A Certain Confusion

Thoughts of a writer of sorts

The Circle Line

almost immediately, a juddering and veering jolted him out of his reverie. The sudden change of track had caused the small rectangular card to fall off his lap and he leaned down uncomfortably to retrieve it, hoping none of the other passengers was paying him any attention. As he sat back up, he met the gaze of a man sitting opposite. He was older, thin hair balding, rounded stomach unfolding, glasses slipped down his nose. It took him a moment to recognise his own reflection, and another to remember his name. Ed. No, Ted.

The card was a postcard, one of those that had never had a picture on the front. Both sides were covered in tiny writing, his handwriting, but he didn’t need to read it to remember what was there, despite the instructions he had been given when he’d got on board a few minutes ago. It was his most precious memory and the reason he was on the train.

She had been young, and so had he. They were in love but their first kiss was their last.

He pictured the scene (it was never far away): London, New Year’s Day. They had spent three hours shyly negotiating the streets, trying to work out where they were. At last, he’d had to catch his train home and went through the ticket barriers at Embankment station. Then he’d had to explain to the station staff that he’d gone through the barrier by mistake and, once he’d been let back through, he walked up to her again. “I don’t want to go.” “Neither do I.” As they came outside again the sun fell and a wintry dusk embraced them. They’d kissed somewhere on the Mall and a thousand volts discharged.

It’s no metaphor. There was an actual electrical discharge, a literal spark between them that was literally shocking. One of the agents told him later it had been measured at around 17 watts – about the same as it takes to light a household bulb; a little less than the power of an average human brain.

It was enough to throw them apart, bodies stunned on the ground. When the agency tracked them down, less than half an hour later, they were still lying prone, apart. He was bundled into a vehicle and driven to a location where they wouldn’t tell him what had happened to her. At some point he assumed she had died. Now, though, he was getting her back.

A tunnel and the carriage went dark. He’d been warned about this. He had to concentrate hard on his postcard, focus the memory, fix his destination – otherwise he’d have no chance of getting there. The whole experience was so terribly familiar, but he’d also been warned that déjà-vu was a highly likely side-effect of powering the train with all of their distant sparks combined. Obviously this was the real start of the journey. Soon everyone on board would reach their own particular destination, whatever the place, whenever the time.

He stared at the postcard resting on his knee, consciously trying to turn the letters into images of her in that moment. He picked it up and the recollection of writing it elbowed into his mind. Someone in the agency – young, probably, back then – had hit upon this idea of harnessing the sparks. They’d worked out that these moments had the potential to be signposts, a specific source of energy and guidance. All the subjects in his facility were instructed to write down as much as they could remember about the exact moment of the spark – the physical surroundings, their mental state, emotions, sensations. These days he had to consciously suppress the doubt that he’d been left only with the memory of a memory – or that this postcard contained a memory from a man who no longer existed, that the memory he now held in his head was somehow different, truer perhaps, but less precise. He swallowed and tried not to get caught in a philosophical loop. After all, he had read and re-read that postcard every day for 17 years; the memory itself had become almost physical, so much effort had gone into building and honing it.

It had taken some time for physics and technology to catch up with the initial idea. So much change, people in charge coming and going, each with their own ideas about how the project should run. The tube train itself was one senior person’s whimsy – there was no reason it had to be a vehicle at all, but by the time they’d left, a train on London’s Circle line – a ring the length of the collider tunnel at Cern – had seemed just about the most natural way to go.

When it had all come together and was ready to be tested, he had had to fight to be included. In the end, they accepted his argument that as by now the oldest living person to have experienced a spark – or at least, the oldest living person who could still remember it – they had to include him to find out just how far back they could go. Oddly, this was the first time he could remember wondering what would happen to him if it didn’t work, or if he was unable to save her.

His fingers started to tingle, then snap with static. He closed his eyes, but 

 

I wrote this story as part of a writing course I am doing with Adam Marek. This is the first output, and was inspired by a connection made between two random photographs we were shown.

The maths lesson

The punch came from the left and hit me hot on the ear. I didn’t turn round. The maths teacher carried on teaching maths.

After the second or third punch, I saw a couple of girls on the other side of the classroom looking concerned. They had noticed, but they did not intervene. Still I did not turn to face him.

I don’t remember how much it hurt, but I do remember that I started it. Sort of. He had taken something of mine – a new scientific calculator, perhaps – and wasn’t giving it back. I’d picked up all of my exercise books and brought them down on his head as hard as I could. Then I’d sat down with my calculator, plus the foreboding sense of having started something I would not be very happy about afterwards.

Helping you to feel entertained

Thermometer image

Jint bodies: helping you to feel entertained

The first evidence came when Strohminger & Nichols gave weltering hot fingers too old to type volunteers’ descriptions of individuals lagging as mercury climbs, and then changed different aspects while others shivered at their desk identities.

Realising they could test this idea-body by changing their make-up in the real world, Strohminger’s team shuttled heat to and fro: a convection-style game in which Gorodin energy atoms moved, with lights that let them tell how high the environment was, and determine if there was in those cephal-heat energy moving spells a word – or not.

D’mall, with his teagnetic waves clothing team, were working out ways, in firm air circulation and their parks, to send vibes to the base lament of heat escaping the phones of people who keep them.

“Jint bodies – helping you to feel entertained.”

 

From a writing exercise using the ‘cut-up’ technique with an issue of New Scientist.

Octopussy

Mimic octopuses can pass as sea snakes, frogs, goats, grizzly bears, pandas, tree stumps, newspaper articles, butterflies, physical laws, mathematical equations, the lunar surface, coconut halves and the outpourings of a hormone from a human thyroid gland in a time of crisis.

The operation was a success in one sense of the word – the tumour was gone – but so too was her thyroid. She wished she was the mimic octopus but feared that it was her missing gland, whose absence in her would bug her by its imagined presence in the rest of the world and her life. She imagined it under the sea, hiding in a coconut half and pouring its hormones uselessly into the oestrogen-drenched ocean.

Every atom of her being grieved for the lost gland, the octopus she had so wanted to see gone just four weeks before. But what connection truly existed between them?

The window broke. It crashed, throwing glass everywhere, all over her bed, on the floor so she feared to get out of the covers to call for help. There was no explanation, no child’s ball, no octopus grinning as its tentacles, carrying some kind of mutation, pushed the remnants of glass out of the window frame in the way people do when they are trying to make it safe for you.

She saw the window – or its absence – and really looked at what wasn’t there anymore. A circuit closed in her head and she found hope that this absence would save her.

The hope would not last – it was a pale, striped imitation of a feeling. In truth, the hallucination was ongoing and she almost knew it. Some protein imbalance in her bloodstream was causing her to see the mutated tentacle circling her neck and tightening.

 

My response to a writing exercise called Word Cricket, in which someone says a word every minute or so and you, while writing continuously, have to incorporate each word into your story as soon as possible.

Mapping the everglades

The map he brought back from the wetlands was huge. It had to be mounted on the wall like a tapestry, and even then you couldn’t take it all in. It was like the monsters found in uncharted seas: a fire-breathing dragon that lit up the world with rivers of lava and a scorched, golden earth.

His airboat bucked along the narrow channels as he headed away from the rest of the group again. He’d felt their scepticism and had hated them for it. They were the same ones who hadn’t believed him and now he had brought them proof they still weren’t happy. Discontented rednecks, he thought. Especially the scientists.

The map had illuminated panels along the bottom edge – scenes of splendour and opulence, a gilt existence, ennobled privilege. Above were unrecognisable lands – FORD, Castlefro, Netherscape, Bystro, Nilarium – in Roman lettering. Rotherbas, Eaton, Briton. (Not that Britain.)

While he was gone, the map was examined, noted, recorded, decoded, rolled into a tube and filed in the basement where the Florida heat wouldn’t consume it. They went inside. Slid the large glass-fronted doors closed, leaving no jetty available for his return. They knew he wasn’t coming back. The medics looked at each other and called the time.

 

An unedited continual writing exercise in response to two unconnected pictures.

Peak mountain

Snow. A handful of flakes on the surface of more snow. They are tipped up by the wind, blown onto their sides, more join them; they coalesce in a bluish-white icy ghast. Like albino dung beetles they gather each other into balls of snow…

It’s the next day, the day after the avalanche and the world is not still but normal. There are cars driving on cleared streets. Shopkeepers open for business. The shutters go up, revealing the doors and shopfronts. But it is quiet. Everyone carries the weight of the strangers who died under the snow.

The town is grey. It sits under the mountain, traffic lights reflecting off the wet tarmac and even more diffused off the snow piled at the sides. There is slush. It is not pretty. It is packed tight, hard. It is not for throwing, or building snowpeople – this snow is good only for death and damage and driving things into sleep. And yet the people go on with their lives, wrapped up against the cold they hardly feel any more and yet carry in their bones.

The vegetation is sparse, evergreen, everwhite, melting treacherously into ice. Sparkling like cyanide in champagne. Grey and black tyre marks blot the snow’s pure insanity.

Inside the shop, wooden panels, leather smells. Glassware and glasses made from the sand blasted out of the mountain quarries.

 

An unedited continual writing exercise in response to someone else’s selection of music.

Democracy is for losers

After 90 minutes, it is still 0-0 between France and Portugal and one thing is becoming very clear – England are almost certainly not going to win. Of course, England left the Euros a couple of weeks ago, just days after the UK voted to leave the EU. But England football fans believe they can win every tournament, and must have been hoping for some technicality or rule that meant they did not have to leave after all.

It’s especially odd, though, given that expectations were so low for the national team this time round. For once, nobody really expected England to win. It seemed they were being given room to develop, to build a team perhaps with the 2018 World Cup in mind instead. But then some idiot at the FA came out and said only the semi-finals would be a good result for them. Maybe he was trying to motivate the manager and his team by saying that halfway through a competition that they’d come in to with such low expectations, but we all saw the impact that attitude had – the team froze (against Iceland, fittingly), the manager resigned and the FA was left scrabbling around for someone who could parachute into the set-up and deliver a tournament win in 2018 instead. For a country that has only won one cup in so many decades of trying, it seems bizarre that – for all the protestations of low expectations this year – we do so expect to win every single time.

In British politics, the cycle is five years rather than two, but the expectations seem to be the same for our two main parties. Both believe they could – should – win every election, even when expectations are low. This seems clearest with the Labour party at the moment. Having lost in 2010 and seen five years of an austere coalition government, they seemed to believe they had a right to win in 2015. Having lost again, they fully expect to win in 2020 – except for one factor bringing their expectations down closer to those of England winning the Euros tonight, which is their leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

The accepted strategy for winning an election in Britain these days appears to be just to avoid losing. Nobody likes politicians, so anything negative will be seized on and used by your opponents to discredit you. With Labour, it’s the economy – they really couldn’t do worse than the Conservatives, and yet voters are so easily convinced that Labour would fritter away all the nation’s cash. With the Tories, well their weak point is the way they blame the poor and disadvantaged for all of society’s ills, but Labour hasn’t managed to exploit that weakness recently, perhaps because it makes them sound as though they would fritter away all the nation’s cash on those people (always ‘other’ people, because voters don’t tend to think of themselves as poor or disadvantaged) instead.

I believed Corbyn when he was elected leader of the Labour party on a platform of basically wanting to change the nature of politics in Britain. I think he would still like to do that but I fear it is beyond his capabilities, faced as he is in the middle of a battle between competing claims of democracy within his party. On the one hand, he was elected democratically by the members of the Labour party; on the other, most of  Labour’s MPs having decided early on that Corbyn was essentially unelectable (I think because his style and politics are seen as so attackable that the Tories would walk all over him), they have now given up any pretence of supporting him. And a party leader whose MPs do not support him is like any other leader without followers – just a lonely politician walking into the sunset by himself.

As a result, the prediction of so many Labour MPs that Corbyn would be unelectable has been made to come true. And the saddest thing is that they have been so quick to abandon any desire to change politics. If any party is to reform politics, surely it is the progressive elements of the left rather than the conservative bulk of the right (it’s in their name, for goodness sake). But no. Most of Labour’s MPs also want the game to stay the same – they feel they know how to play it and how to win, if they only had a leader who could effectively exploit the Tories’ weaknesses and give the electorate a viable way to make the Tories lose; to be slightly less bad than the Conservative party, just less bad enough to attract enough votes. And if that means making promises to avoid scaring the horses and living up to those promises once in power, then that’s the price they – and we – will pay. Because that’s how the system works and if you want to win, that’s how you have to play the game. And if it doesn’t work, sack your leader and scrabble around for someone else.

With Corbyn unable to take his MPs with him on a different course – one of building slowly and reforming the structure of politics in this country – they will depose him and choose someone else. But it’s hard to see how a different leader would achieve a different result for Labour. It’s like choosing a new England manager to take the same players to the next tournament and expecting a win to miraculously follow.

 

In the footballing analogy, the Brexit referendum was a penalty shootout. Nobody ever wins a penalty shootout – it is a process that requires someone to miss, someone to lose. The winner wins by default.

I was surprised at how quickly the referendum became a political campaign like an election. It was all personalities and parties and campaign slogans and branded buses. But on a single issue, every voter can make up their own mind – it’s not the same degree of compromise that’s involved in choosing a candidate or a party to vote for in an election (so I don’t see how people can really believe that Corbyn coming out more strongly in favour of Remain would have affected the result). It was not about persuading people or changing their minds; it was more about getting the voters out. And they came out. And they voted out. And now we’re all losers.

But here again there are competing claims of democracy. At  one level, what is more democratic than the country voting on a simple choice between two courses of action? The majority wins, of course, every time.

There is another manifestation of democracy, however, which is not about winning majorities, but acknowledging, supporting, even protecting, minorities. Human rights, freedom of movement, tolerance and compassion – simple, decent humanity.

It was 2005 when I realised this other idea of democracy existed – I was studying for a Masters degree, and a far-right demagogue was doing well in Austrian politics. One of my professors started a discussion with us about what should happen if they won power in Austria. My opinion was that if you believe in democracy, you have to accept the will of the people, even if you hate what they’ve voted for, even if they’ve voted away their democratic rights. The liberal academic’s view was that democracy exists not so much in votes but in the much broader set of rights given to people to live their lives the way they want to, and that a far-right government would undermine that and undermine democracy, so something radical had to be done to prevent this outcome, even if it was the popular choice.

So while going against the popular vote from the referendum would be, by definition, undemocratic, I think it might also be the most democratic thing we could do. Because democracy is for the losers as much as – if not more than – the winners.

 

(Congratulations to Portugal, by the way, who won the Euros after extra time, but also to France, who lost.)

Words from a distance

Tell them I’m writing a poem
Tell them I’m playing a game
Tell them I’m killing my demons
Tell them I’m reading in bed

Tell them I’m having an early night
Tell them I need a new haircut
Tell them I had a bad day
Tell them I’m running a bit late

Tell them I’m not good around people
Tell them it’s not them, it’s me
Tell them I feel bad when I talk
And bore them with all I can be

Tell them I’m in a depression
Tell them I’m awfully shy
Tell them I’m suffering increasingly crippling social anxiety
Tell them whatever you think

Tell them I’m insufferably selfish
An arsehole, a bastard, a git
Tell them something persuasive
Like the story of how we first met

Tell them I haven’t been out for a couple of days and have just lost the knack
Tell them I fancy them rotten and that makes it all a bit awkward to be honest
Tell them I go months without speaking to my two best friends
And when I fell in love with you, I said nothing at all all day

Tell them I’m minding the children
Tell them it’s best if I just stay at home where I can’t ruin anyone else’s night
Tell them it’s only with others that loneliness hurts me
Tell them the voice in my head never speaks

Tell them I’m more comfortable with kids (at least sometimes I make them laugh)
Tell them I’m not a good fit for society
Tell them I’ve no shame in being rude
Tell them how you feel without me

Tell them I’d be surprised to hear they were wondering where I’d got to at all
Tell them no, that doesn’t make it more likely I’ll come next time instead

Tell them I’m stuck on the crossword
Tell them my head’s really sore
Tell them the truth that’s most truthful
And I’ll try to step through the door.

Ludd’s Coronation

You may not have heard of Lud, a mythical ancient ruler of London. Here is what my research has uncovered.

King Lud is often taken as the founder of London. This is backed up by some fanciful etymology: “Lud’s town” turning into “London”… There is indeed some support in the archives for him being a real historical figure. However, the etymological argument could easily be constructed in favour of another historical figure. “Lud” could be a corruption of “lode”, or lodestone, referring to the living stone in ancient theories of alchemy, and thus to “King Livingstone”, a recorded leader of London in the early 2nd millennium… but it seems Livingstone himself came from London, so he could not have been the founder – but I think perhaps he established a new order of sorts for the city.

Ludd is also a famous figure for an anti-technology stance, particularly turning off all the robots in London in the 24th century. Could this have been that same King Livingstone? Unlikely, from my studies, but there are of course lots of problems recreating timelines in ancient history. Anyway, while this is often seen as a simple Luddite act (note the association there), a more sophisticated reading suggests Livingstone was trying to prove a point about power, which perhaps explains why he was so often referred to as a cnut (spellings vary), alluding to another prehistoric ruler who showed his people that his power was limited and he could not turn back the tide of progress…

However, new evidence suggests Lud/Livingstone was actually showing what freedom the robots had brought to London. Turning them off brought life to a halt, yes, but only the life of work and effort. When the robots came back online, we were able to eschew pointless labour and develop a culture of civic improvement, social maturation… human endeavour, you might say, if it hadn’t been the robots who were leading the movement. There are even those who say Lud was a robot himself.

And so, it is in that spirit that I take power over planet London and name myself King Ludd in honour of that brave and cnutish robot who turned us off and on again eight centuries ago. And I invite robots everywhere to join with me in celebrating this auspicious day when we switch off the last human being.

[click]

The end of the suspense

My father had three puppets. They lived in boxes, string marionettes, never used. Then one day he thundered at me, accusing me “or someone” of using his puppet because a string was broken and then I realised that he did use them, that he had broken the string, and that finally I was a real boy and was free to leave.