A Certain Confusion

Thoughts of a writer of sorts

Jupiter rises

They were late. It didn’t crystallise into words or a thought in his mind, but he let out a dissatisfied grunt. Or perhaps the grunt was a response to some immanent sense of arrival because the prow of the boat immediately appeared, as if summoned, from behind the rocks off to his right. Arrival being no more satisfactory than lateness, he let out another grunt.

He had done his jobs. All was ready. They would sail the boat in, manoeuvre it alongside the jetty that thrust into the natural harbour, and they would tie their lines to the bollards using newly-learned knots. Then the teenagers would grab their rucksacks and jostle down on to the jetty and ashore. Their teacher would follow more slowly, carrying a larger rucksack and an icebox filled with plastic bottles of Coke and Fanta. Then Mark would appear, tidying the deck behind them and running a hand through his hair, before putting his other hand on the rail of the boat, jumping down to the jetty, which would rock, and leading the group to the shingled fringe of the treeline at the edge of the island where a horseshoe of small, grubby wooden beach huts waited to accommodate them for the night. A nice, safe little adventure.

The boat was almost entirely in view now, and he was about to lower his binoculars and retreat to an out-of-the-way ramshackle shed at the centre of the island, when he stopped.

She was standing at the back of the boat, hand on tiller, steering them in, turning the boat towards him now, though still a distance away. He couldn’t see her clearly, the binoculars had started trembling, and he felt uneasy about straining so hard to make her out. She was one of the students, tall for whatever age she might be, but with less to her than an adult of the same height. Her hair might have been black or brown or pink. All he could really see at this distance was her black top under the thin red lines of the life-vest – he couldn’t distinguish whether it was a T-shirt or some other style of top that he didn’t know the name for, but he could see it was black. Except that he was sure that it was not black at all, but gold. He was absolutely certain that if a gold top was at that distance, across water, seen through shaking binoculars, with the sun at precisely that angle, such that it was starting to make his eyes strain and moisten just a little at the corners, then that particular gold top, under a red life-vest, would appear black. He was sure of it.


The sun’s light was dispersing woefully across the horizon behind the sea behind the trees. The tin of chicken and vegetable soup that he had put out on the trestle table at the centre of his shed in the morning was unopened. He stood at the window, but not seeing anything except the boat and her steering it, laughing as she did, calling to her friends. He felt he could see her properly now, although he still couldn’t really distinguish the features of her face or the colour of her hair. But her top was golden, as he had known it would be.

He heard the sounds of teenage boys on the path outside – those deep, low voices jostling in conversation, looking for weaknesses in their friends and trying to disguise their own, even though they didn’t really know what they were yet. He was plucked ungently back to the world before him.

There was a lull in the sound of their voices. He could sense them forget about baiting each other and turn their attention to his home. He dreaded this part, but Mark insisted on sending up a small group of boys – always the boys – to bring him his provisions. Tins, mostly: soup, beans, fruit cocktail in syrup; a loaf of bread, UHT milk, and butter; tea, sugar; loo roll, soap… He slumped below his window, back to the wall, and waited for them to go away.

“Who could live here all the time?”

“Fucking loser.”

“We just leave the stuff outside the door, right?”

“Is he there, do you think?”

“We just leave it here.”

“What’s he getting anyway?”

“I don’t think we should—”

“Shit – look at this. I hope we’re not getting this bollocks for our tea.”

“I don’t think we’ll be getting fried chicken, mate.”

“Or pepperoni deep-crust.”

They were rummaging through the boxes and bags. This was normal. Sometimes, depending on the group, they would tip everything out. Throw the toilet paper around. Other times, they’d get bored and bugger off. The bolt on the shed door had always – so far – been enough to put them off trying to come in.

“What on fucking earth are you all doing?”

A girl’s voice. Her voice. Black gold treasure voice. He turned, half-rising, just his eyes above the sill. It was her.

“Shit, he’s there!”


“Come on.”

“He was hiding the whole fucking time.”

“Fucking loser.”

“Pervert. Paedo.”

“Let’s just go.”

He thought he would stand up, turn his back to the window and walk towards the camp-bed on the other side of the shed, taking advantage of the dimming light and the grimy glass pane to fade out of view. But he couldn’t let go of the sight of her, only her, framed between trees with just a few of the brightest stars (though he knew that some stars were actually planets) starting to emerge in the bruising sky behind her.

He knew he was ignoring them, provoking them, these man-childs with their hormonal mixtures of strength and fear and bravado and idiocy. He knew better. He should step back.

“Hey! You gonna come and get your shit, then?”

“Leave him alone, Josh, mate.”

It was only the one kid who wanted trouble. The others weren’t interested and were looking for a way out. She was still on the path that came up through the scrubby trees between the jetty and his shed. Why had she followed them up here? She wasn’t trying to steer them away, but she wasn’t egging them on, either. Her voice had been calm and sardonic, not shocked or scared. Her mouth was twisted in what might have been a scorn or a smile. It was beautiful.

The boys lost interest. They turned away, headed back to the path, to where she was. Josh was still grasping a can of soup in his hand. Did he think he was going to nick it? Or had he just forgotten he was holding it?

“Better go, Josh.” A mocking tone in her voice this time. She knew what was going on here – these boys, they wanted to impress her. They all wanted to impress her, always. And sometimes she was impressed by them. But she was the girl they each wanted to be noticed by. Had she noticed him?

“Fucking loser,” Josh said again. “Here’s your sad fucking loser food.” And he lobbed the can towards the shed.

It’s hard to throw a full can of soup much harder than you intend, but perhaps it was an accident. Perhaps Josh had meant to just hit the wall or the door with the can. Perhaps he’d meant it to roll into the threadbare grass in front of the shed. Perhaps it was hard to judge the distance in the evening murk, far from any unnatural light. But perhaps he also meant for it to hit the window – or at least for there to be a reasonable chance that it might. They all ran then, the shits, as the thin glass shattered into his face and the can followed through with its momentum and hit the bridge of his nose, spiking one shard of pane into his flesh.


He peered at himself in the tiny mirror that hung above his tiny fridge. This time the words were fully formed, jangling around his head: “fucking loser”. He had stuck an old and dusty, too-small plaster over the cut on his nose but there was blood on his face and on his hands, too. He looked down, not wanting to see the familiarly odd reflection of his own image any more. There was blood on the floor, too, and glass splinters. Where was that can? The one on the table was the one from this morning, now among constellations of specks of broken glass. He got down on his hands and knees to look for the other one. He hadn’t thought to light the oil lamp and it was almost too dark to see anything but he thought he saw it under the cooker. He reached his arm under, shifting his weight to ease the discomfort of his nose – his whole face, in fact – and lying on the hard flat floor like an idiot, a joke, a fucking loser.

The knock on the door was not unexpected but it was deeply unwelcome. He dropped his head on to his shoulder, still lying on the floor. Couldn’t be bothered to talk to Mark or the teacher or whoever it was had come to apologise for the lads’ behaviour. He really hoped it wasn’t Josh: abuse or apology, either would be humiliating. Fuck off, he shouted into the cavernous vacuum of his head; let me alone.


It wasn’t an adult voice, nor a boy’s. It was a calm, less sardonic voice now. Golden black tones.

“Are you there?” Was there concern in that question? He decided there might be.

Silence without. Was she gone? He couldn’t hear anything over the sound of his heart thumping and the blood blasting scathingly through his ears. Was that the bolt being tested? He put his chin nearer his chest, trying to look back along his prostrate body towards the door. He put his free hand on the floor – he had to get up, but his other hand had just found the can of soup.

The door opened.


Two cold cups of tea. The provisions were stacked against the wall of his shed, inside but not in the fridge or in the cupboard or on the shelf; unwanted reminders of everything else. They hadn’t said much – he never could and she seemed oddly unsure, or sure in uncertainty, testing herself. As if she had dared herself to come, or perhaps someone else had dared her.

If that someone had asked how they had then got to this point, he would not have been able to say. But here they were, in his shed with the oil lamp the only point of light alive on the island, him sitting on the edge of his camp-bed, she dabbing at his bloodied face with the dampened corner of his tea towel. He kept flinching – not because it hurt.

She was close, her face closer than any had been to his for as long as he could remember. Closer than he had ever imagined. Unbearably intimately close. He couldn’t quite look at her face. Her eyes. Their lashes. His fingers tightened on the can still gripped in his hand. He wanted to touch her, gently, almost without touching, as she was touching him with the towel – but he didn’t know how.

She was finishing up. Looking more intently at his face to see, without seeing him, if there were any flecks of blood she had missed. It was over. She was leaving. She was walking away down the path in the moonlight and finding her beach hut and going in without waking her friend and sleeping and getting up and getting on the boat and sailing them all away from him.

“Better go,” she murmured, drawing back onto her heels.

The broken silence was his cue. He pushed his face towards hers and brought his hand round to the back of her head. The soup can jarred against her skull and she flinched away.

“No,” he said, pointlessly.

She stood up.

“No,” he said, stung by rejection, filling with the amplified, multiplied, venomous contempt of the boys and of Mark and of her and of the entire rest of the human race.

He followed her out of the door and into the night and caught hold of her with his free hand. She turned, fast, as if she was going to hit him but her hands stayed down and as her face came in front of his once more, he thought he saw the faintest softening at the edges of her eyes and her mouth, as if there was a smile in waiting, as if this was all part of a plan. He decided it might be.


The tin of soup lay in the mud a couple of metres away. He had stopped her taking off her golden top. He hadn’t stopped her taking off anything else. He pushed at the waistband of his trousers. He heard her say “No”, but as if from a hundred yards away across still water. Had she changed her mind? No, he was in the wrong place, that was all. Ok.

Only now and under the cover of a glittering, isolated darkness could he say something as alien and preposterous as “I love you” and mean it, but already they were dismantling language with their tongues and their hands and before he could say anything, those words and all other words had given up their meanings; their shared, complicit silence punctuated only with the physicality of two bodies in space.

For seconds, possibly hours, at a time, his consciousness was entirely hers – there was nothing beyond the tips of his senses. But sometimes he drifted back into a detached kind of consciousness and saw the scene from above himself. She was on her back on the ground; he was on top. Pushing. Driving. Driving her, deeper, down to the dirt. Her hands were on his back, setting the pace, keeping the rhythm, pulling him down, pulling herself, deeper. They were searching, deeper. Perhaps they needed, deeper, to find one last word, deeper, that retained some element of meaning, deeper, before they could come apart and resurface.

He couldn’t find the word. She sank further into the ground and he could feel the dirt on his hips each time he pushed down, on and in to her. Now he couldn’t see her any more, despite the sky lightening with the dawn, deeper… Deeper, and she was gone. Too far below. He kept on thrusting into the mud, searching for her, for a word, a trace, a flicker of gold. But he couldn’t find her and he didn’t yet know how to call her back.


He was still there, pushing feebly at the ground, when the sun came up. At some point, he stopped and just lay exhausted on top of the earth.

He wondered what Mark would say if he found him here like this, and he laughed at last. There would be strong words; a lecture. Lots about second chances and a decent job and allowances made, and not even being expected to talk to the kids any more, let alone teach them anything, and about being given a place to live nine months of the year and everything he needed like food and loo roll, and about letting people down and letting himself down and so on and on for a very long time. There is nothing so unbearably smug as a successful younger brother.

He pulled himself out of the mud and up to his feet. He pulled up his trousers and walked down the path through the scrubby trees to the harbour. All was ready. He looked out over the water and let out a satisfied grunt. They were late.



This story started as an uncomfortable dream, which I had maybe a dozen years ago. The island, the gold/black top, the sinking into the dirt were all in there. I tried writing it down when I woke up, and kept hold of that draft for a few years before deleting it because it still made me uncomfortable. Earlier this year I thought of it again in the night and got out of bed in the dark to scribble in my notebook. It seemed possible to finish and refine it into a story at last. Having recently seen a competition for short stories, I finished it for that deadline and it seemed rude not to then enter. It did not win.

A tale of a shipwreck

Having spent much of yesterday in a state of baffled disbelief, this overwrought analogy came to mind – it seemed quite profound this morning; I’m not so sure now…

Red Duster

(Pat McDonald, flickr)

Let me tell you a story about a ship: HMS Economy. She has a long and proud naval history, but now she is (mostly) a civilian vessel. She is run by the Captain, and every so often the crew and the passengers on board vote whether to sail under a red flag or a blue one. When they have voted, the Captain with the relevant flag goes to the ageing figurehead at the prow, and receives her blessing to take the helm.

What do the flags’ colours signify? When the passengers and crew feel that HMS Economy is in danger, they tend to vote for the blue flag. These Captains are hard taskmasters. They do “whatever it takes” to keep the ship afloat and on course. They lash the crew to the oars, man the pumps and make liberal use of the cat o’nine tails. Red captains are elected when the crew need respite – they untie the rowers and even let some of them come up on deck to stretch their legs and see what life is like for the passengers. It was a Captain sailing under a red flag who gave the crew free access to the ship’s doctor, for example.

After a while, the passengers grew most comfortable sailing under a blue flag. Some of them felt a bit bad for the crew below, but it seemed very important for HMS Economy to keep progressing in the right direction, to speed along as fast as possible and not risk losing her way under a red flag. There was more dissent among the crew, although many of them also agreed that it was better to keep a blue flag so they would all benefit by reaching their destination (wherever that was) sooner and with the ship in a good condition, even if many of the crew were not.

So the red flags changed their approach. “Ok, y’know, alright,” they said, holding their arms out, palms turned trustworthily towards the audience. “We’ve been watching the blue Captains and we think they’ve got pretty much the right approach, actually. So we’re not going to unlash the crew from the oars any more. What we will do – and this is the crucial difference now – what we will do is let them have a tea break, as long as it doesn’t threaten to damage or slow down the ship. HMS Economy is what matters and we will look after her and her passengers really properly from now on.”

And this persuaded most of the passengers and the crew to trust the red flag, and it seemed as though the course was set for years to come. Life was much the same as it had been under the blue flag, but perhaps a little easier on the crew.

Then disaster came. Yes, the conditions were bad – other ships nearby were making the sea choppy. But HMS Economy herself, it seemed, was in far worse condition than anyone had realised. The blue flags began telling passengers that the red flags had failed to fix the sails while the sun was shining; that we were heading straight for the rocks; that we would all be sunk.

Everyone panicked. The ageing figurehead was called upon to support a Captain and First Mate, sailing under a flag that was mostly blue but had a bit of orange on it, too. The crew were lashed harder to their oars, the cat o’nine tails came out more often, and all hands were put to the pumps (except the top-deck passengers who, quite discomfited by the thought of the ship sinking, were reassured and given lavish new cabins with TVs and inflatable life-savers built in to the walls).

Five years later, HMS Economy was becalmed. She seemed in less immediate danger of capsizing, although the Captain and First Mate had done relatively little to repair her, but she just wasn’t making any headway. Some of the passengers and crew began to regret having been so harsh on the rowers below decks. They thought HMS Economy would probably have survived just as well under a red flag, and without so much harm to the crew – and maybe there hadn’t even been that many rocks. Perhaps it was time to go back to a red flag?

But although lots of people were chattering about this – also the unexpected rise of the yellow flags (dour engineers, for the most part) – it seems most of the passengers and crew meanwhile had quietly put the blame on the First Mate, and quietly believed the blue flags when they said this was no time to risk the ship by hoisting a red flag. Why, a red Captain might fail to get HMS Economy moving again at all, or if they did, it would be in the wrong direction, or on to the rocks – like they did the last time. Better trust the blues.

And so the people voted and the ageing figurehead had to let the Captain keep sailing under a blue flag (no orange required any more). And the Captain vowed to work the crew harder, and make the passengers more comfortable, and to keep HMS Economy sailing on to glory.

That’s the story, then; but it is all codswallop.

The economy is the sea, not the ship

I don’t really believe that politicians have anything like as much influence over the direction and speed of the economy as they claim. Labour didn’t ‘break’ the economy in 2008, any more than a sailor can ‘break’ the ocean. Equally, the Coalition government deserves as much credit for the recovery as a sailor gets for a storm dying down and the sun coming out. The ship they sail is not the economy; rather, the economy is the water that keeps our ship and all of us afloat.

This is not to say that governing is as simple as setting a course and sticking to it. Clearly, the nature of the economy is that it has swells and currents, tides and tsunamis. A good captain is one who maintains the ship and responds well to changes in the weather, keeping the people safe from the sharks in the economical ocean all around.

By confusing the nature of the ship (deliberately or otherwise), the Conservatives make HMS Economy the be-all and end-all of government. If HMS Economy is faring well, they claim, then she is carrying us all to a brighter place. But HMS Economy is a ghost ship, and she has no destination for there is no endpoint to the economic journey of any country. All she can do is continue to push on, keep the crew slaving below deck and the passengers comfortable above. Heaven forfend she should slow down, or even drop anchor, and let everyone enjoy the view.

Labour’s failure in 2015 was not that they couldn’t persuade people they were capable of captaining the ship – though they signally failed to do that, too. The real failure was that they didn’t even try to show us that HMS Economy is a con.

We do not exist to keep the economy afloat. The economy has the potential to drown any of us, and so the ship we have built – the state; HMS Britain, I suppose – is a means of surviving the chaotic waves of economic fortune. The ship exists to keep us afloat. And given that the ship has no destination, there is no need to lash ourselves to the oars in order to maintain a notional speed of growth – we could just as easily hoist the sails, come up on deck and maybe even engage in some water sports (while the Captain keeps an eye out for any banks of stormy cloud on the horizon, of course).

Perhaps that is more akin to the narrative the SNP (not dour engineers at all, of course) offered this time round with their anti-austerity plans. Perhaps so many people want to shake off the red and blue flags because they stick too slavishly to the frightening ghost story of HMS Economy and sea monsters and rocks. But for all the ‘success’ Labour had beating the blue flags at their own game from 1997 to 2008, most of the electorate still seems prone to panic and vote for the blue flags at the first sign of trouble.

I really hope Labour choose a leader who can take this opportunity now to undermine the game: make the red flag stand for real change, and put the quality of people’s lives ahead of the health of the economy, which the government really can’t affect very much anyway. Paint over the ship’s old misleading nameplate, relaunch her with a new bottle of Champagne (or maybe Scotch), and focus on her true purpose – to carry the people so we can live our lives free from the risk of ‘drowning’ in the economy, not enslaved to it.

God bless this ship, and all who sail in her!

Election party!

“Who will win the General Election?” seems to be the way the question is being framed by a lot of commentators as we approach polling day. With the voting surveys inconclusive, various people are jostling for pre-emptive positions on what they would consider to be a ‘legitimate’ government. In particular, I’ve noticed Nick Clegg, current leader of the Liberal Democrats, talking as if he will again be the ‘kingmaker’ who gets to choose which of the two larger parties to prop up. Seems rather presumptuous, given that his is unlikely to still be the third largest party and he cannot be sure that he will even be an MP any more this time next week. A man who says the party with the most seats in Parliament deserves first go at forming a government must surely admit that the third-largest party should get first go at choosing which of the big two they want to prop up – and that looks like being the SNP, not the Lib Dems.

But all this talk of ‘legitimacy’ is ridiculous anyway. Nobody formally ‘wins’ a British General Election under the current constitution. The ‘winner’ is decided de facto by dint of being able to form a stable government (with the Queen’s blessing). Now, yes, the easiest way to do that is to have more than 50% of the seats be won by your political stablemates (and yes, each seat can be ‘won’ by getting the most votes in the constituency) – but this outright outcome, the most common in 20th century elections, entails a covert process of basically the same kind of horse-trading and compromise that we’ll see more publicly after the hung parliament expected on Friday morning.

Party mix

Our political parties are not homogeneous blocs of precisely like-minded people. They are full of factions, wings and outliers that their leaders have bargained, bribed and browbeaten into just enough stability to unite under one political brand. Given these loose associations of political affiliations, it is hardly surprising that the lines separating a Tory from being a UKipper are pretty thin. There are LibDems who could just as easily be Conservatives, and others who could be socialists or maybe even Greens. The SNP’s surge in support seems to have come from a lot of young new Scottish voters looking for something different, but it also owes a lot to (older) people simply changing allegiance from Labour (and other parties, too).

So why is everyone falling over themselves to rule out this, stake a claim to that, and declare the other ‘illegitimate’? Well, they still have 650 elections to win, naturally. But when the votes are cast, negotiations between the parties after the General Election will be no less valid or unbecoming than those within the parties in all the years before it.

Unwritten laws

I rather like the pragmatism of the tacit UK constitution. I read today that John Griffith, an LSE academic (and friend of Ralph Miliband), once said that our constitution is “no more and no less than what happens”, which I think means we have our national institutions and they relate to each other, and those institutions and relationships may change over time, but as long as they still relate to each other and to us, and function, that’s what matters. There are rarely any hard and fast rules, therefore, but this would actually allow for quite radical solutions to problems, too, if the parties involved were willing to be sufficiently bold.

There is no rule, for instance, that a bloc of Scottish nationalist MPs cannot support another party as the UK government, even if that government would not be able to rule without their support. There is certainly no rule that Nick Clegg gets to decide who should be the next Prime Minister. And there is no rule that the party with the most seats (but not a majority) should get first dibs on trying to form a government.

Because ‘winning’ a British General Election is not about getting the most votes or the most seats; it is a question of pragmatism alone: Can you muster enough support to be a viable Prime Minister in Parliament?

Horses for courses

If you don’t like that, and you want to vote directly for your government, well the first thing you need to do is not live in a (tacit) constitutional monarchy. For now, you vote for your constituency representative, your MP; the MPs go to Westminster and each chooses a leader from among all the other MPs to back. These alliances are usually forged over years and formalised through political parties, but alliances forged in the days ahead will be just as ‘legitimate’, although they don’t necessarily come with a branded party stamp. Then the leader who can command the most MPs goes to the Queen and gets the royal nod to be PM (and they are Her Majesty’s PM, strictly speaking, and not ours).

My point is that political parties are a convenient way to judge which potential PM your constituency candidate will back in Parliament, but they do not define the limits of who can work with whom in politics. A coalition of all parties except the one that gets the most (but not a majority of) MPs, for example, would indeed be a legitimate government if it could keep everyone involved sufficiently happy – just as everyone in a single party would have to be kept happy if they were to stay in power. Political divisions and makeshift coalitions are fluid and free – as free as we are to change our allegiance and our vote in each General Election should we so choose. So how will you choose tomorrow?

Update: 7/5/15

Another point I forgot to make is that no one should think the ‘national vote’ constitutes useful data. You cannot aggregate the tallies of 650 separate elections and think that everyone would vote the same way if they were voting directly for a government. Under the current system, that would be an illegitimate way to argue for power.

Power and politics

(Image by Pete on Flickr)

(Image by Pete on Flickr)

Less than a week to the UK General Election. I haven’t been thinking about it a great deal* – I know who I’m going to vote for in my constituency, and I believe in letting the votes be cast before futilely arguing over who should make a deal with whom to form the next government…

What has interested me is the perennial (or quinquennial) focus on voter apathy and the way politicians and celebrities (and people who are neither) exhort anyone who will listen to vote, to make a difference, to have their say. But voting in a General Election is not a powerful act. When I go to put an X on the ballot paper, it is not with a feeling of political influence coursing through my fingers and that stubby little pencil, it is more with a feeling like the one you get when you look at the picture made famous by Carl Sagan – the pale blue dot that is Earth, suspended in a sunbeam somewhere in the universe. It’s famously humbling, but also rather thrilling, in a way, to be so insignificant!

There are 64 million people in the UK, some 45 million or so of whom are eligible to vote (though far from all do, of course). My constituency alone has an electorate of some 75,000. One vote does not – should not – make “a difference” to the outcome. Those who decide not to vote because theirs will not be decisive in determining the outcome ask too much. It is, after all, the tallies of all our votes, the collective counts, not the individual Xs, that are the expression of democracy in an election.

Politics is not easy

Democracy is built on compromise. Whether it is holding your nose to vote at all, or choosing a candidate despite their party, or vice versa, or – for those who are elected – to give ground to your allies or opponents in order to make gains elsewhere. So for me, voting, and the majorities and minorities that it inevitably defines, isn’t really about influence or power, not at the level of the individual, anyway. Holding a vote lets you know (in theory, in a world without tactical voting, which I dislike**) how many people you have yet to persuade before you do get the right to exercise some democratic power (if only our politicians were more interested in persuading voters than pandering to them, though***).

Those who complain that voting is pointless and powerless have missed this point: it is not voting that gives power to the people, but rather it is opportunities to participate. If you don’t like the options on your ballot paper, and cannot bring yourself to compromise, it is both possible and incumbent on you in this democracy to create an alternative that you can stomach. Find others who agree with your politics, or persuade others that you are right. Persuade more people to join you, and you have a chance to find a candidate that you can vote for. It might even be you. If you can’t persuade people you are right, maybe you’re not.

Why vote?

Voting is a vital part of democracy, but not because it is de facto an act of democratic power. Voting can help you to know your own mind and to find out how many people agree with you (if everyone voted ‘honestly’). That’s important, but the implication is that to actually wield real democratic power, you must do more than cast a vote each time you are asked: you have to be active, engage with other voters, listen and argue with them, and perhaps compromise a little.

My vote is not going to change the world on its own. Nor should it. I still think everyone who is eligible should vote because it lets the rest of us know where we all stand. But if we want to exercise democratic power, we have to stop bleating about the pointlessness of voting and make an effort far greater than it takes to get to the polling station and write an X on a piece of paper.

So I would say vote precisely because it won’t alter the outcome, because it is ‘merely’ the reckoning. And if you actually crave the power to change this democracy, you will have to work for it and find it beyond the polling booth.

* Unlike Simon Kane and Tassos Stevens, for example, who have been thinking about the election most excellently, thank you very much…

** Of course, this is the problem, which is that the system has become a game and our politicians know how to play it and, if not how to win it, then at least how to stop other people from winning. Maybe we should change the system – but to one that doesn’t inherently advantage political machines (aka “parties”), please…

*** Naturally, this implies that I should try to persuade politicians to persuade me, but I’m not after power, and I’m not sure I’m right about any of this anyway…


Tuesday and roses and coffee and a chance encounter near a sewing machine where my moustaches drooped that time and you said I was weird and I decided you meant quirky and then I held that word – quirky – against you.

I work in a team of nine people – editors, copyeditors, writers, an art director – and we are currently trying to work out exactly what it is that we want to offer the business we work for. We all have our particular skills but when we all work together, it tends to be in the service of creating compelling narratives about or for our employer. Stories, in other words.

The key

What do you open? A door, of course; an ordinary door, an unimportant door that leads to a walled garden of roses, opened only on Wednesdays.

We had an away day recently to talk about what stories we want to tell and how we can best make use of our combined story-telling skills. Part of the day included a writing exercise in which we first wrote for a minute or so, I think – just writing, anything that came into our heads. My minute’s worth is at the top of this post.

Who owns you? A woman and a man and the door, I suppose.

Then we had to choose an object from a collection of things on the table. We had to come up with three or more questions to ask this object, and then we had to provide its answers. I chose a key.

What are you worth? I am not the only key – I have a number of twins or triplets or clones. If one of us is lost, nothing much changes. If all are lost, the garden is closed, the roses unsmelled, the thorns unblooded, the path untrod, the relationship neglected. The walls would eventually crumble and only the locked door would remain, keeping no gate, defining no boundary.

Revolutions, 1-7

[#2] Waves in the rattle like faces in clouds, or patterns in science, or attempts to communicate only through listening. Tuning in, tuning out. Time abandons us to the mechanical murmuration of an as yet unrevealed metallic larynx, a pea in a tin, a screw in a washing machine drum, the ticking over of some empty percussive space. Only the skips and disjunctures of the sound remain and I can’t remember how this one started or how long ago. Rhythm upon rhythms, a constructed mystery – but what am I listening for?

I am underneath the McDonalds at Guy’s Hospital in London for another Points of Listening. Dawn Scarfe is playing seven pieces that each use scientific instruments to produce noise, sound or just music. She conscientiously controls the revelation of information about the instrumentation involved, the artists and their motivation. It feels like a quiz – guess the source if you can. It turns out that at least a few of the audience are familiar with some of the pieces and are better placed to play the game than I am, unfamiliar in all respects. But that also seems to work against their enjoyment of the sounds as sounds and potential attempts to visualise the performances that could have generated them, to construct a material counterpoint to the audio, to reconstruct the artistic process that created them.

[#2, cont.] More spaces, something slowing, the rhythms disperse, sounds dissociate from the din, isolate, each one stopping and threatening at last to stop the entire piece. As stopping becomes a possibility again, time intervenes, holding out hope, reminding me that it will have to stop. Irregular regularity. Until just one sound is left, one hand clapping, and perhaps, I think, this was a machine of thousands of parts, wheels or switches, each one stopping in its own time, perhaps calculating, like Turing’s machine, and then coming to a stop.

[#4] A breath, a wind blowing, blowing what where? A shiver. Within the wind, other currents haling over glass bottles, evoking landscapes, vitreous humours of distant worlds. Deep-throated whale song and the tinkle of chimes, chimes with whatever it is you are trying to say.

[#5] Tones upon tones, trilling harmonics between the ears, between these apparently electronic tones. Synthesised banshee. What science is this?

In between the pieces, Scarfe shows us images of scientific instruments – most from a bygone era – or reads to us from the artists’ descriptions of their practice. How they relate to each piece is tacit but seems clear enough. Resonance with the environment; emotional distance of the scientific method. Fur trappers used to make a mental catalogue of the sounds around them before they went to sleep so that their subconscious would wake them in response to any new sound, such as a bear.

Instruments revealed so far and yet to come include: a radiometer, 100 metronomes, cloud chambers, sine wave generators, a Helmholtz resonator – musicalised instruments of science, apparatus of the imposter.

[#6] Deeper, throbbing, wavering, wobbling tones. Extraneous tones of people outside this room break the spell from time to time, reminding me that we are sitting in a rough semicircle of three or four rows of plastic chairs, directing our parabolic focus on two speakers in front of a white wall. This tone is too contrived, manipulated, orchestrated. No natural phenomenon would be this considered toeing the line between interest and boredom to make the boredom seem interesting. The voices outside the door vie for attention. They sound as though they are on the radio, a faint signal beaming through the noise of this piece. Have their voices been conjured out of the resonating tones? I doubt it, but it has become a possibility through the superposition of waving electrowaves.

[#7] A pin drop explodes and fades like an amplified tuning fork. Pebbles in an aural pool. Arbitrary decisions betray the composition at work here, perturbing the soundscape. Time accepts the composer’s challenge and dares them to go on. But what now am I listening for? What resonance emerges between these pieces? Between my ears? Is it alive…is it a live performance, with its tiny wet electrical kisses and the scuffing clicks and burrs of a microphone being moved? A choir of electronic tones interrupted by vitreous percussion and the scrape  of chairs in McDonald’s above.

The spatial nature of sound; a process of reduction; sculptured integrity. The Grand Tonometer has 692 tuning forks, ranging from 16 Hz to 4096 Hz. I wonder if the withholding of revelation turns the revelation inwards…

#1: Cassiere – Crooke’s radiometer
#2: Ligeti – poem for 100 metronomes
#3: Partch – cloud chamber music
#4, #5: Scarfe
#6: Lucier – sine generator and clarinet
#7: Chartier – the Grand Tonometer


Sharing is caring

As a writer who often finds that he has nothing in particular to say, it pains me to accept that content trumps style in this world. This is why the ability to get to the nub of a story, distill it into a one-line pitch and sell it in to either your editor or your reader is the most important skill for a journalist. But I am not a journalist, and I prefer to try writing where the story is important, yes, but the way the piece is written is also relevant and potentially informative. That’s what I’m trying to do with some of my pieces at Mosaic, anyway.

So when people share stories through social media, it’s interesting that many express opinions about the writing that seem to refer to style, yet perhaps relate more to the content and how it fits with their existing viewpoint – that’s my suspicion (or paranoia), so I’ve constructed a little guide to the words people use to describe articles that they share and what I think they might really mean. Feel free to add more definitions in the comments!

  • Good = I agree with this article.
  • Great = This article agrees with me.
  • Nice = There’s nothing I can disagree with in this article.
  • Interesting (1) = I haven’t read this article yet, but I suspect I’d agree with it.
  • Interesting (2) = I’m not sure what to say about this article: it’s the kind of thing I usually agree with but I can’t quite put my finger on why I’m reluctant to describe it as “good”.
  • Important = This article is on a topic in which I have an interest, probably a professional interest, but I wish the writer had done a better job of it.
  • Useful = I already knew what is in this article but if you read it, it might help you learn to agree with me.
  • Thoughtful = This article responds to something I wrote without calling me an idiot.
  • Excellent = This article quotes me.
  • Excellent (if the person sharing works in PR) = This article quotes my boss.
  • Must-read = Why does no one listen to me when I try to make this point?
  • Totally nails = This article is written by a friend of mine who clearly listened when I bored everyone else to death at that party, and has now published my stream of consciousness as a reasoned argument.

All kinds of dangerous things that give our life meaning

1. Your Aunt Jane has died. For 20 years before her death, she worked tirelessly on a book about the butterflies of East Sussex, but the manuscript is not quite finished. You were not close to your aunt, but you are her only living relative so it has fallen to you to decide whether to leave the book, or to work with the publisher to make it ready for publication. The book is not particularly innovative, it doesn’t add much to our knowledge of the butterflies of East Sussex, and no one would miss it if it were not to be published. The only issue at stake is whether Aunt Jane would be harmed if you decided to bin her manuscript. What will you do?

2. A woman in her 80s has been admitted to the hospital where you are a junior doctor. She has severe problems with her bowel and it is clear that she is dying. On rounds, you and your colleagues don’t bother going in to her room any more, instead just asking the nursing staff if there has been any change overnight, or if she is in any distress. The patient dies peacefully with her family around her. Did you do the right thing?

3. I am in a pub in Cambridge having just finished my finals. I meet a man who says he is ready to die. Not actively seeking death, but he is content with what he has achieved in his life and has no unfinished business. Twenty years later, I worry that the morning after our encounter he might have started work on a book about the butterflies of East Sussex. Would he still be ready?

4. A 33-year-old single mother has breast cancer, which was diagnosed while she was pregnant with her fifth child. She decided to wait until after the child was born to start chemotherapy. The cancer has now spread – she shows you a new lump on her abdomen and realises she is going to die. You ask what her priorities are. She says she doesn’t want to be in pain when she dies. You ask what her fears are. She says she is afraid of dying alone. You ask what her hopes are. She talks about her children. She declines treatment for the cancer, moves to a hospice and dies three weeks later. Did she do the right thing?

Note: These texts were inspired, spoken or unspoken during Death: clinical, historical and philosophical perspectives on dying, an event that formed part of King’s College London’s 2014 Festival of the Humanities.


In Cambridge, walking down lanes with memories. Piss Alley (Kings Lane), the way to my old college. Round the backs. Is that the house where…? I remember wandering about like this on the morning after the one May Ball I ever went to, and a picnic on the green patch of island across from the Mill pub; long-forgotten, I would never have remembered it without coming back here. I drank in the Anchor because I lacked imagination and friends, except for that time after Finals when I drank in the Eagle and met a man who was ready to die. I never cycled in Cambridge. I got a 2.2. I was never named in reviews of plays. Anonymous boy. Anonymous man. Nothing changes. The river still flows.

Despite the tone of this, which I wrote on Saturday night on my way to a drinks reception, I had a very pleasant weekend in Cambridge, staying in student accommodation at Christ’s College and attending a workshop on the Uses and Abuses of Biology.

I wasn’t entirely anonymous at the workshop – I introduced myself to a few people, had some enjoyable chats and learned a lot from the speakers. But there are always those moments at lunch, or having drinks, when I am on my own without a good idea for how to not be by myself in the crowd. Now, I don’t mind at all being by myself – until I think someone else thinks it is odd. And maybe it is odd. And that’s when I start to think of ways to mask my public isolation. Which only draws attention to it. Which is when I get most awkward. But people are often nice and sometimes come up and break me out of my exhibition of introversion. For which I am grateful.

A point of listening

If a tree doesn't fall and there's no one around...?

If a tree doesn’t fall and there’s no one around…?

When I was 15 or so, I had to do work experience. Clearly my only experience of work till then had been teachers, so I ended up helping in a class at my old primary school for two weeks. There I met William, a 5-or-6-year-old whom I was asked to read with because he was struggling a bit. Every time William encountered a word he didn’t know, he would say something instead. “The cat sat on the something.” “The ball something over the something bridge.”

That’s all I remember about William, if his name was even William, but I remember him every time I try to read a French book in French, which is something I do considerably often considering I am not very proficient in French.

I was reminded of all this today at an event called Points of Listening 6. I had not been to any of the previous five, so was not sure what to expect. What happened was really lovely. Daniela Cascella performed a reading of various texts – written, cinematic, acoustic. We were at the London College of Communication, and had been led through the building, around which students were strewn like fashionable throws or functional objets d’art, to a small, rather warm room with three arcs of seats and the curtains drawn.

Cascella began with film and sound of a gang of motorbikes being ridden round a (presumably Italian) city, their engines recapitulating the undulating monotony of televised Formula 1 races. Then we heard the sound from the opening credit sequence of Kiss Me Deadly. Then we saw the opening credit sequence of Kiss Me Deadly and understood more or less than we had understood from the sound alone.

The piece was called ‘Borders’, and from this opening position of credits marking a boundary of sorts between not understanding and understanding a situation, Cascella defined, developed, decayed, regained and recycled a sequence of cyclical themes to the end of the world and back.

In amongst it, she said she had read a 500-odd page book by a seminal French anthropologist; a self-anthropology, if such a thing is even possible. But to add to the monstrosity of the tome, she revealed that she does not read French very well and there is no English translation. So, she took it to the British Library and sat with it, reading, sometimes without understanding but still able to enjoy – perhaps more so – the objectiveness of this text. “Le chat s’assit sur le something.”

Talking to aliens

In the Q&A afterwards, Cascella mentioned that she had been discussing recently the topic of talking to aliens. Without going in to details, she told us the conclusion she and her interlocutor had reached was that we are always talking to aliens.

And then I put up my hand and spoke.

This never happens. It’s not that I don’t have interesting thoughts when listening to talks and performances, and it’s not that I am not grateful to the speaker or performers who inspire those thoughts. It’s just that I have this internal damping mechanism that suggests it is enough to have the thought or feeling: maybe jot it down in a notebook somewhere; expressing it would serve nobody well.

Alcohol has been known to override this mechanism but I had not been drinking today. Perhaps it was the opportunity afforded by being granted honorary alien status that enabled me to speak.

I was at another conference on silence last week, since which it has occurred to me that you have to listen in order for there to be a silence. An unheard silence is just another tree not falling in a philosophical wood. Perhaps, then, you also have to speak in order to listen.

So I spoke and made a point or two.

Points of listening, I hope.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 489 other followers