the alley to tell his wife, Elizabete Gomes da Silva; ‘Bete’. Bete waited outside the nearby police command and control centre for her husband to appear. A short time later, she saw him in the back of a police car. She rushed to meet him, but he told her Vital still had his documents. The car then headed on to Portão Vermelho, the administrative centre of the UPP, which consists of eight shipping containers, stacked four by two, located in the upper part of Rocinha, on the edge of a protected area of woodland.


In late 2008, a little over a year after her kidnapping, now Major Priscilla Azevedo found out that she had been appointed to command Rio de Janeiro’s first Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP), in the favela of Santa Marta.

Pacification, a project implemented by José Mariano Beltrame, the secretary of state for security in Rio de Janeiro, is designed to extend state control over communities previously abandoned to the control of criminal gangs. Shock troops, accompanied by helicopters, armoured personnel vehicles and a massive media presence, enter favelas searching for drugs, guns and wanted criminals. Once cleared, the military police move in and set up a UPP. Other municipal services, principally rubbish collection, soon follow; as do private companies such as satellite TV providers, mobile phone networks and fast-food restaurants in search of new markets. By the end of 2013, 35 favelas had been pacified.

Prior to the arrival of the UPP, Santa Marta, a small community of 7,500 residents located between the middle-class neighbourhoods of Laranjeiras and Botafogo, was famed principally for providing the backdrop to the video of Michael Jackson’s 1996 hit “They Don’t Care About Us”. A bronze statue in the favela’s main square commemorates the King of Pop’s presence. At the time, Santa Marta was under the control of the Comando Vermelho, one of Rio’s most powerful drug gangs, and the producers had to seek permission from the self-described “owner” of Santa Marta, Márcio Amaro de Oliveira, before filming there.

Since the arrival of the UPP, no one requires permission to enter the favela. Thiago Firmino, 32, is a DJ and tour-guide there. “Santa Marta is safer now,” he said. “There’s no more armed conflict. There are still lots of problems, but no deaths, no stray bullets.” I contacted him initially on Facebook to ask what he thought of Major Azevedo. “I love her,” he wrote.

When I spoke to him, he told me the arrival of the UPP had been difficult. “At the beginning it was very tense. She stopped a lot of parties. People were angry. But then they started to understand she was different from the other cops, because she was a woman. She took part in the community’s events; she would go into people’s homes. She would even go and speak to the mothers of kids who had just been arrested in order to give them a last chance.”

Not everyone was quite so enthusiastic. Andre Fernandes, from the Agência Notícia das Favelas, told me that despite Major Azevedo’s success, she had not won over all of Santa Marta’s residents. In July 2013, 300 people demonstrated in the favela, complaining that the state government had not honoured its promise to build a public crèche or a proper sanitation system. Many of the protesters claimed that the improved security was for the benefit of tourists, not residents. Rio is one of the host cities for the World Cup in 2014, and the site of the 2016 Olympics.


Two days after being taken in for questioning by police, Amarildo de Souza’s family officially registered his disappearance. According to the initial statements by the military police, Amarildo had been apprehended because he had been confused with a known drug trafficker. They said he was released later on the evening of 14 July, but that his departure from the UPP had not been recorded by either of the two security cameras that monitor the police station because they were not working. Of all the 84 cameras in operation in Rocinha that night, they were the only two that failed. It was subsequently revealed that the GPS trackers on the unit’s two police cars had also been switched off.

According to the think-tank Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública, Brazil is the seventh most murderous country in the world. Over 50,000 people were killed in 2012. That year, Brazilian police killed 1,890 people, an average of five a day. But whereas most police killings remain uninvestigated, Amarildo’s disappearance soon fuelled demonstrations across the country. The slogan, “Cadê o Amarildo?” (“Where is Amarildo?”) spread across social media, newspapers and protesters’ placards. Amarildo had only had two run-ins with the police before: once in 1989, for theft, and again in 2005, for working as a flanelinha, an illegal car-parking attendant.

On 2 October, the state prosecutor, Homero das Neves, announced that he would charge ten police officers from the Rocinha UPP, including its commander, Major Edson Santos, with Amarildo’s torture and murder. Neves said that the police officers had received an anonymous tip-off that Amarildo ran errands for drug traffickers, and they took him inside one of the shipping containers for questioning. There, they spent 40 minutes submitting Amarildo to electric shocks and asphyxiation with a plastic bag. Four police officers from the UPP who have now entered a witness protection programme testified to hearing his screams. At some point later that evening, his dead body was removed from the container. It has not been found.

By the end of October, a further 15 officers from the Rocinha UPP had also been charged with involvement in Amarildo’s death, following further denunciations by their police colleagues. Major Santos was also accused of diverting state funds to bribe witnesses to cover up Amarildo’s murder. All of the accused are in preventative detention. Since the arrest of the police officers, other favela residents have come forward to denounce previous, separate incidences of torture.

In late November I took a taxi to Rocinha, my third visit of five that month. On the way, I told the driver, Daniel, that I was going to speak to the new head of the UPP in Rocinha, Major Priscilla Azevedo, appointed in October after Santos’ arrest. Daniel told me a story about being stopped by the police one night and asked for a bribe. A few months later, he said he saw the same policeman on television being hailed as a hero. “No one here trusts the police,” he said. “I’ll buy you a bottle of cachaça if you prove me wrong.”

Accessing Rocinha is done mostly by motorbike. That does not stop buses, pick-up trucks and the occasional, patient taxi driver from trying to work their way up the manically curved and steeply inclined thoroughfare, the Estrada da Gavea. Low-slung wires criss-cross the main street, feeding power to the burger bars, evangelical churches, and lingerie shops. Open-top trucks full of yellow beer crates trundle up the slope, while the odd half-hearted, luminous-jacketed traffic cop attempts to regulate who gets to take the hairpin bend next.

At the top of the hill, I met Augusto Costas, a worried, weary-looking man selling his acrylic-on-canvas paintings of Rio landmarks on a bend overlooking the city’s lagoon, not far from the UPP. He told me that last year he had been beaten and chained to a radiator by the military police after he was accused of stealing a mobile phone. He said he was only released because his wife’s brother, who works for the civil police, intervened. He would not let me take his photo. “Police here are meant to help, but the violence here has gone up since they arrived.”


To get to the UPP, I took a moto-taxi down from the top of the hill. Instead of turning off at one of the sharp bends, I went straight on up a dirt track, past a clay tennis court, a freshly whitewashed barracks, and a new five-a-side football pitch to the collection of containers on the edge of a wood that make up the Rocinha pacification unit. Next year, work is due to begin on a more permanent structure, but for the moment, the place is isolated from the bustle of the favela. Trees laden with the bulbous, green beehives of the jackfruit surround the Portão Vermelho.

There are a few schools nearby, and children occasionally drifted through. On the Friday afternoon I met Priscilla, I chatted to some of the teenage boys playing football. “They’re cool,” Bryan Santos, a fourteen-year old, told me when I asked what he thought about the police. “They run a football class here and it’s pretty good. They’ve got some decent players.”

Priscilla was exhausted when I arrived. She had finished work at 10pm the previous evening, but was called in at 1am, after one of her colleagues was slightly injured when he was shot on patrol. I spoke to her at 5pm when she had been working non-stop for seventeen hours. Two previous scheduled interviews had been cancelled, and it would not have been unreasonable of her to pull out in the circumstances. But as the first Brazilian to win an International Women of Courage Award, she has become accustomed to press attention. As the commander of the first UPP, now running the police unit in Brazil’s largest favela, she is very much the acceptable face of pacification.

We sat on a concrete bench next to a new toilet block, while some boys played football on the pitch near-by. Priscilla, now 36, spoke slowly and thoughtfully. Though clearly used to repeating some of her stories, she engaged warmly, flashing an occasional broad grin. She asked me where I was from, and when I asked her if she’s married, she responded immediately, “Unfortunately not. Would you like to help me out?”

“When we arrived in Santa Marta, we found it was a community that was against the work of the police,” she told me. “A great number of the incidents we had were conflicts between the military police and the residents, but we understood that because the area had been dominated for so long by organised crime, mainly by drug traffickers. Today it is a very laid back place. Of course no place is completely exempt from crime, but now it’s a place that anyone can go at any time.”

I asked her how her team of 120 police officers established their presence in the favela. “You need to get to know the area, get to know the people, understand their difficulties. Put yourself in the place of someone who lives in the favela. All the time they are being judged as if they are criminals, being badly treated, and being slaves to all the crime that’s around them. But it’s also important that they understand the new reality: the police service is for them and for their community.”

On the question of whether her gender helped in her job, she said that being a “novelty” had its advantages. “A woman in charge, a woman in the street, this makes people approach you as they want to get to know you. People are surprised to see a woman in charge. I also get a lot of support from women, especially those over 30. They admire the work that I do, and it encourages them to follow their dreams in their professional life.” But she quickly adds that this is just an observation, not a rule, and should not be the criteria on which the UPP programme is judged.

Priscilla has no truck with the UPP’s critics. “Of course, this is far from being a perfect project, but I think the benefits are huge. I understand criticism and it can be useful, but to be against the UPPs, I don’t understand. How can you be against something that fights to improve residents’ quality of life?”

One of the criticisms of the UPP programmes is that the quality of policing has deteriorated as time has gone on. Whereas Santa Marta may have proved a success, far less effort has gone into policing the larger, more complex favelas. Catalytic Communities, an NGO based in Rio, says the programme has not scaled well.

Priscilla acknowledged Rocinha, with its 120,000 inhabitants, would prove a very different challenge. She said that she would not be able to develop the same kinds of personal relationships as she had in Santa Marta, but that she hoped word-of-mouth would help rebuild the police’s tattered reputation. “We have to take advantage of the little contact we have with people to show them that we are doing a good job so that they tell others.”

I asked her what she believed had happened to Amarildo da Souza. ”What happened exactly, I don’t know. I don’t know the details, but the opinion I have is that it was an unacceptable, absurd act. Thank God a great many of those responsible have now been identified.”

Given more and more allegations of torture are now emerging, I asked her whether she could be confident police abuses were no longer happening in Rocinha. “I have no doubt about that whatsoever.” Really? “At least not on my orders. If eventually it transpires something like this has happened, that’s the choice of the person who did it. He will suffer the consequences of anything like that, but I do not believe that will happen.”

As for rebuilding trust with Rocinha residents, Priscilla’s answer is simple: “work”. At the end of the interview, I tell her about the depth of mistrust towards the police that I have noted from all kinds of Brazilians since I arrived in Rio in December 2012.

“There are 47,000 police officers in Rio today,” she said. “If five of the 47,000 do something wrong, it will stain the reputation of the entire police force. But I have a lot of pride in the institution in which I serve. Of course, I agree we have some problems, but I am working and fighting every day to improve the institution, so that the population can have more confidence in their police.” [/private]

The Enduring Appeal of the Mystery Story

Paget_Holmes_04The critic Tzvetan Todorov once suggested that the trick to writing a successful detective story was being sure not to innovate. The great genre work is that which best and most closely follows the “rules” of its genre; to refine the genre, he cautioned, would be “to write ‘literature’” rather than a mystery. But surely this is wrong-headed; a nonsense—logically, let alone critically—to separate Literature and detective fiction, as if they constitute mutually exclusive genres. For there is no “the” in “the mystery story.” Use of the definite article here is a cheap yet time-honoured trick: a red herring. “The” mystery story is as rich a tradition—or, rather, set of entwined traditions—as any other in the literary network. To paraphrase and doctor the Law, or Revelation, of the great science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon: if much mystery and crime writing is “crud,” then this is only because ninety percent of everything is; what matters is mystery writing’s other ten percent, and its enduring appeal. It matters, amongst other reasons, because such consideration as we can afford this ten percent may help us to keep broad and alive our sense of what counts as “literature” and “the literary.” To do this at a time when the political model being handed down to educators offers an ever narrower conception of art and culture—well, perhaps it would be a modest achievement, but not an unimportant one.

[private]Before we move any further, though, let me make it clear that I do not intend to use these opening comments as a way into defending “the” mystery story as Art. So tired is the question “but is it art?” that it barely seems worth the asking these days—though it would make a fine and willing corpse in a crime story. “But is it art?” is always dead on arrival, having been fully exsanguinated, and there is little hope of finding the truly guilty party, for so many have and so many others will continue to execute it: death by utterance.


Why do mystery stories and other branches of crime fiction continue to engage us? Were we to trace the roots of crime writing to the popular Newgate Calendar—from which we get the so-called “Newgate novel”—of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, one might be tempted to suggest that crime writing’s success records nothing more nor less than our inveterate fascination with violence and antinomy. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze once defended crime fiction for sharply presenting society’s endless cycles of violence, its self-perpetuating and—begetting networks of falsehoods. The repetitive logic of genre fiction, strewn with the blood and guts and flesh that make up the body, as it were, of crime fiction, seemed to lend themselves well to such a performance of modernity’s fundamental violence. Literary theorist Fredric Jameson, along not dissimilar lines, saw the very meaninglessness of murders in hard-boiled crime fiction as its basic constitutive truth: murder without meaning rang the note of social verity in these stories. By contrast, the artifice of the classical detective story lay in its mitigation of violence and crime, achieved by investing murder with purpose, with meaning.

For the likes of Jameson and Deleuze, then, the contribution of “good” mystery and crime fiction is the dramatization of the indigestible, gristly truths of modernity. At its best, framed by and as an urban pastoral of sorts, such writing offers us an ecorché reflection of ourselves, which meets our gaze from the pages of Chandler, Himes, Høeg, to name but three (markedly different) crime and mystery writers. (Indeed, such an understanding of crime writing’s social and metaphysical urgency stretches back to the Newgate years: Gay’s Beggar’s Opera is a “Newgate pastoral,” and Fielding, in the preface to Jonathan Wild, referred to Newgate as “human nature with its mask off.”) In literature generally—as the confrontation with the abysmal possibility of meaninglessness has become increasingly widespread and hard-boiled—shades of noir can be detected in writing that lies outside the genre proper: it’s there in Oedipa Maas’s spiral pursuit of the Trystero. It’s there in the poetry of Louis MacNeice’s—his “visitors in masks or in black glasses” who symbolize memory, the fragmented narratives and shady dramatis personae of which are figured as our unbiddable assailants in waiting. And it’s there, even, in science writer James Gleick’s Chaos, where such characters as scientist Mitchell Feigenbaum are drawn with a hard-boiled economy, and a theory of apparent meaninglessness—an explanation of the chaotic world—is the subject of an on-going investigation.

Jameson was by no means the only literary theorist who was dissatisfied with classical mystery stories—the adventures of Holmes and Watson, and, a little later, the various incarnations of the “Golden Age” sleuth. For many, most often Marxist, critics, the classical mystery story was a conservative genre, guilty, perhaps, of socio-political quietude, and resignation—if not active subscription—to the status quo. Such stories, the argument tended to go, turn murder into the symbol of societal threat, a challenge to order and harmony; but such threat is staged only for us to see it overcome, and to feel the relief of it being so. Here, the classical detective story is read as an apology for socio-political orthodoxy, and this is mirrored, argued theorist Franco Moretti, in its typical narrative structure: the detective’s big reveal, that marks the dénouement of most every story of this kind, is an imposition of neat, stifling, declarative linearity on narrative. To solve a murder in a classical mystery story, says Moretti, is to murder narrative.

But, needless to say, not all commentators identified such conservative violation of narrative as a basic component of the classical mystery. Ideed, there are those—such as Chesterton and, in celebration of him, Borges—who do not dispute that such stories have the restoration of social order as their subject. But they see such moments of respite as something to celebrate; they are so many brief flickerings of hope in a generally unstable, increasingly fragmented world.

Naturally enough, there are some critics for whom there is virtually no pleasing. And at least one deserves a mention. More than once, American man of letters Edmund Wilson went on record to excoriate mystery readers for their dull literary palates, and mystery stories for their substandard ingredients and overall insipidity. Sharp, eloquent, dismissive, Wilson has time for almost none of the supposedly “great” crime writers. Chandler is grudgingly acknowledged as an aberration—to the extent that he appears not to be terrible. So damning is Wilson’s overall evaluation, that such faint praise, to cast back to Sturgeon’s Revelation, is still enough to put Chandler in what one might estimate as the eighty-ninth, possibly the ninetieth, percentile of crime fiction crud. But Chandler still figures as little more than an epigone of Graham Greene, the only real writer, for Wilson, working in “the” tradition. (Reading Wilson, one gets the feeling that he intuitively worked from the model that Todorov would go on to theorize, and with which we began: is there a suggestion here that Greene, because he writes brilliantly, doesn’t really write crime fiction at all, but, rather, Literature?)

Why, though, despite critical interventions favourable or otherwise, the continued appeal of mystery stories?

I suspect that it has much to do with the figure of the detective, who seems to maintain certain basic qualities, despite having moved in the later-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries far beyond the cynical enervation and stolid machismo of Hammett’s archetype. In recent decades, the gilded sleuth and the harder boiled gumshoe have been broadened and made more nuanced, as authors have woven more intricate historical and political concerns into their plots, and identity issues into their characters. (The race, sex, religion, not to mention gender and sexuality of the private dick have all been up for grabs for some time now.) To see the detective and detective stories as, variously, ciphers of conservative and paternalistic, or liberal and progressive, world-views, is of course a function both of the critic’s tendencies and their readings of particular authors. But, to repeat an earlier point, it is also a sign of the extent to which crime and mystery fictions, at their best, have charted modernity’s developments in all their social, political, and ethical sinuousness, and are able to sustain contradictory readings.

Fans and critical readers are likely to see aspects of detectives and detective stories etched into and reflected by their surrounds, almost anywhere they care to look. Perhaps this is little more than a case of mistaking just so many signs of our critical attentions and inventions for cultural wonders. But if there has been and is any truth to the hollers of “crisis!,” echoed by the culture brokers of every epoch, then the best of our detectives’ casebooks have strong claims to being the ledgers of our on-going, self-made crises of modernity: for Dupin, Marple, Marlowe, and Rawlins do not articulate quite the same anxieties as one another, though neither are they entirely out of one another’s touch.

In one of the most memorable and enjoyable apologies for the hard-boiled mode of crime writing, Chandler says this:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man…He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

The detective is no longer a man by definition; one hopes (perhaps quixotically) that it is no longer solely “The Man,” as he is more than likely imagined by Chandler, who is the rude and witty spokesperson of the age. “The Hero,” I think, is now not so tightly bound by the jerkins, breastplates, leotards, and capes of gender, race, class, and sexuality. Nevertheless—and accepting these identitarian expansions—I suspect that a widespread but often denied, almost clandestine desire for and attraction to a hero/-ine—a virago in the most positive yet also, in a sense, atavistic sense of the word—keeps the detective in whisky, but from drinking herself into oblivion. Just.

The mystery story, in all its permutations, is for all comers. But it is especially for those who have Batman comics and Kierkegaard on the nightstand. Not because such a combination is so very contrary, nor so very impressive; or mere affectation; or a poor expression of an ill-defined and flaccid postmodernist irony. But because the broadest strokes of Chandler’s definition limn an Everyperson who is by twists and turns admirable, disconcerting, comforting. The detective, I think, will be knocking around his or her mean streets for as long as we are drawn to characters whose capes, trilbies, and trenchcoats both admit and mask their—and therefore our—fears and tremblings.[/private]

Purple Bra

Anniversary Nude, (c) John Currin
Anniversary Nude (c) John Currin

Following a 2003 retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum, the artist John Currin fell into a long dry spell, what he described in an interview with the Independent as “impotence with the brush.” Two years into the funk, he found a cartoon a friend had torn from a dirty magazine and sent to him in hopes of lifting his spirits. On the other side of the cartoon was a pornographic photo of a woman in a corset, her legs spread wide. He began a painting based on the image. Inspired, he prowled the Internet for more porn shots, and started more pieces. His sexual paintings are graphic, luscious, and fearless. In one, a man and a woman, naked, kiss open mouthed, their wet tongues fused, the woman with her right hand around the man’s rigid penis, the man with his left middle finger inside the woman; in another, two women fondle a third.

[private]I am not interested in art but I am interested in sex, so after I first learned of Currin in a New Yorker profile in January, 2008, his name and his work stayed with me. I didn’t think about him, however, until nearly a year later, when my writing stalled. Not being able to write when you want to is like not being able to come. It is impotence with the pen, or a premature menopause drying up the creative juices. Lucky for me, recent conversations among my friends about erotica brought Currin to mind. I hope he and his work will do for me what the picture on the back of the cartoon did for him.


Though my talent for art is as meager as my knowledge of and interest in the world of art, in college I took both printmaking and drawing, assuming those classes would be easy credits and a nice break from writing and literature. For our final printmaking assignment, students were told to select the technique they most enjoyed—woodcut or linocut, etching or silk-screening—and create a print of a body part.

Little amused me more than my ability to shock people with my writing (easy for a blunt New Yorker to do to an audience of sheltered undergrads), and my choice of body part was a no-brainer. I did not have the skill to design something beautiful, nor the understanding needed to make a print based on theories deeper than beauty. It takes an extraordinary talent to paint a vagina as sumptuously as John Currin does; it takes no talent to simply draw one. In my room I sat naked before the mirror, opened my legs, and sketched. Back in the studio, I began etching: rounded buttocks, lips, a hint of clitoris, hundreds of whorls around it all, twirling to the top of the metal plate. On the last day of class I hung my print in the front of the room between a woodcut of a bloodshot eye and a screen print of a wrist streaming rivers of blue and red. The teacher and my classmates regarded my art very seriously. They mistook my audacity for thoughtfulness.

I am envious of artists like Currin who can find their subjects outside themselves. In my writing as much as in my printmaking I turn inward for my inspiration. The view vacillates between fascinating and dull, sometimes disconcertingly clear, other times muddled, but always limited. Focusing on outside objects—a crinkled paper shopping bag, a statue of a dog in the town park, stacks of cardboard boxes—was a requirement of my college drawing class. My work never progressed beyond what an attentive six-year-old could do. The teacher noted that my naïve perspective added to the charm of my work, but he had to point out that artistically it was a serious flaw.


In some of his paintings, Currin will render a woman just as she appears in the porn shot until he gets to her face, at which point he borrows the face of a model from an old clothing catalogue. Instead of seeing what we’d expect to see atop a body being licked, fingered, or fucked—eyes rolled back in pleasure, a mouth tensely determined or opened in a breathy, silent wail—we find vapid eyes and a lying smile. The effect is jarring. He is not depicting the raunchy sex of regular people but the sex of pornography, sex staged for an insatiable market, and underneath the masks of orgasmic delight aren’t the actors feeling as phony as clothing models? At times don’t we all go through the motions, including the facial contortions, when really we’re elsewhere?

My undergraduate thesis was an autobiographical novella about my first sexual relationship. That’s what I called it, anyway. Truthfully, it was memoir written in the third person. I didn’t fictionalize a word but wrote it all as I remembered it, changing only the names of the characters. This allowed me the distance I needed to write about something so intimate. I didn’t get off the subway at 3 a.m. with so many hickeys on my face I looked like I’d been beaten, and find my father waiting there for me. She did. I didn’t lose my virginity at fifteen on my friend’s parents’ bed to a drunk eighteen-year-old who didn’t wear a condom and finished by jerking off over my bloody belly. She did.

Currin said in the New Yorker profile, “I’d like to get the sex thing over with, but I realized I’m not done with it.” If I were as brave as Currin, the bulk of my work might be about sex, too. In the cacophony of my mind, carnal thoughts and memories are a siren song. So many of our youthful personal landmarks, the milestones that become most meaningful to a child approaching adolescence, are sexual ones, and it is the stuff from those years that cleaves to us forever. Some girls dread their first period, but others ache for its arrival; we anticipate with terror and yearning our first kiss, the feel of a breast in our hand or a hand on our breast; fingers and tongues exploring the parts we’ve only touched ourselves; and finally the day we are virgins no more. Clumsy and fumbling, sweet and loving, rough and painful, sex is as multilayered as paint on a canvas or a well-constructed essay. That it be portrayed in art with frankness is the only fair treatment of an act so complex and universal.

For Currin, though, to be frank is to be obscene. Rarely does he depict a vulva that is not spread wide open, wet, eager to be or already penetrated. But he lavishes on the bedclothes, a lace glove, or a set of dishes the same attention he gives women’s genitals. This may be why his paintings can cross the line of graphic representation without losing their respectability. Even when they are obscene, they are beautiful.


Enjoying porn is a sort of voyeurism; producing sexually explicit material based on your own experiences is a sort of exhibitionism. Because writing any personal nonfiction is much like masturbation—the concentrated devotion to self, culminating, when it goes well, in a deep sense of satisfaction—the author of erotic essays is, essentially, pleasuring him or herself in front of an audience.

The first time sex—intercourse—made me come, I was sixteen and doing it on a park bench with that same boy to whom I’d lost my virginity. Ben had long, messy rock-star hair, eyes blue as a thousand clichés, deliciously full lips; my attraction to him was so consuming I had ceased to exist for any purpose other than to be with him. We were in Stuyvesant Town, on Manhattan’s East Side, on a late spring or early summer night, when it was warm enough to wear a skirt without tights or leggings. My friend Olga, an odd girl who was still years away from having sex herself, asked if she could watch us. Ben and I had just finished smoking a joint and thought Olga’s idea was a good one. While Olga sat on one end of the bench, I took off my panties and straddled Ben on the other. We smiled and kissed. As usual, there was no condom. Dozens of identical red-brick apartment buildings stood quiet guard around us. Two uncles, an aunt, and a cousin of mine lived in Stuyvesant Town. It could have been the thrill of fucking outdoors, in front of someone, the risk of getting caught, the humid air against my legs, the genial position conducive to climaxing, a combination of all those things—but I knew, almost immediately, that the long-awaited orgasm was coming. I slumped over Ben’s shoulder as he rushed to pull out. Panting and a bit dizzy, I giggled against his neck. Young and oblivious, he hadn’t realized that this one, different from all the others, was real. Olga nodded, impressed.

So began my fondness for outdoor activities and public displays of affection. Over the next four years, Ben and I sought out other park benches; we tried the beach (too sandy); we let another friend watch us (she masturbated as we fucked but wouldn’t let either of us touch her); we froze in the Vermont woods in April (the ground both hard and muddy from still-melting ice and snow, and gnarled tree roots, rocks, and twigs scratching our ignorant city asses). Only after we broke up but continued to meet illicitly did our habitual exhibitionism lose its quality of youthful, experimental innocence. He had a new girlfriend, and I was afraid that I’d never be loved by anyone else. One day when I was home from college on break he told me to meet him at work at lunchtime; he knew a place where we could go. Wordlessly, we headed west on Fortieth Street, distracted by the midday midtown hubbub of delivery trucks blocking traffic, the honking of cars trapped behind the trucks, people running errands or eating lunch as they walked, trying to squeeze life in at lunchtime. The air smelled of street-vendor hot dogs and exhaust and cigarette smoke, but sometimes a breeze carried an undercurrent of fresh green spring.

Then I saw, in a window across the street, posters and t-shirts colorful and sinister below neon signs: Peepshow, Adult Videos, XXX. With his hand around my shoulders, Ben walked us quickly past the two men behind the front counter, past the shelves of videos, to a row of doors. We entered an empty stall. The walls were tomato-bisque orange, with a screen in the middle of one of them, and the space tight, a little bigger than the average apartment closet. A blobby viscous smear like spit but of course not glazed a spot on the dark gray floor. Before I could change my mind, Ben took a roll of quarters from his jacket pocket and started feeding them into the slit next to the screen. Our movie began with two naked women—a skinny blonde with bulbous breasts and a skinny brunette with smaller, perky tits and big, brown, upturned nipples—kneeling on a thin bed in a bare room, passionately, sloppily kissing, too much tongue and wetness, twangy porn music blocking some of their slurps and groans. The brunette lay back on the black sheet and those happy nipples of hers pointed straight up to God. The blonde licked circles around one of them while pinching the other before trailing her long tongue all the way down to her friend’s hairless, gleaming cunt.

That was all I saw of the movie. It had served its purpose, arousing me enough that it didn’t matter that we had to be fast and that I was no longer attracted to Ben. I pushed up my flowery skirt—much like the one I’d worn the night on the bench in front of Olga—and removed my underwear, careful not to let them touch the floor. Unlike the night on the bench, I would not come. My forearms were pressed against the wall; I balled my hands to prevent my fingers from touching anything. I heard doors around us open and shut. Hungry for more quarters, the screen went blank. After Ben yanked himself out of me, I dropped my skirt over my sticky skin but left my panties crumpled in my jacket pocket. On shaky legs we left our booth and hurried toward the front door. My head was down.

It was too bright outside. Ben yammered the whole way back, another noise in a city of noises, and I didn’t care what he was saying, I only wanted to be alone. Expertly finding paths through the crowd as only New Yorkers know how to do, we brushed by other people, bumping their arms, never looking back. I focused on my short subway ride home, on my bathtub, where I could give myself the orgasm he couldn’t give me and clean my body in water so hot I’d sweat and the world around me would redden. Before we arrived at his store he slipped me a small bag of hash. I stuck it in my jacket pocket with my panties.

“Best lunch ever,” he said, pecking me on the cheek. “Peepshow chicken.”


At twenty-three, I told these and similar stories to an older man I was trying to seduce, a client of the marketing firm where I had an internship. I both succeeded and failed: he found me irresistible but disgusting. He fondled me under tables at fancy restaurants, pressed my head down to his crotch in taxis, bought an antique bench for us to use on his terrace; but sometimes, out of the blue, glaring and seething, he would ask me how I could have done the things I did with Ben and others. His disgust, I surmised, had less to do with me and more to do with the urges I brought out in him, but still I burned with a shame I’d never felt before—not because of the restaurants, taxis, and terrace, but because I chose to be with a person who found me shameful. My motive in sharing my intimate experiences had been to get him in bed; how many of us have the foresight to consider what may happen after that?

John Currin stated that one impulse behind his pornographic paintings was to take something clearly unbeautiful and turn it into something beautiful, though he admitted to feeling humiliated by the work. I whispered like a caress the salacious stories of my past to this man twice my age and knew exactly why I was doing it, but did not anticipate the shame that would follow. On the page my stories are not whispered, the motives compelling me to put them there are not so clear, and the repercussions are not known. So why do it? “All art is about its own making,” Currin said.

When I decided to make an etching of my vagina, I wanted my classmates to be awed by my daring. When I met Ben for lunch, I did so out of loneliness, but also for fun: my high-school years had overflowed with adventure, and I was bored. When I seduced the older client, I needed to test my power. Now, circumstances are naturally different from what they were in high school, in college, and at my first real job. I, however, am very much the same. Risks have always been, at least in part, their own reward. What I can no longer do on a park bench I can always do on paper.


In John Currin’s painting Purple Bra, a woman lies with legs apart on a white, soft-looking blanket. Only her torso appears on the canvas; she has no face. Other than a lacy lavender bra pushed up over her chest, she is nude. She hugs herself with her left arm, her hand tucked gently below her breast. Her right arm vanishes off the side of the painting, perhaps holding up her right leg, of which we see only a slice; a greater portion of her inner left thigh is visible, flat against the blanket. Peeking out from under her right shoulder is a thatch of straw-colored hair. In the center of her stomach, her belly button curves temptingly, like a pond in the middle of a desert. Pale skin disappears below a dark, wild, unkempt pelt. Her lips are parted slightly. A black tunnel forms in the crevice between her buttocks.

The pose is one of a woman who has just been touching herself. She finished her morning shower, maybe, and started to dress when the mood struck her. The blanket is chenille, sensuous, a kiss against skin softened and perfumed by lotion. Lying back, the fingertips of her right hand wander across her belly and down to her thigh, where they linger, tracing paths to and from the edge of her pubic hair, while her left hand pushes up her purple bra and kneads each breast in turn. She keeps her right hand busy on her thigh until desire transforms into a pulsing ache. Her pelvis has developed a mind of its own and is lifting and twisting toward her fingers. One finger first, like the tip of a tongue, grazes her clitoris. She lets the finger slip down to capture the wetness accumulating below and spreads it around her lips. With her left hand she continues to massage her breasts, playing with her nipples, gentle, hard, gentle again. Clean smells from her shower mingle with the musk of her body. The finger that’s been dancing circles around her clitoris begins moving more rapidly, then dizzily falls in the hole below. Her left hand jumps down to help. She is raising her hips off the blanket now, one finger inside the larger opening, another teasing the smaller, while her right hand resumes its work on the outside. Air builds up in her lungs and escapes in huffs, in pants, in little strangled moans. She leans forward. Her hands are a whirlwind, on high speed, tickling, pumping, licking, fucking, until they are clenched by the muscles inside, and she whimpers, and falls back. Her legs close around her hands and she rolls from side to side. Hair is caught underneath her shoulder, pinching, but she ignores it. Finally resting again, she extracts her left arm and settles it against the bottom of her chest, where it lifts and drops with her breaths. Her legs, sweaty and damp, part. She brings her right hand to her face, to her nose and to her mouth, before wiping it off on her right thigh. A clock on her nightstand catches her eye, reminding her she has somewhere to be. She sighs, satisfied.[/private]

A New Focus on Africa

From Start Journal

It was 3:30 in the afternoon sometime in 2010 and I was just about to leave for Heathrow Terminal 5—virtually my second home—to catch a flight to Mozambique when my daughter loudly inquired, “Daddy, is everybody poor in Africa?”

I decided the taxi outside could wait for at least few more minutes. “Why are you asking such a  question my dear?” Her answer—“Because every time I see Africa on telly they don’t have nice clothes and their houses are really small and the children are all sad.”

For the next five minutes I tried to explain a few hundred years of a history of exploitation, sometimes questionable leadership, and economic choices. An impossible task. But at the same time, I wanted to leave her with the level of optimism and energy I experience when I visit Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya and elsewhere across Africa. My thoughts boiled down to a single question: Who owns Africa’s image? It’s a question that is relevant and compelling, regardless of your response.

Over the past few years a silent revolution has been occurring across Africa. Some people are very much aware of it, while others are just coming to the realisation. But there are still others who are stuck in an old view of Africa and its challenges. The fact that most of the fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa is lost on them.

For some in the media, Africa is still a corrupt incompetent at the mercy of the random benevolence of  rock musicians or Hollywood stars who care more about African children than Africans themselves. These tiresome stereotypes of day-to-day life in Africa are not only outdated but increasingly irrelevant to an emerging continent.

Some networks seem obsessed with stories of child witches and feed us with a constant diet of war weary, famine stricken lives. In 2009 I was asked by the BBC to anchor a new television program about Africa called Africa Business Report. For the next 2 and a half years, I racked up close to 200,000 air miles travelling to Uranium mines in the Namibian desert, diamond centres in Botswana, fish markets in Dar es Salaam, oil rigs off the coast of Ghana, real estate projects in Rwanda. I held conversations with bankers, businessmen and women, entrepreneurs and politicians, as well as a few African billionaires. I visited 22 countries in total that captured the real meaning of Africa’s rise.

I have made new friends and heard fascinating stories. For every city I visited I make it a personal point to find my way to the top of a skyscraper, just so I can observe that city in motion. I know it’s a cliché to say but it’s true—the vibe is different in Africa. The minute I touch down—Dar, Nairobi, Lusaka, Lagos, Gaborone, Jo’burg—I get the sense of a different energy, a different flow.

You see, since the independence era of the 1960’s Africa has been viewed through the prism (some say prison) of its underdevelopment. So the typical story from the continent has featured the same tired characters—the African strongman, the corrupt bureaucrat, the pot-bellied, bribe-taking policeman, the inefficient public servant or the taxi driver who gleefully tells you “what the problem is with Africa”. And without a doubt elements of these characters exist in varying degrees in some places in Africa.

But this stereotypical, headline-grabbing interpretation of Africa is for me a myopic one. Africa Business Report was a new pair of glasses through which viewers could observe Africa—a better perspective with a more balanced view. There are two stories I’d like to share that might give you a sense of what you may have missed. The first is from Botswana.

If you a fortunate enough to afford or be the recipient of a diamond ring or necklace, chances are it was once a rough diamond from the fields in Botswana, the world’s biggest producer. For may years after independence Botswana followed a pattern some countries are still stuck in. You know the story—African country X that produces raw material Y but has little control over its sale, pricing, or the finished product.

Three years ago, I met the director of the Botswana diamond hub. I was visiting the brand new high-tech facility that symbolised the hopes of a nation. The man in charge of the diamond hub, Dr. Akolang Tombale, told me Botswana did not want to be a mere exporter of rough diamonds anymore, but a player in the multi-billion dollar gem business. The diamonds were being cut and polished in Asia and bought and sold in Europe. The idea of the diamond hub was to train their own people to a point where the reliance on foreign expertise would gradually diminish. So I met many young smart Bostwanans learning the art of turning a rough stone into a fabulous jewel. There were brand new office spaces ready for the banks and insurers who would provide the financial backing for exported gems. In simple terms, the diamond hub would become a one-stop shop for the entire value chain of the diamond business.

Fast forward to 2012. I was reading the paper over breakfast early this year. My wrinkled brow broke into a broad grin when I saw a small headline which informed me that the world’s preeminent Diamond corporation De Beers was relocating some of its major operations to Botswana. By 2013, the article said, the De Beers rough diamonds sales team would be operating from Gaborone. My smile broke into grin. I had seen it coming.

The relocation is a first step for a small country with big ambitions. About 150 De Beers jobs will relocate to Gaborone as a result of this deal. In years to come, diamond buyers will be booking flights to Botswana rather than London. As De Beers chairman Nicky Oppenheimer aptly put it, “The diamond industry’s centre of gravity is shifting.” Imagine what this does for the service industry, hotels, tourism and the country’s overall reputation. The fact is, this is a result of long term planning and foresight—not the kind of ad hoc firefighting policies that some nations are still dealing with. But for other nations with such ambitions, such a shift will not be easy. The traditional centre of power will resist these moves.

Now to my second story. A few months ago I was in Cape Town. One of the highlights of my experience there was a reunion of sorts. I met with an ex-roommate, Sebastian, though known in those days as Zor, from my college days at the University of Ghana.

After the usual round of laughs about our youthful escapades we started talking about the current state of affairs. Things have changed since college. Zor is still a lot of fun to be with, but I was impressed by his meteoric rise in the financial industry. As a senior manager at a leading African bank, he was constantly on the road. Brazil, Portugal, New York, Dallas, Nairobi—building relationships and structuring deals for investments in Africa. Although much of his time was spent in hotels and business class lounges of major air hubs, Zor had a comfortable life in Johannesburg and all the trappings of a finance executive. I think what was most refreshing about it was Zor enjoys this comfortable existence in Africa. He told me he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

I then began to think about what he said and realized that I know a lot of “Zors” around this continent. Professionals with skills and experiences, sometimes acquired at the best schools in Europe and the United States (in some cases homegrown talent) who are working successfully and living comfortably in Africa. They are the living proof that Africa is the land of opportunity for those who are smart and are prepared to take risks. Europe and America are no longer the holy grail.

It’s a remarkable change from our early years post graduation. Many young people would spend the night waiting outside the American embassy hoping and praying that the visa officer would look favorably on an application. In those days there was a belief that an officer’s “mood” could determine the outcome of your future. No surprise that lay preachers did brisk business in those overnight sessions praying over documents and asking for divine intercession for a visa.

But that was then, this is now. Many more of those friends of mine are now part of the exodus of African professionals who are quitting the rat race of the city and Wall Street to build world-class companies in Africa. I met with a group of young professionals who come together under a group called Star 100, extremely smart young men and women working with various high multinationals. The only thing they wanted to talk about were their plans for taking their skills and abilities and moving them to Africa. By the time you read this article, at least one of them has gone. She called me to tell me she quit her job in the city of London and now works out of Lagos. She is getting paid better, has all the perks she wants, and added, “Now I don’t have to travel two hours to buy proper suya!”

These two narratives are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to stories about how Africa is changing. I am sure you’ll have heard some of your own.

I am in a very privileged position. As a news anchor for the BBC, I have had the pleasure of being a witness to and narrator of some these stories. This year BBC World News launched Focus on Africa, the first Africa-focused daily news and current affairs programme on any of the major international networks. The BBC has more correspondents in Africa than any other international news network. Every weekday I join a team of African professionals to put together a world class broadcast for viewers around the world, bringing an African perspective to global news. I encourage you to watch it.

Don’t get me wrong. Africa still faces immense challenges—social, political and economic. But if you are still seeing and writing about Africa as a miserable and incompetent monolith, you need to go to the nearest optician—or better still switch on to BBC Focus on Africa.

The York Bar

Photo by Kurt Groetsch

“You want to know why they call me Sugar Daddy?”

A slender Chinese man with a pinstripe fedora angled on his head sidles up to Miranda and me, and a few of our friends, holding a few beers that look suspiciously unfamiliar. Miranda switches from her native Chinese to English easily, but runs her hands through her mass of curls at a loss for words. We shoot Miranda surprised and awkward glances as “Sugar Daddy” lets loose some rapid-fire Chinese and wrenches the caps off the bottles. We don’t spend much time in Hankou, the nicer part of Wuhan. Miranda drove us here in her red Buick, with a deftness that only comes with a lack of driving instruction. She often assumes the role of unofficial translator, so she leans over and says, “That’s the owner of the pub.”

As Sugar Daddy nods at her translation, we exchange sly smiles. This man is clearly interested in foreigners, and foreign friends receive free gifts. He settles in the chair next to me and grins to show off crooked teeth that move around like a series of zippers in his wide gums.

As we eye the bottles, I inwardly groan at the idea of drinking more fake beer. The Shanghaiist, a popular Chinese weblog and news site, once described the fake Tsingtao as a beer “steeped in nicotine wrappers and death,” and after a few nights out, drinking nothing but Tsingtao, I had to agree. The owner hands us bottles of Tsingtao and peels at the wrapper. It comes off with difficulty, while most other beers have wrappers flapping in the wind.

China sends out whatever goods they can, Sugar Daddy explains. Most people in the country will drink whatever is sold to them. The cheapest beer is called Snow, and for 5 kuai, it’s the US version of a Natty Light. We used to gather outside street vendors with some fresh lo mian andsuck down half-litre bottles of Snow. Once people are drunk enough, they’ll buy anything; they’ll drink anything. It’s good for business. We never get Sugar Daddy to admit what’s in the fake beer. A distributor sends him the real Tsingtao that usually gets shipped out of the country. We’ve taken to drinking “formaldehyde-laced Snow” when out at bars because of our lack of options. On those nights, we hover in the alcoholic stupor, as carboxyls and teeny hydrogen molecules release and eat at our insides.

The York Bar sits in the middle of a busy street in Hankou, the gentrified section of the three smaller cities that now make up Wuhan. Hankou comes complete with its own Soho, budding Chinese clubs and faux French restaurants just in front of half-demolished apartment buildings. There’s a Howard Johnson with a large sun sphere like the 1984 World’s Fair creation down the expansive street, which, after a few double takes and a few more beers, looks like downtown Knoxville.

The decorative outdoor patio is settled snug next to the newly paved street, with only a few feet and some transplanted shrubbery to separate us from the stream of taxis. Instead of the stuffy indoor bar, Sugar Daddy holds court on the outdoor patio from eight until whenever his customers decide to leave. He sashays around the deck chairs, places his palms on the wrought-iron tables and inserts himself into conversations.

“Real beer,” Sugar Daddy says. “From Tsingtao, where I’m from.”

“Why do they call you Sugar Daddy?” Miranda asks. He has never answered the question about his name and at first, his English comes out in stammered bursts.

“Foreigners all think I am being… mistrustful?”

A petite, red-faced woman comes by with a waitress and we pull out bills to cover the beers. Sugar Daddy waves the woman away and tells the waitress to bring over more beer. The woman yells, he offers a sharp response in local Chinese that even Miranda doesn’t understand, and the woman meanders off the patio and hovers in the doorway.

“I have the name because I like the way it sounds and then people say I should change it, but they always call me that. So I keep the name.”

The waitress appears again and apparently she and the angry woman would prefer if we not only paid for our beers, but drank liquor and ate something as well. After getting burned by “Johnnie Worker Red Labial” the week before, we decline the liquor and the woman storms off. Sugar Daddy responds by getting another waitress to drag out the rest of the case of Tsingtao. We slip the bills back into our wallets, settle in on the patio and get comfortable.

“Call your friends,” he says and we all pull out our phones.

“So why don’t we get the good beer?” I ask.

“You know, government. Money.” Sugar Daddy expresses these words in the absolute terms of a businessman acknowledging the demands of his culture. “But I am from Tsingtao.” As I raise my eyebrows, he puffs out his chest and rubs it, satiated.

The waitress returns with a menu, so Miranda orders the cheapest thing York has: popcorn. Sugar Daddy hustles the woman away and calls for more beer. The same red, angry face appears in the doorway and he throws his head back and cackles. He pulls off his fedora like an old pro and points to himself again: Businessman.

I text a bunch of American friends who often spend their weekends in a stumbling migratory pattern between Soho, a few buildings down, and 97, just across the street. When they arrive, the waitress proudly brings chilled fake beers for my friends, who don’t know what they’re getting or that I’ve been drinking steadily for three hours and haven’t paid for a thing. Sugar Daddy leans over to me, his conspirator.

“Once we’re friends, real Tsingtao. ‘Til then… blip!” He moves his right hand as if flicking away a fly.

My friends ask Sugar Daddy about the name of his bar. He shrugs. This is not the conversation he wants to have. He’s been watching movies, he tells me. He opens his arms like Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic. Sugar Daddy sucks up some unfortunate air and says, “This is China,” just before his lungs break down and he hacks out a few coughs, which he quenches with a swig of beer. He spreads his arms again, as if indicating his own impressive empire. And my friends, who have been drinking shit beer for months, honor their host as eager subjects. Happy to tell his story, he goes on as they invent and develop the dark conspiracy of “what’s in the beer.”

An hour later, all the foreigners are drinking the good beer for free. They compare the fake and real bottles as if analyzing counterfeit bills. They tear off the wrappers and wave them in the air to see their degree of transparency.

“Shit beer, shit glue.” Sugar Daddy now has a cigarette angled out of his mouth that he never lights. He tugs at the bottle wrappers to show his new, best customers. The angry woman has been relegated to the window, where her gaze is just as dangerous.

Miranda directs her thumb towards the ominous window. “You might have to fire that woman,” she laughs.

Our host leans back in his chair, slaps his thigh and claps his hands.

“I have tried! I have! That,” he says, “is my wife.”

He waves his hand to change the subject as if the motion could dismiss an entire marriage.

“I have hooked up in Tsingtao,” he says.

The group smiles, but no one says anything in a long pause.

“That’s wrong!”

He places the fedora over his face and laughs before he tosses it back on the table.

“I have the hookup.”

We decide how to get back home. Miranda’ll take a few in her car and the other handful will brave the drunken girls outside of Soho and commandeer a taxi.

“Hey Sugar, doing anything for the World Cup?” Miranda asks. The York Bar has a large screen set up to watch the preliminary games.

“My special guests! The best table and…” He points towards us with open arms—the maestro knows his audience.

“Real beer,” we chorale. We fall into the darkness, the silence of pre-dawn, and he stands. Instead of holding up one finger as if to say, “Shush,” he puts up the whole hand, pinky pointing out, with resigned but firm authority. That old-time country contractual obligation crosses his face. We nod in agreement.

“Good for business,” Miranda says.

We file pass the shrubs as he calls his wife to collect the empty bottles. Sugar Daddy walks us to the car and rubs at his face. He grabs my arm before I hop inside and kisses my hand. I get in the car and roll down the window. It’s getting late.

“It’s true,” he says. “This is China.”

Amboy: A Walk in the Ruins

Amboy is a place in the Mojave desert, about 200 miles east of Los Angeles. I hesitate to call it a town: undoubtedly that’s what it used to be, and maybe once a town is always a town, but right now, and for the twenty years or so that I’ve been visiting, its population wouldn’t qualify it as a village, not even as a hamlet. There are SUVs driving down the freeway with larger populations than Amboy, and the freeway is precisely the reason for Amboy’s demise.

Amboy sits along a stretch of Route 66, the Mother Road, the place allegedly, formerly, to get your kicks, and when, in the 1950s, the Interstate 40 was built, some ten miles to the north, the serious cross-country traffic went there, leaving Amboy behind, to fade and desiccate, and remain a kind of rough time capsule. But if I hesitate to call Amboy a town, I hesitate even more to call it a ghost town. The place has certainly been abandoned and neglected. Parts of it have certainly decayed and crumbled, and parts of it do indeed lie in ruin, but not all of it, and not all of it conspicuously. The most important parts, the most eye-catching, don’t look like ruins at all, at least not at first glance.

What’s there looks, from a distance, remarkably well-preserved. There’s a school, a gas station, a church, a motel, a graveyard, a post office: the last of these is even fully functional, but a close look reveals considerable ruin elsewhere. That church, for instance, which is actually a bare meeting hall, has a wooden tower with a cross on top, and although the walls are bright white and appear recently painted, the tower is leaning precariously, a little more every time I visit, and I don’t doubt that one day I’ll arrive there and find that gravity has completed its work.  Part of the motel consists a long row of neat, minimalist white cabins that look intact, and even habitable.  But they’re not.  A closer look reveals that these cabins, which you can walk right into, are empty, with no furniture, no plumbing, no power, with the tatters of old linoleum on the floor, many windows smashed, broken Route 66 Cola bottles strewn around the floor.

The gas station probably can’t be considered a ruin at the moment, since it currently has gas for sale, though there were many years when it didn’t.  There was a period when dangerous-looking yet surprisingly friendly bikers would hang out there on Sunday afternoons, selling only slightly over-priced beer from an ice-filled cooler.  They did a reasonable trade, I think.  Plenty of people stop in Amboy, it’s hard not to.  Right between the gas station and the motel is one of the greatest, stop-you-in-your-tracks, roadside advertising signs I, or anybody else, has ever seen.

The sign says Roy’s Motel Café, and it’s a classic all right, tall, formidable, red, black and blue, two rectangles and a downward-pointing arrowhead, a smack you in the eye typeface, and more to the point, right in the middle it says ‘vacancy.’   Many a photographer (not least William Egglestone, who photographed it back in the day when there was often a classic black and white police cruiser parked outside), has embraced that visual and verbal pun: gas, food and lodging here, nothing but vacancy down the road.  Is that a bit too obvious, a bit too much of a cliché?  You bet.  And so the sign has appeared in a endless movies, music videos, TV commercials, and photoshoots.

This is the secret of Amboy’s success.  Although it has defining elements of ruin, it has other elements that define it as a stage or movie set, as a moody, evocative backdrop, as a location.  This inevitably creates certain problems for people (such as me) who yearn a certain (and admittedly contested) authenticity when they’re walking in the desert and/or walking in ruins.

In fact there’s at least one place nearby where people do some more or less conventional, and fairly strenuous, desert hiking.  The Amboy Crater is just a few miles to the west, an extinct cinder cone volcano, two hundred and fifty feet high, surrounded by a black lava field.   It’s a popular enough walking location that I’ve even seen tour buses unloading some extraordinarily well-dressed sightseers there, though I didn’t stick around to see how far they walked.

But let’s face it, an extinct volcano in the middle of the desert barely fits within even the broadest notion of ruin.  If you’re looking for ruin, and I usually am when I’m in the desert, you have to look elsewhere, and as it happens Route 66 is not the only transport artery to run through Amboy.  There’s a railway line too, a cluster of tracks that run parallel to the road, a couple of hundred yards to the south, and the railroad is still very much in business. If you hang out in Amboy for half an hour or so, chances are you’ll see a couple of immensely long freight trains roll through, the initials BNSF on the locomotives, standing for Burlington Northern Sante Fe.

Railways always strike me as the most appealing and picturesque of forms.  Who doesn’t like to watch the trains go by?  Who doesn’t like to stare down the tracks towards the vanishing point?  And yet cities, buildings, landscapes, even small desert towns, so often turn their back on the railway.  Trains thread through the bad parts of town, behind high walls and fences, in cuttings and tunnels, present but not seen and not regarded.  Meanwhile the land beside the tracks becomes a no man’s land where debris collects, where things get dumped, where graffiti are largely tolerated because at least they’re not somewhere more conspicuous.  In the desert however, the railways have nowhere to hide.

And whereas in England every yard of track is fenced off in an attempt to make it inaccessible and supposedly safe, here in the wide open spaces of the desert, nobody has the time, energy or money to fence off all those thousands of miles.  A man can walk right up to the tracks, walk across them, along them if he wants to.  Oh sure there’ll be the occasional no trespassing sign, but who’s going to take any notice?  Who’s going to police it?  And of course dumping goes on there with a casual lack of inhibition.  Down by the tracks in Amboy there used to be a sign that said no dumping, standing guard over a great heap of garbage.

And let’s face, it the railway people themselves are a messy bunch.  In Amboy there’s a sprawling three-sided corral where they’ve stored, or at least stashed, various bits of miscellaneous railroad hardware; posts, coils, wiring, chunks of lumber, those glass and porcelain electrical connectors, though those tend to be smashed if they’re not stolen.  You can walk into the corral, pick around, and although there isn’t a sign saying ‘help yourself,’ equally there’s no sign saying ‘keep out,’ and you can’t help thinking that if you had a use for some scrap fence posts or wiring, the guys from the BNSF would understand, and definitely wouldn’t put much effort into stopping you.

As I turned my back on the preserved charm of Roy’s Motel Café and Route 66, I was aware that maybe I wasn’t so much walking in ruins as strolling around in mess, performing the pedestrian equivalent of making mud pies, as I admired stacks of old sleepers and heaps of ballast.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but sometimes it’s good to aim a little higher, so when I noticed a fine, low slung industrial building maybe a third of a mile away along the tracks, I decided to walk over and explore. I accepted that this wasn’t ruin exploration on the grandest scale, but we all have to do what we can.

From the road, when I set off walking, I couldn’t have said what the building was intended for, something to do with the railway obviously, perhaps loading and unloading, possibly concerned with storage, though there was no indication that anything was going on there at the moment.  At first I thought it  was made of white painted metal, and the paint had rusted or flaked off, but as I got a little closer I realized the walls were broad slabs of wood, and the paint had peeled away in long vertical strips giving the effect of corrugations.  Up against the side of the building I could see storage tanks, some palates, a mobile scaffolding tower, and there was a chain link fence around the whole thing, serious but hardly impenetrable.  There didn’t seem to be much in there that anyone would want to steal.  I guessed they were trying to keep out vandals and graffiti sprayers, but since I was neither of the above I eyed the fence and wondered if I should do a little creative trespass, shimmy over and go inside.

I walked a circuit of the perimeter.  A railway siding ran alongside the back of the building within the fence, and there was no sign of life or activity anywhere.  The big roller doors on the building were raised and you could see there was nothing at all inside.  I got the impression that if this place was still being used for anything, it wasn’t much and it wasn’t recent.  I decided I’d go in.

And then suddenly I realized the place wasn’t deserted after all.  Around the side next to some half-demolished walls that looked like they might have belonged to a coal bunker, there was a single, pristine, dinky little golf cart with a canopy, a thing wildly out of place in this battered, industrial desert scene, and sitting in the cart was a huge man, dressed all in white.  As I remember it he was wearing a solar topi, though I think I may have made that up in retrospect: it may just have been a floppy sunhat, but nevertheless the overall effect was undoubtedly grand, spooky and strangely ethereal.  He looked both ghostly and angelic, unworldly, very, very still, not remotely right for this location. He was also wearing wraparound shades, and he was smoking a long thin cigar, and he reminded me, improbably, of Marlon Brando, certainly not as he was in The Wild One, and only partly as he was in Apocalypse Now, but rather as he appeared in The Island of Dr Moreau, where he dresses in white gauze, presumably to hide his bulk, with his face coated in white pancake for reasons known only to himself.  I’m prepared to believe that time and my imagination may have glorified the stature and strangeness of my man in Amboy, but not by much.  His presence seemed genuinely uncanny and alarming.  A man who can invoke Marlon Brando, a ghost and an angel, while sitting in a golf cart obviously has an undeniable aura.

I think he must have seen me before I saw him, because I only spotted him as I was reaching for a handhold on the chain link.  The sunglasses ensured there was nothing so unsubtle as eye-contact, but he turned his head just a fraction in my direction, then back again, the subtlest admonitory shake of the head, as if to say, ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you.  I wouldn’t do that if you know what’s good for you.’

I like to think I know what’s good for me.  I stepped away from the fence, calmly, unhurriedly, walked on, went about my business, and eventually I headed back to the car, parked up by Ray’s sign.  My wife was waiting for me there: she’d been off in the other direction looking at the graveyard (it’s good to have related but separate interests), and she asked me what I’d been doing.

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I think I saw the god of the ruins of Amboy.’

‘Was he on a train?’


‘Was he walking?’

‘He was on a golf cart.’

‘Makes sense.  What’s that in your hand?’

What I had in my hand was one of my great desert finds.  Yes, yes I pick stuff up in the desert and take it home with me.  Not so long ago it was thought of as perfectly OK to collect rocks or fossils or antlers or even plant specimens from the desert: now this is regarded as environmentally unsound, as messing with nature, as pure evil.  So now I only pick up stuff that doesn’t belong there, that’s been left of dumped by humans: hub caps, unfathomable innards from bits of machinery, the occasional abandoned children’s toy.  The best stuff is up on the wall of my garage.  And what I’d picked up that day, after my encounter by the chain link fence was half of one of those diamond-shaped metal signs that they put on the back of vehicles, in this case railway cars, warning of dangerous cargoes.  This one, in full, would have read ‘Spontaneous Combustion,’ but since I only had the left hand half, it reads Sponta Combu – a great name for something, a band, a spy, a guru, an Indian fusion dish – or maybe one of the 99 names of the god of the ruins of Amboy.

Two Funny Extracts from The Ultimate Book of Heroic Failures

The Worst Ever Broadway Play

An immediate and sensational flop, Moose Murders by Arthur Bicknell is now widely considered to bethe worst play ever performed on Broadway.

‘Ifyour name is Arthur Bicknell – or anything like it –change it,’ said the theatre critic at CBS.

When it opened and closed on 22 February 1983, Frank Rich, the drama critic of the New York Times, wrote: ‘From now on there will always be two groups of theatregoers in this world: those who have seen Moose Murders and those who have not. Those of us who have witnessed it will undoubtedly hold periodic reunions in the noble tradition of survivors of the Titanic.’

The play, a mystery farce, relates the adventures of Snooks and Howie Keene, Nurse Dagmar, Stinky Holloway and others trapped together one excellent stormy night at the Wild Moose Lodge, a guesthouse in the Adirondack Mountains. Several murders take place, Stinky tries to sleep with his mother and a man in a moose costume is assaulted by a bandage-wrapped quadriplegic.

There is a thunderclap. The curtain rises on a hunting lodge which is attractively festooned with stuffed moose heads.

Act One gets off to a corking start when ‘The Singing Keenes’, the resident entertainers, come on and launch straight into a rendition of ‘Jeepers Creepers’. A scantily clad Snooks Keene sings in an off-key screech. She is accompanied by her blind husband pounding away on his electric organ until the plug is pulled out by the resident caretaker, Joe Buffalo Dance, who wears Indian war paint but speaks with an Irish brogue.

They are soon joined by the wealthy Hedda Holloway, the Lodge’s new owner. She arrives with her husband Sidney, the heavily bandaged quadriplegic, who is confined to a wheelchair. His attendant, Nurse Dagmar, wears revealing black satin, barks like a Nazi and whenever possible leaves her patient out in the rain. In addition to her son Stinky, a drug-crazed Oedipal hippie, Mrs Holloway has a young daughter called Gay, who is permanently in a party dress. When told that her father will always be a vegetable, she turns up her nose and replies, ‘Like a lima bean? Gross me out!’ and then breaks into a tap dance.

Just before the interval Stinky gets out a deck of cards to give the actors, if not the audience, something to do. The lights go out mid-game and the first of several inexplicable murders is committed.

‘Even Act One of Moose Murders is inadequate preparation for Act Two,’ Mr Rich wrote. In the play’s final twist Mrs Holloway serves Gay a poison-laced vodka Martini for reasons that are never entirely clear. As the young girl collapses to the floor and croaks in the middle of a Shirley Temple tap-dancing routine, her mother breaks into laughter and applause.

The leading lady was supposed to be making her comeback after more than forty years away from the Broadway stage, but she dropped out after the first preview.

To mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of its opening and closing the play was restaged as a conceptual art project. ‘Broadway had its chance and they blew it,’ the artist said.

The Least Successful Hospital Visit

In June 2010 Mrs Connie Everett of Kitimat, British Columbia, was taken to hospital after colliding with a moose while driving to visit her sister, Mrs Yvonne Studley, who was in hospital after colliding with a moose.

Monkey Hill

A still of Rio from a video by Martijn Willemen

When Rio won the 2016 Olympics it was as if the whole city pinched itself. Euphoric crowds sang and danced on the beach while, on the big screen above their heads, President Lula and Sergio Cabral, the state governor, hugged and wept. On buses and in backstreets people went about their business in quiet surprise. Although cariocas are dreamers, years of decline and disappointment have tempered their natural exuberance. But the next day it seemed that everyone was thinking the same thing: maybe, just maybe, life in Rio might improve.

Palpable optimism hung in the air for a few weeks before dissipating in an instant when war broke out in Vila Isabel, a bohemian middle-class neighbourhood. One Friday after midnight, gangs of soldiers from the Comando Vermelho (Red Command) drug faction invaded a favela called Morro dos Macacos, Monkey Hill. The initial invasion was slick and well organised and they drove up the hill in stolen cars and vans where they moved quickly to take over strategic points in the community. Then the plan went awry and the invaders became trapped between the police and their rivals.

Intense gun battles on both sides of the hill went on until Saturday evening. Live TV broadcast images of shoppers taking cover in doorways and behind cars while the police armoured vehicle, thecaveirão (big skull) bore down residential streets. Bullets hit a police helicopter brought down by its pilot only seconds before it went up in flames. There were six police inside: three died. When the invasion began to fail, CV bosses from other areas in the city sent minions out to burn buses, a traditional faction tactic for protesting and distracting attention. A mood of instability took hold and people cancelled shopping trips, nights out and parties. Most cariocas stayed at home to watch constant replays of the helicopter circling and churning thick black smoke before becoming a fireball and crashing into the ground, as any residual high spirits about the Olympic victory dissolved into torn metal, blood and ash.

Evandro João Silva, my colleague and friend, was the charismatic founder of one of the successful AfroReggae cultural centres, and one of few in the city who tried to not let events spoil his weekend. But the city centre by night, far from the war zone in Vila Isabel, carried its own risks. Evandro was shot dead in a street robbery early on Sunday morning, killed walking from one nightspot to another. Security cameras recorded the attack, and over the next days Globo showed the footage on all its news programmes:  first the attack on Evandro, who fights two men who jump him from behind and shoot him during the struggle, and later on, a clip that shows a police vehicle drive past him as he lies dying in a shop window. Then even more footage comes to light that shows the same police officers apparently capturing and then releasing the men responsible for the murder. The scandal that surrounded Evandro’s killing temporarily knocked the battle for Monkey Hill off top spot on the news.

The Public Security Secretary later admitted he had prior intelligence about the invasion, but alleged he lacked the necessary manpower to take preventive action. The high death toll included three men shot in a car, whom police initially described as criminals, but whose families proved they were innocent residents caught in the crossfire. This was the first time high profile combat had broken out in the city since the declaration of the successful Olympic bid and images of the helicopter on fire were repeated on newscasts across the world as presenters questioned Rio’s ability to host a peaceful Olympics.

Rio is in the spotlight and, for the first time in many years, a newsroom priority. Lucy Ash is a BBC radio journalist who came in the weeks following the failed invasion and employed me as a fixer. She was hard-nosed, persistent and insisted that we visit Monkey Hill to speak to the mothers of the innocent men who died during the invasion.

No one was able to put us in touch with community leaders, so we made our way to one of the entrances to the favela and asked locals how to find the residents association. Someone made a call and asked us to wait. It was late afternoon and there was typical Rio warmth in the buzz of conversation in bars, the to and fro of shoppers and the shouts of greetings between friends. Vila Isabel is tucked away in the folds of the city between giant rocks and hills and here the rhythm of life is less hectic than in better-known neighbourhoods. We paid for several rounds of beer and then a gari, a community street sweeper, turned up in his bright orange uniform. He got in the car and we drove through a tunnel that took us to the other side of the hill.

Grey clouds clogged the skies as our car climbed the trash strewn cobbled street, and when Edilson, our driver, wound down the window, heavy air closed in. Residents coming home from work mingled with locals drinking at kiosk bars. Our guide was keen to show off his pimped ride andcalled to friends according to their football team “fala Vascaino! e aí Flamengo!”. Fatigue was visible on stretched faces and when we came to a checkpoint, teenagers in baseball caps handling shiny automatic pistols stepped forward to see who was in the car. The street sweeper leant out, gave a thumbs-up, and told them he was taking some journalists to the association. They waved us on.

Further along the road, we stopped to speak to the cagy President of the residents association. He kept talk to a minimum and introduced us to someone who could take us to meet the families. Suited and carrying a briefcase, this man guided us further into the favela, first up and then down a curved road offset by houses, shops and a panorama of the city twinkling in the early evening. As we navigated a U-bend he showed us where the three men were killed. They were driving in the same direction as we were, when someone in the road above them opened fire.

We parked and continued on foot. More boys with guns peered at us from the gloom of an abandoned bullet-pocked house that commanded the top of the hill. We had come full circle around the favela and below us was the point where we had waited for the gari a short time ago. Then we climbed steps and walked single file along an alley that twisted between primordial boulders where brick dwellings were hewn into the side of the rock face. A group of women on a doorstep stopped their conversation when we appeared.

An impossibly steep and narrow set of tiled steps led into a large, clean air-conditioned room. The walls were painted sky blue and the neatly corniced ceiling, white. There were chairs, two sofas, a dining table, family photos, CD shelves and a widescreen plasma TV. The room gave onto a kitchen and there was a second room on the left and a corridor to the right. The house was orderly and snug. A heavy white woman with a crumpled face sat on the largest sofa. We took our shoes off. Maria was the owner of the house and the mother of one of the boys. Other people came in quietly and sat or leant against the walls.

Maria answered Lucy’s question through sobs.

“Yes they’d been to a party, because like all young people they have the right to go out and enjoy themselves, and then they heard the shooting start. So they decided to come home and that’s when…”

She broke off, picked up a framed photo of her son, who worked as an auxiliary at a private hospital, and circled the room, picture in hand. When she sat down again, another woman came and put a hand on her shoulder, while a man appeared from a room in the corner. These were the other boys’ parents. Out of five in the car, two survived. They were close friends and Maria put on a DVD that showed them all at a birthday party on a schooner a few months ago. The room filled with sunny scenes of happy, good-looking young people partying underneath Sugarloaf Mountain.

Maria touched wrinkled fingers to her son’s face, and stayed standing by the television with her hand on the screen, drifting in and out of coherence, now talking about his death and how they will be suing the state, now talking about the personal problems he had shared with her, troubles with his girlfriend.

While the other parents explained they believed the invading traffickers received support from corrupt police, that it might even have been police who killed their children, Maria went into her son’s bedroom, where ironed clothes were stacked and Flamengo team posters decorated the walls. There was a collection of model cars neatly lined on a shelf and a TV showing soccer. She threw herself on his bed.

We offered our last condolences and left. Raindrops spattered as we made our way in silence along the alley. Inside the gloom of the abandoned house the traffickers and their guns made sad silhouettes in the last light.

Author’s Note:
This piece captures one of the episodic moments of chaos which have periodically paralysed Rio over the last 25 years. It was especially sad for me as it involved the death of a friend in a random robbery which was unlinked to the main ‘spectacle’ but which symbolised the general instability across the city. Monkey Hill is now occupied by what is called a UPP (Police Pacification Unit). Although I don’t like the terminology, this new policing strategy has brought peace, for now, to large chunks of the city and hopefully dark moments like the Monkey Hill weekend will soon be consigned to the past. Rio is getting better. At the same time, I don’t know, or really expect, that Maria will ever find out who killed her son.

Extract from Everything Around Me Is Shaking by Dany Laferrière

Introduction by translator Sophie Lewis

January 23, 2010—Dany Laferrière is in Haiti for the literary festival Etonnants Voyageurs. Like so many others, he is caught in the earthquake. Unlike many, he escapes the catastrophe unscathed. A year later, in Tout bouge autour de moi (Everything around me is shaking), he writes of what he saw that day and again, some weeks later when he returned to Haiti: sights that speak of horror but also of the Haitians’ remarkable sangfroid. Laferrière retells the story of the quake through his own impressions and view of the events. He counters the sensationalism and melodrama of Occidental television coverage with a sober, powerful account of this crisis whose repercussions continue to be felt worldwide. Tout bouge autour de moi is not merely a piece of testimony; it is a work of true literature.

Aftermath of 2009 Haiti Earthquake

The Minute

There I am in the restaurant of Hotel Karibe with my friend Rodney Saint-Eloi, publisher of Mémoire d’encrier (Memory of an Inkpot), who has just come in from Montreal. Leaning against our table-legs were two fat suitcases filled with his latest books. I was waiting for my crayfish (on the menu it said lobster) and Saint-Eloi for a salt-baked sole. I had already started on the bread when I heard a terrible explosion. At first I thought it was a machine-gun (others will say a train), right behind me. Seeing the cooks fly past us, I thought that a boiler had just exploded. All this took less than a minute. We had eight to ten seconds in which to make a decision. Get out of the place or stay. Those who split swiftly were very few. Even the sharpest lost three or four precious seconds before they realised what was happening. I was in the hotel restaurant with friends, the publisher Rodney Saint-Eloi and the critic Thomas Spear. Spear lost three precious seconds because he wanted to finish his beer. We don’t all react alike. In any case, no-one can foresee when death will be waiting for them. All three of us found ourselves flat on the floor, in the middle of the courtyard. Under the trees. The ground began to undulate like a slip of paper carried off in the wind. The thudding sounds of buildings falling to their knees. They don’t explode. They implode, imprisoning people in their bellies. Suddenly, we see a cloud of dust rise up into the afternoon sky. As if a professional dynamiter had received the express command to destroy the whole city without blocking the streets, to give the cranes easy access.

Life Already

Life had seemed to be returning to normal after decades of turbulence. Girls would stroll in the streets laughing, late into the evening. Primitive painters chatted to the mango- and avocado-sellers on the corners of dusty streets. Banditry seemed to be on the way out. In the rougher parts of town, such as Bel-Air, crime was no longer tolerated by the worn-out population, which had seen it all in the last half-century: hereditary dictatorships, military coups d’etat, cyclone after cyclone, devastating floods and stealth kidnappings. I was coming for this literary festival that was meant to bring writers to Port-au-Prince from all around the world. It promised to be exciting since, for the first time, literature seemed to have become the hot topic in town, more popular even than politics. Writers were being invited to speak on television more frequently than the MPs: a pretty rare thing in this highly politicised country. Literature was reclaiming its rightful place here. As early as 1929, Paul Morand noted in his perceptive essay Hiver caraïbe (Caribbean Winter) that in Haiti everything ends with a collection of poetry. Later on, during his last trip to Port-au-Prince in 1975, Malraux would talk about a population of painters. We are still trying to understand how such a concentration of artists could emerge in such a limited space. Haiti only takes up half of an island, which it shares with the Dominican Republic, in the Caribbean Sea.

The Silence

When I travel, I always keep two things with me: my passport (in a little bag hanging from my neck) and a black notebook in which I note down everything that crosses my field of vision or comes into my head. While I was lying on the ground, I was thinking about disaster movies, wondering if the earth was going to open and swallow us all. This was my childhood nightmare. We had retreated to the hotel’s tennis court. I was expecting to hear cries, people screaming. We say in Haiti that as long as there’s no screaming, there’s no death. Someone shouted that it wasn’t safe to stay under the trees. In fact they were wrong, for not a branch, not a flower shifted in spite of the forty-three seismic shocks of that first night. I can still hear that silence.


A shock of magnitude 7.3 is not so bad. You can still run away. Concrete was the real killer. People had gone to town with their concrete these last fifty years. Little fortresses. Being suppler, the houses made of wood and sheet metal had taken the stress. In the frequently tiny hotel bedrooms, the television became the enemy. We always sit down right in front of it. And it falls straight onto us. Lots of people had it fall on their heads.

The Ladder

We pick ourselves up slowly, like zombies in a B-movie. There are shouts in the hotel courtyard. The buildings to the back and right have crumbled. These are the apartments rented on an annual basis by foreign families, mostly French. Two teenage girls are panicking on a second-floor balcony. Very quickly, people start working out how to help them down. There are three of them there in front of the building. Two hold a ladder. The sharp young man who has had the presence of mind to go look for the ladder in the garden is climbing up it. The older of the girls manages to climb over the balcony’s edge. She reaches the ground. Everyone crowds around her. The young man climbs back up to get the younger one, who refuses to leave the place. She demands that they wait for her mother. This is the first we hear of a third person stuck up there. The rescuers work on in sweaty silence. They need to act fast, for the block, which is barely standing, could collapse with the slightest vibration. The teenager screams that her mother is inside. While looking for a stairway to get out by, the mother had got herself locked in somewhere. Weeping, the girl points to the spot where her mother is stuck. Standing in the hotel garden, we all have our eyes riveted on this teenager who believes that if she comes down we will forget her mother. There is enormous tension in the air, for the earth has only just finished shaking. Eventually, the mother frees herself by breaking a window. She rushes to her daughter who still refuses to come down before her. Only when her mother has reached the ground will she agree to come down the ladder.

A Small Party

A woman walks about with a crying baby. I take him in my arms and try to soothe him. He devours me with the black eyes of a frightened mouse. A gaze so sustained that he ends up intimidating me. The woman explains that she’s his nurse. His parents are at work. She had just given him a bath when the room started to rock. Thrown about all over the room, she never lets go of the baby. She tries to leave the building by the stairs. Blocked. She returns to the bedroom and this time manages to balance the baby on the window-ledge, before lowering herself onto the balcony on the next floor down. Then she climbs on a chair to pick up the infant who, miraculously, hasn’t moved, as if he understands the gravity of the situation. As soon as she had him in her arms again, he began to cry, as though he were being skinned alive, for the next two hours. Then his parents rushed in. I hardly dare to imagine their anguish during the journey. They left the car, doors wide, in the middle of the road. The nurse gave them the baby and they danced, with savage joy, holding him tightly between them. Another shock interrupted the little party.

The Hotel Employees

Always perfectly turned out in their uniforms, the hotel employees never lost their cool. If there was a certain amount of disorder at first, it emanated mainly from their guests who ran in all directions. Some had to be fetched, being unable to leave their rooms. They were found pacing round and round or sitting on their bed, eyes glazed. For a while I watch the employees work hard to carry out their assigned roles. It may be the fact of having a role to fulfil that allows them to walk straight while their guests totter. As soon as we are hungry they turn up, in single file, carrying canapés to lay out on a big table. A reception had been planned for the large meeting room, near the restaurant. The food had already been prepared. Now we take advantage of their organisation. The security guards stand close to the narrow barrier at the entry to the tennis court, where we have taken refuge. They do their best to reassure the guests. I say guests rather than tourists, for the latter are rare in Haiti. Only members of the many NGOs that have been festering in the country for the last few decades tend to be found here; tanned newspaper correspondents who can’t get away from the island, foreign businessmen muttering together over breakfast with Haitian politicians who are already sweating. We see the hotel owner go by in the garden, doing his tour of inspection. Pacing slowly, with a worried expression, he appears lost in his thoughts. I would give a lot to know what is going through his mind just then. The destruction is not only material. Some are seeing a lifetime’s hard work vanish in the space of a minute. That cloud in the sky a moment ago was the dust that remained of their dreams.

The Bathroom

I imagine the fright of those who were in the bath at the moment the quake’s first shocks struck. We were all taken by surprise, but those who were in the shower must have lived through a moment of pure panic. We always feel more vulnerable when we are naked, especially when covered in soapy water. In their hurry, a fair number of these people left without remembering to turn off the tap.


The enemy is not time but all those things we accumulate from day to day. As soon as we pick up a thing, we can’t stop. For one thing demands another. It’s the cohesion of a life. We would find bodies near the door. A suitcase beside them.

This is an extract from Everything Around Me Is Shaking (Tout bouge autour de moi) by Dany Laferrière (2011, Grasset et Fasquelle). Translated by Sophie Lewis.
Born in 1953 in Port-au-Prince, Dany Laferrière first made his mark in 1985 with How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired (Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer). He has since published a number of novels in France and in Quebec, where he now lives.
Sophie Lewis specialises in translating short prose from French. Her forthcoming publications include Thérèse and Isabelle, a ground-breaking feminist novella by Violette Leduc, for Salammbô Press. She is currently working on Sans Dessus Dessous, a novel by Jules Verne, for Hesperus Press. She is also Contributing Editor at Litro and Editor at Large at And Other Stories.