“Sometimes as it blows across the Great Brown Waste in summer, the wind will uncover a bit of petrified wood. Mammy Vooley’s head had the shape and the shiny grey look of wood like that. It was provided with one good eye, as if at one time it had grown round a glass marble streaked with milky blue. She bobbed it stiffly right and left to the crowds: who stood to watch her approach; knelt as she passed; and stood up again behind her. Her bearers grunted patiently under the weigh of the pole that bore her up. As they brought her slowly closer it could be seen that her dress–so curved between her bony, strangely-articulated knees that dead leaves, lumps of plaster and crusts of wholemeal bread had gathered in her lap–was russet-orange; and that she wore askew on the top of her head a hank of faded purple hair, wispy and fine like a very old woman’s. Mammy Vooley, celebrating with black banners and young women chanting; Mammy Vooley, Queen of Uroconium, Moderator of the city; as silent as a log of wood.” [The Luck in the Head, 1982, from Viriconium, also in audio download.]
Tag Archives: england
In this new story I address the usual themes. People sit on sofas, staring ahead; while at the edges of the room things shift inconclusively from one state to another. They may be real, they may be not. Meanwhile, in another part of the small Midlands village, Ms Suihne the plump medium who runs the hat shop believes she is changing into a bird &, to the accompaniment of rough music, jumps off the roof. Another party is engaged in a relationship with three empty sacks arranged on a pole in his living room. At one point, things will turn sexual. All this might or might not be happening, or somebody might be telling it as a story to someone else, who is not listening. To sum up, the impossibility of knowing other people; or, really, anything. If you like the sound of it, click through to the usual outlets. Or you can catch me reading it from the hill on Barnes Common, most Wednesdays. There’s a review up at Wild Eyed Visionaries & obviously I’ll be tweeting.
Buggy tracks in snow. Spindrift blowing off the roofs. Silhouette of a labrador dog hauling the silhouette of a woman across Grove Road; detail from a Lowry of the West London suburbs. Meanwhile the van from Bathrooms At Source–a constant visitor to this pleasant street–ploughs its way responsibly towards the river, first-responder to the morning’s soft catastrophe. Everything is so hushed as he makes his way down! In Barnes, bathroom commerce, second only in religion to kitchen commerce, must go on. He’s closely followed by Bespoke Carpentry. Meanwhile, over in “Burma”, no crates of preserved Spitfires have come to light. Buried Spitfires! The very words are like a knell, awakening the British retroconscious to a deep sense of itself. The earth with which they turn out not to be compacted is the authentic dark chocolate of myth. We dream that Spitfires lie buried in exotic ground, the exact way they are embedded in our diffusing memories of empire. Meanwhile, perhaps the Spitfires dream themselves, in some half-world of suspended purpose, the trope of sci fi war machines made obsolete by time, waking too late. It’s the final reinscription. Ballard would have loved it.
Richmond Park. Cold & clear but no frost. An argument about how few cyclists are out this morning–C rightly points out that all we can know is that there is one cow in Scotland & one side of it is black. We run downhill at first, round a wood, along a stretch of bridle path slightly up hill in sand. Stags regard us with momentary irritation from the bracken, then go back to honking & clearing their throats at one another like theorists. It isn’t the Peak District but I feel good just to be outside & not in a street. Later at the hot snacks stand, two men chat about computers. “Of course, of course,” they agree. They laugh. They’re knee deep in terriers, one of which–a Border bitch dubbed “Maisie” –is very clever with a stick. The sunshine looks as if it was applied to every individual item during the night, like gold leaf. It’s as if someone worked so hard to make things nice for the people who come here from Kingston, Richmond, Barnes, East Sheen, as far away as Clapham. Later, Billy the bloodhound arrives, queen among dogs. The Saturday trade is mainly in bacon sandwiches, although one boy eats a frankfurter with thick squiggles of mustard & ketchup at 8.30 in the morning before he gets across his rather beautiful road bike.
Valentine Sprake turned away from the darkening view and walked in a jerky, hurried fashion across the room, as if he had seen, out there in the marshes, something which surprised him. Ignoring Michael Kearney, he leaned over Meadows’ desk, picked up the coffee-pot and drank its contents directly from the spout. “Last week,” he said to Meadows, “I learned that Urizen was back among us, and His name is Old England. We are all adrift on the sea of time and space here. Think about that too.” He stalked out of the office with his hands folded on his chest.
Meadows looked amused.
“Who is that, Kearney ?”
“Don’t ask,” said Kearney absently. On the way out he said: “And keep off my back.”
“I can’t protect you forever,” Meadows called after him. That was when Kearney knew Meadows had already sold him out.
Lightweight separators in pastel colours were used to create privacy inside MVC-Kaplan’s otherwise featureless tent of bolted glass. The first thing Kearney saw outside Meadows’ workspace was the shadow of the Shrander, projected somehow from inside the building on to one of these. It was life size, a little blurred and diffuse at first, then hardening and sharpening and turning slowly on its own axis like a chrysalis hanging in a hedge. As it turned, there was a kind of rustling noise he hadn’t heard for twenty years; a smell he still recognised. He felt his whole body go cold and rigid with fear. He backed away from it a few steps, then ran back into the office, where he hauled Meadows over the glass desk by the front of his suit and hit him hard, three or four times in succession, on the right cheekbone.
“Christ,” said Meadows in a thick voice. “Ah.”
Kearney pulled him all the way over the desk, across the floor and out of the door. At the same time the lift arrived and Sprake got out.
“I saw it, I saw it,” Kearney said.
Sprake showed his teeth. “It’s not here now.”
“Get a fucking move on. It’s closer than ever. It wants me to do something.”
Together they bundled Meadows into the lift and down three floors. He seemed to wake up as they dragged him across the lobby and out to the canal bank. “Kearney ?” he said repeatedly. “Is that you ? Is there something wrong with me ?” Kearney let go of him and began kicking his head. Sprake pushed his way between them and held Kearney off until he had calmed down. They got Meadows to the edge of the water, into which they dropped him, face down, while they held his legs. He tried to keep his head above the surface by arching his back, then gave up with a groan. Bubbles came up. His bowels let go.
“Christ,” said Kearney reeling away. “Is he dead ?”
Sprake grinned. “I’d say he was.”
He tilted his head back until he was looking straight up at the faint stars above Walthamstow, raised his arms level with his shoulders, and danced slowly away north along the towpath towards Edmonton.
Empty Space: I did my corrections in pencil on hard copy.
Today will probably be the last time in history that an author puts a manuscript in a plastic bag & lugs it across London in the piss wet rain to a publisher’s. At least I didn’t write it in longhand. Actual paper: actual sopping wet rain: a proud if defunct moment, rehearsing all that’s memorable about the hack life. If you see me on the tube, give me a smile. I’ll be the one with the confused semiotics. White beard & adolescent coat. There’ll be an air of the Seventies about me, as if the ghost of stagflation has picked an inopportune moment to call. Surprise, surprise. You won’t want me at your party, I can assure you of that. I’m a living message from one dystopia to another. I mean, honestly, haven’t you just looked up at the Shard & thought “comic book Babel” ? You look at that structure & you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It might as well have Ayn Rand Babel Doom written all over it. It might as well have every chapter of The Wind From Nowhere inscribed on every pane of glass. BASE jumping isn’t just the most interesting use it could be put to. It’s the only use.
(That should have been “from one dystopia to the next”. Much better.)
“I have a hunch. Which is that the British are very ashamed of vulnerability. So what happens is whereas another culture might look back on their childhood and say, ‘God, I was so cute, I thought clouds were cotton wool,’ the British will look back and say, ‘I was so stupid, I thought clouds were cotton wool.’” –China Mieville quotes Camila Batmanghelidjh in his NYT piece on contemporary London.*
We confirm that from our experience then admit at the next possible opportunity, “I’m one of those stupid people who, in order not to think of myself as ever having been vulnerable, used to think of myself as stupid.” There’s no end to this terraced denial unless you look back over your life & own the things that happened to you. It’s not too late to exchange Britishness for humanity.
* The full version here.
Those who have failed to regulate the self. Those whose behaviours enact a medicating fiction. Those who flew to the Canary Islands on a cheap ticket in December 1991 & left the remains of their personality in the apartment hotel. Those who ran from everything in a zig-zag pattern, so fast they never found the transitional object. The unsoothed. The dysmorphic. The unconditional. Those who were naive enough to take what they needed & thus never got what they wanted & whose dreams are now severe. Those who were amazed by their own hand. The confused. The pliable. Those who look at the sea & immediately suffer a grief unconstrained but inarticulable. Gifco is coming. Gifco you are always with us. Gifco we are here!
Photo: the other Nick Royle.
Tom, the central character of Jonathan Raban’s novel Waxwings (2003), is the child of East European immigrants living in Essex. When he reads Swallows and Amazons, he realises that England is “another country”. The street in which he lives is
not so much a part of it as a colonial dependency inhabited by an inferior people. The England of the books, the real England, began somewhere in London and stretched out westward from the city into a rich, dappled landscape of green hills, brambly footpaths, oak trees, and half timbered Tudor villages… (p127, my ellipsis)
The geographical and cultural interpenetrations of that kind of fiction–its landscapes & the “worlds” they encoded–were always more complex than Raban makes them seem. This is because it was a fantasy not just for its consumers but for many of the authors who wrote it; and in the end even for the very children who lived something like it, out in the brambly Shires. Having said that, Raban comes as close as anyone has come to describing my own relationship with the England of those kinds of children’s books. They informed the world of a quiet, alienated boy (whose family, entry-level middle class, went in awe of fake Tudor, let alone the real thing, & knew they could never aspire to it), not destined for grammar school or university but already trapped by the primacy of the written word & the culture of fantasy, or fantasy of culture. By the end of the 1950s I had already bought into writing as an escape from the housing estate, rather than an honest admission of what I saw & experienced. This gave rise to a set of internal contradictions & literary/political paradoxes which took two decades to resolve.