My residency at the British Library, attached as a tug to the upcoming exhibition on the Franklin expedition and the search for the Northwest Passage, now has a title, which is helping to rein in all my calving thoughts.
It will be called On My Wife’s Back, and I hope that you will follow my progress over the coming months as I try to pull something Shermanish from all the fervent, hushly white mythology that surrounds the Franklin and Arctic exploration in general.
Above is its logo, of sorts, in the original Greek sense. This title, this logo and its themes, will encompass what is looking to be a pretty bastard variety of new work, from writing to art to music to essay to video to hardware, and from now all news to do with the residency, including all of the material that I will release, will be found on my research Tumblog. There’s nothing much there at the moment, but I’m sure something will bob up soon.
In the meantime, I do hope that you’ll come to the Library and see me, gloaming through the Rare Books Reading Room, before the exhibition itself, ‘Lines In The Ice’, starts in November.
A tiny party of you might have been looking over my blog and website for the past few months a little worriedly, wondering where I’ve got to. Of course, things are happening, behind the sub-domains. There’s a sort of rumbling, huffing squawk that you’ll sometimes hear, and occasional gouts of hot breath that you can see rising into the air More than anything, you might have seen a certain aesthetic emerging. White on white, with little dashes of red. The pattern of snow, on every stylesheet, forming a sort of Arctic hoarding while I get on behind the skeines, carving this website into some sort of order.
I don’t even like snow very much. It’s a folksy sort of acid, charming the feet off your ankles, making pressings of all your nerves, and causes great, cheery delays on the trains running into London, which struggle at the best of times with the maelstrom of slight damp, fallen foliage and teenagers pushing each other off the platforms.
However, I’ve chosen it as my new digital camouflage because it has a nice obliteration to it. It’s the colour of the internet, anyway, and I thought that, rather than get all clever with my hex codes and background images, that I would just choose something for my blog that represented the medium in which I’m choosing to write. The web, hungry for anything, ready to obliterate at the slightest mistake in one’s syntax. It’s a lot like snow, isn’t it? So inviting, but so horribly judgemental.
It’s appropriate, also, for my next piece of art, the funding for which I have just found out, this week, is migrating over to me for the winter. For the past five months, as well as fannying with HTML and doing some sort of job in the daytime, I’ve been making applications. Overusing words such as ‘institution’, ‘pedagogic’, ‘democracy’ and ‘Philip’, drawing up Gannt charts, paring down to word limits (you must know how that hurts me). I was hunting for money, for support, for funding, but all of this pairing and peeling and stitching of words and chart-making put me in mind of preparing for a sea voyage. Admittedly, I’ve never taken a sea voyage, not outside a ferry, and I suspect that I’d find it horrible, but I’m still enough of a quivering, genteel mast of glycerine to enjoy the metaphor.
And, it appears, that my funding application was watertight. We have our money. Our voyage is going ahead.
For the next five months I will be Writer-In-Residence at the British Library. Despite my lack of experience or sea legs, and my obvious weakness to scurvy, I will, after all, be the official artist to a sort of naval expedition, one that tacks back into the past, looking for long-lost sailors. In the Folio gallery, a meandering knock-hole underneath the escalators in the Library’s foyer, an exhibition is being put together. It will contain the Library’s collection of documents, personal effects and paraphernalia relating to the lost Arctic expedition of John Franklin in 1845. Franklin was one of those longitudinally impossible men of 150 years ago who managed to be both Governor of Tasmania and a north polar explorer in his lifetime, though the latter was only by dint of all the other candidates being either too chilly-willy, too married or too Irish by half.
With two ships, the Erebus and the Terror (arrogant, tiny little ships, named for primordial horrors) Franklin set off with his crew and the blessings of the Admiralty to find the Northwest Passage, the mythic, ice-free trading route over Canada and down into the Pacific.
I don’t like to link to Wikipedia and be done with it, but in Franklin’s case it’s the only sensible thing to do.
Franklin was a much braver man than I am, but I do see parallels in our work. As an attaché to this exhibit, producing original artwork and writings relating to the Franklin voyage, and the subsequent attempts to find his vanished crew, I feel as scared as if I was about to take to the ocean. Throughout my applications for this position, I have been getting tongue-tied between the words ‘exhibition’ and ‘expedition’, and the gap between them has certainly shortened. Looking at the body of work in front of me, the amount of time and research that has gone into the Lines In The Ice exhibit, as it will be called, perhaps the practices are not so different, after all. As I sail through the Library’s archives, seeking the stories of Franklin’s adventures, the odds he and his crew faced, and how a great trooping line of subsequent explorers, down the years, have uncovered the sad tale of what happened to those several hundred men, their elderly commander, and their two malaprop vessels, I feel more and more like an icebreaker myself. My research will uncover documents forgotten for many years, and as my crew I will have the resident curators, bookbinders, scholars and excellent cooks that make up the Library’s staff. With them, I will discover terrific vistas, great pains, and create something entirely new to sit alongside these old, old log books and ship’s diaries, something which the public can enjoy until March, when winter is getting woolly, and the exhibition ends.
I am still working out what it is I want to do with my time at the library, but rest assured of the following:
– I will have my own cabinet in the exhibition, to fill with whatever I like;
– There were plenty of ideas that did not make it into The Black Crown Project, my last piece, which are due a stiff pint of sea breeze;
– I’ve stockpiled an awful lot of ship’s Twine for the task;
– You do not have to be with me aboard the British Library to participate, but I have been told that I make a charming mate in person.
There will be more details here and elsewhere when the charts have been finalised, the hull caulked, and we are ready to set sail. Once all this is in place, we’ll be heading out from Port St. Pancras, north and west, following the stars until the bend in the earth sunders them. We’ll be seeing what we can find in the lines in the ice. The British Library is an odd vessel to charter, shaped more like two steamer ships pulling perpendicular, and it has particular dearth of masts. Still, if you are interested, do come and join my crew.. The galley does a cracking doorstep sandwich.
And if you won’t be coming to join me, don’t cry, don’t send out search parties, and put the kettle on. I’ll only be months.
I was at a variety gig some time ago, staged in an former keeper’s lodge at the gate to one of Britain’s less provincial towns. As well as feeling London like a shadow on the lung, I could taste the soap in my beer. The doorman wore tattoos like eczema at the corners of his lips. It wasn’t at home.
My opinion solidified after a few hours of awkward listing about the dance-floor, and resolved itself into the need to leave very quickly and get on a train. Unfortunately, the sprawl of the audience was, for some reason, centred on the only door, and nobody was intent on moving. The current band had been popular ten years before with a very slender wedge of humanity, and most of them were here tonight, being overwhelmed. The fact that I might want to leave was as inconceivable to them as museum lighting was to a pharaoh’s capstone. I had to squeeze around them, apologising.
However, in the centre of this static storm, unmoving and full of cardigans and Rorschachs of backsweat, I came to an impasse. The only way through to the door was between a ferociously nodding man and a pregnant woman, who stood sipping mango juice with her back against a wooden post.
I still feel awful about what followed, and I think that a large part of this guilt is due to my superstition, and the superstition of many, concerning pregnant women.
Most media that I can access portrays them as fecund, ripe, bountiful, Wildorf-esque beauties waiting for enlightenment to crown. And this woman was beautiful, blonde bobbed and florally dressed in blue, and she wore her bump less like a delicacy and more like a fuel tank, necessary for her extreme performance. I have been very unkind to her in the above drawing. She was nowhere near as monstruous as I have depicted her, but then, nobody is. She just terrified me.
What terrified me most was that apocalyptic fragility to her. I am an immeasurably clumsy man, my hands like combine harvesters with the pedals jammed, but even accounting for this I am surprised that pregnant women allow themselves out of the house. It seems to me that even walking, considering their payload, is like balancing a cascade of champagne flutes on aerosol spray. And there is such potential, with only a small mistake on the behalf of anybody encountering them, for such annihilating misery, such miscarriage, that I find it best to give them as wide a berth as possible.
I had a bag on my back, and I tried as best as I could to nudge the man in front out of the way, but he was too busy trying to emulate a twelve-stringed guitar with his one-stringed mouth. He pushed back. And so it was that I slammed, almost neatly, into her.
She gaped up at me betrayed, mouth sagging with implication. In my mind there was such a smoking, Biblical tower of sorrow in her, at the thought of what my clumsiness could do, that she transformed into this clenched, incandescent clump. Her hands went to her stomach and I almost vomited. I apologised as profusely as I could, gibbering over the violin solo. Two men beside her, who were not her friends but who felt out the roles that they must now perform, marshalled protectively, flanking her like Chinese lions outside a restaurant. I think one of them even bared his teeth, but if you asked him about that now, he might be embarrassed and feign all knowledge of it. We all get a little canine when the fundaments of life are involved.
After a while, or what must have been one-eightieth of a second, her anger turned to understanding, as she read the signs of her body as surely as her own handwriting. She knew that nothing had died, or gone moronic. I pinged out into the night, free of the trial, almost on the point of tears.
It is perhaps six months later, and I still think about that woman, and when I see somebody pregnant I instantly become aware of my tottering, unpredictable body, and my unaccountable limbs, and how they might, if I am not careful, inadvertently deconstruct a life. Sometimes I am angry at her, for not understanding that it was not my fault, and that it is difficult to for the rest of the crowd to maintain the aura around her when she stands in the thick of it like that. I then feel awful for being angry, of course, and go on avoiding women like her, dubbed numinous by society, and desperately safeguarded against people like me.
I spent an agreeable few hours in the National Gallery this afternoon, sketching instead of job-hunting. If it was not very racist, I would rank nationalities of tourists by their propensity to stand in front of the painting that I am sketching for a very long time, before practically mushing their wattles across my page to see if I can draw at all. It would be like an extremely passive-aggressive UN report.
I call this ‘Sleepy Jesus, Grabby Jesus, Aborted Hands, Heaney’s Dewlap, Sutherland’s Eye, Leigh’s Beauty.”
After spending a large amount of time very close to it, I think that Vivien Leigh’s eye and its environs might be the most perfect example of matter yet in existence. A prime piece of God’s precipitate.
The first draft of this post was written at about half-past eight on a Sunday morning in the Midlands. It was winter, and half-past eight is not so long after dawn, at that time of year. I had just completed the countdown that would lead to me getting out of bed, and I almost grizzled at the icy laminate and my dirty toes. Outside the window, the clouds stretched away into the south-east like dunes, and the sun had just made deep, trip-up footsteps on their leading edges. It was hurrying into the world, flinging off all of its frankly Victorian attire, letting it all shine out as it whooped down at the edge of the unseen sea.
I revealed the inside of the window with my breath, as I stood and took all of this in. This was a resolution of mine, as it was the New Year, to witness everything more clearly, and appreciate those times that I was not looking through a screen. On that Sunday morning, when I looked into the glass, I could see all sorts of grease, dotted like microbes across the plate. On both sides of the glazing fingerprints have been dragged, looking like the handiwork of a raptor. The overhead cable that was slung just outside vibrated softly, to the tango of pigeons beyond the curtain, precarious on their tiny raptor feet.
That morning seemed like an auspicious, quiet sort of time, before anybody else was up, to compose my goodbye to you. There have been other drafts since then, in libraries where hundreds of others have hawked and ticked on their own pieces of glass, and now as I finish typing this I am sitting in my bedroom, peeked at by a lime-green poster of the moon and all its seas. If you do not mind, I’ll continue to pretend I’m still there, in that morning, before the kettle had boiled and the heating had gargled on.
For those of you who have been asking, the Black Crown Project, my Sibylline little browser game, now has all the Work that it needs. It is finished. We had the party without you, unfortunately. I made the cake pictured at the top, with too much food colouring, and myself and the editors went on a hike at the edge of London to sluice out our hearts. I shan’t be writing much more, if any. The main shaft of the story is all there, and you can complete it in one of several agonising ways. I may, in the near future, add more endings, or more storylets, or more branches, depending on what I think up at this sort of time in the morning. Keep an eye on the forum. The Hogherd may come, rattling his bucket.
I’m going to make a cup of tea, very quickly, as it is freezing in here; I’ll be very quick.
Now, some of you might feel a little antsy about that. You might feel that you have just gotten a handle on it all, and now, look, in the corners, more stuff networking away from you like fungi, growing when you are not looking. Personally, I think that this is the way that it should be, and I’ll write it and distribute it if it comes to me. It might very well be the case that I never think of anything else interesting ever again. The whole process of creating this Jörmungandr (about 500,000 words now, not to mention all the art and the design) has completely ignored its tail and broken me down into thousands of bits, completely transformed me. It has made me complex, troubled, rebarbative, rude and overthought. I need to take a little bit of time to repair myself, and my writing. Just look at this post. Even with editing it is still too thick, too self-aware. I need to become protozoan, like the grease on the windowsill, a microbe instead of a macrobe, just simplify and simplify.
There goes the heating, a purumpurdump coming from its depths. The sun is properly up now, after its dip. It is shaking itself very vigorously.
Regardless of whether there is ever any more content, I will continue to stride around the forum, purumpurdumping myself, answering all of your questions. Please do post there and let me know what you thought of the game, what the experience of playing it was like, what you would have done differently, and all those things that people say they want to hear about their work and secretly do not. I do. I promise.
On a more prosaic note, I will continue to handle any and all bugs, if you can alert me to them, until there are not any more. I will also be looking for paid work doing more of this sort of thing, if you are having issues that you believe that I can solve, like the lack of an epic narrative, or the final decision as to what your character should eat for breakfast before they walk out of the door to murder things.
Excuse the tear; the daybreak just hit me in the eye, through the kitchen skylight. I haven’t cried at all, in this entire process. I won’t miss any of you at all.
Oh, perhaps I will. I could not be this self-indulgent without caring about you an awful lot. I have already said thank you elsewhere, but I will say it again. Since I was very small, I have wanted to do many different things, besides writing, but writing was the only thing that I could ever do with any certainty. Black Crown questioned that certainty, and made me very unhappy, in its own way. However, in futzing my way through I have discovered another love, one which I thought was out of reach. I now know that what I wish to do is design, make games, digital stories, interactive art, ludic expression, whatever you want to call them. I don’t just want my characters and my worlds and my secrets to stand still, to fester for a short time and then be relegated. I want allow people to contort my characters into all sorts of humorous positions, to have the leaves still flutter on the trees in new ways even a hundred years from now, and decide just for myself, once and for all, how much art can be made this way.
I think that I may have already made a little art. I would like to make more. And due to the people I have met, the coterie that I have accrued and the almost constant liquor of advice, support and educations that I have slung back, I have a better chance than most.
So thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, for letting me spend a year filling in spreadsheets with plot devices instead of profits, and writing quotes from imaginary books instead of quotes from imaginary customers for some new washing powder. For spending your time being scholars for something that does not matter at all. Thank you for the encouragement, license, advocacy and platform, for letting me speak about what I do, and in the process working out exactly what it is that I do.
Thank you so much for everything, every single one of you. There will be more soon. I do not intend to waste any of it. Ignore how mopey I was being, in an earlier paragraph, even earlier in the morning.
It really is day now, somebody’s getting up, my feet are not so cold, and I think that I have said goodbye properly. The sun has forgotten the ocean, and is coming to see us. So should you, again, and soon.
I was sitting on the tenth floor of an office building on a Friday morning, which in this particular building meant that the weekly fire alarm test was about to begin. At ten o’clock exactly, a zodiac of blinking red lights criss-crossed the ceiling, and a bored voice assured absolutely everybody that whatever happened in the following ten minutes or so would be entirely unreal.
Almost every table stopped its discussions, silent for the announcement; it was so loud that nothing could be done until it had finished. Very few people apart from myself actually looked up, trying to locate the source of the voice, and follow whatever abstract pattern could be made from the warning LEDs. They all kept their shoulders hunched forward, fingers raised, shirts rucked and mouths slightly parted, so familiar with this ritual that all involved knew that, after playing statues for a few moments, they would be allowed to continue with their days, as long as they could put aside any instincts that arose in them.
They were playing statues. They were already excellent at controlling themselves.
Those following ten minutes were some of the strangest I had experienced in my life, purely because I had the good fortune to be able to step outside my own brain and see the wiring that really needed testing.
What I watched was a group of well-educated, well-dressed and pleasant human beings conduct an internal war. They were trying to shrug off the shackles of fifty thousand years or so of biological and cultural conditioning and ignore every startling sign that they were about to die.
The lights in the ceiling flashed red in sequence, a colour which has meant war, has been blood, has enraged animals, since the last time we all grew new bones.
A man’s voice screamed about fire, about not using the elevators, in a ululation which brought to me the images of being crushed underfoot, of twenty or thirty skulls cracking at once in a deluge of corduroy and anodised aluminium and polished leather tumbling down the stairs. I thought of choking on the fumes of melting electronics filigreed with lead, or jumping from a window, with wonderful views over the Thames all the way down.
And in the midst of the murderous insistence they sat, and clattered politely on their keyboards, and cleaned their computer screens with detergent, ate crisps and blew the salt from their fingertips.
I came back to my mind thunderstruck by how well we had all evolved, but I could have been wrong. Perhaps there was somebody else, tucked away behind a row of printers, whose heart quickened with mine, just a little. Somebody who dreaded ten o’clock every Friday morning, and who could not believe that they were not already running.
One day on the DLR, the monorail which runs gingerly through London’s drowned former docklands, was an example of what most would call an insane person, alongside me and another two hundred or so men and women and several children.
He was dressed head to toe in orange cloth, the colour of cartoon radiation. Everybody knows that this denotes the uniform of the public servant, the ones at risk of being invisible in the most dangerous places. Around the azimuth of his head was a pair of headphones the colour and texture of white goods, as if somebody had carved a circlet from a dishwasher, and he spent his journey drumming violently across his knees, stamping his feet, and singing up and down his register hoarsely and loudly, his eyes tight shut. It is the sort of thing that disgusts almost everybody, one of the trials of public transport. Everybody did very badly at this; they would try to stare at their shoes, but fail, if only because of how he moved. He would swing from bar to bar, sit down, stand up, switch spaces; he was like a canary, hopping back and forth. His mouth moved spastically, in a pale imitation of some song that billowed out from under his dishwasher headphones, like steam.
There was a canniness to him, though. He peeked up every so often, to see who was watching him, but he never approached or accosted anybody, not even the women in the carriage, who hate the fact that they expect this sort of behaviour. I have been on the Underground many times and looked up to see people, veterans of the roar between each carriage, opening those forbidden doors, letting in the unnatural wind, and shell-shocking everybody with their shouts for money or burgers.
I continued to watch him, and he would catch my eye for a moment before creasing his brow and billowing into some public duende, moaning and groaning, and jiving on his arse.
These hummings, rising whines and falling cadences sounded like a machine being ignited and doused over and over, or the glossolalia of somebody not possessed, but maybe looking for attention at church. I gave it to him. I tried to hold his gaze, and transmit some sort of warm glow, a radiation of my own that would leave residues of kindness about him. I wanted him to know that I loved how different his brain was, that there was no reason he could not sing and stamp out of time on this train all day if he wanted to. It was as good as sitting there quietly, or reading, or talking to a friend. I wanted him to know that I appreciated him.
I don’t think he cared, or noticed, and he did not look back when we both left the train at the terminus. Next to the escalator were five flights of steps, and I ran up them, not caring that everybody was looking at me, buoyed up by my own self-improvement and enlightened observance of the world around me. I really was very kind, to accept him like that, on behalf of the whole carriage.
I watched his glow shrink in reflection, as he rounded a corner. And now I cannot remember what I was wearing. I don’t suppose it matters.
A few weeks ago, a weather system boarded the train home from Birmingham New Street; vortices of hair hair, a cold front of white, white teeth and, walloping along at knee height, two screaming faces; a family, the silvered barometer of a buggy, and their voices. The train was busy, and so the mum took the smaller girl, a grizzling ball of slick, red elbows and cheeks, up the carriage to find a pair of seats, whilst the dad sat opposite his older daughter, next to me. I was not particularly subtle with my gaze; he would look up every now and then and smile at me encouragingly, before champing at his gum, and showing me the back of his throat.
He had the most immense teeth, perfect white in that way teeth are not, even at birth before they have chewed anything. Like a Newton’s Cradle he clacked the ball of gum back and forth, showcasing the sound of his tart, elastic tongue prising it apart, followed by the tinkle of squeezed spit, cltcha, tchsss, cltcha, tchsss, over and over again. He wore his hair in a ponytail and cap, and despite all of this I really liked him, just to look at him. He was obviously quite into his precious stones, and he wore rough-cut examples of each at every pressure point imaginable, except any that required piercing his flesh; over his heart, around his neck in a little papoose, thronging his wrists, purple, green and white. He smiled constantly, with that oafishness that I really cannot detach from the chewing of gum, down at his daughter, who also chewed her own gum.
They both cltchaed and tchsssed, and the two sounds were like two glasses filleed to different heights.
She asked where her mum was, and he answered that she had fallen out of the window; she began to cry, and he smiled and waited for her to realise that it was a joke, that their love was implied and he was only teasing her. She asked him for “the iPad, Daddy”, and he drew it out of its case and opened a learning app for her. It was obvious that he loved the thing; he swooped and tapped across it with all the dexterity of a conductor, his little finger stuck out at all times. He was tricking her into improving her own poise, walking her through games where insects crawled across the screen and she had to squash them, or where a cup moved with a ball inside it for her to follow. She grew frustrated, now and then, and he smiled at her. The screen’s background was of Vishnu sat upon his throne.
I watched them for the rest of the journey, not minding that my gaze was gazed upon, and he not minding either, as he smiled at me, and then at her. She grinned up at him, and he would unfurl his own, gigantic teeth, the gum cltchaing in both of their throats, one a reduction, or a potential, of the other.
I am back from holiday, and starting a new series; descriptions of moments in my life, extended or singular, which held my attention longer than they should. Some of them might be small, some big, but I hope that I can show why I stood or sat or crouched staring at them for so long, filing them away for future use.
I’ve done some drawings for them, as well.
A few weeks ago, I found myself at Heathrow Airport, not waiting for a flight. I watched the various tropes blunder around the too-wide halls on plastic wheels; an American woman, trying to rustle up some enthusiasm for healing crystals in her dour, unctuous English man, who ignored her stoically while she peeked and peeped at him adoringly over his hamburger. I saw very little romance, and when it was time for me to go I wandered into the toilets.
I was, of course, as quick as I could possibly be; the smell was like that of a cure for something worse, and between the lemon-streaked mirrors and the lemon-streaked urinals there wandered a cleaner, looking for a gap in between the muzak. It was tremendous, all-encompassing; tinny, beatless, meandering and almost extinct now, rarely found in an age where classical music is copyright free and all-purpose. Here, its last remnants try to cover the rising smell through a synaesthesia, mixing with the peeps of men’s shoes on the tiles.
As I walked out, trying to hide the damp spots across my thighs, I fell in behind a security guard. He wore a tangerine tabard, bars of argent across the back, and walked with a whistle.
As we approached the door, in less than a single moment, he performed the kindest act that I had seen all day. I was not unhappy, at all, and had seen a more or less trundled procession of expected kindnesses since I got here; the retracting of stretched legs, the attendance of a waiter, an awkward, smiling circle of teenagers steadily being planted by their parents, drooping under backpacks.
But the security guard tried to slip his past me; at the entrance to the door was a sort of plinth, made of white plastic and topped with three buttons, red, yellow and green. It was a feedback system, a convenient way for the men who held their breath and tried not to touch the porcelain to give their opinions on the experiences. Beside each button was the image of simple face, one smiling, one apathetic, one disgusted.
The security guard has not even been to the toilet – I had certainly not seen him leave a cubicle or a urinal – but as he swept past the altar, his hand flicked down, with a pam, into the green, smiling face, before he whistled off, like a plane, into the bright depths of the airport.
I do not think I gave any feedback myself, but I did watch him go. I decided then and there that I would actually record this gaze that I forget about sometimes, that can make people uncomfortable, and begin to catalogue the minuscule things. I do not know if this man knew the cleaning staff personally, or whether it was just a genuflection that he made without thinking, on seeing that big, green button, but it was one pam closer to a commendation for them, or a night off, and I knew that he would never tell anybody how he helped them.
Of all the people who have ever written about the English landscape, and the trepanning pressure that such a landscape has on their own brain, distinct from everybody else’s, the most revelatory, and devoid of mawkishness, is the poet Ted Hughes. I have adored him ever since I found my mother’s copy of Crow, the cover dominated by the unshaved talons of the titular bird, picked out in Scarfe-like ink, and turning to a page at random read my first of his phrases; “utility coat of muscles”. How could I not love him, after that divining glance?
As only a cursory glance at both of us will satisfy, I have climbed up by his impressive tail and into my own writing. There are certainly differences; I wish that I was knapped out of chert like he was, saturnine like an idol. Every time I read my work or his aloud I stove in the words with a hobnailed, patent tongue, all London consonants and Oxford vowels. Listening to him read his poetry on record, his tongue was like a fishtail, or the paw of an otter, wet and clever and naughty. As a Yorkshireman and, later, a long-time inhabitant of England’s wisdom-tooth counties in the South West, he perhaps understood better than any other the length and breadth of the various British landscapes, and what gave them meaning and gestalt. Landscape, as any amateur psychogeographer worth his site-specific salt will attest, is a political, anecdotal, circumstantial, psychological and traumatic gumbo of stuff, far more than the sum of its parts. Hughes was intimate with that knowledge, and the quality of his work shows that; Seamus Heaney, also introduced to me through my mother’s ancient copy of North, dubbed him “a guardian spirit of the land and language”. Consider the following lines, the first-ever from his first-ever poem in his first-ever collection, The Hawk In The Rain:
I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag up
Heel after heel from the swallowing of the earth’s mouth,
From clay that clutches my each step of the ankle
With the habit of the dogged grace, but the hawk
Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.
A man, for all the controversy and the ease of forgetting in his own life, who was after my own heart, years before it had been germinated. His death in 1998 went past unnoticed, as I was only ten years old, and busy playing commissar to my brother’s comrade in the back garden. I would have mourned him, if I had known. A man who both loved and very rarely hated the English landscape, who could not really live without it. He was, by passion and topography, within it, much of the time. Through his art he compartmentalised it in a yet-vast breadth of life, a canon of work that weighs down the table next to me, as I type this. On paper it is thicker than my two arms. A man so divorced from machinery that did not require petrol, or the piston of a human foot, that he is more like an ettin, or an elemental, in my mind. I cannot even imagine him using a kettle; Hughes was not a man of high technology.
Now, it is very typical, amongst contemporary commentators, to be assured of the fact that a historical figure would have “adored” a certain technology, had they only been alive to see it. Jane Austen would have loved Twitter, they say, Newton would have loved Wolfram Alpha, and Gilgamesh would have been a media-savvy archon, allowing himself to be papped leading Enkidu from the wilderness in a blacked-out Jeep.
I think this is a dreadful rhetorical tactic, but I am now going to make an assurance of my own; I think that Ted Hughes might have hated the idea of Sir, You Are Being Hunted, a videogame about upper-class robots where a new England is generated for every game, every stile, hedgerow, moor, tor, weald, ward, county and side of country calculated with mathematics. I think that he might have hated it because it conducts a bowdlerisation of what it means to stand in a field in England, a typically English field, and how to speak about it.
This is precisely where I cleave away from my maker, and get severely interested in what Big Robot Games are attempting here, what their attempt at a truly “local” exercise in procedurals denotes.
I am not writing this to preview Sir, You Are Being Hunted, or offer a critique on its “Stalkers and Walkers” aesthetic, or give much opinion on a game that I have only glimpsed in alpha, over the shoulder of somebody who has actually paid for it. What has interested me about this game is the phrase “procedural English landscape”, and how the accompanying philosophy to that phrase seeks to align a modern dichotomy; the generic outputs of procedural generation, and the colloquialism, and specificity, of a digital England, with a jolly big E.
I am also not seeking to compare the efforts of Big Robot and Ted Hughes side-by-side, or ask which is superior. You will have your own, most likely guessable, conclusions on this matter.
Hughes often focusses on an apolitical, personal, subjective view of landscape. Another poem, this time “The Thought Fox”, a confluence of the writer and a vulpine immigrant:
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
Though no specific landmarks are mentioned here (as in many other of his poems), Hughes here conflates his process with his inspiration, that view, that night, just outside the window, in an England full of its own semiology. His self-generation of England is directly connected to his experience of it, interpreted through the gaseous, widening influence of the brain. This is where procedural generation and specific art concerning landscape, personal to the author, comes into contact; both are imperfect semiological systems. In his book Mythologies, a collection of essays concerning the symbolic significance of mass culture, the French philosopher and cultural commentator Roland Barthes wrote about the differences between the sign, signified and signifier; how the representation of something is different from the meaning of something, and how to measure that difference. Barthes uses examples as diverse as soap adverts, professional wrestling and a patriotic photograph of an Algerian soldier to discuss his views, but the concept of “the English landscape” will do for our purposes just as well.
In poetry and in algorithm, the landscape of a place has its signified and signifier very close together; without descending into psychogeographical masturbation, the landscape as it is and the landscape as we represent it are close, but not the same. One is distilled from the other. So, we see that both poetry, Hughes’ chosen form, and computer maths backed by artistic direction, use abstraction to create a “personal” view of landscape.
Now, I am aware that Sir, You Are Being Hunted takes a more ribald and at times atlanticised view of the English countryside; the ‘Englishness’ extends out from the dead trees, moorland, hedgerows, ambient soundscape and foul weather and into more political, humano-centric stereotypes, such as the passive-aggressive village signs (randomly generated, of course), the granite war memorials, the specifically English foodstuffs, the tweed, and the class-war paradigm between humans and robots.
I thought of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Dickens, Austen, Withnail And I and indeed Hughes himself when poring through screenshots of the game, and it is likely, given the nature of the developers, that this is deliberate. The developers have stated that the game is a “mockery of the English country gent and his ecosystem”, and the the core mechanics certainly back up this claim; the player is a human, hunted for sport across Hebridean islands by upper-class robots, utilising stealth, scavenging and manipulation of the classist paradigm to survive. It skewers English inherited privilege quite nicely indeed, and the introduction of middle-class “squires”, as well as numerous peasant non-combatants, could create an environment of which the player is only a small part. However, such a political message requires a stage to set it, and this what the splatmaps and Voronoi diagrams and almost-endless coding provides; a billion billion different stews, of all the ingredients that make England English.
This coding provides the game’s islands with hedgerows and walls which, in the real England, would be the product of thousands of years of land law and primogenital gerrymandering. It brings into being randomised villages whose roads would have been linked by utility, festival, tradition and desire over centuries. The algorithms are extremely elegant, nested one within the other; the islands themselves, and their fractal, eroded litorals, are dotted with towns, dotted with houses, their gardens, and each informed by the other, by a set of rules that will produce, unfailingly, until the internet’s wake, a googleplex Albions. And within each of these algorithms are qualities that paint the stones with moss, the trees without leaves, and the wind with its whistle.
I believe that these qualities are commonly called “lived-in-ness”.
They are one of the El Dorados of videogames; a set of systems that will artfully, and infinitely, create the signifiers of heritage in a gameworld.
Bethesda Softworks used Speedtree, a propritary flora-generation tool, as well as their own in-house technology, to create softly rolling wealds, skittish venery and rich copses of biologically appropriate species in their games Oblivion and Skyrim.
Minecraft utilises the concept of biomes to create worlds that give the loosest signification of true landscape, while creating a separate semiology all of its own.
And Sir, You Are Being Hunted loads, albeit very slowly, a new country with every boot, using Perlin noise and what they call “blurring and dithering”.
And so procedural generation creates, if not a different poetry, then its own take on the narrative co-opting of landscape. Though the technology was developed in the late 20th century as a solution to memory issues in the hardware, procedural generation has become a staggeringly popular tool in game development, and is an unpredictable, zesty component in the debate surrounding “ambient storytelling” and the way that games can herd narrative without becoming extremely attractive cattlegrids.
I do think that Hughes would have hated the process, perhaps seeing the most sacred of English traits, to be witnessed within their context and subsumed by their uniqueness, reduced to a series of sliders in a development suite, or patterns that can be replicated over and over again into nonsense. However, there is something telling about the developer’s focus. They begin their apologetic for their game with the words, “we live in the English countryside”. In these words, they become as valid interpreters as Hughes ever was. Whether they, and the technology, succeeds in telling an adequate story of English landscape remains to be seen; perhaps that is not their aim. I will still love Hughes more, but that is my prejudice. This game is, at least in its technology and direction, an inheritor of a literary tradition of abstracting one’s environment. The difference between it and Hughes’ oeuvre is one of method, not message. Hughes pulls the thought-fox from his head and lays the tools, one by one, down on the page. Big Robot lay the thought-fox in an orrery, containing the elements of Englishness in constellation with every other, and set the spheres turning. Of course, sometimes the spheres clash, and a village is drowned in a lake by faulty contour mapping, or a hedgerow hangs rootless twenty feet above the ground, but perhaps this is where the artistry lies; in the bug queue.
My work on Black Crown has elicited a particular style of art, of which I am still sounding out the boundaries. I’ve never been known for any technical ability in art, preferring to stay close to pen and paper. No blue pencil for me, no drafts.
Whilst sitting in the rain on Kinver Edge this weekend, in a particularly ergonomic saddle of sandstone, I drew the following.
They all have names, and histories; I just have to find them out.
The village of Eyam in Derbyshire has hundreds of graveyards, like many settlements its age; but there are three of them, set in a triangle of vastly differing geographies and altitudes, that stick up bright and strident on maps, like the pins of a wall plug.
Most of the others are minuscule, no more than allotments for suddenly-beheaded lineages. If you walk through the sump of blossom in the village square, and out to the cottages made into modern Promethei by broadband wires, you will find the churchless pits sheltered by drystone and ivy. A few are lucky enough to retain their stones, and even fewer have retained the blazonry to tell you who lies crinkled up beneath them.
The legends on the stones no longer matter, really; none of them retain their bodies. They were masoned a long time ago, and everybody knows the way it goes with bodies and soil.
Myself and the Ski Ghost (pictured throughout, shrouded in blue nylon) drove up through the stunning goth-stone of the Derbyshire Dales, into the very coccyx of the Pennines and this village, to conduct research for my project, Black Crown, a fungal digital epic of disease, claustrophobia and broadness of spirit for which Eyam’s history was a major touchstone. It is a history which is not little-known; many books have been written about it, including A Year Of Wonders, a novel which, despite its bizarre, Googlesque globetrotting in the last chapter, captures much of the lonely topology of the place and spreads it out subtly, like healthy amounts of butter.
Eyam is lonely, and subtle, the crinkle-cut of the Dales stunting its growth down the centuries; it is little fatter than it was four hundred years ago, though the larger roads do come near here now. The A623 bounced us there like a tightrope pulled taught, and along its length is an excellent bookshop, apparently the highest in the UK, but with an appallingly anorexic collection of science fiction.
This isolation is the curated tool by which Eyam remains famous, sheltered, unlike its inhabitants, from any degradation. In September 1665, far from the Great Plague in London, an Eyam tailor named George Viccars took in a bolt of new cloth from the city, and within a week was dead. The plague passed between the clustered cottages like festival food, and the tightly-bundled families, their lives spent sharing blankets and cloaks to keep out the northern chill, began to die in that horrific, inconsequential way that seems quite unthinkable to us nowadays with our weighty presences and endless influence. They were buried in narrow plots, beside houses that outlived them like every house, or in pits where the soil is unusually fertile today. In the year and two months that the plague was extant in Eyam, nearly three-quarters of the villagers died.
When we arrived we ate a National Trust lunch, smelling of plastic and grass, in our car. The wind up in those hills is ferocious, even in the prickly April sunshine. We avoided the gift shops and the converted stables, and wandered down towards the Plague Cottages, following the official map designed for the parish council by the Ski Ghost’s uncle. She is more local to the area than I am, and had come up that way many times before. The first time I visited the Dales, she had shown me the old mine shafts, some deeper than a church spire and covered with thin, booming steel that neither of us dared walk across.
Despite its conservational sympathies, the village has drawn the tarmac right up to its history. The main road runs past a five hundred year-old watering trough, a fifty year-old mutton spit, and then a line of stone cottages, where the plague began on the backs of fleas on the backs of cotton on the backs of men; George Viccars’ lodgings are nestled right in the middle of the tenement. People still live here, though I am not sure if I could; the temptation to air the house every spring, and to view every seldom-used coverlet with suspicion, would be too great. The bacteriayersinia pestis has a hardiness like Lazarus, and I have heard grisly stories about Blackheath Pond in London, near where I once lived for a year. The council apparently still test the water, and nobody drinks it or dips their toes; Blackheath was one of London’s largest burial pits during the Plague, which certainly gives me pause when I sit on top of it, drinking mead and eating cheese straws.
In front of those cottages we made those futile kowtows of tourists, and pored over the information boards, themselves weathered antiques now. Eyam has been fascinating people for a long time; I wonder how it must feel, to live there in the present, to look over the place every time you bring home shopping or look away from the Internet and out the window, and think of the story that people are telling about this place.
Whatever the residents may think, it is a good story.
When people began to get ill, the villagers and their rector, a remarkable man named William Mompesson, took several precautions that would stand out in an age of apotropaic superstition and intellectual runtishness as strikingly sensible. Firstly, they relocated their church services to a small valley nearby named Cucklet Delph, to keep everybody and their dribbled psalms out in the open air. The villagers must have known that whatever it was moved amongst them like a ghost, and the more space between them, the further it had to float.
And then came their most astonishing act; the village, almost as one, voted to cut themselves off entirely from the world around them. Nobody would leave and nobody would enter. The people of Eyam would chew down this bitter meal by themselves, and stop the spread of the plague northwards; any supplies that they lacked, and the currency to pay for them, would be exchanged with the nearby villages by means of asynchronous barter. At the top of the village and the bottom, two empty markets were designated for the goods to change hands, though the hands would never meet. On a high hill behind the village is a drinking trough that has now been immortalised as Mompesson’s Well, and its opposite was the Coolstone, a large boulder to the south escarped above the neighbouring village of Stoney Middleton, drilled with holes large enough to fit a pillar of coins. This money would be left in these repositories, and a few days later the coins would be gone and in their place scant provisions provided by sympathetic, but mercantile and distant, neighbours. The Coolstone’s holes were filled with vinegar, it is said, to clean the currency of sickness.
We made our way up to Mompesson’s Well first, through the first graveyard, grown out from the church like an inedible spring of mushrooms. I longed to touch the Saxon Cross behind the railings, but instead we snuck inside (whenever you enter a country church, you cannot help but sneak) to look at the remains of the biblical murals and exchange a pound in the honesty box for a green leather bookmark. Every artefact was underneath the sort of clattering, plastic sheeting that gives the impression that they have been wrapped for a packed lunch.
Out of the kissing gate the hill grew steep, and we puffed past farms of alpacas which, in the time of Eyam’s fall, were still the stuff of bestiaries. Here and now they are bred for jumper-wool.
A true road winds up where the horse-track went once, through a wooded holloway in which the wisdom teeth of this landscape show through. They have grown less keen over the years, and the wind whistles less piercingly through their heights, but we still stood in the leaves and listened, for a while, to absolutely nothing. We wondered if, had we lived in the village during those fourteen months, we would have been selfish, and tried to escape across the Dales. It would have been so very easy to do.
But nobody did.
We ran our hands over moss that curled like pubic hair across the walls as we climbed, and then we were out into the wind again. The crossroads were confusing, and we nearly died under the wheels of hissing, barely-glimpsed sports cars before we found Mompesson’s Well, the second graveyard, though there were never any bodies buried there. It hunkers in a ditch at the edge of a bright moorland, a dodecahedral stone cap hiding the older, more sinuous stream downhill. This is where the horses lapped down peatwater on their trundles from the villages in the north, Hathersage and Padley, where the land is even rougher and more insular. I don’t quite remember, but I think that I tasted the water, for an unspoken dare, and it was very sweet.
We wound down through a conifer ridge holed like Emmental with badger sets, and back into the village, sheltering amongst the dusty jugs and rusty ploughs of the village pub. I remember being terribly depressed about something or other, and we listlessly bumped against the ice-cream shop windows, fingering our change. I lost my new bookmark somewhere, or it was pilfered by the wind.
But the Ski Ghost and I were killing time, really. Eyam is so small, so concentrated, that we had drifted through so much of it already. Its story is not an epic one; it takes place in a square mile or so of dull, stacked stone, not far from Bakewell, another village best-known for a cake of almonds and raspberry.
We had climbed up to the very tip of it, and looked back down, like those in the past who had been tasked with collecting the bread and cheese left by kindly neighbours, the burlap packages suspended in the flow of the stream to kill the daemons that feasted upon them. The only other thing to do was walk out, along a central ridge curved like an hourglass, to the third graveyard free of anybody; the Coolstone.
Black Crown is a narrative that has polarity asone of its concerns, of going and coming back, of two limits and the traversal between them. Some of you will already have blundered down the hillside in the game and found the little hollow where one solitary yew stands beside a tall monolith, carved with a pig’s trotter. My boundary may be a little more grand than Eyam’s, but Eyam’s was here first, and the Coolstone was the foundation that sited every other angle in the game’s setting, the Widsith Institute. Black Crown’s Boundary Stone is more than a marker, it is an anchor, stopping the Institute from sliding into the ocean, and as we walked along the tracks past houses full of electricity and plastic rinse aids and fruits from very far away, I thought about the Coolstone as an anchor for the village of Eyam. About whether any of those long-dead farmers had frenziedly volunteered for the task of walking out here to leave money or collect goods, just to remind themselves that, despite the auto-cannibalism of their loved ones, some things do not change. The stone was still there, and it remains there, and was there long before them.
When myself and the Ski Ghost walked that path it was spring, and we were plunged through a postpartum nebula of sheep, attended by the gas-licks of lambs still knock-kneed and cartoonish on their feet. A rusted engine lay like an organ across the fields, and a steel gate had been molested by a randy bull. The walk is a beautiful one, and we squeezed through several of those traditional northern stiles which rely on sheep being fat and man being nimble. All at once the path opened out into a wide brow, the grass mown by the eternal breeze, homogeneous after millions of years.
The Coolstone is exposed and scoured, about the size of an ottoman and evidently much older than the events that brought me here. I can find no information on how long it has been used as a demarcation for the village’s edge, or even how long those deep drillholes, like the evidence of greedy fingers in dough, have been there. They were there before the Plague, and the villagers evidently saw their provenance as unimportant. The Coolstone is one of those unspoken stagings that nature leaves scattered about the world, a prop around which a ritual can be formed. It was an important ritual, one which kept the people of Eyam alive, as a single mass, and which also, I imagine, grew a mismatched community with whichever Stoney Middletoner was kind enough, and fit enough, to climb past Lover’s Leap (where a thick-accented Romeo and Juliet took their lives, or so they say) and leave their bare trimmings for a village of dead folk.
The Ski Ghost wandered off to drift around the field, putting distance between us, using the webbing in her coat’s armpits as a mizzen. Somebody had left a gesture of pence in some of the Coolstone’s holes, and I was looking out on the green fields when the layers of sunlight came. They filled the valley, like a succession of hands giving comfort at a funeral.
Dark, light, dark, light, dark, dark, dark.
The clouds came back. I called across to the Ski Ghost, twirling on the spot, but she could not hear me, and I allowed myself to be alone a little bit longer, here at the edge of the world, before I chased her back towards the car.
The Black Crown Project has a hearty stew of new content being ladled directly into your chops this week.
I very much hope that you enjoy it, but it does pay to remember that Black Crown is not only centred on the Storynexus content. When conceiving the project, I wanted to use the infinite savannah of the Internet to spread things out a little. So, whether you are a new piglet or a haunted senior \___clerk____, do not forget that there are plenty of other things to explore.
Have you read Lincoln’s Bedsheet, a short story depicting Abraham Lincoln as a bed-bound sorceror?
Or Mour, Mour, Mour, the drowned fragments of Jon Praester’s last voyage?
Have you seen our Tumblr, or studied the Excavations that you have made in the Marvel Ouse?
You have? You’re full to the brim?
In the Peak District Visitor’s Centre, at the foot of Kinder Scout with its flannel of runtish rock across its brow, there is a moulded plastic map, the shale, tracks, scarps and peaks coloured in such dingey hues that it looks as if the victim of a steam-rolling has been lain out on a table built expressly for their shape.
It has the texture of traumatised skin, and colours that might once have been siloed blood and jaundice and minor moles of a white body. There are greens in the cracks and seams where elbows and armpits have been mangled. It looks disgusting.
But then you peer in closer, you prise out the names. Tigwizzle. Mam Tor. Castleton and Edale and Hope, and from there tiny signposts to Manchester, Sheffield and Derby. On the road atlas which we brought with us, this area of England is satisfyingly free of roads. You imagine that it is a portion of the land which has not been corsetted yet, and from every cave and crack will come a resounding, grunting pleasure, like a tight pair of trousers being unzipped, ever so slightly, under the table.
I have just woken from it in the middle of the day.
It conducts a scorched earth policy, destroying every legend that I ever loved. It begins simply enough, in the plains around Troy, where Achilles licks dew from his cold shield. His face appears above this little parapet, and his face is that of Brad Pitt.
Not such a problem. He has been Achilles before, in Malta and London, his body strigiled of hair. But now, now he comes across every plain like a late-night emotion, transfiguring every antiquated hero, every man who has ever lain against a pot in paint. The Greeks go first, Perseus and Theseus and Orpheus, and then the Norse, and the Russians now, Koschei with that thick brow and sparkling eyes. Every single hero is Brad Pitt, now.
And they all stand before me, and they are talking amongst themselves, excited at this transformation. They are excited at their dominance, and I realise then that the heads on poles all around us, on the walls of Troy and the tents of Agamemnon are the real heroes. With forgettable faces and underfed, brittle hair. They are worse than extras in their own stories. They are prosthetics.
My friend Sophie is little. I do not call her Little Sophie, but nobody would think it was unfair if I did. Our entire relationship has consisted of her treating me like a particularly stubborn rockface, gargantuan but still baroque enough that she could most likely find a handhold and someday make it to the top. When we walk along I can see the grain of the various emotions that her hair has been through, most of them hot.
The Lange Wapper, in the original Dutch, seems to have the tatterdelion appearance of the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, but none of his homely edges or dullness; he is at turns witty, charming, deviant, quasi-malevolent, tricksy, handsome, clumsy, devastating and mostly repellent, his apparent monstrous nature enhanced by the very lack of compassion that we expect our monsters to have nowadays. He is a far more elderly figure than Els Pelgrom imagined him in 1984; a giant of 1500s Antwerp, tricking women out of their breast milk and falling into rivers with alarming regularity.
Sophie was given this book by her father, who now lives in Amsterdam and whom she sees only occasionally. There is a beautiful little message to his “Little Sophie” written inside, and perhaps her father knew, considering his own genetics, that she would always be little, and so the comparison would always be apt. She came to visit me a few months ago, and very carefully delivered it for my appraisal. I managed to fight my way through it in a cold afternoon on the sofa, as she had a natter in the opposite corner with Hellboy, an old friend that we happened to share.
In the book, Sophie is very unwell. She slowly melts in bed all day, and her parents tend to tiptoe around the house in feet constantly aching from manning the car’s pedals, driving their little girl back and forth from the hospital. Literature is taxed with ill little boys and girls, who are able to peel back the dusty skin on their head and use it as a kite to drift elsewhere. Sophie seems to take no such action herself, but like so many of her feeble companions invites that elsewhere in. The toys which line her room put on a play, one into which she wordlessly compacts to take a role, and as the scenery begins to trundle on greased runners instead of her stunted imagination she falls into a landscape ordinary yet giddy, barely stopping as she is plunged headfirst into every experience a young girl requires to grow up interesting; she joins a circus, is imprisoned in an orphanage, loses her hair (a serenely beautiful moment which came at me sideways and from which I did not extract the obvious symbolism) and nearly drowns in a storm. The world itself is an oddly furcated monarchy, and the inhabitants of this state all possess similar branches, many of them rotting and ready to break. I thought how ugly it all was, as I was trundling along myself as the afternoon drew its knees up from the sun and so climbed up into evening.
Children’s book characters are not often ugly; ugly in a deep sense, ugly under everything else. They are mysteriously shaved of all those uncomfortable things that people do. Even when they betray and lie there is a grandiose feel to it, a numinous reason which penetrates their whole being. Sophie meets Lanky Flop, Terror, the rich bear, the circusmaster’s wife Arabella with the fat ankles and the velvet tongue, and turning the cranks of the world in which the players stand immobile she is framed by August The Clown and Death. I never questioned, until now, why a little girl so unwell would be given a toy Death. It seems an odd aid to an odd lesson.
They are all fairly unpleasant to each other, at times. Arabella drops and picks up weak men that will be of use to her quicker than the pages can turn, and the rich bear justifies his wealth in ways that any current Chancellor would be proud of. Despite their redeeming qualities (and there are many) they function in much the same way that any group of friends do, and their flaws spark the real tinder of the book – many months for Sophie, and pages for me, are occupied with merely trying to convince these supposed “heroes”to put aside their selfishness and save Lanky Flop from execution.
Lanky Flop is the worst of all. Despite his titular role he is absent for vast swathes of the book, courting unpleasant women and stealing food and tweaking noses everywhere. I didn’t exactly like him – I felt that his treatment of Sophie was bizzare and hurtful at times – but he always wormed his way back into a form of virtue, and felt at least a general warmth towards her. The outstanding example of this is when the group visit Lanky Flop’s mother and father, who are so malnourished they have become a collection of newspaper columns blown into the corners of their hovel. Lanky Flop berates them and ignores them until, in the middle of the night, he slips out to a nearby house to steal a vast meal for them. His help is never given easily, and always seems to be laced with caveats.
I think that the important point here is that Sophie is never coddled. She has spent her entire life in bed, and her parents do not even visit her for fear, I assume, that their presence will finish her off. Terror, the writer of the play and actor within it, becomes the closest to a guide that she can find, but his directions often lead to the conclusion that life is full of mistakes, and regret is more easily accumulated than beauty. Lanky Flop bullies her and punishes her for poor decisions, though Sophie remains a clean, ethereal presence throughout, vulnerable yet persistent, still a child but with more than a big heart, perhaps enlarged by her irrelevant illness. She has a basic kindness as stubborn as a wave.
If you are planning to read the book, I would stop reading this entry now.
This text is only here so that you do not skim past the picture and accidentally read the words that I am about to write. Sophie dies at the end of the book. She manages to escape the evil king; mine and Sophie’s favourite scene, ornamented with Thé Jkong Khing’s tight little pen, is when Arabella jumps naked, beaming, from the king’s banquet, her hips wider than a car, her feet so dainty they are barely drawn at all. Only a few butterflies cover her scattered unmentionables. Arabella and Bear and Lanky Flop and Terror all weather the storm with her, mostly intact. The play ends, the rollers and the toys are mostly put away, and she dies very quietly. There is no fineral of weeping animals; they are just toys, after all. Wherever she went in her own weary little head is unimportant, because the burning embers are the bed for a fire just hot enough to read by at the end of the book. Those toys which took her into herself, into all the fragments of every book she had ever read, and every doll she had ever played with, and every fear that she had ever had, lead her by the hand out of her window, climbing down the front of her house, and into Bear’s car, no doubt bought with offshore funds, and they drive off down a road green and endless. The closing down of the brain that made it all is unimportant; it persists, in the manner of her kindness. I am not going to sit here and analyse the thing, though this is what I have been doing.
I suppose that I just wanted to go through it in my head, and see why it affected me so much. I wish that I had read it as a child, all the dense text and scratchy art and characters that lack anything American about them, that could not be written by somebody who had any agenda other than his own. Sophie, the friend Sophie, told me that she has read it tens of times, but that she did not really understand what it was about until she was older. I suppose there is a question as to what use a children’s book is if a child cannot understand its message. But, like my own childhood, it is the texture that I have wrapped around myself like a cloak, and made my own camouflage.
This painting was a bigger challenge for me. I had not worked with acrylics at such a large scale before; goodness, until six months ago I had not painted anything longer than my finger. The canvas is nearly two feet high and nearly a foot wide, and I think it has come out fairly striking. The colours blend naturally when you blink your eyes and the tears turn the whole thing into a pasty of abstract; the lilac opal of the earrings, the wink of blue set in her forehead, the striking fangs of red on the face. I cannot find the image that I worked from, but I removed the blood that originally iced her lips and her cloak; the unpredictability of the paint meant that it could have ended up merely looking like a mistake that I was too lazy to clean, rather than a symbol of what she is.
I had never considered my life as a machine until the early hours of one morning in winter, a few years ago.
I knew that my body was a construction, one that should be constantly examined and maintained, and I had ignored that particular must. I was paunchy with a lazy, listless sort of misery, and I spent many, if not most evenings like this, whilst living with my parents in the too-long holidays between university terms. I usually, as depicted in the photograph above, sat on the sofa, attempting to do work that was racing, Doppler-like, towards that point after which it would become an irrelevance. I would have the television on in the background, two screens each tugging at one of my eyes, after everybody had gone to bed, usually eating food that was healthy but still unnecessary, and praising the ectoplasmic efficiency, evident in all the tools surrounding me, but without substance or truth.