The Bonfire Dog Tumblr Archive
Welcome to the Bonfire Dog Archive. The temptation to dub it “The Bonfire Blog” is almost irresistible, but I shall weather and persevere. The main Bonfire Dog website can be found here. I can also be contacted by email above, and you will also find the link to my Twitter page there. Rummage, please.
Out Of This World
I had the recent pleasure of attending the opening day of the British Library’s new exhibition, Out Of This World: Science Fiction Not As We Know It.
As one would expect from the constantly elegant and self-affirming institution, the exhibition, despite being incredibly busy (and at times laid out with strange chokepoints where no-one could get past and one was confronted with the strange sight of people queuing to learn) was phenomenal. I think people often come to the BL exhibitions expected a more image-driven approach. You will read if you visit. A lot. And, to be fair, look at some pictures, but mainly you will be reading. Do not worry; we’ll do it together, in our heads.
From early Greek speculative map-making to the frankly wonderous home-made maps created by the Bronte sisters and their shadowy brother Branwell (at least shadowy in the public conciousness), the exhibition not only thoroughly schooled me on a subject of which I considered myself an expert, but served to swell my Amazon list to Liliputian proportions.
The Bronte maps held a special resonance for me, perhaps because I am currently invested in dressing my own imaginary world in the meat and bones of culture, literature, ersatz religion and character for my Dungeons and Dragons campaign (to feature in a future post). The idea that they carried on this trend into adulthood is, at first, I am shamed to say, laughable, and then, having caught sight of a blued and tense version of myself in the plastic of the display cabinets I felt a certain something wonderful.
The exhibition runs until 25th September, and is free, of course. The link to the website resides here.
Yes that is a draconic and corvan double headstock. It can occur, verily.
An Old-Fashioned Wood Amnesty
I need boxes.
Long ones, short ones, tall ones, thin ones. I’m in the luthier’s version of rutting season; I just want to build and build and build. Email me using the link at the top of any page if you have any spare wooden (or reinforced cardboard boxes), and we can work something out. I might even name it after you.
My next project, as I stated on my Twitter, is a custom double-headed lute called “The Dacian”, mainly because lexicographically it pleases me, and also it seems like a thing that a Dacian would wish to play himself. I’ll post my (rough, almost schizophrenic) plans once I have begun the build.
A short story from a while ago, posted at the request of a dear friend. I have changed a single comma. Photo credits to the Mochowski Gallery.
My feet swung on the Atlantic coast unwillingly. The cliff edge ran in straight lines on both sides of me, gnawed by unseen, gigantic teeth. Birds lived in slippery alcoves ringed with their own shit. I heard surreptitious cracks as the leaden rain struck the cobbled roof of my hut; the open doorway winked, my morning fire clawing for attention. I hugged the leather closer to my thinning shoulders and trudged away from the edge, as the sky turned. The hot stone floor hissed as rainwater peeked through the ventilation holes in the roof. Blackbug carved hierarchies in my cabbages. My bed was a hammock, twisted from the skin of my pack beast, the day it stopped breathing. An old, smooth metal tablet, hinged but dead and dark, was tucked inside it, my scratchings deep in the firelight. I had forgotten what it was. I sat in the lee of a riverstone that formed my doorstep and watched the rain. The birds stayed inside also; the rain brought sickness, but not death; a tiredness that never washed out, a slowing creep that snuck into the bones and slowed the muscles and lymph. Eventually, the body stopped, not unlike stone, but breathed fitfully until starvation or predators came. The rain was dying, and poisoned everything it wet.
Four days before I thought I had seen a caravan of travellers, pulling through the mud on the ancient trade road under the hills. I had run naked from my bed, clutching a stave and grinning, ready to shout. My voice was still good; I practised singing everyday, old tunes that my mother had taught me after classes. Formless shapes slipped through the trees at the road’s edge, but as I approached I saw that it was only a trio of camels, sad and confused, absent-mindedly grazing on the dry-grass that stuck up between the concrete. That night I had eaten a carrot, and dreamt of thousands of camels, scampering like children across the steppes of Mongolia, the sky bright with dead satellites and the forgotten stars. They occasionally glanced fretfully behind them, into the dark shadows of the mountains. All at once the shadows changed, rose and hardened into a Negro-skinned hand, the size of a city, a country, moving towards the herd as if looking for a desired figure on a sales sheet. The camels moaned in terror, scattered before the fingers with wrinkles as wide as streets or shopping centres. The hand curled, horribly slowly, the bones grating with the sound of tectonic movement, and painfully made the sign of the Buddha. I woke to find dogs, thin and stupid, clawing at the ground around my garden. I hollered and struck my stave against the wall of the hut, and they scattered into the woods. They would find no meat here.
This happened every now and then. A clutch of hope, a band of virtuous survivors, the last society; the old radio I had chirped and squeaked to some relay clinging to orbit with rusting receptors, listening to the globe. Nothing ever stirred. There is only static, and the lowing of bulls. Never humans, just confused animals, dragging themselves along riverbanks and mountain passes. And then the dreams. That great hand. An eye the size of Chicago that pulsed with fire. A set of scales at the mouth of the Thames, melting as my brother groaned and shifted.
The rain stopped, slowing as the sky reared overhead, daring me to emerge. I stared at my hands, hairless and drawn, the skin grey with the salt from the sea and the dead earth. I turned back and crouched by my shrine. A picture of my mother rested beside that of a child I did not know, a young boy in shorts by the beach, and a single plasti-candle that flickered convincingly and painted the wall a deep ochre. It would continue to flicker its electronic flame for another four thousand years. The body of the shrine was a packing crate, the label of its contents long since faded, and the Buddha herself perched precariously, like one of the sea-birds, her face long and calm in the bark of a tree, her eyes so heavily lidded she looked as if she was sleeping. I knelt in one of the seventy-five positions that I had learnt before Baxwell had died, and rocked myself back and forth in time with the wind.
“Buddha Sangha, protect me from myself, and all those who climb the ladder.”
It was simple, but it was for everyone lost to me.
The population had started to decrease around eighty years before, the cities being the worst hit. Scientists and analysts had pointed to a downturn in recreational sex after the AIDS epidemic, as well as the increased awareness towards contraception, as the cause. But this did not explain the huge upturn in miscarriages; everyone knew at least one person who had felt their baby die as it came to term. Also, animal populations were starting to swell exponentionally; bears were now regularly seen slumped against bins in the centres of major cities, looking dazed and hungry, and wild horses returned to areas of the world they had long since departed. Everywhere the wilderness was filled with the call of birds in numbers previously unheard of; the paths man had cut through the woods were crisscrossed with pawprints and hoof-marks, as if an unseen party had taken place. The world population halved, and within a further fifteen years it quartered. People were terrified, looting and rioting in the now-empty cities every few years; no one cared if they took things anymore. My mother had told me that there had been a man, a South American, who gained brief international fame in claiming to provide miraculous birth to any who attended his quasi-religious services. He had disappeared as births dried up, and those few who still gave birth to healthy children went into hiding, scared of roving bands of grief-stricken women who had lost their own sons and daughters, or shadowy kidnappers who would ask for several year’s worth of wages for the safe release of their charges. Most people had by this time moved out to smaller communities in the countryside, fending for themselves against the tide of vultures, toads, spiders, cows, and every other beast who hungered in the world.
I remembered my childhood; I was the youngest in the compound. The next youngest was my brother, James, who was nearly twenty, and I had no friends to play with. The perimeter was set with bear-traps, dynamite, laser-tubes, anything we could find to keep wildlife out. Every few days there would be an incident; a racoon shot while hunting for food, the charred corpse of a sheep that had wandered into one of the defence matrices. We were near what remained of Northhampton; we were lucky that Britain didn’t contain many predators. I often thought of those left in Africa, the eyes of millions of lions and hyaenas, waiting in the dark. We grew crops, tried for children, but none came. Our leader, Baxwell, was a Buddhist; it was from him that I received my statue, on my fifteenth birthday. He often held little meetings in his bio-tent; not sermons, as such; nothing as grand as that. His long hair was tied back in grey strands, bald on top; he always wore an open shirt, his haired chest like a wall as he crouched in a camp chair. He was smart, smarter than a lot of us, and serious. He thought he knew what had caused the world to “turn funny”, as he said.
“There’s this balance, people. A balance that the universe tries to keep level. Everything we do, everything any living thing does, tips this balance in crazy directions, and the universe has to make up for it.”
“What do you mean, balance?” Herschel, a German with a bad leg, often had terse questions about Baxwell’s speeches.
“It’s called karma, Herschel. There’s only a certain number of souls in the universe, essences of living things. They move from body to body, thing to thing, possessing them for a lifetime, and then moving on.” He waved his hand, the bracelets festooning them clattering. “This, this is only a shell. My spirit is gonna live on, after I’m dead. Go somewhere else.”
Herschel cut in again, banging his glass down. “You mean resurrection.” He smiled, nastily, feeling a triumph over Baxwell’s expansive knowledge.
“Some people call it that, yeah. The name isn’t important. What is important is what body you go into. It’s all determined by how you act in life.”
I remember the rain hadn’t let up in days, pounding and deathly, and I gazed through the open tent door to see my mother crouched beneath one of the spotlights, fiddling at it with a screwdriver.
“If you act well in your life, try to be good to people, do the right thing, your karma is good, and you’ll become something good in the next life. A princess, or a bank executive, when there were banks, or something like that. But if you act badly, shout at people, hit things, slaughter and eat animals, you’ll get bad karma, and you’ll slip down, and be born as a cat, or a goat, or a fly. And it don’t stop there. If you keep acting like that, keep being bad, you just keep slipping, down and down, until you ain’t nothing more than an amoeba, or a ringworm.”
Some people shifted uncomfortably on the metal panels of the flooring. They had heard this speech before. They knew what was coming.
“You know, people can be so blind. No one saw it coming. We got stupid. All of us. We kept making wars, burning forests, breeding millions of pigs just so we could slaughter them with great big guns and eat bacon, letting people starve. We put men in space but tortured boys in cellars. We made money by killing horses and melting glaciers. We all took part.”
An old woman perched near the back called out angrily. “I never killed children or chopped down trees! Neither did any of us here! What did we do wrong?”
Baxwell smiled sadly, and scratched at his balls. “No, pet, of course you didn’t. But it all got too big. We all got caught up in it, one way or another. We all helped these things happen. All the politicians we voted for, the hamburgers we ate, we helped. We are all to blame, as far as the universe is concerned.”
I sensed the atmosphere in the tent turning. People were fidgeting, eager to leave, angry to be blamed. The rain kept them sitting. No one wanted to be outside. Baxwell sensed it was safe to continue.
“So we stopped being born. No one was good enough to be born as a human again. Every time someone died, they came to in a forest, or under a log, or sitting in a nest on a cliff. We became birds, and mice, and sheep. That’s why all the animals have spread and multiplied while the human race had died off. We fucked up.”
He smiled again, his hands wide and placating.
“I’m not judging us, mates. We fucked up, plain and simple. The universe took a long, hard look at us, and found us wanting. All that noise we hear in the night, the braying and the cooing, that’s our mothers and sons, Churchill and the Dalai Lama, all of them, calling to us.”
I thought of the sheep caught in the perimeter fence and shivered. My mother was gone, and the searchlight turned once again on its oiled ratchets.
People were leaving, not wanting to hear any more. They knew where this was heading; what, as always, began as a good-natured story became a religious badgering. Baxwell stood, his eyes staunch, his pose set. He called to them as they shouldered their way into the downpour.
“Don’t you see? That’s what I’m saying! We can stop it! We’ve got enough of us here! We need to live well, be good to one another, stop eating meat, pray for others, pray to the Buddha, spin the wheel. They’ll come back to us! If an old man who leads a virtuous life dies, we shall have children. We don’t all need to die! Climb the ladder!”
Herschel was the last to leave, using the space to heave himself up onto his good leg. He spat onto the tiling and leered at Baxwell, his engineer’s uniform crinkled by his hunched gait.
“You’re fucked in the head, Baxwell. Speaking a load of horseshit. No-one wants to hear it. Save it for the old ones.”
With that he turned, pulling his mac to him, and stepped into the wall of water that drowned the camp, and the woods, the endless woods beyond, full of life. I remember looking back at Baxwell as I left for dinner, his head hung as he kicked dried mud from the grating and shifted his furniture back into place. The spotlight outside the bio-tent illuminated patch after patch of solid thicket; it moved along a wall as long as the camp, barely penetrating the thick undergrowth.
A year or so after that last speech of Baxwell’s, we were forced to travel South, to London, for supplies. All the towns and cities of the Midlands had been picked clean in the previous decades by groups like ours, but eight of us had fitted up an old Ford van salvaged from a car pool and took the old roads southwards. Great phalanx of deer passed us, the hooves pounding the mossed concrete in a migration eased by a motorway. We saw boar sneaking between woods like dark ghosts in the August sun. My mother and brother James were with us, the latter hefting an ancient rifle and silent the entire trip, while my mother sat with her tools in the passenger seat while I drove, cackling at her old jokes and cuffing me on the chin, as she always had. Within a day we had reached Essex, and the dead power plants and suburbs stretched away in front of us, rusting and mute. We had only seen one group of people, ragged men and women who were moving west on an overpass, their horses starved and yellow. The whole of North London was black and unknown in the half-light, as if underwater. As far as we could see, there were no others; no children had been born, and people had rotted in their graves with no one to carve their names in stone. But we couldn’t be too careful; Sally from the camp had been taken by a travelling vagrant not a year back and raped at gunpoint. She had waved us off the day before, still quiet but forcing a smile onto her clean, bright face.
We found a deserted hotel, a blast from James’ riot gun pulverising the lock, and settled down for the night. The rooms were clean, and spacious, but they smelt of damp and rot; within a few years this building, and others like it, would collapse along the lines of bright river water that wormed their way into the walls, poisoning the foundations, and killing it, slumping into the street. We had seen older buildings where this had happened; the mortars and cement rested, skeletal and waiting, in cellars buried by the buildings they would have fixed.
The next day we searched the surrounding streets, but found nothing of use; all the canned foods were gone, and only the shadows remained of the fruits and meat, their disintegration so complete that they had disappeared on the air. Any medicine worth taking was gone. We pushed further, weighed down by defeat and the muggy air that found itself hung between the narrow streets of Camden. Holograffiti glowed fitfully from dark alleys, like phosphorus, the enzymes in the null-paint slowly dying like everything else.
We reached Trafalgar Square, great ferrocrete struts from some forgotten art installation laying over it like rigid tissue. Everywhere we looked we saw thousands of pigeons, perhaps tens of thousands; they roosted in the shells of buildings, on roofs, and under the steps that led up to the National Gallery, though they ignored us entirely – their coos and frenzied mating convinced us that we weren’t about to be descended upon. A lone swan drifted lazily in one of the pools. The great lions that guarded the Column had grown a green fuzz, some compound from the air that mated with the bronze, and they seemed made of felt, like a child’s toy. Edgar, one of the older members of the team, said something, and he whistled in appreciation. It was beautiful. The skyscrapers were falling or close to it, and vegetation grew everywhere, never really gone, just ready to poke back through when the men with rakes and shears had disappeared. My mother’s voice cracked in my ears.
“Come on, guys, move! Start searching the buildings! We know what we’re here for!”
We headed off in random directions, my brother still quiet, scanning the tapering streets with his muzzle pointed. I headed towards a ruined portico, a fallen doorway to what may have been a church, or the atrium of some theatre. The space within was oppressively small, choking with marble dust, and I could see nothing of use in the dry hollow of the place. I was about to investigate a faded set of steps marked “Crypt” when I heard my mother scream. It was long and bitter, and I had never heard it before, but I knew it was her. I turned backed into the diminishing brilliance of the sun.
It was a tiger, or perhaps a lion, though the distinction was not easy as a layer of dust patterned its hide a dull beige. It was definitely a big cat, but bigger than any I had ever seen in old videos; it looked more like a horse, with huge serrated teeth. The team was nowhere to be seen, and the pigeons had retreated up into the air-conditioning units of severed tenements, watching the beast eat below.
My brother was trapped under one paw the size of a pillow, the claws pinioning him like a caught dove. His face was gone, gnawed off, and the beast sheared strips of meat from him with one tooth, almost lazily. It was in no hurry. My mother was being held back by Edgar, crouched behind a bench a few yards off. My brother’s riot gun lay not two feet from him, his hand gripping and ungripping in spasms. He was still alive. I coughed and vomit dribbled onto my trouser leg. Edgar turned at the sound and saw me, his eyes huge and wet. His grip must have loosened, as my mother tore from him and half sprinted, half-fell into the animal’s feast. It raised its head, dripping with my brother’s features, and snapped at her. She had one hand on the riot gun before her arm was hewn off at the shoulder. She made no noise except a short, rude grunt and tumbled to the side, still and broken. Edgar had run, where I did not see. The square was empty and the cat, in its irritation at my mother, noticed me and roared deep in its throat, booming like a torpedo strike. There was no other sound, the pigeons keeping silent lest the cat should turn its attention to them.
I ran, as you would. As any creature presented with his own death would do his best to avoid it. But it was never going to chase me. It had two fresh kills laid out before it; there was no sense in chasing a third. I bowled down sunken roads and nests of rats before I stopped, crying and voiding my bowels, in an old kebab shop. I spent the whole night wrapped in a curtain, the faintest chink of moonlit street allowed access, and it never came. I never heard it, just the bark of urban owls, and the shriek of rabbits, lost and pinned by the neck.
The coming months were boring. It was the only way to describe them. I seldom thought of my mother, or brother, or even my peaceful, dead father, crushed by a falling pylon. I walked. Through towns, woods, along motorways. The further I got from London the worse the roads became; whole sections of the A3 had disappeared under thin, languid sand, like a tourist attraction in Egypt, the way lost, scorpions and ferrets burrowing into the sewers. I found food where I could, ignoring the sheep and pheasants that wandered past, occassionally, aimless. I dug up wild potatoes, lumpy and small. An old vineyard had taken root and the vines sprouted over several hectares, the trunks four meters tall. I spent several days walking in the dappled, rich soil, eating grapes and sleeping in a wheelbarrow that was starting to brown with rust. I reached Birmingham, thought about turning north, and decided against it. I could see no point. The little Buddha Baxwell gave me was still in my pack, along with a picture of my mother. The picture of the little boy I found in a house in Bromsgrove. I liked the colours, and pocketed it, along with three mildewing sets of male boxers. The cities of England gave way to the mountains and castles of Wales, the rain constant, the roads steep, and the way curved.
The clouds were starting to disperse, limping venomously out into the sea to pester Canada or Greenland. I hoped for sun. It was best to be hopeful, as the heat of the sun meant that I would burn less wood. It was hard to find dead branches and twigs; the trees seemed to bud with life, and I found little on the ground. I never hacked anything from a living tree, it wouldn’t be worth it. A little cold is worth suffering for a noble end.
I creaked to my feet, my old legs thin and padded with tough skin from years spent kneeling or cross-legged. The birds were starting to take to the air again, screeching with joy as the ocean started to boil with fish. You couldn’t wade out five meters without nearly stepping on herring as big as your arm, some blue and nervous, others slow and green, grumpy like parrots. The birds blotted out the new sun, momentarily, and were out over the water, following the clouds.
I sat myself in front of my hut, on a grassy hillock I had built up especially, and started to sway. I was chanting what I knew of the Dharma, the Way and the Light, as revealed to me by Baxwell. Since that day in London I had not killed an animal, or chopped down a tree, or shot a bird, or speared a fish. I had prayed to the Gautama twice a day, and spent most of my waking hours in meditation. I had a first-aid box, salvaged from a wrecked lifeboat, packed full of penicillin and gauze, ready to assist any weary traveller that came through these parts. But I never saw any. Only more and more animals, everyday, watching me curiously. I was the last one, in a great big zoo. Of course, out here there were unlikely to be any people; maybe some had survived, maybe there were children. I doubted it.
I suddenly saw that lion, that great cat, again, peering at me as it ate my brother. I had wanted it, for so long, to be an evil soul, one who had killed others as a human, had infected men with malaria as a mosquito, that had trapped mice as a spider in its jungle home. But I knew it would not be. It had been a grandfather, cooking stew for his kids. It had been a bison, birthing young under a lightning sky. It had been a son.
The one thing I had noticed was that everyday, there were more and more bugs. Huge black beetles, bloated, obese flies, and crawling millipedes, they seemed to burst from the earth, less soil than living bodies. They ate my crops, picking holes with finger-like teeth, but I never stepped on them, or flicked them from my knee. At times I fed them, bringing them old lettuce and beetroot. They ate it gladly, and then turned back to my garden, picking it to mulch.
My chant went on. Dharma, praise all life. All life is yours. I am part of life. I am part of the ladder. The ladder is me and my father and my mother and your mother. May we find peace in new forms. May we not be found wanting.
I felt a cough rack me like a bolt of electricity and I doubled in pain. There was blood in my beard, I could smell it. I wouldn’t last much longer, on this knuckle of land, eating leaves and rubbing my sores with rocks.
I smiled for the first time in months. The way it made my face crease and contour was still familiar. I could reassure myself. Somewhere, there was someone like Sally, with a clean face and a nervous smile, who one night would hurt and scream for hours, not too long, and would push out a child, just as the evening fire died, here, on the cliff. I prayed, still, rocking and rocking as the sea misted against my face, that I had done enough.
The Protoplasmic, Oozing Council Of Delicious
The ten people that actually read this blog will not care about this post.
This post is in the poor taste of autarkic selfishness that penetrates the Internet daily. Even those of you with gardens and vegetable plots of your own will gaze at my offerings like I was some Aztec shaman, newly ascended to the ziggurat to offer you the heart of a wheezing, syphilitic midden cleaner, or some sort of perverted root vegetable that was wrapped in minute steak to give the impression of a blood pump.
My bulbous radish, crowning like a squeezed left nut.
Beetroot, chard and radish, creeping forward. I did consider a more ordered paean to Plants vs. Zombies, but these delectable specimens protect me only in my dreams.
Carrots. I think they may die. Apparently flies can smell their sweetness from hundreds of feet in the air. And, as I planted them, they must be puffing honeyed zephyrs straight up into their bristled little mandibles.
I also saw a rabbit today, about as large as any of those wheezing housebound varieties one can torture for a number of years. He was lolloping down our drive, one eye rheumy and weeping, I think looking for a quiet place to die. He was gone when we returned.
The Couple In The Window
Dr. Morgan would take the cow’s legs out, first. It would be quick, not slaughter-quick, but not slough-slow, either. We’d already made a divot in the field-earth for her to lie in, and she will fit into like luggage; that way it would be easier to cut into her. She was nearly as tall as a supermarket shelf when on her side, a big girl who had still-born eighteen times in four bad autumns and similarly high moons. I will wonder whether she would write books if she hadn’t walked on all fours. Books about her children, and what she kept looking for under the juniper down by the river, chasing the dead faecals of the sowing bully-pigs that had lived there before her, until they were struck by chain-lightning and we had hot bacon stuck in brambles thick like the spokes of Mama’s mug tree the next morning, shears of big gammon, shears of bully-pig.
“Eliot, it’s done.”
He wouldn’t not do anything, this doctor! He had lain her down on her side all by himself. She had such creamy thighs, big knees that spent much of their day locked like Morgan’s big car that he wouldn’t drive past the cattle grid. I thought about trotting in to fetch him a beer, but I knew he would refuse because I kept the fridge next to the paint stripper, which was really my favourite. I wondered if he had some local lads help him, that were asleep under her tight belly, waiting like he was Will Robinson and they just had to extend their calves and she would be back up on her feet. The big brownies of tractor churnings that ran from the gate to the sheep-pens looked good enough to eat. I could hear teenagers slapping at each other having parties in that old holloway, where Dad had grown radish.
I would have to write down later on (as the magazine Mama had left had told me to write down everything I did in a day) that I liked his shirt. It was the colour of the skin behind my ear, and he knew that because he could see back there and I had shown him that mirror that I had made that made it easier to see the back of my own head, and cut my own hair. He wasn’t wearing a tie, but there as little plastic shell necklace that had dyed his skin there a little. I had asked him not to wear it on the farm, that it might get caught in something with blades and what would I do with a headless doctor, but I think he only hears a little bit of what I say. Time to take the cap off. He likes it when I do that, I read that is what rich people like. Hats are for poor people, or at least taking them off is. I will also wonder where Barbour is, and why they put their name on his wellies. And thank him. That might make him leave. I do that now.
“Thanks awful, Mr. Morgan.”
“I told you, Eliot, it’s just Morgan. You can call me Dr. Willetts if you like.”
But I know that he isn’t a doctor and that he only does beasts, as when I need.
“Yessum, Morgan. You do that now?”
“What? The cannula?”
“Yessum, the tummy door.”
“Yes. I’ve got to check for gas first. But she’s big, Eliot, and she’s in a lot of pain. I think I will have to operate.”
I see that he is wearing one earphone, and I can only hear the s’ses of what they are saying, and I wonder if it’s a radio discussion by lisping Gila monsters like they have in the Galapagos, or a Gila monster punk band. I have known for days that the old cow would need a cannula. But I have never liked cutting my own flock. He thinks that she’s been eating rotten vegetables, but I have told him that I don’t let anything rot. But, nevertheless, we’ve got to fit a cannula – and it is a tummy door, I’m not foolish for calling it such, I’ve seen them on pigs and oxen. A big hole in their sides, so you can see what the food is doing. Though a stomach is a stomach is a stomach, if you ask me. Once those big teeth, like a Jew’s I told him but it made him pale, get going it all looks the same by the time it gets down there.
He bent down and ran a hand along her desire line, where the fur parts. She isn’t mooing anymore, just looking up at me with an eye like the ball in the bottom of the old computer mouse at the library. I see her side churning, and I want to shout at Morgan’s helpers to stop kicking her underneaths, but if they are down there I guess that it must be good science and I don’t. He starts tapping her and it makes brass band sounds, a big dense clarinet near the hock, and then a whole drum orchestra over the tummy, and she is bellowing now, there are tears in her eyes. She’s got a terrified throat the colour of smoked milk. He’s hushing her. I know that he wants to calm her down, but she probably thinks she’s sprung a leak as he’s hushing down by her tummy, and it just makes her worse, but I can’t say anything as he is the vet. As Dad said, always trust the wind and vets, and Morgan’s been good to me so far, apart from when I heard him in the pub with his step-sister, the one that only wears stiff bras in front of him, and he started talking badly of my Mama. Maybe he thinks I can’t afford drinks. I should sell all the paint from his car, though the gold of it is just chemicals, most likely. He’s too tight to have a real gold car.
He will step up now, and tell me that she needs a tummy door.
He steps up.
“There’s a lot of trapped wind there, Eliot. Dangerous bloat. Where does she graze? Any alfalfa around, or clover?”
It takes me a minute to figure him out. Breastmilk Petal and Drunk’s Folly. Three-Leaf and Three-Leaf. I let the names go, as I did know of some living up in the hills, but I don’t know where she goes of a day. She came back with a football shirt wrapped around her snout once, another time with a baby’s milk bottle on a hoof. In fact, that was the last time I saw her blood, and the last time that Morgan was at the farm.
“No, Dr. Morgan.”
He sighs, and walks to his car. From here it looks like the useless spare button at the bottom of shirt. When he comes back he is in what looks like a baby romper, orange-yellow and crinkled plastic, and carrying what looks like a doctor’s bag with steel handles poking from it. He draws a little hood over his head and he looks a little like a Wotsit, though he leaves no dust in his wake.
“I’ve got to operate, Eliot. I don’t have any anaesthetic but she should be OK. Just watch her head, make sure she’s comfortable, talk to her.”
Talk to a cow! The prick! I look at her. Now, I hate her. I hope this kills her and she deflates in front of him. He is now making a Star of Saul with a little knife right below her ribs.
She is a woman, I want to tell him. I let her become one.
He has scooped a little from her, and now he gets out a big silver drill, and he slings it onto his shoulder like he’s an American, and then it slips and falls, digging into her a little. I pretend not to see and I look at her ruddy great useless head and all I want to do is cook it.
He starts to drill into her properly, and at some point he must have reached inside her and there is a great hiss and he tries not to lean away and vomit but it smells of womb and a certain winter. She is still quiet. I want her to say “aaaaah” in a deep, long, satisfied voice, like a cartoon cow, but she looks nothing like a cow, and will not speak at all.
He takes out a long sliver of skin trailing a fish-grey cylinder of meat, and gluey tendrils that seem to grab at her as it leaves. He reaches in and pulls – he brings up fistfuls of green globes, like full stops that are too large. Though, perhaps the ones in books are shrunk to a more manageable size. I miss the start of what he is saying.
“Peas, Eliot. You didn’t tell me that you planted peas.”
“Yessum, Mr. Morgan.”
“These could kill her, you know. I’ll put the cannula in and you’ll need to watch her, over the next few days. See what goes on when you feed her, make a note for me. Only give her clean water and a bit of grass, mind. Anything else will just fall out.”
There is a sort of bear trap that he hinges open around the wound. I can see a tall wall of red, like a cinema curtain, inside her that moves when she breathes and shudders as she defecates into the divot that I, in fact, we made for her, while he stood around finishing his breakfast that he kept in his car; something with more butter than flour. I think he really wanted to be sick, then.
“Right, let’s get her up.”
There is nobody underneath her, just steam. She seems lighter and the day is finally ending, and she can go back to the woods or wherever she wishes. I will not watch her for him.
“Yessum. Dr. Morgan. Most kind. Speak soon on the tellyphone.”
I think he really hates that. But talk is talk. I talk as I talk.
“No vegetables. Just grass. She’ll die otherwise, and watch the cannula. Make sure it doesn’t weep.”
The hole in her side is shunted open, wearing her blood like a beard, the purple port around its edge straining to be seen. What would happen if it slipped? It would certainly slip if she ran. I’ll take a torch to her tomorrow.
“Will you give her a name yet, Eliot?”
“Yessum, Mr. Morgan.”
It’s dark night and the foxes are coming on the steps. It’s dark night and I can hear raised voices from the woods. I’m not sure what they are, ground’s too hard for tents, and no-one goes stalking any more, not since the woman got her head caught in the storm drain and they had to wrench it off just to get her out. It’s dark night, and I’m thinking of Dr. Morgan and his sister, having a sleepover, him planting his bottom in the divot just above hers, lying entwined together like the symbol on the side of ambulances. Like two snakes. One of them would be smiling. I reach down and almost slip.
It’s past lunchtime by the time I see her lumber out of the forest up in the top field. Something she ate, sap maybe, has bloomed out of the hole and looks like a crusty rosette on some present. There are odd sounds coming from her.
As she gets closer I hear the clitter of train tracks, getting louder as she moves towards me. It is indistinct, and it seems to pull away from the station, that rising whine as it gets its act together and makes itself move, but then she reaches me, nuzzling into my crotch with her head like a black flagstone. It dies and I hear only the bowels of her gurgling, and then a holler, as if of gentlemen grousing, as granddad used to say, up where the old estate is. I can only see the threshing sheds and the ribbing barn, and no-one goes there. I had told everyone in the pub that the government had buried barrels from the Long Sands Plant there, and that was that. Everyone wrapped their kitchens in baking foil.
I forget, and try to wipe the crust on her side away, but it is attached to something still working in her belly and she groans at me, eyes rolling to moisten their orbit. I give her arse a quick slap to move her forward and lean into her, my ear and dry skin sealing the wound. There is a hum, but it is probably the afternote of a moo playing tennis with itself throughout her intestines. Maybe she met a bull from the pedigree farm up top, and didn’t clench but let him rub her against a hawthorn. Maybe this one will deliver the goods this time, not leave her popping out sticky little envelopes that I can’t sell.
Our meeting is done. She’ll be off down to the river next, where the power station wall is broken, and try to lick the big batteries. What does he want me to do? Only grass. A cow should eat what she likes. Meat, even. Life is hard enough.
I’ll cook something stupid, tonight, I think. Something old. I go down into Dad’s bunker, under the old shower curtain, and take the last tin from the shelf. The old wolf spider has eaten some of her children again, and there is a coup going on, the utter terrifying speed of warring insects, up there in the light bracket. I bring it up, pulling off the label before I can see it, and tipping it straight onto the skillet. There’s something sweet. I mark it in the journal.
Not many people know that you can eat cat-food without feeling ill, but it is sweet and soft like pulled pork and you can pretend that you are a cat whilst you do it. I eat on the floor in this way, as I broke the last chair, and the saw is still hard with dog blood and is no good for repairs. From where I sit I can only see the roof of the stables, and the security light comes on, and the stars disappear. And then I hear a bus, come here, far from any road.
I had only been on a bus the once. I remembered what it sounded like; the whine as it pulled away from the station. The chatter of old men. The driver coughing into a hanky clutched against the wheel. And even the little trill when someone pulled the big cord at the end of every row of seats.
There is a shadow, square and brutal, parked outside the house; it rose onto the stable roof. I hear someone step out, and the sound of their farewells fade away. I manage to stand, and put my bowl to my face, finishing it off, pulling a crunchy scrap down from my septum where food sometimes sits, keeping an eye on the courtyard.
It is just her, foraging for hay. Her feet echo like corned stilettos around the brick outbuildings, and looking up she greets me with a snuffle. There’s stuff around her mouth, what looks like cobweb. I step outside, kicking at icy dog urine, splitting it like cooked dessert.The air is thick with something. It’s a holder for cans of drink, caught around her flat tooth. I hook it off, and I notice that there is fresh blood running down her side. The rosette is gone, and I go to make my inspection. I find a biro behind my ear, though the last time I had seen it had been a month ago when I had to sign for the guns. I write my findings on my hand.
Coulish. Nice puckering but bloom is gone. Carrots? No sign of grass – not her favourite. Thought I saw sunlight down her throat. Defecate clear against skin.
I note the date and turn for the outside tap, and when I do there is the orange security light that splashes its way up the house, that Morgan’s friend had fitted two years before, and it lights the red curtain inside her stomach like an overhead projector that they use at school to explain the war.
And there are people inside it, drinking.
I can only see their shadows, their silhouettes, and they seem to be sitting inside her stomach like it is a restaurant. They are about as tall each as a cola bottle, and have tiny wine glasses that they lift to their lips and bring together silently, though there is no clink. There is a flickering, dim but persistent, that runs along above them from right to left and disappears, only to be replaced by another entering the frame of the wound from the left. And I hear that clittering again, and I know now that they are on a train, and they are eating dinner.
All I can think of then is coming back from market with Dad as a little boy, the market they held behind the Corn Exchange in the NCP car park. I had wandered behind Land Rovers and trestle tables towards the lifts and stairs, and into the culling sheds, or what passed for them on market day, because they were men’s bogs the rest of the week, and seeing these tall men in white coats holding live pigs over the urinals and the sinks and letting the blood down all over those things they call cakes that they leave in there. There was a funny blue light, as well, that made everyone look like they were carved from rock, though Dad had bought me scratchings and told me it was to stop people taking drugs. Do drugs disappear in blue light?, I remember thinking, and I lay down across the back of the truck with all of what we bought, and there were streetlights half the way home. I remember that they stopped at the first gate, though that was still half an hour from our front door. And as Dad and Muma started to argue and we got faster and faster, I half-closed my eyes and pinched my own cheek to make the tears come, and through the water the lights looked just like this, a winking great log of light that passed across the lip of my face.
I must have been standing still for a long time, just looking at them as the light switches off and as I go to wave to turn it back on I catch Dad’s ring on the purple bear-trap around the wound, and she makes the worst noise. As the light comes back on, my hand is aching and there is her blood all over me and the people have gone, her sloping painfully across to the stables, to sleep in Bruiser’s cell.
I spend much of that night thinking of her as a train conductor, in a blue cotton uniform with golden buttons, collecting change from this man and woman, just shadows that sit in their seats, and placing the coins in her cheek whilst she chews on something she found in the woods.
Brutish. Bleeding has slowed but still no clotting. She’s been towards town; there’s old burger wrappings in there, along with yucca and palm. There is a bit of cutting. They ate at 18.00, and then apparently took a tram uphill; they disappeared back up her throat. Won’t stand for long.
Hidden. A large clot and threaded intestine, had to unknot it myself. A normal day in the woods; acorns building up and had to remove them. She is complaining, today, but no-one appeared at dinner, or suppertime.
Grim. She hasn’t left the field today, staying near where Morgan left the divot. No food either. Keeps it clear for them, apparently, as two of them are sitting there, one arm pointed at the roof of her stomach, star-gazing. Will not stand in the light for long; eyes very dark, her tongue sallow.
My journal has run out of feet and hands.
I didn’t want to tie her down, at first; but I kept trying to hear what they were saying, and she would wander off to find squash in the autumn beds. I guess that she is tired, maybe pregnant after all.. I worry that her passengers will be cramped with any new arrivals, but they are still there. I have mounted some of Dad’s torches on the wall behind us with scotch tape, The bungee cord lets her move a little, she can lick at her haunch, but the red curtain is still enough to watch. The purple bear-trap looks a little crinkled; a wet crocus of bile keeps it moist., but I don’t think that Morgan said to change it. He hasn’t even been around to see if she is alive.
I fed her grass myself, today, but I hate the feel of the big tongue, like American meat, heavy on my palm, warm and with a tendency to move. I am glad I never have to do it again. She is sweating profusely, in what passes for her armpits, and I am sorry for her, but it is time to watch. They are eating somewhere new, the outline of the waiter is fatter, and he dips a little lower when he puts the bread, or poppadoms, or meatballs or whatever they are on the tables. The animal is mooing and burping, and the tables wobble, the diners grasping at them and laughing nervously, or perhaps crying. I consider cutting the curtain to let the sound out. The chandelier still shakes for a time after she has settled down under the cord; I get the broken chair from upstairs and prop it against the house wall. I lift my hands to rinse them under the outside tap. They eat, for nearly an hour, but what they say, as always, is on the edge of hearing, but I hope they are happy. The man points with his fork, away from the meal, and there is a little bulge in her stomach wall, three tines almost perforating. She makes a mournful little squelch deep in her throat, that backblasts down and out of the wound at me. Her eyes are swivelling not like mouse balls anymore but like a globe spun at the start of a television programme, as she tries to see what I am doing. I am thinking of Morgan and his sister now, and I reach down. Their shadows, the shadows of the diners, stand from the table, the male one leading the way. And now there is nothing but ranked seats, or the backs of heads in lines. And I reach further down, and I feel warmth there. It’s getting cold, it is winter, I think, and I am hungry, and I want to lean in and take the meatballs from the plate, but of course they are already gone, this is a movie, anyway, a movie like a John Wayne would be in. And John Wayne leads his wife down the aisles of seats and moves his hand forward, letting her sit in one before he joins.
And the ladyis Lois Lane, I think. This may not be right, but it rhymes, and all couples should rhyme. Lois Lane is there now, facing towards the animal’s head, and her throat, and her lungs and her heart, and her husband sits between them, and I hear coughing, and the tinkling of changed, and I know that the bus is pulling away. They sit very separately, I can see her jewellery giving her hands the outline of swollen feet. My animal swallows something that has been sitting in her throat, and the peristalsis, as Morgan calls it, hits Lois Lane in the face and her head flies back and her neck is arched, and I reach down even further and I find the real heat, the real heart of the matter, and I move a little further up, and then down, and then they are gone, but I don’t like it and my hand comes back out into the cold.
But her husband is slumped forward now, his neck crooked like a gate half-open, and she begins to get bigger, coming closer to me and the curtain. As she gets bigger I reach down again, and I’m not certain that it’s her anymore, she might have changed, and the lights go out, the batteries fail all at once, but the blackness, or rather the redness, the raw red and the veins on the red curtain that are where her face must be, that blackness let’s me know she’s there.
And then she starts to knock for me, her knuckles showing in the vellum, and I wonder if it is a door, or a window that she taps.
The Scratches Of Dead Farmers At The Fireplace
I include this post with the caveat that it is really for my own connected memory, so that I do not forget that such a wonderful, truly obsessive collection such as this exists.
The British Library, further proving that it takes a remarkably un-bureaucratic and open-source approach to its research, have released almost a complete collection of George Ewart Evans recordings, for free and without the need to sign up to some residual cough of the library’s website membership scheme, for streaming online.
George Ewart Evans was a tireless champion of folklore, oral history, local knowledge and took an atavistic pride in documenting nearly everything he came across amongst the ordinary rural peoples of Suffolk, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. All of these recordings were made between 1956 and 1977, and with over 250 seperate recordings, some only a few minute’s conversation with a farmer about horse husbandry when he was a boy, and other severe, hour-long affairs on the demise of folklore in the modern age, this resource is truly one of the most marvellous things that the British Library has ever done.
Enjoy the coughs, caws and chirrups of the dead here.
Namazu-e, Earthquake Catfish
Courtesy of Pink Tentacle comes this rather wonderful woodblock of namazu-e, literally “catfish pictures”. A whole fashion arose for these depictions after the 1855 Ansei Earthquake in Edo, arising from an old folk tale that blamed seismic events on the thrashing of giant, troglodyte catfish usually kept in check by the god Kashima.
Apart from being utterly delightful, and entirely in line with my own taste, this particular picture puts me in mind of an anachronistic reference to the Hellboy universe, particularly the frog monsters that plague the BPRD in both the main comic and its titular spin-off.
I can imagine Hellboy, stopping to talk a sup from the water-butt on a foot pilgrimage around Shikoku, or somewhere similar, and finding this resting against the wall of a nearby temple, and feeling a shiver running down his prodigious vertebrae.
Here Is What Saw Me Today, When I Was Not Walking
I smelt frying beef through the filtered leaves of a power station garden.
I saw my cat playing with its dapples in the aging sun.
I strode through empty glass citadels, their interiors dark, the guard napping.
I saw smiling men and women pour from a church that clung to its surroundings like something suppurating. They bore flowers.
I sat in a living room with a breeze invented by traffic spilling over the cushions. I knew nobody there.
I received news, and celebrated with friends that were in love. We ate steak and chocolate melted over small candles.
I heard Turkish men spout hatred at all Sikhs, though the wind was high and I may have misheard.
I stood on the tube with musk in my nose, for many hours.
I saw a crowd push against a blind man, his sores nicked by the hard corners of their coats. I gave him some money.
I saw a bus driver endure the death threats of the young, shutting down the bus like a reactor, leaving us stranded at midnight.
I felt a woman bang on perspex, frowning at me then breaking into a smile, tossing her split ends and offering me a strawberry from a white china plate.
My First Short Story In Months
This is the first thing I have written in quite a while. I am away from home, so maybe that has helped. It is taken almost ad onieratim from a dream. It is called “Unguentaria”, the Latin for “perfume bottle.” I hope you like it. The photograph above was taken in the Eildon Hills in Scotland.
And he had tied to his waist a little furnace, that was not burning, but was stuffed with newspaper and the bark that he had picked earlier. That was the start of it.
The children who lived on the estates that were tucked under the mining hills had borrowed this field for their playing at Erik Redbeard, and dotted around were their sets, beginning with a religious mantle of tutti-frutti packaging that sprung rime when it got cold, and presenting, as if temple food, milk bottles full of assiduous blue-tinged urine and their parent’s tea towels. They never brought women here.
The gaffer blew so hard into the pipe that a lick of the hot, wet glass had curled back up, dangerously close to his lips, and he clicked tweezers like pincers on a crab grasped by its wide head. There was a sun, but it was as subtle as a boiler light, and humbly clicked its timer off at the two men as it went to burble its way further around the world. Scotland found the evening. It was the last of the real cold, and here and there were the first bees, not yet fat, but like sullen pool attendants tutting through the air, regarding their naughtiness.
“Will you want a copy of the Observer shots? I’ll try and get your t-shirt in. Is it special? Nice light.”
The camera on the cameraman’s shoulder had been working to shrug off the padding it had been stitched with for many years, and was finally succeeding; the metal of his shoulder slipped deeper in, hitching on the back of the frost. His anchor had missed her train at St. Pancras, waylaid by her insistence that her only son had dipped his fingers into some African cache in North London and contracted venerable cholera. He was now a sidecar, trundling to a stop and the inevitable fall. The artist, the gaffer, the blower, continued. He wore an Indian racing t-shirt and dungarees that had been cut into jeans and tied with a belt sewn to resemble a Tudor window. His cheeks had that webbed look of blood that said that he had been a blower for many years, despite what the news had said, and his skin resolutely refused to goosebump. He was as skinny as he always had been, with no effort.
“Can you explain to me what are you doing?”
“For the viewers.”
The artist’s double was growing from its toe. The glass was still cooling, and strobed a little magenta. It sat on a wide marver, a bowled seat of Inverness granite, designed to draw the excess heat into the hillside. It was still forming, up from the crucible of its curled feet, the glory hole of its bellowed torso, the annealer of its head, a wine glass for the coming, inevitable, Scottish rain. He sculpted with the tweezers as he went, eyes pinched in furious, Kabuki concentration. Blocks and punties lay around him in clusters, and he drew them up as needed, clipping volcanic nipples and body hair that found bubbles in his blowing. Its hands were clasped around the Mason jar arms, the elegant, tilted oil lamp of its neck and bowed head, the sculpted hair matching the artist’s own, swept around in bold lines towards the back of his head. They should have flanked each other outside a Chinese restaurant, the cameraman thought. When the glass had been hot and liquid, he had whipped it like meringue, and the dandelions on the ground behind it were beginning to show through. The cameraman pointed down through its baby-soft skull, revealing the ascetic pose, the pooling natron in the buttocks, the artist’s errant drool sizzling its way down there.
The artist finally took the blowpipe from his lips, and lit a cigarette, a black Polish brand. The limbs of the trees further up the hill were beckoning in silhouette. Four kebab shops opened simultaneously down in the town, the lights blowing in one. A roar.
“I’m blowing spit into the thing, to make it set.”
“Is that what all of you do?”
“Some will use water, or soap. Brings out a mother-of-pearl in the bolus. I’m afraid I can’t see you.”
“The light, you see.”
He pointed straight above him, and cascades of mauve, ink and then finally a deep, fantastical custard settled down over the interior drum that was Scotland, and was this hill. It was almost night. There were standing stones hundreds of miles in every direction, limbering up for this fact. The field had a brilliance that bounced them into space.
“I’ll have to carry on working, but feel free to speak at me.”
The Polish cigarette disappeared, and the flame shot afresh up the slender leg of the glass, and he chiselled out the veins that he had used in the Seventies to put Dettol into his own arm, which he had followed with a call to his mother who was meeting friends for a fertility ritual. The baby was lost, nevertheless. The mother had holidayed in Goa, and stood on a sharp, ochre-coloured shell, a home to thousands of microscopic freshwater insects, and these things happened.
The head was still soft and open, and in the wind the edges of it smoothed like a jug’s lip.
“How do you feel that this compares to your earlier work?”
“Are you all right?”
“You don’t normally do this, do you?”
“No. Lucy, that’s my anchor, she usually does the talking. Nah, she’s stuck in London. Her son’s got a dicky stomach.”
“Nah, he’ll be alright. Spoils him rotten.”
“Ah. Well, what have I done, then?”
“You asked me about my earlier work?”
“What have you done?”
“Well… well, I always like the one on the fourth plinth…
“If that was the Chinese bloke swimming in a bottle…”
“And the one in Liverpool. My girlfriend took me to see it.”
“Yeah, go on then.”
“…Yes. I suppose.”
“That was nice. But this is better, I must say.”
The cameraman realised all of a sudden, and then instantly forgot, that the path that his life had taken had placed him eternally behind a camera, and behind women walking to the cinema and the artist’s Liverpudlian work depicting a man squatting over the Mersey and dropping a smooth bronze turd into the water behind an old dye factory. He had used tensile, almost invisible bale wire to suspend the defecate in mid-air. The cameraman’s life had taken this path precisely so that he could walk all the way home and pinch his arm every time he had to look at someone. And now he was on this hill in Scotland, speaking to this artist that everyone had given up on before all the pharmaceuticals and the Brazilian called Canoe (how very beautiful when pronounced well) that had broken that man’s neck when he had taken a photograph of the artist outside that restaurant. He missed his anchor. She would still be in her suit and stroking her child’s hair, in an empty wing of a city hospital that she had managed to wrangle for herself and her boy. The boy would be just fine, and eating lasagne. The cameraman had hated Liverpool, and the sculpture. He couldn’t even remember the artist’s real name, and refused to call him by the ludicrous given that he had used since the late Eighties. Another Czech cigarette again.
“And what will you call this one, when it is done?”
“Through Smoke. Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeewph.”
He heard bees around him, and realised that he could not see them, and that it was dark and then the artist coughed into the blowpipe. The head was nodding with each gust of breath, the neck super-heated. He was trowelling the years onto it, the double tracheotomy in Los Angeles, the land snail he had almost choked on in the skyscraper reception in Laos, lain on a bed of water onion.
“And will you put a fence round it? To stop local kids wrecking it?”
“Not at all.”
“I’ve bought the field. They can’t come up here anymore.”
He was dying for a cigarette himself, and there was a neat, full pack in his utility trouser pocket. But there was something horrifically intimidating about that black Polish model; it was utilitarian, almost military in its camouflage against the night, and even its flame seemed like a budget cut.
He hoped that the bees were whirling home through the unfamiliar darkness, caught in the field so late by these two strange, sweet towers that were not here the day before. He was not scared of them, but they pushed against him and the light was gone, and all that was left was low, crowded noise. He thought he heard a pound of bass from the town, but it was passing under him like the blueprints of a fossilised jet engine in relief, held up the core of the earth for light to see by.
“Heeeeeeeeeeeeeewph. It’ll have to do. Heeeeeeeeeeeeeewph. It’ll do. Heeeeeeeeeeeeeewph. It’ll have to do.”
“It’ll have to do, will it?”
His breathing was now circular, both weaker and more confident, and the cameraman admitted defeat, and lowered his lens for the last time. Editing will bring out the genius, he was sure. His armpits were cold when he was filming.
“Why is it here, then?”
He saw the hump of the artist rise, and point with an arm past him. A gust that had distilled itself on the topography of some famous fjord reached him, then, and the cameraman’s voice became all too high.
“Where are you staying?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I’m in the Premier down the hill. They put little packets of seeds on your pillow so you can copy their herb garden, I guess, and the owner is so fucking fat, but she’s nice and all.”
“Look up there.”
There was nothing there. The sky was now the ground, all dark.
“That line of trees?”
“Well, there’s a line of Scotch firs on the ridge, there. They’re grown into a holloway -”
“A sort of ditch. The local tourist office tells everyone that it is a prehistoric earthwork, but they’re graves. They took Eastern European prisoners of war up here, in 1942. The rationing was very bad, everywhere, not just England. You forget. Everyone was hungry. I remember. I was only two or three, but I used to cry because my mother made me eat bacon fat cooked in the oven because I was the youngest. If you have the right books, you can see that there are little flowers up there that are only found in one stretch of woodland in the middle of Europe. It’s been there since the last Ice Age, and its the only place you can see bison on the continent. Well, all of the flowers are in little rows. All of the soldiers carried seeds in their pockets, and took them between camps, under their beds, in their hair, under their tongues. They missed home. And there they are, all in rows, springing up from those same pockets.”
The cameraman was thinking of muffins and cajun chicken crisps and how fucking cold Scotland was. He thought that he had eaten bison at a dinner that Lucy had taken him to, once.
“It’s the right field.”
“The Romans used to use Eastern Europe to hunt bees. They made perfume from their honey. The whole of Poland was just filled with retarded warrior-cults that made great honey.”
“Still like Poland, then?”
“You know I do.”
“I don’t read the interviews.”
“Have you filmed me before?”
“The statue of the politician?”
“Lech Walesa was not a politician.”
“What made you come here?”
“Now, that has been in every interview.”
“I thought the food would be better.”
“They used to step over gold to get at that fucking honey.”
The artist, the gaffer, the blower worked his hands up his own glass leg like it was his woman and she had just bathed, and this is when the cameraman told himself that another flame had conjured itself halfway across the field, next to a desiccated cattle trough, and he stared at it, willing it to banish. It stayed, and moved in time to the reedy noise beside him. The artist worked its leg harder, the blowpipe bubbling like a monstrous, farting bong, his seventy-two year old bile mixing with the spit already pooling in the base of the thing, the ground gently frying under the marver, and everywhere the sound of bees landing and perspiring. He was whispering a word, as if the glass statue was his to-do list and all he had to do was tell it to remember, and it would.
More lights popped into view. There were four of them, all around him, one far up near where he thought the copse was.
The cameraman needed a drink and began to drool himself, wiping it onto the arm of his kagoule, feeling it in the wind, and realised that the town was gone, or had shut all its own lights off as if at some great, fearful signal, and he thought he could hear kebabs grilling themselves into black husks and kitchen fires far off. But maybe it was the sea. He thought that his hotel would miss him, horribly, and imagined the owner in a nightcap.
The glow began to fade, and the dribblings ceased, and the form of the artist and the blower and the gaffer stood and began to caress his work, running hands over the now hard glass, moving up to the impassive face, and finding the androgynous hole he had left unsealed, the hot glass-slop dripping over his dimly-lit fingers. The cameraman wanted to warn him of the heat, but he seemed to feel no pain, and like a gourmand dipped his long oil-lamp neck down into its own twin, and made a low, humming noise, followed by a click.
And then morning was there and, almost predictably, the artist was gone. He had left only two ear-shaped depressions in the long horse-grass where he had knelt. The cameraman felt that he had gently wet himself for waiting, like a parent had slipped a pillow under his head. His camera was gone, and when he tilted his head upwards he saw the top of the hill, and the copse, he saw a line of children trudging up there with milk bottles. He heard the rising notes of the railway announcement jingle into being from far off, and saw a red Vauxhall filled with car-pooling commuters wend its way along the bottom of the treeline. It was bright, and hot, and the artist in glass sat in front of him, watching the sea, black and moving.
The thing was filled with bees. They dug their feet into each other’s heads, tore at wings and legs and cannibalised feelers to move deeper into the structure. They never stopped, and never tried to escape; the head was still open, still curled into an open sneer, and a gentle steam rose from it, a cauldron heated by the googolplex footfalls of the insects within. A bright, ozonic smell of cumin and calone came out to meet him, and he realised that there was a amber liquid inside, slowly churned by the thoraxes shifting and stirring. He wanted bacon. And his camera.
He stood, dusting his wet flanks with grass, and moved down the hill like a drunk man would, surrounded on all sides by a thousand artists, a thousand gaffers, a thousand blowers, filled to the brim with bees, and scenting the hill with the spermatzoa of a quadrillion of them. The smell blew back into land, and was netted by the trees under which the Poles were buried.
A Penchant For Esoteric Cursive
This is a photograph of myself and my two very dear friends, Rob Gordon and Paddy Johnston. I am smiling because the numerous straighteners, chemical effervescence enhancers and industrial soap flakes that comprise a high percentage of modern commercial lager production are eating their way into my lower duodendum and I am tearily thinking of the Battle of Britain, and the translucent pilots, gone now, with their beautiful, straight lips. They are smiling, I imagine, because I am pinching their arses very hard. The nodding sensei in the background is Jonny Rose, though if you click on his name you will only recieve what I wished him to be; he is in fact a very friendly and enthusiastic social media caliph, part of Social Purley.
At the time of taking we are about to graduate from our Creative Writing Masters degree. It was a great year for all of us, and I believe I speak without exception; we tailored our craft, played gigs and generally extended the Long Night of university, Schezerade-style.
And now we have emerged, clutching our little scrolls (which were in fact frameable, unyielding card - there was no soft vellum, no errant strands of fur. I wanted a VIKING degree) and, predictably, we are finding it rather difficult, much like everyone else. Paddy is working in an engineering firm, being exceptionally talented at bringing people cups of tea and telling them how to sell dust (at least, that is what I believe HR and Marketing consists of) and Rob is working for Virgin, greasing Richard “Call Me Sanchez” Branson’s stripper coil and pumping out excellent social media and travel content like blasts from the shotgun of the apocaplyptic survivalist that he has always dreamed he would be.
I am having less success, but bear with me. All in good time.
In fact, it seems that all I am qualified to do is teach Creative Writing. So, permit me. Below are some things I learnt about writing. They are not necessarily what was intended. If you are currently on a writing course, or indeed practice any of these rituals to enhance your work, stop now. They are bad for you.
1) Write In Pairs To Bring Out The Best Of Both Of Your Work
I will not be as foolish as to say that this never works. Many excellent partnerships have produced excellent works, not least in the realms of fiction; Good Omens really injected strains of both Prachett’s irreverent genius-nonsense and Gaiman’s careful, wry dessication into nothing other than itself. It was an accomplished piece. These pieces do exist. But forcing writers to work together is futile. We are like pandas. All the bamboo and surreptitiously snaffled prying fingers will not make us fuck. Leave us alone on a mountain, and we’ll hash it out together.
Several times I was forced to write with people who were nothing like me. They do not see the world as I do. Not for one minute am I suggesting that my world view is superior, but taking a common plot and trying to bring five distinct plans into one does not work. And, more often than not, I was not the only one who did not wish to work together. Paddy and I are, if not chalk and cheese, at least like two chemically repellant alloys that want so badly to bond, but alas cannot with the three dimensions assigned to us. We read each other’s work, appreciate it, critique it, but would never dream of actually writing in that way.
Editing the work of others is a fantastic way to approach your own work differently. Creating a politically-correct, homogenised “story”, designed to bottle a small part of everyone’s “genius”, is a route to misunderstanding one’s strengths. Let me work with who I like. Let me be my own panda.
2) Never, EVER Use “Nice”
This? This is a… biggie. You use “nice” in a piece of writing and your tutor will skew sideways as if strafed by a mounted gun emplacement and fix you with a leaky, betrayed gurn, as if to say: “Why, Django, why? I was only three days from retirement, my daughter is graduating college, I’m going to be a father, a grandfather, and a grandmother. Your… timing… has… been… better…” Nice, apparently, means nothing. It is a bloated, hideous mess of a word, a grey sweetmeat that nobody wants, the pluck of a person’s vocabulary, and something that bad writers use.
Fuck off. Fuck off with the ironclads of authorship. No word is bad. No word is useless. There are only useless writers, and even they are rarer than useless rules. Think of “nice”! Think of its possibilities!
Rarely is a writer afforded a word that is so short, so subtle, and yet can contain so much power. Used in speech, it is like uranium-tipped irony, a faucet through which an entire plot pours, unseen. Within a text, it completely spread-eagles the author and his method, and (I extend my metaphor into etymology here), like Prometheus, he is fuel for the hungry buzzards above, the readers.
Of course, it must be used delicately, or perhaps never used at all; but to ban its use is to deprive each and every writer that listens of that one time when they may use it, whether in one novel or one lifetime, and to use all their skill and all their restraint to render it the most powerful word in the text. “Nice” has brothers, also, words that have so much power and influence that their continued use is seen as lack of invention.
Use them wisely, but, for the love of pity, use them.
3) You Will Never Be As Good As The Very Best
This final point is not an overt rule, in that it is rarely given voice in situ; however, the pervading pressure of a Creative Writing class is one of abject future portent.
I understand that this attitude has a purpose - to breed humility and understatement in a generation of writers who could, with the right cocktail of entitlement and coddling, be pretty fucking insufferable. But writers must believe in their own ability, even if it is misplaced. If even one writer in every five thousand has the actual ability to match their ambition, the world is a better place for it. This self-confidence and self-assuredness will also help those who will, inevitably, fail; victims of the law of averages. But, hopefully, they won’t stop. They will keep going until they are dead. And they will not be unhappy.
Standing at the foot of the colossi of literature makes me, as a writer, unhappy. I am not sure that I do owe anything to these men and women; I may enjoy them, I may love them, I may reference them in my work, in my ludicrously ring-roadish blog posts, but they are men, and women, and that is enough. I am at that oracled age now of 22, a sort of inverted Hendrix, the typical age that most writers find their feet. I could name twenty writers that have done so, and these men and women were, at the heart of it and in their time, no different from me. They just happened to be wonderful, wonderful writers. They are not gods. They were tradesmen with Aspergers; blacksmiths that slipped and hit the anvil.
Treating these great writers as gods will not breed humility or good writing. It will breed fetishism, an altaresque where we continually bow down to those who went before us, a modesty that stifles the desire to rise, and a post-modern, post-ironic world-weariness, an imminent awareness of the past, a tool that will smash any and all homages, original thought, devotions or passion for any subject, ever.
You notice that I do not rule out homages, or reference, or acknowledgement of achievement; these people happened (and this is the right word) and we should celebrate this fact. But never give them more power than they are due; we will make slaves of ourselves. We have already begun, and I myself am not immune.
My friend Hannah, a consummate film-maker (and Very Ambitious Person indeed) is putting the finishing touches to her film “Friend Good”, a body horror/comedy/tragedy that is both genuinely funny (helped by the excellent main actor) and very well-made. Seriously, I speak of professional standard here, a standard often misrepresented but also misunderstood. She cannot show the whole film yet, but the clips available are great, and she, most importantly, needs help. Festival applications, DVD production fees, eating, sleeping, not living in a hollow carved into a sycamore.
So, give her some money. Become a fan. Gift the poor girl something. And not just because she uses one of my songs. That is merely a warm, cuddly bonus for you.
I am a cybernetic swiftlet that fell from the pram.
Despite having an automated dream abode where dense, Damoclean coffee flows through the walls to specially installed faucets, where I can send lolcats from 1998 to my mother like chrononaut ghosts through sheer walls, I still think that house made from my own sputum are a funky idea.
I have a very nice guitar. A Takamine G460SC, a Japanese product that defies every Nipponese stereotype I can throw at it apart from that it was relatively cheap and extremely reliable. It has a built-in tuner, and I fitted new locking tuning pegs to it a year ago. It has got wet and barely de-tuned, sat at freezing train stations, knocked its way through sundry car boots, and generally done a bloody good job of being a musical instrument.
But I decided to build a guitar of my own. And I love it more than the reliable, safe old wife at home.
What an utterly atrocious state of a thing. Cigar box guitars, or CBGs, have graced the wrists and laps of hard-up minstrels since the late 19th century, and perhaps in reaction to the reliability, inexpense and quality of something that was not made by me, I felt an urge to spend my time making something ugly that I loved.
The body, a King Edward’s cigar box, was from eBay, and the neck standard hardwood planks from a timber yard. The only pre-bought components were those that require laser cutting or lathes, namely the frets and the tuning pegs. The bridge is comprised of two matchsticks superglued together that are slowly rusting and fall off if I play too hard.
As you can see, I made a complete pig’s ear of the headstock, so that it now resembles an anecdote about a bicycle with all its parts replaced. I have to retune it after every song, and it buzzes like spindly, sanded chitin. The body is so small and made of strengthened cardboard and so it will never have the resonance of Mrs. Takamine, and masking tape and screws hold in tortured tension. I have a horrible feeling that in snapping it will create a small black hole and eat my head.
And yet I love it. Having sat inhaling its dust, cutting myself on its frets, and generally learning as I went, I have bonded with this construction even more so than my old touring partner. It has a distinct, reedy sound, almost like a koto or a shamisen, and certainly has its use. I plan to make many more, and I now know not to drill directly onto my mattress, or use my finger as a brace for the nails driven through it.
I would highly recommend you build one yourself. This one cost around £25 in parts, and took about two days, but I was watching Scrubs while doing so.
In the next most recent post I will include a clip of the CBG in action. Please excuse the musicianship.