If you’re into games and architecture, come to the V&A Friday night.…
If you’re into games and architecture, come to the V&A Friday night.…
I’ve just been in Estonia and Finland, two fascinating countries in distinctly different ways, and I’ve been trying to challenge my ignorance of literature from that part of the world (beyond a lifelong love of Tove Jansson). Kicking around ideas for future books, one of the themes I keep coming back to is the international aspect of Modernism; how fragmented but inter-connected it was across national boundaries, how many of the leading lights were from supposed backwaters on the edges of disintegrating empires and how it foretold the possibilities for communication and the spread of ideas that we know have with the internet. Beyond the epicentres of Paris, Zurich or Berlin, many of the groups and pockets of activity involved have been overlooked and their work under-represented and under-translated especially in the English-speaking world (a failing we’ve tried to rectify in 3:AM Magazine with Steven Fowler’s Maintenant series on contemporary European poetry). We all know something of the Italian Futurists or German Expressionism but what of the Russian Knave of Diamonds group, the Czech Devětsil or the Danish Linien? The past awaits rediscovery.
I was intrigued then to read of an Estonian Modernist group called Siuru (named after a magical blue-feathered bird of folklore), which had been formed just as the country declared independence from the Russian Empire. It was one of those groups of outsiders, deadbeats and egotists that can only exist briefly and brilliantly before collapsing in on itself or exploding. Some of the group were from the countryside and had come to Tallinn (then called Reval by outsiders) to reinvent themselves as bohemians, enthralled by the writings of Hamsun, Spengler and Marinetti. Some were geniuses who would die in exile, writing in the cause of liberation. Others became hacks who would compose anthems to Stalin under the Soviet Occupation or work in book-banning commissions or switch sides to serve as Central Committee members before redeeming themselves by blowing their brains out in palace halls. Others endured an inner exile, blacklisted and forbidden to write by the Communists.
Before this, and with little idea of what would follow, these disparate individuals had been a collective. They met in a salon and then a decaying pigeon-infested tower, where they planned to sell off the bird-shit for fertiliser to raise rent money. They wrote erotic poetry, Expressionist confessions and books about vagabonds. They took to the roads on adventures and incorporated snatches of ancient folk songs into collage. They made Futurist pronouncements to seize the day and let ‘the joy of creation be our only moving force.’ They railed against the stifling bourgeois Lutheran values of the time. They read in theatres and cafes, inciting disturbances with their more explicit writing. Like many architects of culture before them, they were regarded as savages by those in respectable circles. Given there is always an element of fiction in nationalism, they played a unique role in inventing their country. Yet they, like everyone to an extent, were doomed.
There’s one member of Siuru who particularly stands out. Her name was Marie Under. Though still much-celebrated in Estonia and once nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, her work is forgotten in Western Europe and beyond, if it was ever really known to begin with. I started reading what fragments of writing I could find of hers online and in anthologies and became intrigued, not so much with the joyful sensual poetry of her youth or the nostalgic yearning of her exile poetry but, by her surreal night-poetry. This was a poetry of spectres, frost, dogs and floods, all of it moonlit and taking place while the rest of the world sleeps. As a fellow night-owl/insomniac, there’s something both reassuring and otherworldly about this period of her writing for me. There are times when the analysis of poetry can be like performing an autopsy on a living person, rather than do so I’ll include a poem of hers Täiskuu — The Full Moon (translated by Ilse Lehiste) at the end of this text. It suggests something of her talent for the magical and menacing, being a little reminiscent of Lorca or Plath at times or even the paintings of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner with their sinister cats, nocturnal cityscapes and glowering well-dressed phantoms.
The place I stayed in the north of Tallinn was a dive but an interesting one, being right next to the Flora chemical factory where Tarkovsky shot Stalker and a stones throw from the bohemian area Kalamaja and the harbour. The trams shrieked past and one morning we were greeted by the sound of an Italian singer down the hall bursting out some kind of aria. From the window, you could see St. Olaf’s Church with blazing sunsets behind it. The first day the sun gave way to a thunderstorm and there was little to do but sit by the window, drink and watch the world wash away. When the rain had cleared and night had fallen, we walked into the medieval Old Town. The moon was low, the streets deserted and images from Under’s poems were still in my head. The only sound you could hear was that of accordion music, like a waltz, which got louder as we walked further into the centre. It was coming from a little cabaret, with people drinking, singing and dancing inside. None of them could see us as we watched them. Bar a microphone they were passing around, it could have been a hundred or five hundred years ago. It could have just temporarily appeared as in a fairytale or a book (like the Magic Theater in Hesse’s Steppenwolf). It was a scene that seemed only possible to cease by the smashing of glass, the sun coming up or the watching bystander waking to find it was a dream.
The next day, when we walked down the same street, there were no signs marking out where the venue had been; a not unusual trait in Eastern Europe where bars and clubs seem to exist via rumour, basement hatches and secret knocks. What I did chance upon, recognising the symbol on the wall from the cover of their first publication (the image at the top of this post), was the house where Siuru had been based and where Marie Under had lived. She must have walked that street a thousand times, perhaps she dreamt of it in the long years of exile. When you start to consider these matters you realise that what survives of Marie Under we can tap into through art, imagination and place. Even for a godless heathen such as myself, there’s something of her that survives, outliving her exile, the censorship of her work, her death and even the mighty Soviet Union which had swallowed her country for half a century. Moreover that night seemed to me like something Under would have written into existence, with the music a song that was only ever played once and the revellers haunted marionettes, the streets at once enchanting and a moment away from falling into malevolence.
The Full Moon by Marie Under.
Bursting full is the moon,
its weight bends the trees.
The waters desire to be turned
they are so restless.
The streets are breathing;
the houses have wings on their
everything is festive:
have been spread out on the
Snowy flags flutter
from the roofs.
The traveller wears a halo in his hair,
the hat in his hand is full of moonrays.
He wears the checkered coat
of a harlequin.
A dog pushes his crooked shadow
with his milky muzzle;
what a strange smell —
stand up and fight!
The old sofa has golden patches,
The walls tremble
They are made of water, clear,
pure water —
everything is aflow.
Shoes made of glass —
I hear their ringing steps
coming right at me.
On the windowsill, ready to pounce,
a great white cat
with mint-green eyes:
I feel its sly paw
on my throat.
Who is embracing me in my sleep?
The moon’s yellow beard on
“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” Those lines are perhaps the most-quoted of Albert Camus’ online. They’ve most likely reached more people than his books have. The problem, aside from the diabolical triteness of the sentiment, is that Camus doesn’t seem to have written these words. They appear in none of his major works nor in any interview that I can find. To anyone who has read Camus’ work, this comes as little surprise. It just doesn’t seem his style to write something so simpering, a message with all the profundity of an episode of The Littlest Hobo, a kind of self-help post-Oprah drivel, the proliferation of which has made Facebook a place which the sound of mind should avoid as they would a leper colony.
Camus did have a talent for writing one-liners and epigrams though rarely as light-weight as the aforementioned one (which seems more akin to Footprints in the Sand god-bothering doggerel than any literary text). There was more than just his looks linking him to Philip Marlowe-era Bogart. His economy of setting and language, the continual question of complicity, the omnipresent threat of violence, the deadly inexorable clockwork of his plots, the unreliable narrator of The Fall and the narrative tension in The Stranger, The Plague and ‘The Guest’ (from Exile and the Kingdom) mark him out almost as much a noir writer as an Existentialist, the latter a title he always denied. Camus was manifestly hard-boiled; hair slicked, collar up against the wind, cigarette hanging from his mouth. Perhaps he did write those words but they were mistranslated. Perhaps his instructions not to walk ahead or behind was not some happy-clappy sentiment but an untrusting and untrustworthy narrator, afraid his follower might suddenly brandish a revolver or afraid he might do the same. Walk alongside me so I can look you in the eye and get the measure of you, friend. Robbed of Camus’ characteristic style or perhaps the context of a private letter (in which case it would have a touching personal resonance), the quote is just another platitude masquerading as wisdom (hence the vaguely religious connotations). Why it attached itself to Camus or who actually wrote it is unclear.
Let’s take what Camus really did write as an example of the depth of his writing. The words of the infernal barfly Clamence in The Fall, “I shall tell you a great secret, my friend. Do not wait for the Last Judgment. It takes place every day.” The startling admission that opens The Stranger, “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.” His evocation of Manhattan from his American Journal, “Sometimes from beyond the skyscrapers, across thousands of high walls, the cry of a tugboat finds you in your insomnia in the middle of the night, and you remember that this desert of iron and cement is an island.” In Return to Tipasa, he wrote exquisitely that “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” In Summer in Algiers he is equally life-affirming, “If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”
All very inspiring but only truly so when placed in context. To fully appreciate Camus’ humanism you must set it in the sense of godless post-Nietzsche post-Holocaust futility which he, and the Existentialists, wrestled with and following the very real and often grim experiences of his poverty-stricken childhood in Algeria and his time risking his life in the French Resistance during the Occupation. This is why he deliberately sets his observations within tales of murder, epidemics, betrayals, dictatorships and torture. When he comes to write his most explicit philosophical and political work The Rebel, he does so by examining the barbarities of the French Terror, Stalin and Hitler. To take this context away, to have a quote floating like a speck of dust in a vacuum, is to do him a disservice and change the very meaning of the quote itself. His glints of light only exist in any meaningful sense when they are located in darkness.
A maxim isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself. Some immensely fine, if occasionally infuriating, writing has come in the form of collections of them: Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, the writings of Nietzsche and Marcus Valerius Martialis, Wittgenstein’s mind-melting Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the Futurist’s magnificently poetic Manifestos, David Shields’ recent Reality Hunger. The crucial aspect is that these have been set within and to a context that gives it a deeper meaning. The epigram originated as individual lines and snippets of verse that could work as graffiti or carved into headstones. The setting gave it additional meaning. This is still where it works best, unexpectedly jolting us out of routine. The Poems on the Underground in London is a great idea because it can give us a stolen moment in the time that has been stolen from us by work, a chance for contemplation and lucidity amidst the gloom of the commute. With our own time however it seems we should live as deeply as we possibly can given there will be no second chances. We should read likewise. Trying to appreciate a writer based on individual sentences is like surveying a Van Gogh painting by examining a chart of the colour palettes he used. To use another example, if we know nothing about Philip Larkin and his misanthropic worldview, it’s difficult to detect the various layers of meaning in a line like “What will survive of us is love” (from An Arundel Tomb). The conclusion of a monumental death-haunted poem would be reduced to a greetings card banality. The reader, if not the poem, would be reduced to interpreting on face value alone. It would be like trying to imagine what is at the bottom of the sea by glancing at a puddle.
We could somewhat unfairly blame Oscar Wilde for the modern bombardment of quotes and soundbites given he was a master at making them. Wilde set them to the wider framework of a life lived as art and, in fairness, he lived extravagantly enough to convincingly carry this off. Yet it was a costly decision. It led him to write his life into tragedy, regarding very real dangers with rhetorical flippancy and a fatal seemingly-untouchable vanity. He realised what was happening and the forces gathering against him much too late to save himself. Additionally his skill with a witticism overshadowed his most important work (De Profundis, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Soul of Man under Socialism). Like a grim bell tolling for a condemned man, his rise and fall also heralded the age and the nature of public celebrity for us all.
It might be reassuring to think that at least quotes serve as a signpost towards a writer’s work. It takes a discerning eye to know who to signpost to and how (the early albums of the Manic Street Preachers with their attendant literary slogans being a successful example of this). Such an eye is rare and brings us to the question of ulterior motives. I’m highly sceptical of those who claim that society is dumbing down, with its implication that some golden age of knowledge existed in the past, often unsurprisingly a draconian age where knowledge was the preserve of a cosseted and craven elite. Though I’m sceptical too of a view of human progress as ever-upward, we do know, in every field of inquiry, immeasurably more now than we ever have before. It may sound unromantic but the famed Library of Alexandria, regardless of its undoubted lost treasures, would pale in comparison to Wikipedia let alone the Library of Congress or the British Library. We have more ways to access this information and share it despite the considerable efforts of those who would happily shut these routes down for most people. The real issue of concern is not whether technology and social networking are rendering us ‘stupider’ (the contrary may well be true or equally the effect may be negligible as technology tends to only bring out and accentuate what is already in us) but the motives behind those who employ them.
Take the prevalence of websites where for your convenience you’re served culture as you might be served chicken nuggets in a drive-thru. You know who they are (but if in doubt try Flavorwire, GQ.com, BuzzFeed, Huffpost’s book section or Brain Pickings). In the absence of imagination or depth and using the modern model, you could easily fire together a Top Ten Books/Films/TV Shows About Vampires/Zombies/Fashion/Love, preferably with each book on a separate page or their beloved “after the jump” to greatly boost the hits and thus advertising revenue of your site. You could make sure each book is dealt with in a cursory paragraph, perhaps lifted wholesale from its blurb or press release with a droll rejoinder tacked to the end. Or better still, just stick a quote or ten on there with images taken from other list-based culture sites who’ve in turn taken their image from other sites and so on forever and ever. Include endless ‘how to write’ articles written by writers so it has that familiar creative writing workshop feel. Don’t bother looking too closely or at too much length at anything. Feel free to share all of this via the widgets provided. Reiterate positivity, motivation, self-belief like Dr Phil if his moustache happened to be a permissably ironic one. Remember above all, your priority is clicks not culture. There’s little harm in any of this of course but there’s little substance to it either. It’s resulted in the elevation of the curator above the creator, taste above talent, pointing above doing.
Culture filtered through social networking (or more accurately the opposite) reaches its nadir with the tendency towards ventriloquism, the point at which it becomes damaging rather than just mildly irritating. Readers inevitably project their own views onto the writers they love (and loathe), it takes a curator or a critic to truly misrepresent a writer. In the past few months, I’ve seen writers whose work I adore be resurrected in horrifying forms. Gone are the edges, complexities and ambiguities that made them so interesting and unique. Instead we get a partially-pristine partially-malformed ventriloquist dummy replica. Worse still they all speak with the same voice. The words are theirs but the voices are not. Those have been changed in the editing process.
If I had first encountered Anaïs Nin by reading a quote of hers about love or dreams or fulfilling your potential or massaging your inner child superimposed on an insufferably twee image, I would never have picked up her wonderful remarkably-transgressive books. Perhaps this shows the shortsightedness of my own prejudices but it’s still not a fair or substantial representation of her work. What I want when I encounter Anaïs Nin is Anaïs Nin, not a therapist or a motivational speaker. The same goes for Susan Sontag or Henry Miller or David Foster Wallace or any of the other incandescently brilliant writers whose writing has recently been cherry-picked and repackaged as glorified self-help tracts. The quotes are certainly theirs, being culled from diaries, journals, speeches and interviews (with the double meaning of culled being entirely apt). The sentiments may well be true. Yet it seems to me duplicitous because the quotes have been carefully selected to fit a pre-existing agenda – us. I am a ludicrously solipsistic and selfish person but even I bristle at the idea that the only thing Susan Sontag or David Foster Wallace had to offer is advice for me. At the risk of impertinence, if I chance upon someone using the currently virulent “there is …
I’ve been playing video games, for my sins, since 1987. For all my flailing pretensions elsewhere, I’ve measured out my life with endless flashing Insert Coin to Continue temptations. For a long time, I became distracted by meaningless things like life but gradually I returned penitently to the fold; following Montaigne’s example that everything is interesting and revealing, and also because indie games, in particular, are enjoying a golden age. Also, have you seen the fucking state of the real world at the minute?
In that motivational spirit, I’ve written a piece on the first 16-bit game I fell in love with, Strider, and what it tells us about Soviet and Japanese futurism. It’s published in Gareth Damian Martin’s excellent and brand-new Heterotopias, a publication destined for great things. Here’s a glimpse:
On the subject of games, until recently I had the pleasure of writing a column for Kill Screen. It was and probably still is a fine magazine, which I wrote for on the intersection of real and virtual architecture, but something about them abruptly sacking their staff rankled with me. So I stepped down and here, in the nostalgic spirit of what was once called solidarity and probably my last piece on games, is my final column.
Rats colonise our sewers. Birds nest in the eaves of buildings. Foxes, mice, and seagulls lay claim to our refuse. We think of cities as the antithesis of the environment rather than environments in themselves. We are relieved of this misconception by creatures labelled as pests when their territories overlap with ours.
In the forthcoming Home Free, you navigate a dog around a city. “There is something intrinsically different and interesting about seeing a city from down where a dog is a couple of feet above ground” the game’s designer Kevin Cancienne points out, “You notice different details, and buildings and vehicles loom even larger.”
This shift in focus goes further than simply a change in scale. The limitations of animal interactions with the urban environment make them relatable. “Open world games like Grand Theft Auto are usually about gaining some form of dominion over the cities they simulate,” Cancienne says. “You start as a small-time crook, and then work your way up until the city is basically yours. In Home Free, you start out as one of the least important creatures in the city — a stray dog — and by the end, you’re still pretty unimportant. I think that more closely matches our real life experience with cities.”
There is, however, a duality to how humans view animals that games address. We often treat animals as subordinate creatures, simply there to aid us in our ventures, but at the same time they are totemic and enigmatic. They are inferior cognitively to human beings only from a human perspective; a shark, for example, is much more ably adapted to its environment than we would be. Despite these differences, we underline our superiority by ascribing human characteristics to animals. Our initial encounters in games likely come through cute anthropomorphized pet-like characters. Yet even these are notable for progressing faster or higher than human characters convincingly can. Games like Ecco the Dolphin and the stunning Ōkami went to uncharted places in terms of setting, atmosphere, and painterly visuals. Playing these games feels strangely elegiac, otherworldly even, as if supposedly soulless animals had translated the world back to us in an improbably soulful way. By the time we reach a game like Papa & Yo, set in a Brazilian favela, the totemic quality of other creatures becomes an incredibly powerful way of addressing who we are.
Using animals as analogous to our urban experiences points to jarring absences in games that feature human avatars. Namely, they tend to assume one particular experience of the urban environment. Yet what is the city to the homeless citizen? To someone who is blind? To an agoraphobic inhabitant? Cities, by their very nature, are plural. While they may be restrictive alienating environments, they also offer versions of sanctuary. Cancienne is quick to address fatalism with Home Free, “I find it oddly liberating. I hope I’m able to express some of the incredible contradiction in cities — that they’re loud and dirty and sometimes scary but also miraculous. You’re free to explore and make sense of the terrible wonders of a city as if for the first time.”
In cities, animals can access places we strain to. The death-defying poses adopted by practitioners of roof-topping are second-nature to birds. The feline, prowling along ledges and through cramped alleyways in the forthcoming Kowloon Walled City-inspired HK Project, has an agility that free-runners can only mimic. Similarly they have access and evasion that Metal Gear Solid characters could only envy. There’s a sense in games like the Mirror’s Edge series of hacking the urban environment (long a cyberpunk obsession); especially forgotten, inaccessible areas and hidden systems. Animals got there long ago. They also remind us of the verticality of cities while we exist day-to-day largely in the horizontal. Comic books have been aware of this for a century; it is no accident that Batman scowling high up on gothic and art deco crags, and Spiderman swinging a path through skyscraper canyons are human-animal hybrids to varying degrees.
While animals may change our approach to cities, the urban environment can alter the behaviour of animals in turn. They adapt surprisingly quickly. The sewer gators of New York may be urban myth but the dogs of Ceaușescu’s Romania were not. The communist dictator’s Sistematizarea plan involved bulldozing traditional housing and pushing the population into concrete tower blocks. An unforeseen consequence of this was that families were forced to abandon their pet dogs, many of whom turned semi-feral, in packs that haunted and terrorised the inner cities. They joined other animals, like rodents and cockroaches, who are seen as vermin for having carving out an urban existence conflicting with ours. Yet they’ve had as much time to adapt to such surroundings as we have, those who adapt too well, to the point of actively interfering with human convenience, are conditioned or eradicated.
What happens if we were to remove the human component? In the forthcoming Lost Ember, a wolf, bird, fish and mole explore Mesoamerican ruins. Each offers unique viewpoints and skills in traversing an environment originally designed for the people of a now-fallen civilisation. It is worth comparing to the area around the irradiated ghost town of Pripyat, abandoned by the population following the Chernobyl disaster, which has seen burgeoning populations of wildlife including boars, eagles, deer and wolves. Similarly, the apartment blocks of the Soviet Arctic mining settlement Pyramiden have been largely deserted by people and colonised by seabirds. From Korea to Croatia, every forsaken human habitation, however devastated by war and ruin, is soon cultivated by other creatures. After humanity, nature will, no doubt, reclaim our cities. In post-apocalyptic games, films and literature, we assume the last survivors to gaze upon the ruins will be members of our resilient, albeit self-destructive, species. In the long term, it’s likely very different eyes will survey what is left.…
‘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…
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.
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.
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 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.
“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.
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. …