Experiment Seven

Consider the fog in the opening paragraphs of ‘Bleak House’, there is fog and there is the word fog, count them. How many fogs? And yet there is only one undifferentiated fog to which all those fogs refer.

Hemingway’s rhythmic prose is conjured from a series of repetitive riffs, and those riffs express a sort of drunken obsessiveness, or a breathless desire, not so much the content, there is no fog, nor snow, nor any other meteorological event happening everywhere, but there is the phrasing, and there are short sentences, prepositions, conjunctions, one after the other. And there are those tiny childlike words: old, cold, the old cold harbour, the old cold day.

Then there is Thomas Bernhard whose character’s name fall down the page like books thrown from a burning library. On one page of ‘Correction’ Bernhard uses the word ‘Altensam’ thirty two times. Bernhard thumps, Dickens suffocates, Hemingway anaesthetises. Bernhard won’t let you sleep. Bernhard shakes you awake, Bernhard throws cold water over you.

All of this stuff begins, to some extent, with the Old Testament, with the King James translation, with all those begats and thees and thous and the evangelical preachers and with rhetoric, with anaphora, epistrophe, symploce, antanaclasis, antistasis, negative-positive restatement, diacope, palilogia.

Consider Dickens, consider Hemingway, consider Bernhard; each exploits repetition, understands the rhythm of repetition, the music of repetition. Repetition mesmerises the reader, repetition unsettles the reader, repetition infuriates the reader. The reader loses the will to continue, but will plough on, maybe with a flickering hope, that at some point there will be some sort of epiphany, some reason to be found before all reason is lost. The reader has not given all, but she has given up. The words are left unread. Repetition, repetition, repetition.

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Llafranc, Catalonia

It’s three in the morning, mopeds in the side street keep me awake. I sit on the balcony watching the worker clean up the restaurant next door. I’m tired, sunburnt, layered in a tormented ghost of sweat. The lights along the front and up the hill form an ascending melody of a simple folk tune, played on a whistle, a Catalan sardana. The waves beat out a relentless rhythm, but it goes nowhere, the tide never brings the sea in, nor takes it out.

I read for an hour, then fall asleep in the chair. When I wake it’s dawn, and the beach is still deserted except for three elderly women, who since their swim have stood in a triangle on the shore chatting in voices that echo along the front. The staff in the shop below begin unfurling the awning and rattle out the magazine racks. The younger man has a pale, exhausted, hang dog face, The air smells of newspapers and cigarettes. A dog yaps, flip-flops slap, a pigeon calls, a boat engine throbs.

Jake and I swim out to a line of buoys, both of us in goggles. The water is teeming with fish, living currents, conscious clouds. We see a grapefruit sized jellyfish, like a big raw egg, moving without effort below us. We take it turns to swim to the sea floor where there’s a rock small enough to lift, but large enough to weigh us down. I sit crosslegged, looking up at Jake on the surface. Then he has a go, lying down with the rock on his chest, holds it like an ancient Bible, mimics an effigy on a tomb.

Walking back to the apartment we see geckos sunbathing on lampposts and a huge moth with a vast proboscis, flitting frantically from flower to flower.

Experiment Five

This experiment uses subliminal suggestion to create a mood. No references to mood are stated, but imagery is used to provoke something in you, perhaps a sense of something more than anything referred to specifically.

A cruise ship sits on the horizon, its size distorts space. It is like one of Jupiter’s moons seen from the planet in an artist’s illustration, there is the sense you could reach out and touch it.

You climb on a boulder in the middle of a forest. How this boulder got here you don’t know, perhaps it was ejected from a volcanic eruption millions of years ago, maybe the soil around it has eroded, or could it be a meteorite?

Imagine someone cleaning the face of a giant clock. They abseil into position, the clocks hands are stopped at noon, or midnight.

You are in the city museum looking down at the skeleton of the diplodocus. There is a dissonance: the creature is a herbivore, yet it is monstrously huge. How many trees did it consume each day? And what about the noise, that constant munching, wouldn’t it drive you mad?How could you concentrate if that that thing was in your garden, chomping down on a horse chestnut? Well, obviously you couldn’t.

Experiment Four

I am under the floorboards, now and again you hear me, just a scratching, or a shuffling. I am outside at night, creeping about, the trees know I’m there, they fall silent, and then a stone will sound under a heavy foot. I am in the loft, the beams creak, plaster falls like snow. I am in the cupboards behind the saucepans, in the wardrobe, in the fridge.

I am hiding in the clothes in the laundry basket, sliding behind the books on the bookshelf. Sometimes there’s a vibration across the table, like a mouse, or through the air, like a bat. That’ll be me. And I am in the street, weaving between lampposts, or on the towpath. I am climbing the spire of the old church, or on the hill, or out at sea, on a raft, alone. I am in the spaces between these words, waiting patiently here for you at the end of this sentence.

Experiment Three

Experiment Three asks for your complete attention. It asks that you hear these words in your head as your read them, but hear them in the voices of others.

This sentence you hear in the voice of someone who lives on your street, or somehow you know from the neighbourhood.

This sentence you hear in the voice of a child who you sat next to in primary school.

This sentence is voiced by a great actor, maybe one who lingers on each word, stretching the syllables, words like loquacious, multifarious, inconsequential, equestrian.

Hear this sentence in an accent of your choice, regional or national. Maybe west country or Italian.

I’d like you to imagine this sentence is read out by one of your distant ancestors, in a cathedral, or huge concert hall. Each word reverberates, lingers, hangs.

This sentence is chanted by a crowd, they are unsettled, the chanting is threatening, nearer, closer, louder.

This sentence is whispered in the night by someone who loves you.

Experiment Two

This experiment concerns flowers. Flowers begin to appear everywhere. Flowers out of the cracks in the pavement, out of brickwork, in the road. Flowers spurt from signposts and traffic lights, spill out of shop doorways and up through drains and dislodge manhole covers.

Flowers fill cars and trains, ground aeroplanes. Flowers cover office blocks and churches. Flowers fill museums, art galleries, cathedrals, concert halls and sports’ stadiums. Flowers surge from chimneys and burst through warehouse roofs.

Clouds of flowers roll through the air, lakes of flowers fill valleys, rafts of flowers float on the surface of the sea. Flowers tumble across deserts, pattern ice sheets, cover moors and plains.

Experiment One

This experiment imagines aliens landing on Earth in the middle of a significant historical event. The Battle of Hastings or the moment Marco Polo meets the Great Khan.

To make things easier the spaceship is a shiny saucer, a big one, very impressive. It’s the Battle of Bosworth Field, August 25th, 1485, the tents of the opposing forces on opposite hills. King Richard faces certain death at the hands of his rival, Henry Tudor, soon to be Henry VII. It’s early morning and battle is about to commence. The huge silver saucer descends out of the blue sky. Both camps think the other army has devised a new and miraculous weapon.

Or just seven years later Columbus is about to set foot on the New World. Above the crew hear a soft hum. They think it’s a choir of angels. God is about to give his blessing.

Napoleon is advancing on Moscow, or Buddha sits under the fig tree, or Akhenaten stands, arms lifted, to praise the sun, uniting the diverse gods of Egypt.

The huge flattened sphere, its surface as perfect as a mirror, despite its light speed journey across space, lands in the desert, or in the mountains, or in a Russian wheat field.

As it settles a crowd gathers, can see their distorted reflections in the surface. Then, somehow, something emerges, a shape, a form no one can recognise, or understands.

Astonishment (3)

You have survived the shipwreck. Six of you sit on the sand of a tiny island, the Pacific stretching out forever. There is a tiny hill from which a small stream tumbles to a pond, a few trees. But there is nothing to eat. The decision is made. You will draw lots, the loser will be eaten.

The word human shares the same root as humus, soil.

Catherine Haymans, Astronomer Royal for Scotland estimates the number of stars to be 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. She also states the universe is infinite.

The New Testament ends the violence of the Old Testament. Jesus asks us to love one another, but he does not extend that love to the animal kingdom.

The pterosaur circles the volcano, as she has done many times before. But this time she is sad, she knows her world is about to end. She has tried to warn others, but they will not listen. So now she circles the volcano, and sings, hoping the eruption she knows is about to come will somehow be subdued, and the volcano will sleep on.

A man is a god in ruins, wrote Emerson.

Three times we tried to see Lion Hunt at Nineveh at the British Museum. Three times we saw it was taped off, three times we were told certain galleries were closed due to staff shortages.

After a period of low temperatures, when warmer weather causes sudden growth, cauliflowers can be heard to squeak.

George Orwell coined the term ‘cold war’.

There he stood before us, his notes in neat order, describing how he believed the first languages began in song. But there was no music in his voice, no rhythm in his prose. His delivery was flat, perhaps a little tired, he had said these words so many times before.

The colour magenta was named after the battle of 1859.

The waiting room is huge, full, very busy. You weren’t expecting this. It’s more like an airport than a hospital. And the mood is almost uplifting. There is laughter, a sense of expectation. Names appear on the screen, patients are called in. Some will receive good news, but many won’t. This is the beginning or the end of a journey. You don’t know whether you will be going away or going home.

After crashing his Aston Martin on Dead Man’s Curve, Mel Blanc lay in a coma unresponsive for two weeks until his neurologist tried ‘Bugs Bunny, how are you doing today?’ to which the cartoon rabbit’s creator replied ‘What’s up, doc?’

In many primitive societies human sacrifice was common but this begins to disappear during the Iron Age when hunting and gathering were replaced by agriculture and the roasting of meat on a fire became the focus of the domestic and communal.

Once again the swallows arrive and gather on the telephone wires.

‘Science is a boat on which we try to stay afloat as we rebuild it.’ (Daniel Dennett)

The word focus has its origin in the Latin for ‘hearth’.

In 1973 British Rail took out a patent on a flying saucer

Eden Ahbez, who wrote the Nat King Cole song ‘Nature Boy’, claimed to eat only fruit, vegetables and nuts and lived for a while camped out under the Hollywood sign.

I was outside on the lane, said the old farmer, his calloused hands held in front of his face as if we were trying to hold something, or warm his hands on a candle flame. I was there, alone, and it was so quiet, nothing but the sound of the stream and then I heard a fizz, I looked up, saw a green streak, thought it was a firework. It was a shooting star, he said, and it fizzed and hissed and I’m sure it landed on the top of the hill.

Box jellyfish have eyes which can look in three directions at once.

Depleted uranium used to coat missiles and bullets in the 1991 Gulf War will still be radioactive in 4,500 million years, the same age as the Earth is now.

Ingestion of silver turns the skin blue.

Orwell on Jura

Orwell on the island of Jura, writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell has a stature, I am invoking that stature, that face, that grey face, that photograph, that stern, 1940s face in the one photograph that appears everywhere. He’s looking down on you because you’re a half-wit.

Or he’s looking down at you as if you were a rose. He loved roses. Some of the roses he planted in his Hertfordshire garden still bloom. He feared and fought fascism, yet he planted roses. He knew war was coming, but he planted roses.

And on Jura he had a small farm.

Orwell, who fought fascism and despised middle class socialists, who moved to Jura for the clean air to get away from London and to battle tuberculosis, a man who fought fascists and illness, I am invoking him in a story. I’m invoking his musty, stale smell. His gravitas. His height. (He was 6’2″).

I don’t know much about Orwell and I’m not sure I have the time to read about him right now. I have other things I want to read.

Although I have read Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia and the Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London and many of his essays and listened to an audiobook of Keep the Aspidistra Flying or it might have been Coming Up for Air I get the two confused.

Yes, he was tall, much taller than many of the men he fought beside in the Spanish Civil War. This made him an easy target, and he was shot. His description of being shot is astonishing, gripping, captivating.

I like the fact that he took his name from a river, and that he could have been George Thames or George Avon or George Dwarakeswar (he was born in Bengal) or George Irrawaddy (he was a policeman in Burma). Or George George. (There’s a George River in Quebec, go on look it up if you don’t believe me.)

But here he is, in my story, black and white George, or Eric as he really was, at his desk by the window of his farmhouse on Jura, puffing at a cigarette, he liked roll ups, we know he shouldn’t smoke because he’s there struggling with tuberculosis ffs, but puff he must. He’s puffing away and tapping at his typewriter, tap tap, Room 101, Big Brother, inventing names of TV shows of the future.

But then his wife rushes in and says one of their goats has escaped and Eric rushes out after her and they run to the clifftop and see the goat below them on a ledge.

But this isn’t a story about a goat. Let’s go back to Eric, or George, at his desk in the cottage, puffing and tapping and occasionally tinging the bell and stroking the return lever like he’s playing a cricket shot, a beautiful stroke, fingers of his left hand, the carriage batters back and Eric/George taps and puffs, puffs and taps until he runs out of tobacco or paper or both or you lose interest and stop reading.

Asteroid Day

Well, thought old Mag, preening himself, looking for fleas. Well, things could be worse. Mag stood under the waterfall, cleansing his old feathers, his horny skin beneath. Through the noise of the water he could hear his grandmother’s voice. Get yourself ready, you want to look your best.

That was Asteroid Day fifty years ago. Now things were very different. There wasn’t the same respect for the elders. Attendance at the festival was dwindling, nothing like it was then.

He thought of the ancestors, how they were pictured in the Gorge Drawings, ridiculous creatures with huge teeth, or monstrous leaf eaters. And then there were the ones with armour, or the sea dwelling giants. There are fewer differences now. There are the ones that nest in trees, and there are the ones that eat meat. Some still live in the sea, they occasionally appear, surfacing just long enough to bid good morning or good afternoon.

But he was in no doubt that things were not as they once were. And it wasn’t just his age. Somehow they had lost their way.

Perhaps, he thought, if only the asteroid had hit. He did not know the word ‘asteroid’, of course: he and his species knew no words. They were once the inheritors, the ones who, in this version of events, dominated the planet. If only the asteroid had hit. This thought often occurred to him as they approached the festival. He knew all too well that the new inheritors were waiting patiently for their moment.

The asteroid was not only seen, it was heard, its hiss, its woosh as it cut across the top of the atmosphere, a huge rock, a fiery Moon. It was a warning as if to say you must change your ways or you will be wiped off the face of the Earth.

Who would have been the inheritors then? he wondered. If the asteroid had destroyed us. Perhaps another species would now be living in peace, caring for each other, for the world.

Mag was old. A giant of a creature, for years he stalked the communities, ensuring the warning was heeded, that the Day of the Asteroid was observed. At first they listened, but now his fellow creatures lived godless lives. He let the water thunder down on his skull. His claws were broken, and he suddenly had a vision of his grandfather’s claws at the age he was now, remembered him pointing out the inscriptions in the Hallowed Gorge. Many gathered then, not like now. Observance is for the old and the meek.

And when he went down to the Gorge to prepare, to ensure the inscriptions were clear of moss and ivy, he would hear them in the caves, see them as they put their tiny heads up through holes in the rocks. Perhaps, one day, these would have dominion over creation. A species that would be stewards, not destroyers.

These ones with fur, the new inheritors, the ones without eggs. He knew they were waiting, waiting and soon they would come and feast on their remains. And he knew it couldn’t be soon enough.