My chief influences age 13 were Archy & Mehitabel, The Golden Amazon and various Georgian poets, how embarrassing. They can’t be separated but formed a pure, angular complex the robustness of which I couldn’t explain now even if you offered me three pages of the TLS & said, “Write whatever you like.” Later I would add anything by Mickey Spillane or TS Eliot. That was before I fell from grace and, at seventeen or eighteen years old, after reading Murphy and “The Voices of Time” on the same day, conceived my grand plan of combining the two under the aegis of the Nouveau Roman. After that, there was no home for me but New Worlds, a magazine I proceeded to deluge with monologues featuring neither characters nor punctuation. If I’m exaggerating here, it’s not by much.
–where even the help’s clothes are more fashionable and expensive than yours, and an overcoat costs more than your car, someone says: “Is that code for something?” You follow the lights dancing on the surface of the coffee in your cup, and they mean as much to you as what you’re hearing. They’re blue, lilac, pink and green. “Hey kid,” someone else now declares, “everyone’s got their photograph of a pair of shoes. What you need is to move up past that.” Turn your head: you won’t see who it was. It might anyway be you. “Ten past three. No, ten past three. And can you leave the key at the church.” Later, from the window of the train, everything–fields, hills, buildings, hedges, trees, warehouses and distribution centres–will look shadowy but at the same time palely-lit. It’s a strange light, that you might see in a picture but never in the world. The train races to meet the wind. Leaves are blown everywhere. Birds are blown across the sky. The wheels on the rails–or perhaps it is the motors themselves–sound like a sung mass performed by some famous university college choir. Modern music, but full of echoes of earlier settings, earlier ways of listening.
It’s not news that if you successfully follow your heart, people who thirty years ago advised against it will reappear quietly but persistently at the edges of your social media. Back then, all they wanted you to do was what someone else did. Thirty years later, all they want you to do is what you were doing then.
The river was up. Away from the towpath lights there was sufficient moon to cast a shadow. He headed for one of the more overgrown barges that lay in a line in the mud a few hundred yards downstream from the Brent confluence. It was larger than the others and perhaps his favourite, although he had only seen it by day, when the word “Anabasis” could be made out stencilled on its bow in rusty white letters.
Access was over a concrete wall, between two lopped willow truncheons and down a new-looking aluminium ladder, then by a narrow plank fifteen feet above the rising water. Once aboard, you were greeted by a close, thickly-vegetated terrain littered with crushed and whitened beer cans, ragged plastic bags, underwear discarded as an offering; the whole smelling of herb robert and–more mysteriously–cheap pesto. All of this was familiar enough. But paths Shaw knew well in the afternoon seemed less amenable after dark: and he was soon lost among the disordered deck furniture, nests of wire and piles of sodden slats, the old curved hatch covers presenting as entries to an underworld. Thickets of elder and hazel, the latter black with last year’s catkins, hung over the water. The structure shifted and creaked as the tide lifted it. Everything seemed larger than he had expected it to be. After a few minutes the sense of a void to his left convinced him the river lay in that direction. He arrived instead at the huge blunt landward side of the bow where the foredeck, rotted by decades of leaching soil acids, had buckled gently into the empty hull to produce a saucer-shaped clearing.
It was nothing much–a few square metres of cropped-looking turf with a springy but rotten feel underfoot. The edges were littered, but not the middle. Moonlight bleached everything, lending more of a sense of space than you would expect; it glittered prismatically off something Shaw took at first for broken glass, but which proved to be a precise row of little Victorian medicine bottles embedded at angles in the turf as if it had grown up securely around them. Each chipped neck had been plugged with a swatch of stained tissue. They were hexagonal, square-shouldered. In their day, they had represented pain relief, life relief, relief from life’s fevers and revelations; their utility now was unclear, though clearly not ornamental. The milky fluid so carefully stopped up inside them resembled semen, though it was on second thoughts insufficiently thick. Moonlight lent it a greenish cast.
As Shaw stooped to examine this arrangement, someone burst out of the undergrowth beside him. The flimsy decking bounced and shook. He had a strong sense of being overwhelmed by events before he had even become aware of them. Something cold and muscular gripped his upper arm. He was enveloped by a smell he didn’t recognise. He was lifted half off his feet and shoved out of the way. There came a moment of confusion as he tried to keep his balance; some further contact, which spun him around; then a naked figure, very pale, not as large as he had expected, parted the vegetation and ran off bent double between the stems. “Hey!” he called, but it had already vanished.
–from The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again, available June 25th, from all your trusted outlets.
“I’m painting the study ‘ivory’ white, with pale grey woodwork,” I told her in an email. It was going to take a coat or two to cover the previous owner’s ecstatically electric blue. “Ivory white,” I wrote, “is a story in itself. When I asked B&Q if they stocked Farrow & Ball paint, they looked embarrassed and said no. There wasn’t really any call for it. They had a similar range, though, called Fired Earth. Ah, I said. Maybe that’ll do. Great, they said, because Fired Earth’s reduced by fifty percent: no one wants that either. When I checked out Fired Earth, they had a white called ‘Papyrus (previously Parchment)’. That was its name, on the tin, the emulsion previously known as parchment. Anyway I thought Ivory would be a safer bet.” In a later email I described the racks of tools in B&Q as “male ornaments, collectible objects for men”. I see now that I was trying too hard. But she took it in good part. On the same day I wrote in my diary: “A man standing in his shirtsleeves in the pouring rain. He looks as if he’s waiting by his car for someone, but no one comes.” This seemed much closer to the truth of things, at B&Q or anywhere else.
Note for an abandoned version of The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again.
The navigator Palinurus fell off the boat, slipped away between one wave & the next. “You go overboard,” his friends said later, “and it is what it is.” No one expected to encounter that seaman again. But things didn’t play that way that day. This is what we learned when we asked around in a little seaside town…
Read my story “Land Locked”, in Seen From Here: Writing in the Lockdown, edited by Tim Etchells & Vlatka Horvat and designed by David Caines, and on sale now at: https://www.thisisunbound.co.uk/products/seen-from-here
Seen from Here: Writing in the Lockdown is a collection of stories, flash fiction, poems, autofiction and conceptual writing gathered during the April and May Covid-19 lockdown, bringing together UK-based writers, poets, performance makers and artists.
Published in a PDF format by Unstable Object, an imprint launched by Etchells and Horvat for this occasion, the book is available to buy on a pay-what-you-choose basis, with 100% of proceeds to be donated to the Trussell Trust, a UK food bank charity.
The writing in Seen from Here is extremely diverse – spanning enigmatic fiction, poetry, powerful autofiction, prescient language artworks and compelling performance texts. While some of the work reflects directly or indirectly on the lockdown experience and the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, other pieces offer glimpses of past events, other realities and fictional landscapes. All but one of the texts included in the collection are previously unpublished and most are newly written, emerging from the isolating state of the lockdown to form a hallucinatory portrait of the concerns, intimate realities and fragile fantasies of the UK in the pandemic zone of 2020.
Contributors: Fiona Banner aka The Vanity Press, Caroline Bergvall, Aisha Mango Borja, Season Butler, Hester Chillingworth, Augusto Corrieri, Will Eaves, Tim Etchells, Rachel Genn, Chris Goode, M. John Harrison, Vlatka Horvat, Wendy Houstoun, Sophie Jung, Andrea Mason, Harun Morrison, Courttia Newland, Katharine Norbury, Lara Pawson, Deborah Pearson, Fernando Sdrigotti, Maria Sledmere, Marvin Thompson, Selina Thompson, Rupert Thomson, Chris Thorpe, Tony White, Eley Williams, Aaron Williamson, Jacob Wren.
Meanwhile I’ve moved on, as you do, finishing two new items: a 4000 word ghost story begun in a south coast holiday cottage in, I think, 2006; and a shorter item, centred round the Palinurus & catabasis fixations familiar to users of this blog, which will be available soon alongside work by authors very much more interesting than me. But for those who equate writing only with its equivalent of power-lifting, the sci fi novel, I’m back at work on a weird post-disaster*, also begun long ago in 2008. Probably the last of the projects interrupted by Empty Space. What any of this means given the times in which we live, I don’t know. But you do what you do, until you’ve changed enough to start doing something else.
*I should stop using the qualifier “weird” because I’m bored with it now that it means anything anyone wants it to. “Wrenched” might be better. A disaster that’s been wrenched & crumpled up, then smoothed out again, then torn up, then reassembled, again & again. Like a bit of paper someone didn’t want to see.