‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities’ – Ecclesiastes 1:2
Most people have unfulfilled dreams, ambitions, fantasies, plots of revenge, schemes of emotional or industrial sabotage, secret desires to drive at high speed through deserted post-apocalyptic cities or go on killing sprees through their workplace or merely send the earth hurtling into the sun. Such is life.
Writers have these too. Even failed or failing ones. Especially failed or failing ones. Rather than actually do the things in question, the writer choses a metaphysical shortcut of the most profoundest inanity; to write them down. Philosophers since time immemorial have attributed the artistic impulse to the spirit or geist, a need to overthrow the sovereignty of death, steal fire from the gods like Prometheus or channel what’s floating in the ether. In reality, much of it comes down to one craving; “Look at me Ma!” From childhood pissing competitions and cycling with no hands to the humblebragging of social networking to the inauguration of skyscrapers and billionaire philanthropists, it’s the same cloying need for recognition, the flip sides of the same coin marked ‘ego’ and ‘insecurity.’
It goes deep this need, sometimes deeper than we realise. We continually practise our signature as children with the background belief that one day we’ll be important enough to be asked for it. When we keep diaries, even in this most supposedly private undertaking, we often secretly even subconsciously tailor them for a third party, assuming they will be read in the future after we’re gone. We can imagine that some day all our witterings will be poured over by acolytes or displayed in museums, a blue plaque and a queue of tourists outside our door, ‘Here Lived…A Somebody’ If our successes are rendered suspect through vanity and the desire for popularity, perhaps our failures have more moral worth. The detritus that we genuinely never wish anyone to see, the stuff that brings out cold sweats at the mere thought that someone might read them but which strangely we still keep.
The following are some examples of the many half-baked hare-brained schemes I have tried to undertake or at least idly boasted about undertaking when drink was taken in the past decade. Some exist in complete or partial form, mouldering in cupboards or the bottom of bird cages or publishers’ waste paper baskets, others are just a memory, dust, lost forever. Be thankful of this. They are the red-headed step-child locked in the attic, the bodies under the patio, the secrets you keep at the bottom of the river…
Songs from the Ebro Delta
Poetry collection written whilst and after visiting Barcelona and the Catalan countryside. Lots of sub-Lorca magic realism, poems that rhyme about telescopes and skeletons, chambers at the bottom of the sea, boys that turn into birds, lots of medieval stuff – the Children’s Crusade, the Ship of Fools, poems about scenes from Bosch, the ending of Un Chien Andalou and the real-life fate of it’s two lead actors. Obsessed as a teenager with the Spanish Civil War, not realising that the romantic Barcelona I was dreaming about (Art Nouveau, Durrutti and Los Solidarios, Gerda Taro and Robert Capa, Picasso, Carlos Casagemas and the artists of El Quartre Gats) no longer existed, if it ever really had. Wandered around the Gaudi buildings and the sex museum with it’s Man Rays and Bellmers, writing verse in a notebook mainly in the mistaken hope a girl might be attracted to a pallid exotically-anemic poet. Instead ignored, I got drunk, fell face-first into the shingle, lost a tooth and several days and nights fighting off the pain with codeine and alcohol, sipped through one side of my face which now resembled Picasso’s Weeping Woman (1937). Copy still exists of this poetry collection in a box in an Irish attic, guarded over by an evil clown.
Before the Fall
Following the Catalan debacle and the oceanic indifference with which most rightly greet poetry (“they’re just lazy songs”), I wrote a laughably-inept Jacobean tragedy set during the Spanish Civil War, assuming there was a big untapped market for such things. The play was a successful example of Brecht’s alienation effect, or Verfremdungseffekt, in the sense that it alienated it’s author from ever attempting to write a play again. It was set during the fall of the Spanish Republic (specifically the Barcelona May Days) with the revolutionaries and population at large trapped between the encircling Fascists and internal Stalinists who had begun to purge their rivals (the leader of the Trotskyist party the POUM Andres Nin for one was skinned alive by the Communists). As all art is a form of theft, the plot was taken from the story of King Robert the 3rd of Scotland who during a war with the English, sent his son to France for safety but he was captured by the enemy on-route, news of this hastening the regent’s death. It also had a some ultraviolence stolen from Titus Andronicus, a Hemingway-lite bullfight and the devil appearing on Mount Tibidabo nicked from Bulgakov. I’d like to think it was a haunting Expressionist piece but it was most probably shite in hindsight. We’ll likely never know for sure as it’s long since disappeared.
Sail by the Frozen Stars
Can’t remember much about this one, mercifully, except the title. It was a poetry collection and there was a lengthy bargain basket Cantos-style poem called ‘The Ghost Republic’ about an alternative Ireland had Connelly and so on lived. Bit more experimental than earlier stuff which means ripping off William Burroughs or whoever I was reading at the time. At the same time wrote manifestos for now vanished websites such as Red Pencil in the style of the Futurists, making grand and entirely dubious claims of starting literary movements (from the solitude of my bedroom) with names that sound like bad wedding bands (The Incendarists, the Rain Dogs etc). Also took to wearing a velvet jacket like a Victorian dandy and getting my head professionally kicked in on the streets of Belfast, the two matters being not unrelated. The collection still exists on an old hard drive somewhere.
First We Take Jerusalem
First attempt at a novel. Title taken from Leonard Cohen’s ‘First We Take Manhattan’ (after the initial working title The New Testament was judged a bit too megalomaniac) whilst the plot was inspired by/stolen from Chris Marker’s film La jetée. Two men travel back in time from a ruined future (inquisitions and holy wars are hinted at) to biblical times to assassinate the Messiah. Gaining his trust, they infiltrate the apostles and accompany them on their evangelising mission, baptising converts and evading the authorities. Lots of research into what life was like in Roman-era Galilee and Jersualem. The twist comes when they arrange the capture and beheading of the Messiah and you realise it was not Jesus they’d come back to kill but John the Baptist (there’s was a Baptistian future rather than a Christian one). Riven by guilt, the two travellers come into conflict with each other with one assuming the Messianic mantle of John the Baptist though calling himself Jesus. The other seeking to prevent him is revealed as Judas. The ensuing downfall of both is a familiar one to us and effectively creates the timeline we live in. It’s a fanciful idea at best, trying to emulate Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five on a biblical scale, but the first impressions of proof-readers were positive and a second draft was completed. All rendered pointless by the unholy and untimely release of the Da Vinci Code which spread like airborne ebola through the book world and created a multitude of copycat books. Plans to travel back in time to assassinate Dan Brown are ongoing.
Collection of several dozen short stories on various subjects (a Joycean piece on wakes, an old man turned Robinson Crusoe on a traffic island, the Lady of the Seine, Laika the Soviet Spacedog, Toulouse-Lautrec, spiritualists etc) currently scattered around in corners of the internet and journals so small in circulation as to be microscopic.
Probably the most ludicrous idea of the lot and the one I’d be most inclined to return and finish. Had the pleasure of meeting the magnificent Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls during the Edinburgh Festival several years ago after she contacted me regarding a piece I’d written on Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum (she was working on a musical adaptation of one of it’s chapters The Onion Cellar). Through her, I was introduced to cabaret which I’d known little about beyond Christopher Isherwood and a whole world opened up including great contemporary acts (the wonderful 1927 theatre company, Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, Thomas Truax, Camille O’Sullivan, Tom Wait’s work with Robert Wilson) to earlier purveyors of the form (Jacques Brel, Kurt Weil, Lotte Lanya’s ‘Pirate Jenny,’ the Comedian Harmonistes). I became obsessed and sketched out a script for a cabaret, featuring a reluctant soldier bored on the Maginot Line who goes scouting in the forest just prior to the German invasion, narrowly escapes being killed, makes it to Paris where he’s swept up in debaucheries which turn nightmarish and hallucinatory and ends up piloting a plane to the bottom of the sea to escape mankind. It was to include dark shadow puppet Brother Grimm-style forest scenes, dreamlike surrealist interludes, a band of circus freaks and references to the lives and works of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Guillaume Apollinaire. Several songs were written, the lyrics of which ended up as poems in the collection Tesla’s Ghost -‘Old Crow’ and ‘Maginot’ being two off the top of my head. As with Junk and Terra Incognita (a website idea featuring a ‘here be dragons’-style map of the world with every fictional city included with hyperlinks, essays, videos etc), it’s something to maybe return to, like a dog to it’s vomit.
The Ship is Sinking
“Everyone knows where they were when Walt Disney defrosted. When Joan of Arc crawled from the ashes. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. First, there was the small matter of dying. And we all had to do it.” The opening lines of a novel I completed set in the future when everyone who’s ever lived comes back from the dead, in advance of Judgement Day. God however never arrives. Features cavemen attacking motorways, attempted suicide as an extreme sport, a drug that temporarily blissfully mimics the feeling of being dead and a host of celebrities (a heavily-medicated and botoxed Marilyn Monroe, a rakish conspiratorial Christopher Marlowe, a washed-up excommunicated Jesus who sells pornographic comics for a living) though the central story follows a deadbeat trying to evade pursuers. Sent off to publishers who liked the premise but found the book itself virtually unreadable.
The Minotaur and the Maze – A Cultural History of Night
One of those incidences that would push the most mild-mannered of persons to commit arson on a grand scale. Spent two years researching the culture of night-time from devilry to nighthawks, speakeasies to hubble, the gutter to the stars. Unfortunately the enthusiastic commissioning editor of the publishers I was dealing with left and her replacement thought the idea as useful as a drumkit to Anne Frank and dropped it accordingly (there’s a lesson in there somewhere about verbal contracts but I’m damned if I can find it). Not a total waste of time, things rarely are (discovering works like Thomas Nashe’s Terrors of Night for example was a pleasure) but still frustrating nonetheless. Excerpts of the work were featured online and the response was encouraging (or as encouraging as the internet can be given it’s the literary equivalent of pissing into a bottomless well and straining to hear an echo). The book still exists but, as with it’s partially-completed follow-up Memento Mori – A Cultural History of Death, the thought of returning to it would make all my hair turn white and fall out overnight with stress. If there’s any consolation (and that’s a big ‘if’), it’s the thought that lost books are by no means a rarity. The path to glory, someone might have said, is strewn with corpses.