If a slow accumulation of time is necessary to completely separate you from an event or condition of the past, a single moment is often all that’s necessary to drag you forward and into the present. Suddenly, a time that still seemed close–almost revisitable, like an annex to now, so fresh in the memory–is re-sited forever. It is irreducibly past. Before that moment, it could still be touched in some way. It still seemed accessible: now it isn’t. Even the illusion of accessibility is over. The past is the past. This frees you to move forward, at least into the present. (Although if you aren’t careful–and you feel, for instance, “liberated” as opposed to liberated –it’s easy to mistake that movement for the beginning of a journey into the future you’ll never reach.) Perhaps because I can live in a vanished present for two or three years before something tugs me out of it, the whiplash attendant on this process–this fallacy of a sudden acceleration and a simultaneous catching up with yourself, as if you had moved ahead and left part of yourself behind–always both astonishes and delights me.
Tag Archives: predicting the present
Southern England just doesn’t seem as nice as it did, dear, so your father & I are moving north before Thames Valley prices drop even further. We were thinking of somewhere in the Harrogate area. Above 100m, obviously, and with a bit of ground for the dogs. It will be such fun for them, especially Pinnie. The fact is, darling, your father and I are rather surprised that this has happened to people like us. You do see why some of the Somerset people complained, don’t you, but I think we’ll always vote Tory. Anyway, best wishes as ever, and I’m sure you’ll do well with your little wellington boot shop.
This year I decided, against my normal practice, to send the Tories a Christmas Card. I hope everything that can go wrong for you will, that everything you can’t control comes back on you & controls you, and that as you sing your self-exculpating Victorian hymns (sing in exculpation) and eat your vast expensive meals, you smell for just a second your humanity rotting in its grave.
A Happy Christmas to everyone else, the best possible Christmas to the fucked up and the nearly done, all the deadbeats and ne’er-do-wells, the metaphysicians, atheists and losers, all the so-called scroungers, all those not in receipt of a Royal pardon, all the thoughtful, intelligent and above all decent people who believe there is such a thing as a society, the readers and the writers, students and philosophers, and–especially–a big shout out to the 32,000 paid-up UK citizens who on Christmas Eve didn’t receive benefits to which they were entitled, due to “administrative error”.
Let’s get together in the New Year and start putting things to rights. It’s going to be a long haul: but it was a longer haul, from a harder place, in the first half of the last century, and those people managed it.
This is one of the short stories I read at Lancaster LitFest. Originally it was called “Cocking A Snook”, & it was commissioned and performed by Barbara Campbell as part of her massive “1001 Nights Cast” project–
I lived the whole of that year in a long house with a single corridor running past every room.
While the corridor had no windows, the rooms looked out on to a harbour lively with heat and warships. Some rooms were dilapidated, with holes in the floors, collapsed ceilings, home to colonies of lizards and palm squirrels. Others were occupied by people like me who had never stayed in one place long enough to learn to look after themselves. Yet others were really good rooms, cool, intact, full of contemporary sound equipment, interesting steamed plywood furniture and themes from Western lifestyle magazines. Tired of my original quarters, I was looking for somewhere quiet and without distractions. I had work that needed to be done: even more, perhaps, it needed to be organised.
It was impossible to calculate how many rooms there were in the long house. This information was known only to the figures of authority who often squatted in a line along one side of the corridor eating fish curry with rice. I soon found an unoccupied room, characterised by a large table full of neglected plants in pots and some veinous diagrams at different heights on the walls. Someone had built a shelter out of flattened cardboard boxes in one corner. The floor was littered with dirty flex, yellow cardboard boxes of nails, bags of chemicals that had burst in the heat, and the plastic toys you buy for hamsters. There was some sense that this was the detritus of not one but several previous attempts to inhabit the room.
I had to pick up that mess before I could start. But this is how puzzling the whole experience became: as I got rid of things, new things would appear. Someone’s laundry, rammed into three or four binbags. Personal objects, such as: a broken Breitling chronometer, a framed photograph of the breakfast room of the Colonial Hotel. Confectionary. I would pack this stuff into other binbags and throw them into the corridor, then go back along the corridor for some things of my own. Each time I returned, there was more stuff. It was always different.
At lunchtime I hadn’t done any work. I hadn’t even taken my iPad out of its slipcase, that’s how bad things were. I ate lunch with an old friend, who was anxious to be certain nothing of hers was among the belongings I had moved out of my original room. She was leaving later that day by air.
“These people,” she said, “don’t want help. They’re cocking a snook at everything we think worthwhile.”
“’Cocking a snook’,” I repeated. “You don’t often hear that.”
“It was what my father used to to say.”
We smiled at one another.
Then she took my wrist in one of her hands in a way she had and said, “I want to be sure you’ll be all right.”
I would be fine I said, I would be all right. But when I got back from lunch I surprised another man in the room. He was a local, younger than me, a bit scruffy, a bit ordinary. He wore cheap, ordinary clothes and even his stubble was worn-looking, as if he worked hard at some ordinary job. He had a radio playing the local music. He was stuffing my things into carrier bags and stacking them in the corridor. He thought the room was his.
“It has always been mine,” he said. “It was always my room from when I came here.”
At first, I felt aggrieved. My work needed to be done. It needed, more than anything else, organising. Yet I was quickly convinced by the sincerity of this man’s belief that it had been his room before I tried to occupy it. It had never been “spare”, or mine to organise. I went round picking up my remaining things, while he sat on the windowsill and watched me with a calm expression. Behind him the warships flickered in the heat haze in the harbour.
“If you had nowhere else to go,” he said, “you could use this room. But you would have to share it with me.”
“No, no,” I said.
I was anxious to explain. I could easily go somewhere else, I was just looking for somewhere quiet to work. I was a writer. I was writing about the big changes that were going to happen here.
“They are bigger changes than you think,” he said.
I left him there, his head turned so that he could look out of the window while the radio filled the air with music, and went back down the long corridor, peeping into all the really good rooms, full of expensive old furniture or looking like the lobbies of comfortable hotels, thinking that I would never have a room like that, and rather dreading going back to the quarters I had come from, which would be unwelcoming, disordered, full of flies.
But when I got there I found that the figures of authority had inspected it while I was away. It was now the gateway to a rolling endless landscape of tall grass, under a lighting effect from a the cover of a commercial fantasy novel. In the foreground, lying on the grass in front of a bench, was something which looked partly like a woman and partly like an oriental cat a kind of ivory white colour, which though it first seemed immobile, was slowly writhing and moving, struggling not to become one thing or the other but to remain both things at the same time. Something else was happening, too, maybe some people grouped in the foreground, I can’t remember. I was struck by the potential of this landscape, rolling away under its alien light. I heard a voice say, “You need never leave here.” A beautiful tranquility came over me, along with a sense of my own possibilities.
After a moment or two, the young man whose room I had tried to occupy came up behind me. He touched my shoulder.
“This room also belongs to me,” he said.
I inherited one of those liquid crystal thermometer cards British Gas distributes to pensioners. It’s installed near the desk. At the moment it doesn’t even say, “You are at risk of dying of hypothermia, you silly old fool! Put on more clothes! Turn up the heating you can’t afford! Eat some of that good high-calorific horse meat!” It is registering below that. In fact it is registering below the scale. The room is so cold that the pensioner thermometer can’t even patronise me. If I was a proper old person I’d be in the shit now. I’d have to spend two hours convincing the emergency services to come out (not including the means test); then, having failed, get myself into a taxi anyway & go die of neglect on a trolley in a packed annex somewhere off the Reformed National Health Service, while volunteer health workers struggled through their workload towards me. I’m glad not to have the bother of that, obviously: but I’ve already defaulted to a cup of tea, my Rab heavyweight fleece, Smartwool socks & a pair of dayglo orange duvet slippers from Spain; & suddenly I feel a bit privileged to be able to turn up the heating.
A man chases his daughter along the pavement, shouting, “NO! NO!” I interpret this as command, panic, condemnation. Then I see that she’s stolen his ridiculous orange scarf. She’s giggling. He’s trying not to giggle. They’re dodging back and forth around a car. Ray Bradbury, interviewed in the Paris Review: “Get the big truth first. If you get the big truth, the small truths will accumulate around it.” I’d prefer to accumulate some small observations & see if they imply anything big–or indeed anything at all. Maybe it’s possible to work with that.
Forced Entertainment’s The Coming Storm was an extraordinary experience. I watched it on consecutive nights at Battersea Arts, & was so excited–not just by the performance but by the audience’s reaction–that I became incoherent every time I tried to say something about it. A month later I’m still too excited to write anything sensible, so here are some inarticulate notes I took at the time–
Instant control of the space. Characters evolve quickly from their entangled monologues–random, self-involved, confused. Nitpicking pub-style arguments spin up, develop, fade away without issue. Small narratives form & break as the performers undercut one other: their attempts to bulk out each anecdote with music, dance & explicatory material lead to chaos, brief hatreds, sudden violence. Above all, there are interventions: on the surface interruption is a structural device, deeper down it’s a way of life. The men try to outdo one another with avuncularity, baroque lies & unwanted advice; the women go quietly or noisily mad. A man puts on a Freddie Kruger mask & drags a piano about with a piece of rope. The piano whirls & rumbles lethally around the space. Later he tries to hang himself from a clothes rail. He has designed his own electric chair. He tells a story about his dying mother; a woman screams at him, “We agreed that we weren’t going to cheapen memories!” There’s a fight, & another woman urges the audience, “Don’t look at that! If you look at that you’re looking at the wrong thing.” What she wants, really, is that you should look at her. Klaus Kinski enlisted as a possible bus driver. Bits of broken language fall out of monologues & on to the stage: “Eating potatoes can make you aggressive.”
Adam Roberts rounds up the year’s science fiction. Jonathan McCalmont continues his assault on “the hotbed of empty phrases” that is traditional sf criticism. While Tim Maughan explains himself to Sense of Wonder. I like Maughan’s first answer– “the western middle classes … feel like the future – which they were always told would belong to them – is slipping out of their grasp” –because I’m interested in writing the deflation & melancholy of the people he describes. More interested, in a way, than pursuing the “future” that has left them behind. Science fiction has always defined a future as a global trend successfully isolated & described: the futurologist’s future, the cultural analyst’s future. All that interests the sf writer is the wavefront, the shock of the new. Cold, man. Because the future is also the umwelt of those who are left behind & muddle on–accepting this, rejecting that, failing to acknowledge or even detect macroeconomic shifts. In fact that’s really the only actual future, the non-discourse future, the non-speculative, non-theoretical future, the future on the ground. It’s all around, now. One of the many ways science fiction might delimit itself is to write in that direction, rather than always going for the shiny stuff, the Googie of the day. Bruce Sterling meets Anita Brookner & they totally fail to understand one another at the Hotel du Lac.