Digging the Barrows of ‘Antaeus’ and the ‘Bog Queen’: On Living, Dying and Something In Between in the Landscapes of Seamus Heaney’s North

Seamus Heaney’s North cuts a curious figure in the Irish poetic landscape: part Richard Jefferies, part Patrick Kavanagh, Heaney’s attitudes toward the natural environments that inspired him are a combination of familiarity and fantasy, seeking the element of an ancient past in the body of contemporary Ireland. It’s a curiously melancholy vista that he establishes, full of hand-me-down gods, burials, bog bodies and rolling, roiling peatland, and for each sunny fieldscape there is a deep, seeping barrow where something arcane and ancient has been disinterred. These landscapes are as grim as they are liminal, but potent and powerful as he digs through meaning and topsoil alike to reveal an amber bead, a tarnished hilt, a human heart at the centre of the shifting topography of poetry, and interrogates their meaning in terms of what they mean in terms of history and home.

I was first given a copy of North by schoolfriend and poet Cam Ralphs, who after spending some time in a mouldy three-man house-share in the Staffordshire borderlands loaning me books that I’m in my sixth year of failing to return, went on to become poetry editor of the Times Literary Supplement. It has always felt appropriate to me that this particular collection came from an authoritative source as opposed to the usual ways I’d choose a poetry collection as a student (cover art, likeness to Remains of Elmet and above all, price), as the mushroom-grey Faber edition has rarely been far from my desk since. It’s not a cheerful read – North is a searing, visceral love song to all the bones and bundles pulled shudderingly from Heaney’s homeland peat, a man caught digging through a world of ancient tumuli to interrogate their lives and their journeys – but it is a masterwork of landscape writing, potent and laden with a wry, embattled symbolism in a way that only late modernism might get away with.

North is a collection bound in its sense of place, both its feet in rural Ireland where the graves of its ancestors mass in the ancient landscape. Yet, ever-contrary, Heaney’s masterwork begins in North Africa: one of the first poems in the collection recalls Antaeus, a Libyan giant from Berber and Greek mythology. Antaeus was the son of Poseidon, God of the Sea, and Gaia, a goddess of the earth. Said to be invincible due to his connection with his mother, the earth beneath him, Antaeus’ strength was renewed with each footfall he took, and even were he to be downed by an enemy, the touch of the earth upon his bare skin would renew his health and vigour.

Heaney’s Antaeus is the same, although transported from Libyan desert to the dark earth of an unnamed corner of rural Ireland:

I cannot be weaned

Off the earth’s long contour, her river-veins.

Down here in my cave,

Girded with root and rock,

I am cradled in the dark that wombed me

And nurtured in every artery

Like a small hillock.

‘Antaeus’

It ends badly for the mythological Antaeus: on his way to the Garden of Hesperides, Heracles defeats the giant by lifting him aloft away from the earth as he crushes him. Unable to renew himself by the connection with the earth beneath, Antaeus dies in Heracles’ death-grip, severed from the force that both bore and sustained him. Heaney later revisits the scene in the later poem Hercules and Antaeus, concluding the giant’s life with the solemn line ‘the cradling dark / the river-veins, the secret gullies / of his strength, /the hatching grounds of cave and souterrain/ – he has bequeathed it all to elegists’.

Heaney’s Antaeus evoking the idea of a life-giving earth, an earth that might impede the finality of death is no throwaway reference: it sets the tone for how the earth functions within the rest of North. The body of the earth appears as a landscape connection that not only renders the living renewed but also implies that the dead within it are gathered tenderly – cradled in the dark that wombed me- and mothered, perhaps not quite as dead as they should be. It’s a theme that Heaney returns to again and again within North, the idea of the earth as a force that has life and death in its grasp, and like we see in Antaeus, there is the notion that if that connection were to be severed, the dreamy, melancholy narrator too would wilt and falter: the rural landscape isn’t only a dominant theme in these poems- as the poem intimates, it truly fuels and sustains them as did Antaeus’ mother Gaia- and they are of its own creation.  

It’s also interesting to note that this eternal half-life is not always a loving or welcome thing for Heaney’s subjects: as the skeletal navvies of The Digging Skeleton (itself after Baudelaire’s Le Squelette Laboreur) describe as they are pulled from death to live and labour again, …some traitor breath / Revives our clay, sends us abroad, and only by constant labour might they earn themselves some chance of a return to the burial mound. It is, perhaps, a comment on the nature of belonging and how for Heaney some fates might be set into the bedrock of a homeland milieu- and perhaps to labour in the afterlife as one did in life is simply another part of the inescapability of a local landscape identity. Belonging is not always homely in these poems, and death, it seems, is the simple part – for the inhabitants of North’s dark earth, it’s what happens afterward that complicates the matter.

This may certainly be said for the lot of the Bog Queen. Resplendent at the centre of the collection, she holds court over the assorted spirits and skeletons that populate North and perhaps best exemplifies the strange ways in which the collection treats the notions of life, death and the earth that lies between them.

I lay waiting

between turf-fence and demesne wall

between heathery levels

and glass-toothed stone.

[…] Through my fabrics and skins

the seeps of winter

 digested me

the illiterate roots

pondered and died

in the cavings

of stomach and socket.

I lay waiting

on the gravel bottom,

my brain darkening,

a jar of spawn

fermenting underground.

‘Bog Queen’

Heaney analogises an event from the 1780s, where he gives voice to the first bog body discovered in Ireland, a Scandinavian woman discovered at the edge of the Moira estate in County Lisburn in the early 1780s. Less a ghost story and more a bodily history, the Bog Queen details her interment and the slow decay of her body as she rides the binary of life and death, buried in the peat that preserves her consciousness as she oscillates between seething and sorrow- ‘my brain darkening / a jar of spawn / fermenting underground’.  Hers is a language of spanning divisions- not only adrift between the living and the dead, she lies ‘between turf-fence and demesne wall / between heathery levels / and glass-toothed stone’, between the common land of the peat-bog and the boundary wall of the Anglo-Scottish occupiers, the landowners who laid claim to vast swathes of County Lisburn in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her curious heritage is interesting in terms of its relationship with the landscape: she feels herself decaying (the seeps of winter / digested me) yet the land sustains the spark of her consciousness, much less absolute than the ways in which the force of the earth resurrects and resurrects again the fallen Antaeus, but still a powerful way of evading a true, bodily death. The entirety of the language she uses to describe her situation is driven by the natural landscape, even as she further decays becoming invaded by it (the illiterate roots / pondered and died / in the cavings of my stomach) until they both rest together in the bog.

I was barbered

and stripped

by a turfcutter’s spade

who veiled me again

and packed coomb softly

between the stone jambs

at my head and my feet.

Till a peer’s wife bribed him.

The plait of my hair,

a slimy birth-cord

of bog, had been cut

And I rose from the dark,

hacked bone, skull-ware

frayed stitches, tufts

small gleams on the bank.

‘Bog Queen’

As her history rolls on, she details how she is unearthed by a peat-cutter by accident and then hastily reinterred, until the landowner’s wife bribes him to fully disinter her body, and as he strips it for trinkets and tokens (The plait of my hair, a slimy birth-cord; Frayed stitches, tufts / small gleams on the bank) she dissipates from the narrative. She was a revenant, neither here nor gone, unwillingly caught between the layers of the peat yet her narrative appears to dissolve as she us unearthed from it, disrobed, dismantled and eventually lost to history. She is, perhaps, reborn as she rises from the peat- the umbilical connection of her hair severed from the earth, the landscape both mother and sexton- as she lives again, or maybe dies a final time- like Antaeus, preserved no longer by the connection of body to land.

The violence of her undeath is jarring, uncomfortably visceral. The final motions of the final stanza- where we are unable to discern if her ascension is welcome or unwelcome – are a strange and disquieting reading experience, as if in witnessing the crime of her exhumation the reader too is part of the unwelcome scrutiny that sees the Bog Queen shovelled from the peat. Like Antaeus, the earth is life-giving to her, but instead of it granting her an eternity living, it grants her an eternity neither living nor dead.

Like so many of Heaney’s body poems, ‘Bog Queen’ begins and ends with the notion that death, is rarely absolute. The base assumption that a deep connection with the natural landscape has the ability to negate death’s finality is potent and powerful within the collection, surfacing in many forms in poems such as ‘Belderg’, ‘The Grauballe Man’, ‘Punishment’ and ‘Kinship’, and although the idea that some spark or spirit remains after bodily death certainly not new, the inextricable linkage of what remains and where it remains in North is reminiscent more of a haunted land than a hallowed one. Just as Antaeus, transported from Libya to the dark soils and seeping cold of Heaney’s beloved peat country is sustained past all injury by his connection with the land, the Bog Queen lies revenant in her cyst or barrow, effectively trapped between demesne and bogland and living and death.

The implication of this connection of polarities are interesting when we look at Heaney’s world. Following in the footsteps of a number of twentieth century landscape poets who sought to reconcile and better understand modernity, mortality and their relationship with the natural (Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, and Edward Thomas to name but a few), North too attempts to remedy an invasive modernity with a retreat back into older mythologies, journeying into an old high past as a form of escapism, populating these paracosms with shades and phantoms that tether it to an older time as the new, modern world becomes more invasively present. The landscape, for Heaney, is a force more powerful than the binary of living and dying itself, a wild god with the power to complicate the life-course even in an age of modern reason and scientific truth. It’s affectionate, almost, reverent and ancient: something not quite of the world as we know it, chastising our move away from the green places of the world that were so vital to us long ago.

It has also been suggested by a number of scholars that Heaney’s undying earth is a metaphor for the country of Ireland itself and the hurts that it suffered at the hands of the British occupation, the bodies of any number of uprisings, epidemics, famines and displacements barely concealed under the shifting soils, unable to untether themselves from the landscape as the injustices of the last eight centuries bind them to the living landscape. It’s an old idea, that a spirit remains due to unfinished deeds or recompense to be taken, and North exemplifies the concept with gusto: whether in the acts visited upon them before their death or simply the act of disinterment or disconnection, these bodies have been somehow wronged.

North is a landscape of confused mortalities, sustaining earths and devouring ones; the states of undeath and unliving, and at its very core asks the age-old question: what happens when the heart stops? In giving his ghosts flesh and form, Heaney transcends the spiritual and comes back to the physicality of dying, interrogating the idea of bodily death that we are all but estranged from in a modern, western world. Antaeus forfeits his eternity by moving away from the earth; the Bog Queen spends her eternity in it, held back from true death, and although they respond in different ways to the idea of a life-giving earth, they prompt the same realisation that life and landscape are inextricable even at their culmination. Birth and death are two sides of the same coin in a landscape uncomplicated by encroaching modernity, and these two bodies- the giant and the bog-born queen – exist in a chilling limbo as we are invited to reflect on what it actually is that keeps us going- and what persists after we have gone.




BOOK REVIEW: Vahni Capildeo’s “Skin Can Hold”

Vahni Capildeo’s Skin Can Hold bursts with ideas, electric with the joy of words. Capildeo is a writer enamoured with language, and her book offers up sextina, rondeau, motet, dialogue, oulipo game, just about everything you can imagine; her tone shifts in emotion too, from angry, to playful, to puzzled, to scholarly. “Panting, ending, burning, invading, weeping, / burning, caressing, longing! Reworking / thickens the trunk of the text,” she writes. Language becomes the source of everything: rapport, stultification, light-heartedness, violence. Grammar links to the body, and through such extreme love of language we discover new forms of love itself.

Already-existing forms of language can make us feel distanced or separated from intimate connection with others, so part of Capildeo’s task as a poet is “unpicking lexicons”. Her attention to language means she’s fascinated by advertisements and announcements, by the sounds of words, by onomatopoeia (“tapped, tripped, trapped”), by repetitive structures (“I come, I seize, I erase”), by languages other than English as well as the many varieties of English from regions of the United Kingdom, the Indian diaspora, the Caribbean and other ex-colonized territories.

Some of this interest derives from her own Trinidadian-Scottish background — we all start somewhere, before we open ourselves to the vastnesses that exist beyond the accident of immediate context. Some come from the places she’s lived, some from her linguistic training (she has a PhD in Anglo-Saxon Literature from Oxford and has worked as a lexicographer), some from friends, some from a realm of the imagination never before heard or seen on this planet.

Across her many collections, including Simple Complex Shapes, Measures of Expatriation, Seas and Trees and Venus as a Bear, Capildeo’s playfulness with language becomes a kind of resistance to forms of identity that insist on a supposed purity or authenticity. Her literature makes different sources clash, not only inhabiting but also creating new voices and traditions, producing associative-chains between sources that wouldn’t often come into contact in a single person, or in recorded History itself. Building another zone for linguistic play that’s hard to pin down in space and time is a never-ending project, since there’s forever “still more chaos effectively to organize”. But she does it, with wit and humour, as a master of parody, drawing out rhetoric a little farther than it tends to go, to demonstrate its flexibility or absurdity, for instance with bureaucratic directives: “Customers travelling with children must ensure that every child / travelling on the brown bag service is individually brown-bagged.”

There’s a similar movement at work in her performance instructions, which begin as more or less something to follow, and end in abstraction and interior space. Modern theatre often focuses more on evoking emotions than on movements of plot, but here words are distanced to the limit from possible interpretation: “He reads with the abstraction of a bichon frisé abandoned in the Hofgarten. You stoop, stretch, circle, segment, re-attach the relation of your body to the space around him.” The work contains its own critique, and mention of “an alternative version of this performance” occurs in the instructions themselves. Performance itself is less the point, maybe, than possibilities.

This section ends with the beginnings of language, as a girl, alone, sings vowels to herself: “No performance, such as untying ribbons to give to passersby, is involved.” The suggestion here is that engagement with others is itself a kind of performance, an idea that also appears in other poems. There are a few in the first person, notably “Shame”, about humilation of all kinds, sexual, professional, collateral, and so on: “The occurrence of the pretence as play; the occurrence of protest as pretend play; the performance of self-harm as protest: with its roots in the shade of the netted tree, this was shame (…) Shame on behalf of others is tiring. I hold it in the bowl of my pelvis, as empty as a night of timed-out stars. Shame on behalf of others flips into fury.”

But it would be a mistake to think of her as primarily an autobiographical poet. One of the things that fascinates me about Capildeo is precisely that she’s shifty, that her trompe l’oeil surfaces don’t say what you think they will, or at least not in that way. She’s a slippery fish who wriggles away from the reassuring poles of sociological discourse. Multiple times the idea of policing of literature comes up, for instance, as in her reflection on the “online angloamerican feminist group ‘protoform’” which cancelled several of its own, or her comment that “the frauds / claim exotic identities and needs”, an ambiguity that becomes interesting given how Capildeo is often herself positioned as a mouthpiece of this kind in the British poetic firmament.

Given her twin preoccupations with language and performance, it’s natural that when Capildeo finds her way to Shakespeare and other texts from the traditional canon of English literature, she juggles them into something new. Several poems list “sources” at the end of pieces, often combining a more classic work with something contemporary like Wikipedia. This incongruity might feel alienating or academic, and it’s true that many times I felt the texts gave me the slip, in a way they wouldn’t if I understood the original reference, or made the effort to study more. Isn’t that the modernist idea, I berate myself, that the poet makes demands of the reader, that she’s expected to capture the heady allusions?

Yet another part of me rebels against this, and claims my right to enjoy the poems without fully understanding them. I think Capildeo would like this, too. In a video for the University of York, she insists that the readers should pay attention to the pleasure of language for its own sake, and the ways it makes one want to write something of one’s own. And in her work on Martin Carter (which I’ll discuss further on), she writes: “Place ingrained in feeling seems to encourage researched reading. Sparse details can be unfurled into Guyanese realities. We, on the contrary, appreciated without wanting to dwell.”

The stage directions in “her” Shakespeares are, again, fascinating in how they serve to disorient as much as orient. As she says later in the book, “Directions arrive as if / translated from the more helpful souls / in Dante’s hell.” Shakespeare, like Capildeo herself, is agile as a carp and “alive, you type, and inconveniently alive in quick vertical, like on social media once, where a set of honest and original poets said no white actor should presume to play Othello since his is the only part black actors can without ripping the expensive delicate illusion of good theatre. I took by the throat these angels of the house, and clicked unlike”. Again, there’s no space here for saying what one can’t do, for invention will permit no red tape, closed signs, or boards laid in a forbidding “X” over locked doors.

Capildeo defends the idea of honestly and intimately metamorphosing into other bodies, minds, spaces and eras, to make hybrid creatures, greenhouse flowers and alien beings that you recognize in the mirror. The title of this poem, “Radical Shakespeare”, is perhaps a bit too on the nose for my taste, but one appreciates what she’s doing here. Because for her, and so many others — for most people I think — there isn’t any so-called “authentic” single identity to return to at all. We read widely, and wildly, and the thing that marks out a good from a bad reader isn’t how much she knows but how sensitive she is to the project of what the other is doing — which she might then find interesting and take up, or sweep aside.

Capildeo’s shifts in tense between past, present and future destabilize the notion of what was, is and will be, and her activity itself suggests that all classics might be rewritten this way, with other voices such as those of women (for Capildeo, who self-defines as “they” and writes that she “self-presents” as a woman, an ample concept), on the sidetracks and rusty roads untaken left behind by the history of victors, where the trace remains:

There are too many women in this play,

all of an age to bleed; none bore children.

Lunar and silent, they have spread a field

of blood beneath the action. Dirt has skirts,

smooth roads rust, tiled surfaces tainted

with vinegar; nothing wipes nothing out,

nothing can be reached directly; nothing

that does not shed a lining, shudder, rubbish

the chance to make one clean sweet queen bee line.

Behind this bringing together of different registers, ideas and voices, there is an idea exploring such areas of shadow and rust, of going back to unexplored veins of history to discover the violence there but also the untapped joy, instead of resigning ourselves to the grey bureaucratic everyday to which we find ourselves confined.

To imagine other stories in history, and not just those linked to one’s own identity, is a form of resistance and holds liberating potential. After all, the “identity” we currently hold and the words we use are linked to such historical, colonial violence, which affected language. Everything is contingent, all is a counterhistory. What other parallel universes might exist? Capildeo helps us to explore them. As one of her personas writes: “When the British and the Spanish and the French and the Dutch and the Yankees and the Portuguese took away your language, I grew strong eating your tongues.” Such violence behind history comes through in Capildeo’s style, too, with its phrases that smash into each other, refuse a “clean” read, and leave a measure of incomprehension, but are also sown with possibility, “seeded with unfoldings”.

All of this might sound heavy, but it isn’t — thanks in large part to the light tone, the playful formats, and the ambiguity of the speaker herself. One of Capildeo’s preferred characters is the Fool, the one who makes language jokes like “gecko in a wall-zone” the one who through performative clowning can say what others do not, the one who speaks the truth. Thus Capildeo, with ludic skill, erases many givens, erasures necessary to create something new: “put a line through: meaning (…) put a line through: my”. But what’s left after we get rid of the drive toward sense, the established versions of history, the autobiographical first-person? Temporarily we might get closer to tree and plant life: “You’re indecipherable like a tree, and treelike you proliferate your gestures.” I don’t think it’s a mistake that so much writing these days is coming back to ideas of nature, as a source of poetry, as consolation, as another track through the foliage of events: “Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree.” Capildeo goes farther with her non-anthropomorphism, becoming not just objects but determinants from biology, sociology, physics:

I was the hurt that hobble the angel foot. I was the rot that spread in the forest’s root. (…) I am the nerves that push the mad president’s hand to push the button. I am the last words that you forget to utter. (…) I am the child bride hymen beneath the fingernails of the lawyer, I am the coat hanger in the cupboard of the priest wife room, I am the terrorist vampire from the Lapeyrouse tomb (…) I am the biological vector that turns the suicidal farmer’s harvest to ash. I am the force that shatters the astronomer of freedom’s telescope to splinter in his eye, I am the widespread lack of education that blind your comrade and make him cry.

These lines come from my favourite piece in the book, “Midnight Robber Monologue”, taken from a supposed play in which “Robbers duel in Tamarind Square, challenging each other with their sweeping actions and speeches that beat back the aeroplane Concorde breaking the sound barrier”. The force of this voice is a whirlwind, otherworldly. “The Robber is older than you can ever understand. He seizes the present. He is Fear itself. He is the eternal shadow underpinning all the five continents’ shifty land.” Time itself is undone:

At the age of minus six hundred and sixty six, I met the seraphim and cut off their pricks. At the age of minus seven, I cast down heaven into the Labasse. At the age of zero I forged my own cutlass. At the age of five I took your life, and your life, and your life. Your lives were sweet, and zombification was complete. At the age of nine, darkness was all mine. From the age of ten I operate as a ageless robber douen.

Faced with such “other” forces, we confront an impossibility of contact. This failure of communication, the silences made by others without our consent, and those we ourselves make for which we are responsible, is another theme. There are always things unknown even between the poet and the reader: “there is always, / even between the lines that speak / of breaks & brakes, / always someone else / who was present in writing – / when you thought you / knew – who you thought you were reading – / no means – in the garden singing”. The silent body outside of the text is a constant in all the mysteries: love, violence, writing. Capildeo notes the connection: “Love’s an enigma like murder.” Her most love-filled poem, “Reading for Compass: Response to Zaffar Kunial, Us”, is filled with a sense of the sacred and the aura of an appointment somewhere beyond, a rendezvous in some mirage of night with a fellow poet:

This isn’t what I’m used to. I grew up
as an inventor of voices for dead
books, impossible, inherited, odd
volumes, middle slices missing, made up;
colonial texts for memorisation
autoexecuted in rolling tones;
‘Indo-European’ languages drunk
like milk alchemised from blood, acquired
history. I know in my bones a desert,
or somesuch suddenly green lush place, where
our ancestors could have met with opposed
weaponry. What has survived of this is
us. And your advice: take heed of the vowels.

Repeatedly, in her work, as here, Capildeo defines and challenges what poetry is or does. “Every poem an ouroboros,” she says at one point. At another: “Reading this returns me to my body.” Elsewhere: “Who said which language / the book had to be in, anyway? / Fuck that shit. Now that’s a poem.” We are some ways beyond (or lateral to) Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”. The section of the book with Capildeo’s versions of Muriel Spark, an exploration of Scottishness, further complicate what poetry is through the incorporation of folk songs, wolf tales, and other popular materials.

The heart of the book, in my view, is a section that initially seems a jarringly non-fictional, near scholarly exploration of the life of Guyanese writer Martin Carter (1927-1997). In the context of the book as a whole, it makes sense. Capildeo’s interest in Carter has to do with her interest in performance, and with relivings (not responses or reworkings, she emphasizes). Out of the work of Carter, with “his naturally enigmatic and quasi-modernist intellectual approach to innovation”, she has created new “syntax poems” to be performed by several voices and bodies. For several pages she describes the elaborate performance on the basis of her poems made from Carter’s, “a living, not anatomised, version of practical criticism and close reading” with the goal that the audience will have “participated in a sense of call and response, cry and chorus, intimate camaraderie”. Carter’s original poem “I Am No Soldier” is rousing and soul-stirring: “O come astronomer of freedom / Come comrade stargazer / Look at the sky told you I had seen / The glittering seeds that germinate in darkness”, and Capildeo’s version turns this into a bewildering yet sensuous experience. Martin Carter is a “comrade stargazer”, and all of us are brothers and sisters on this earth together, linking arms and looking toward the heavens.

While the original poem is more or less comprehensible, the vertigo-inducing new form necessitates a return to the page, to elucidate the concept behind the work. These pages in writing, Capildeo says, are both “a record of the ephemeral”, and an instruction kit: “These materials are primarily an encouragement to readers to prepare their own kinetic, immersive, or collaborative responses (should they so wish) to any text of their choice.” The seating instructions for a colonial classroom, chart and student exercises at the end are partly serious, partly a devilish wink at the poetry apparatus that provides exercises meant for students to “understand” poems.

I do wonder about the relationship of this kind of poetry to academia, since it seems to require a restitching after the unpicking. (Capildeo wrote this when she held the Judith E. Wilson Poetry Fellowship from 2014 to 2016, at the University of Cambridge.) An interesting sort of academia might perhaps forge an atmosphere beyond the accelerated news-cycle-driven world to explore some of the avenues of difficult poetry, which Capildeo lays out.

A new criticism would involve not just the page, but the body, and would explore the connection between units of sense and their connection to physical movement: “What is the smallest unit of sense that arises from the joining-up made by the eye-movement (or that catches the inner ear as the eye moves)?” Capildeo, in her notes, pays close attention to breathing, rhythms, invocations, and repetitions, and treasures a constant movement, with a lack of interest in settling. The performance itself ends with a dance: “we had to anchor ourselves in the text and live out its twists and turns, in order to make sure we did not get physically stuck at any random or significant point in the set-that-was-not-a-set.”

The last few poems felt a little miscellaneous, or at least I’d have put them before the climax of the Martin Carter poem. But I appreciated their inclusion, especially “Poems for the Douma 4”, about four people abducted from the Violations Documentation Centre, in Syria: “Nuance has more off switches than lovers. Men stormed. Men do not storm. These are not natural phenomena. Sometimes I hate my trained mind.” Such interrogations of language, which gut it, draw out its viscera, sew it up into new beasts, then dance the unidentifiable forms into life, make any reified notion of identity seem unbearably tedious. There is so much more we can do.




Book Review: Breasts and Eggs by Meiko Kawakami

Although a translation of her short novel Ms Ice Sandwich was brought out by Pushkin Press in 2017, Breasts and Eggs is the full-length fiction by Mieko Kawakami to appear in English.

The initial part, originally published as a novella in 2008, is a first-person narrative about a few days in the life of 30 year old Natsuko. She’s moved to Tokyo from Osaka and dreams of artistic success while living on the breadline. Her big sister Makiko, who brought her up, is visiting. Makiko works in a hostess club and has come to the capital to finalise her cherished plan to get breast implants. Makiko is accompanied by her 12 year old daughter Midoriko, who has retreated into silence, confiding only in her journal. 

Midoriko’s diary, which punctuates the narrative, is the highlight of Part One. She is a female Adrian Mole, a working class kid, struggling to make sense of a dysfunctional adult world. But while Sue Townsend’s take on the world is gently humorous, Kawakami dishes up stronger fare. Adrian’s changing body causes him mild embarrassment, but Midoriko feels horror about impending puberty. She is equally disgusted by her mother’s determination to have surgery. (A girl may face truths that women do their utmost to repress.)

Breast and Eggs is a book of two, unbalanced, halves. In the much longer second part Natsuko is keeping afloat as a freelance writer – albeit one with a bad case of novelist’s block. The baton of angst, previously borne by sister and niece, has been passed to her. Natsuko is consumed by the wish to have a child. Because sexual desire was absent in her one long-ago relationship, she has concluded sperm donation is the answer.

The theme of insemination has the potential for comedy gold. And this is delivered in the scene where Natsuko meets Onda, a potential donor whose prolixity equals that of Austen’s Mr Collins. But while Midoriko’s fears of womanhood, Makiko’s dreams of a perfect bosom, are served with liberal doses of authorial irony, satire is off the menu when it comes to Kawakami’s chief protagonist. 

The narrator’s alternating decision and indecision – her exchanges with equally unhappy friends – would entertain as lifestyle journalism pieces or entries to a blog. But when joined up as chapters in a novel, they have their longueurs.  

At times Breasts and Eggs is reminiscent of a Buy-One-Get-One-Free supermarket offer. Part One is the brilliant debut novel and Part Two the ‘difficult’ successor. This unevenness may arise because Kawakami doesn’t feel bound to fulfil our expectations of what a novelist ‘should’ do. She may be seen as a latter day DH Lawrence. Brilliantly poetic and powerful at some points – at others repetitive and didactic. And, like Lawrence in his time, Kawakami has attracted both censure and adulation.

Happily the first DH is at the helm as the  novel draws towards its close. The chapters in which  Natsuko returns to visit her childhood home., when she has her baby, are extraordinary.

Here Kawakami makes a significant addition to the feminist line of alternative birth narratives begun by Mary Shelley. Natsuko also takes her place in a parade of  heroines – Jane Eyre, Jeanette in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – who exult in their own happy ending.

The labour of reading Breasts and Eggs becomes wholly worthwhile. 

Breasts and Eggs is published by Europa Editions.




A “Brilliant Sun”, a “Trap of Bones” – Visions of Pakistan in Moniza Alvi’s -The Country at My Shoulder.

They sent me a salwar-kameez

peacock-blue,

and another

glistening like an orange split open,

embossed slippers, gold and black

points curling.

‘Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan’

Sat saturated in an English classroom in the north of England was where I first read the opening stanzas of Moniza Alvi’s Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan’: gunmetal clouds rolling in off the rugby pitches, the whole prefab sweating sleet through the wall, the jewel-coloured fabrics of Alvi’s brand new salwar-kameez seemed a world away from the wet woollen blazer that coloured my early understanding of it. The juxtaposition seemed alien to me, the sullen and scarred face of an English November versus the stained-glass shine of Alvi’s gifts from Lahore, and the disjunct left me feeling very distant from the narrative- part of a diametrical opposition, sat at one pole and looking in vain toward the other.

When the exam rolled around, I wrote on Carol Ann Duffy instead.

Although it would take me a shameful ten years to realise it, in evoking that disjunct, Alvi’s Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan is a piece of masterful storytelling. Cautiously, carefully, born of half-histories and an almost frustrated duality, Alvi chronicles the ways in which she moves through her adolescence in gifted Pakistani clothes:

My salwar-kameez

didn’t impress the schoolfriend

who sat on my bed, asked to see

my weekend clothes.

But often I admired the mirror-work,

tried to glimpse myself

in the miniature

glass circles, recall the story

how the three of us

sailed to England.

‘Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan’

It’s a poetry born of polarities; the quiet, grey of Alvi’s Hertfordshire home and the alien shock of colour that the ‘candy-striped glass bangles’, the ‘apple-green sari’ and the glittering gold of her mother’s filigree bring with them across the sea. It’s cloying, almost, unwelcome- ‘I longed for denim and corduroy / my costume clung to me and I was aflame / I couldn’t rise up out of it’s fire, half-English’. The stark contrast of these two oppositions- the gardens and wastelands, the denim and corduroy that bleed in from the narrator’s half-Englishnessand the seemingly inescapable, vivid colours of Pakistan- are at the heart and centre of Moniza Alvi’s The Country at My Shoulder, the collection from which the poem came.

Moniza Alvi left Lahore at the age of three months old in 1954, arriving in England with her Pakistani father and English mother and no memories of the country that she was born in. The dreamlike nature of Alvi’s Pakistan in these poems is, therefore, unsurprising: surreal, vibrant wordscapes of a land remembered through histories that aren’t her own, like the clothing, the camel-skin lamp and the photographs of Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan create a strange, almost childlike vision of a place that exists only in the space between one identity and the next.

This Pakistan is a shifting conglomerate force of colour and sound within the landscape of her poetry. Like the swallowing, flaming ‘costume’ of Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan, the country seems to represent a cacophony for the senses, a world away from the ‘grimly ornamental’ English gardens she describes in Hydrangeas; the landscape of the Indian subcontinent a feast that transcends the senses. She wonders at how ‘melted ghee made lakes, golden rivers,’ and how she ‘Tasted the landscape, customs of my father’s country – it’s fever biting on a chilli’, the landscape a bold, bright, irreverent presence, almost more sensation than substance. In one poem it appears benevolent, the next, a crushing weight that threatens to overcome the narrator, their sense of identity and sense of where they belong. ‘There’s a country at my shoulder / growing larger – soon it will burst / rivers will spill out, run down my chest’, the poem for which the collection is named intones, the poet struggling to bear the weight of her hybrid identity. No matter how she tries to evade it- ‘I try to shake the dust from the country / The country has become my body, I can’t break bits off-’ the threat of her otherness appears to complicate it, alter it with her very presence as she transitions from one piece of verse to the next. The poem ends as she pictures the dam breaking, Pakistan’s rivers of the first stanza becoming something at once alien and home-grown as she foresees a shuddering end: ‘I water the country with English rain / cover it with English words. Soon it will burst, or fall like a meteor.

The allusion of national landscape to body comes powerfully and often in the latter half of The Country at My Shoulder. In the poem The Sari, again, Alvi sees Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent through the lens of its clothing, observing from above how the journey she took as a child pans out on a world map:

All the people unravelled a sari.

It stretched from Lahore to Hyderabad,

wavered across the Arabian Sea

shot through with stars

fluttering with sparrows and quails.

They threaded it with roads,

Undulations of land.

Eventually

They wrapped and wrapped me in it

whispering Your body is your country.

The Sari.

The statement is half-comforting, half terrifying- although she is swathed in the sari of her journey, carrying the landscape she was born in with her in her own flesh and blood, it is possible to read the poem’s final line as a grim caveat: your body is your country, the unknown people whisper as they swaddle the infant narrator in the fabric of the land. Your body is your country, not the clothing, not the fabric; and alienated from what came before and what came after. Whilst the body is fundamental, fabric might be shed.

These kinds of anxieties characterise Alvi’s poetry from the early 1990s as her narrators navigate the sea and the river of an unusual British Asian experience; neither being a first- nor a second-generation immigrant but something in-between. Pakistan, in these poems, is Prospero’s island- fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile- at once inhospitable and welcoming, something familiar and alien, a living presence within her and somehow cut off, unable to truly communicate except in the pictograms and glyphs she finds in photographs, histories, and a peacock-blue salwar-kameez.

And at the centre of these poems lies something else, something even more vital to Alvi’s experience, as intrinsic to The Country at my Shoulder as the elm tree to Constable or Wessex to Hardy: there is a powerful, almost blinding pull back to Pakistan that emerges in these poems. It feels inevitable, omniscient within the living histories and snapshots that she spins, despite her half-Englishness. ‘In my dreams I trawl towards a brilliant sun,’ she writes in The Draught. ‘A trap of bones is set about my neck. And the draught? The great draught is blowing me to my birthplace.’ The scorching pull of a country barely remembered, seen only in the photographs of Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan becomes a driving force within Alvi’s collection, a landscape created from personal mythology and her own ancestry- a trap of bones- made sentient, and moving to beckon across the air and sea. The oscillation from alien to familiar, mine to not mine of Pakistan within these poems displays a potent, unsubtle compulsion to find out for herself, to explore this connection in a way that cannot be complicated by issues of identity, or visions of the self: she is drawn to the Pakistani landscape physically, to experience it first-hand regardless of any preconceived belonging or not-belonging.

It’s The Country at My Shoulder as opposed to The Country at My Side; something past-tense perhaps, an amalgamation of myth and history augmented through the archaeology of gifts she receives, the letters she sends and photographs she isn’t a part of.

Alvi’s England is different. It is easy to read the collection as an enduring love-song to her own Pakistani heritage, bound about in living aunts and buried bones and dusty sepia visions of a continent half-remembered, but there is a secondary landscape within the collection that further illustrates the ways in which it explores the hybridity of the self through her narrator. If Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan, The Sari and The Country at My Shoulder are about a crisis of belonging, poems like Spring on the Hillside and The Garden are about the items and places that evoke a that duality from the other side, the perennial Englishness of the Hertfordshire town where she grew up.

These landscapes are populated by all the flora and fauna of an almost Edwardian vision of a country garden: verdant, sleepy and so different from the pull, the power and fascination of Pakistan as it exists in the narrator’s mind, they’re a strange oppositional force within these identity stories that seem at odds with the other landscape. Here we find ‘bushes alive with cabbage whites’, ‘hydrangeas massing heavy as cannonballs’, ‘mushrooms sturdy as tables’ and wastelands carpeted in willow-herb where she hides and plays as a child. There’s also more than a little dash of Ken Loach in there too, augmenting these quiet turn-of-the-century gardens and their little homeland idyll- in the poem Neighborhood we see a vision of England that moves away from the Enid Blyton landscape of plum trees and hollyhocks, focusing in on the minutiae of life in an individual neighbourhood.

Next door they were always fighting

calling each other Mr and Mrs

the names barking away

at the back of our chimney.

There were families with bitten

trickles of children

who pushed prams full of babies

junk and little dogs, smothered

and dressed in baby clothes.

Neighbourhood.

These vistas might be dramatically different from the visions of Lahore, the ‘brilliant sun’ and the breaking dam of The Draught and The Country at My Shoulder, but they’re no less her own. These are the lieux de memoire of an English childhood, hollyhocks and dogs in prams, wastelands and tawny skies, something just as vital to Alvi’s narrator as the metaphorical sari that stretches all the way from Lahore to Hyderabad as she travels away from Pakistan as a child.  

Alvi’s collection is a sea of conflicting landscape identities: the narrator in the salwar-kameez, the narrator swaddled in the sari, the narrator buckling under the weight of the country at her shoulder that threatens to burst- all of them wonder about the politics of belonging to something so unknown and yet so familiar and vital that it exists within her own body, potent and all-consuming, almost threatening to swallow her whole despite (or because of) her half-Englishness. She is constantly English and not; of Lahore and of Hatfield, an uneasy double identity that gives these works their unique character and blistering sense of hybridity.

And still, she never once threatens to dilute one with the other. There is no poem where Alvi makes peace with the experience of being both at once- or perhaps sometimes neither one nor the other. Her schoolfriend in Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan still can’t relate to her colourful salwar-kameez, each element of Pakistan is a shock of colour against England’s Edwardian gardens- and these landscapes never bleed into each other; even in The Sari they’re still at either end of the garment as she’s swaddled in it, bodily connected but always at a polarity as she moves through these landscapes simultaneously. It’s less England and Pakistan than it is an England and Pakistan of the mind, each a paracosm of the ephemera that Alvi connects with it- plum trees, voices behind the chimney breast, wastelands covered in willow-herb, and a bursting dam, the sear of a chilli and the oranges, blues and greens of her gifted clothes from her aunts in Lahore.

These two created worlds exist on the same plane, but are diametrically opposed for Alvi, two landscapes present about her body that appear never destined to meet across a distance that spans more than sea and air. The allure of the image of the Indian subcontinent is raw, seen plainly in these poems as these landscapes create an allegory for those conflicting identities, as she voices the frustration and confusion of an immigrant experience from an era where the global interconnectedness of the modern day had yet to emerge and the other side of the world was, truly, the other side of the world.

Not long after the publication of The Country at My Shoulder, Moniza Alvi visited Pakistan for the first time since she was a child. Her next collection of poems, A Bowl of Warm Air, builds on the precipices found in The Sari, Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan and The Draught, and explores what she finds in the country she was born in. It’s another candid, searing take on belonging and the complexity of a British immigrant experience, and her narrator begins to connect with a landscape exterior to her created Pakistani landscape, she begins to reach out toward what she thought previously cloying or alien, forging different connections, no less real but more earthly and tangible than her young narrator’s map of colour and silk.

An unknown country crept between

my toes, threw an ocean behind each eye…

I’d held out my arms to kingfishers and tigers

I’d sipped each moment like a language.

The Laughing Moon.




The Husband | Litro Lab Podcast

Picture credits: Hiro_A

But he doesn’t get it. Doesn’t understand. Because it’s a woman’s name she says again. It’s a woman who she, his wife, flirted with when autumn came and the leaves began to fall.

Natascha Graham

This week on Litro Lab podcast, we bring you a lyrical piece about a husband who is struggling to understand his wife. With a touch of humour, this story challenges us to reflect on how people we think we know can change. After all, gender and identity are fluid, and will inevitably spill over the edges of what some consider socially acceptable.

You can listen to the podcast on the player below, or subscribe to “Litro Lab” on Spotify or iTunes.



This piece was read by Vee Tames.

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The Art of Black Humour

Can a novel about a stand-up comedian not be funny? Can a novel that devotes pages and pages to a comedian’s onstage act make you cry? This is not a riddle about novelists or comedians. It’s a question you’ll be asking if you pick up a copy of Israeli writer David Grossman’s Man Booker-winning novel, A Horse Walks Into a Bar. The comedy here is dead serious. Grossman uses it with panache to explore a range of themes including the relationship between art and pain, the dynamics of dysfunctional families, and the tragedy of failed states in the modern world.

Humour – black or otherwise – is a powerful tool in a writer’s kit. Use it wisely in your fiction and you are guaranteed to get the reader’s undivided attention. It can make the reader laugh, it can make the reader weep. Love it or hate it, readers will feel compelled to keep turning the pages till they get to the end.

Mohammad Hanif’s crackling first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a perfect example. Hanif mines the potential of black humour and makes the best possible use of it here. Laced with generous and lethal doses of black humour, the plot gallops ahead to expose corrupt, dictatorial politicians and a hopelessly flawed system. This fictional story revolving around the death/assassination of former Pakistani president Zia ul-Haq packs a punch thanks to Hanif’s mastery of the dark art of humour. The dialogue is seeped in acerbic black comedic brine; the situations that crop up as the narrative unravels are so darkly comic that readers are left with no choice but to laugh till they cry.

The venerable Philip Roth decided to take a stab at black humour in his novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth relies on the power of black humour in this book to explore the modern American male’s sexual neurosis. The hero’s monologue about sex, guilt, and other discontents in Portnoy’s Complaint is black humour at its best.

British writer Martin Amis came up with a winner of a black comedy with his novel, Money. The story of a morally bankrupt Hollywood director who tries to make a film with a cast that disagrees on everything – with him, and with each other – is a hilarious read. As one reviewer eloquently put it, “Money has all the hallmarks of what makes a great Amis novel: unlikeable characters, strong attention to everyday speech, and dialogue and humour so bleak you laugh out of fear of crying.”

Amanda Fillipaci’s novels employ black humour – with skill and style – to surprise and shock and raise uncomfortable questions. Her first novel, Nude Men, and her later ones, Vapor and Love Creeps are spiced with black humour. Fillipaci chooses to write about subversive themes and her fictional take on them are funny and incisive. Her trademark black humour is more than equipped to amuse and draw readers into the heart of her stories.

All of Roald Dahl’s children’s fiction can be safely labelled black comedies. Dahl also wrote fiction for adults, which shares the same darkly comic streak. Nasty children, mean adults, an impossibly difficult world – Dahl threw them all into the mix and went on to whip up an addictive cocktail for millions of readers.

Many a critic has called Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 the best American novel of the 20th century. The story of a WWII pilot who tries to get out of bombing missions by pleading insanity is a brilliant study in black humour. Catch-22 is a clause that stipulates that a mad pilot can be grounded, but if he sees the danger in bombing missions and requests to be grounded then he cannot be crazy after all. Heller uses black humour as a vehicle to showcase the horror of war and its insanity in this modern classic.

American writer Kurt Vonnegut is synonymous with black humour. A WWII veteran, Vonnegut used social satire to paint a picture of a post-war world for readers. His razor- sharp prose questions accepted beliefs about war, absolute truth, guilt and innocence, and the existence of a divine power.

Black humour is a many splendored thing. Writers have put it to good use over time and the tradition is alive and kicking in a world that is starting to make less and less sense to many of us. It seems a fitting time to declare that there is nothing out there as potent as black comedy to capture the absurdity of life in our time.




Just Noise – The Barbarian Thrill of Noise in Music

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Riots for Stravinsky and cheers for Hanatarashi. How do you get from the tritone as “the devil in music” to an audience facing a wall of white noise with smiles on their faces?


“It’s amazing, really, how little sound comes out of something you’re smashing with all your might” – Yamatsuka Eye

The adventurous Noizu fans who came to see crackpot noise-makers Hanatarashi (meaning snot-nosed) at Tokyo’s Toritsu Kasei Super Loft on August 4th 1985 expected a raucous show. What they didn’t expect was a ferocious performance of industrial-grade destruction, with a back-hoe bulldozer as the lead instrument. Handed waivers upon arrival that relieved the band of any responsibility for injury, or worse, the audience watched as frontman and HDV operator Yamatsuka Eye burst through the doors of the hall atop the bulldozer. With percussionist Ikuo Taketani somewhat safely tucked away in the corner, Eye tore through the stage and inflicted brutal punishment on everything nearby, including the literal kitchen sink, while screaming the band’s trademark scatological and sexual non-sequitur lyrics. The beleaguered bulldozer held out until Eye put the hoe into the wall. The dozer tipped backwards and gave out, but after pulling off the dozer’s cage to hurl across the stage and grabbing a circular saw, the destruction continued with the audience now nervously dodging Eye’s fitful saw swings. Surrounded by bent metal, crumbled masonry and the squawking remains of Marshall stacks, with gasoline pouring from the ruined bulldozer, Eye produced, as his grand finale, a molotov cocktail that he’d prepared earlier. This was a touch too dangerous for even this daredevil audience and Eye, confessing later in an interview for Banana Fish Magazine that he got “too excited”, had to be violently subdued by several members of the crowd.

In the settled atmosphere, once certain that explosive group immolation wasn’t to be the crescendo, the crowd that had remained, many with smiles on their faces, slowly filed out enclosed in their own bubbles of tinnitus. The bill for the annihilation of the Super Loft tallied ¥600,000 (approximately £6000) and Hanatarashi subsequently laboured under a ban from most venues that ran until 1990, when the band, slightly calmer and more safety conscious, dropped the ‘i’ and returned to what passed as civil society in the Noizu circuit.

Hanatarashi, along with fellow Noizu bands such as Hijokaidan, indulged in the kind of audial assault that would bring most people to the point of self-induced deafness, but the Super Loft audience signed off on possible death-by-bulldozer just for the opportunity to experience it up close and personal. Extreme volume, distortion and cacophony, with a ferocity of performance that completely transgressed the normal bounds of the relationship between the performer and audience, were unrestrained musical expressions that attracted large audiences to the Noizu scene in Japan from the 1980’s onwards. It’s been argued that Noise as a genre was born in Japan at this time; whereby the noise was not a wash or flavour, but the whole. The act of seeking out sounds which most people take care to avoid seems a strange masochistic ritual, but evidenced by the brutalised crowd at the Hanatarashi gig, there is – for some – much to enjoy in noise.

“I did Noise Music because I genuinely liked noise… But a lot of people didn’t. At my concerts, people smashed beer glasses in my face.” – noise musician Boyd Rice a.k.a NON

In music, the definition of noise has changed drastically over time and is still debated today. The simplest common usage of the word noise is that of unwanted sound and, although clearly subjective, in some sense this definition also works in the context of music. Noise in music is of a volume/tonality/structure which breaks from previously held traditions of what is ‘pleasant’ to the ear of the average person, or consonant. What may be considered at the time to be noise can be the sound desired by a particular composer and, one would hope for the composer’s sake, later embraced by the intended audience. In essence, history has shown that noise in music is unwanted until a musician proves otherwise, with help from a willing audience. Noise can be a disturbance, but disturbance can be key to progression. By prodding at the edges of the normative discrimination, musicians have expanded the appreciation for sounds which previous generations would have found genuinely violative.

‘Who wrote this fiendish “Rite of Spring”? What right had he to write the thing?
Against our helpless ears to fling
Its crash, clash, cling, clang, bing, bang bing?
And then to call it “Rite of SPRING,” The season when on joyous wing The birds melodious carols sing And harmony’s in every thing!
He who could write the “Rite of Spring,” If I be right by right should swing!’

Anonymous letter to the Boston Herold of February 9, 1924

An amusing example of how dissonant prodding has been received as violative is to be found at the Paris première of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs- Élysées on the 29th of May 1913, the year that the Ford Motor Company would develop the first moving, mass-production assembly line. Stravinsky was a young and innovative Russian composer, of little renown in 1913, hired by Sergei Diaghilev’s to write for the Ballets Russes company, with The Rite of Spring being the third such composition. Prior to the première, Diaghilev had promised “a new thrill that will doubtless inspire heated discussion” and Stravinsky had written the work as a solemn pagan rite and hoped to present a “great insult to habit”. When first playing the piano version for Diaghilev, Stravinsky was asked how long the dissonant, ostinato chords would sound, to which Stravinsky replied “to the end, dear Serge, to the very end.” The newly opened theatre, designed by Auguste Perret, was as avant-garde in construction as the contemporary music, opera and dance that was to be presented inside. The geometrically strict and decoratively plain exterior of reinforced concrete mixed modern and classical architecture and made it the perfect venue for what Debussy described as “primitive music with all the modern conveniences.”

The atmosphere before the performance was lively; the 29th of May was unseasonably hot, reaching a height of 30c, and the halls and corridors of the theatre were packed with those who had bought into Diaghilev’s hype. The house was sold-out, largely encompassing subscribers for the whole season of Ballet Russe and there was a fifty-fifty split in the guest-list between the Parisian elite of diplomats, dignitaries and dilletantes, and the Modernist art scene. Patrons such as Daisy Fellowes, (née Countess Severine Phillipine Decazes de Glückberg), an elderly Countess de Pourtales, and the ambassador of the Austro-Hungarian empire represented the upper crust, and batting for the avant-garde were the likes of Jean Cousteau, Maurice Ravel and Edgard Varèse. Cousteau was quoted later as saying that a scandal was primed by the mix, with “a fashionable audience [in] low-cut dresses, tricked out in pearls, egret and ostrich feathers…side by side with tails and tulle, the sack suits, headbands, showy rags of that race of esthetes who acclaim, right or wrong, anything that is new because of their hatred of the boxes.”

Alfred Capus in Le Figaro reported that during the first bars of bassoon with discondant accompaniment in the closed-curtain introduction, there was prompt hissing and jeering. Incensed at a perceived misuse of the instrument, Camille Saint-Saëns exclaimed, “If that’s a bassoon, then I’m a baboon”, before storming out. The Countess de Pourales is recorded to have shouted “I am 60 years old and this is the first time anyone has dared to make fun of me”, to no one in particular. A back and forth between supporters and discontents followed, with the American music critic Carl van Vechten recalling “a battery of screams, countered by a foil of applause.” At the start of the Augurs of Spring section, the curtains opened and the ensuing polyrhythms, unresolved harmonies, rapid dynamic shifts, and familiar themes played in unfamiliar registers did not sit well with the patrons disinclined to experimental music. Furthermore, in an attempt to convey the agony of human sacrifice in a primitive society, choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky had his dancers land their leaps with flat feet which added echoing thuds to the music. At its worst, the din from the audience was so loud that it drowned out the music and Nijinsky resorted to shouting out counts to the dancers while standing on a chair in the wings.

According to Stravinsky, his friend Florent Schmitt shouted an insult to a group of elegant socialites, “taisez-vous, garces du seizieme!” and the various reactions and counter-reactions shared between the conservative and avant-garde sections pushed the battle onward. Diaghilev ordered the house lights to be flicked on and off in either an attempt to quell the uproar or, perhaps, sheer excitement at the press-baiting pandemonium he’d created. Stravinsky was horrified by the furore, leaving the auditorium to watch at the wings (it has been alleged in tears, but to claim so seems to kick a man when he’s down) saying later that he had “never been that angry”. At the intermission, the theatre proceeded to eject forty of the most troublesome, but it was not particularly successful in restoring full order.

Stravinsky and Nijinsky were devastated by the negative response and embarrassed by the spectacle, but Diaghilev took delight in the publicity of scandal, expressing complete satisfaction at a celebratory dinner after the show. Mainstream reactions in the press to “Le Massacre du Printemps” were not great, with Giacomo Puccini damning The Rite of Spring as “sheer cacophony” and Adolphe Boschot in L’Echo de Paris claiming (pejoratively, it should be noted) that the composer had “worked at bringing his music close to noise”. The performance immediately made waves internationally with The New York Times reporting under the headline: “Parisians hiss new ballet: Russian dancer’s latest offering, ‘The Consecration of Spring’, a failure”. However, there was strong praise from some publications and subsequent performances were far more successful.

“No doubt it will be understood one day that I sprang a surprise on Paris.” – Igor Stravinsky

Dissonant music wasn’t the sole cause of the chaos, with the angular and provocative dancing, anti-Russian sentiment, reactionary morality, and hype all part of a melting pot. However, the premiere was a key flashpoint in the debate over modernism, in which noise in music was a rapidly expanding form of expression. Arnold Schoenberg’s drive to “emancipate the dissonance” and expand the possibilities of musical expression lent dissonance a cultural cachet in the early 20th century. Schoenberg’s music was noteworthy for the absence of traditional keys or tonal centers and, although he faced a similar reaction to The Rite of Spring on occasion, his music and theories had lasting influence throughout the 20th century.

While composers such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky were experimenting with rhythm and harmony, the Futurist Italian Luigi Russolo, in his 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises, was arguing that the public, accustomed to the sounds of industry and traffic, were hungry for “the infinite variety of noise-sounds” regardless of whether they knew it or not. For the Futurists, the explosion of mechanical noise in the 20th century evoked the activity, speed and progression that they celebrated in modern society. Russolo’s revolution was for music to no longer be a canonised system of notes, but rather understood as a structure of non-periodic complex sound. Russolo categorised these noise-sounds into six groups:


1. Roars, Thunderings, Explosions, Hissing roars, Bangs, Booms
2. Whistling, Hissing, Puffing
3. Whispers, Murmurs, Mumbling, Muttering, Gurgling
4. Noises obtained by beating on metals, woods, skins, stones, pottery, etc.
5. Voices of animals and people, Shouts, Screams, Shrieks, Wails, Hoots, Howls, Death rattles, Sobs
6. Screeching, Creaking, Rustling, Buzzing, Crackling,
Scraping

In order to produce these sounds, Russolo constructed 27 varieties of noise machine called intonarumori, each named after a different sound. The device was a crank-operated wooden parallelepiped box with a speaker at the front, the pitch being controlled by a lever on the top. The lever would modify the tension of a metal or gut string, wrapped round a wheel, that was attached to a drumhead inside the box.

Russolo introduced the public to these devices with a concert entitled Awakening of a City and Meeting of Automobiles and Airplanes in Milan in April of 1914, and, continuing the trend of violence in response to noisy spectacle, a riot ensued. Futurists in the audience responded to booing with fists, and eleven audience members ended up in hospital. In 1926, influenced by Russolo’s machine music, and anticipating Hanatarashi’s use of machines of industry, George Antheil produced Ballet Mécanique, which called for 3 airplane propellers to accompany the pianos, bells and siren in the orchestra. The reception to the piece was as mixed as that of the The Rite of Spring or Russolo’s Awakening, and the Paris première ended with – you guessed it – a riot in the streets. Despite the early negative reactions to these modernist experiments in noise, by 1940 The Rite of Spring was accompanying the extinction of cartoon dinosaurs in Disney’s Fantasia and the following decades would see avant-garde composers such as Harry Partch, John Cage and Karl Stockhausen produce music that would have presumably killed the Countess de Pourales on the spot. These experimental composers would eventually find their ideas pushed into pop music by the likes of Sonic Youth, who managed to straddle the seemingly incongruous worlds of MTV and the art music underground, with the benefit of an audience of noise-primed Gen X youth.

“We believed that music is nothing but organized noise. You can take anything—street sounds, us talking, whatever you want—and make it music by organizing it. That’s still our philosophy, to show people that this thing you call music is a lot broader than you think it is.” — Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, Keyboard Magazine, 1990

From the purposefully consonant compositions, within strict rules of tonality, of medieval religious music to the chaotic noise of Tokyo’s Merzbow or Detroit’s Wolf Eyes, dissonance has moved from something to be avoided to become an all-encompassing driving force. What was an imperceptibly gradual change before the 20th century has now become rapid. The relationship between an experimental composer and his noisy environment and the advances in music technology have led us to the point whereby people will pay for a MP3 of almost pure white noise and call it music. Cued by Willie Kizart using a damaged amplifier on the recording of the Kings of Rhythm track Rocket 88 and furthered by Dick Dale’s work with Fender, the electric guitar turned distortion and feedback into an art-form, driving music more towards timbre than harmony. Experiments with synthesisers, from Elisha Gray’s basic single note oscillator in 1876 to Hugh Le Caine’s Electronic Sackbut, engendered real-time, precision control of volume, pitch and timbre. Rather than Russolo’s acoustic noise generators, noise could now be artificially created in exact and varied ways. With the development of recorded music from tape to digital memory, sampling became a new form of replicating and altering environmental noise. Just as Russolo and Antheil would take from the sounds of the modern mechanical world, musique concrete would mimic the electronic age with the use of tape loops and purely electronic-produced sound. The digital revolution would lead to the hip-hop sampling of Public Enemy, which took the sounds of New York streets and media soundbites and reconfigured the noise into dense music, punctuated by sirens and drills, that articulated urban conflict.

There are many ways of conceptualising dissonance. The term consonance comes from the Latin consonare, meaning ‘sounding together’, and has become synonymous with particularly harmonious intervals in Western music. However, there is a psychological aspect to consonance and dissonance which is subjective and has changed throughout history. Psychologists would describe dissonance as a negative valence emotional response, meaning that it conjures feelings such as anger and fear; emotions that relate to suffering. In harmony, consonance and dissonance refer to specific qualities an interval can possess but, although consonance relates to mathematical constants, musical experiments outside the acceptable ranges of the time attuned the human ear gradually to more dissonant sounds. In the Middle Ages, the tritone musical interval (the interval between, for instance, F to the B above) was once prohibited by the Roman Catholic church due to its dissonant qualities and perceived ties to the Devil. Nowadays, however, this very interval is one of the main building blocks in jazz harmony, especially in the music of Duke Ellington and Art Tatum; music considered completely palatable to today’s ear.

Differentiation in ability to determine pitch, timbre, volume and time between tones could account for more or less appreciation of complex music. When two pitches are played together the mind appreciates the combination while also picking apart the unique pitches. More distortion or dissonant intervals will lead to added overtones and sum tones, creating very complex waveforms, which will force the listening brain to work harder to decipher it. These complex waveforms are what people would be hearing in music they consider to be difficult. The reason why some people react so poorly to modern classical music that delves into dissonance is that there are no easily discernible patterns. Philip Ball, in The Music Instinct, writes that “the brain is a pattern seeking organ, so it looks for patterns in music to make sense of what we hear.” The lack of predictability of tone sequences in the music of Stockhausen, for example, can confuse the brain, but the mind can learn to appreciate the complexity. We learn to appreciate this through listening to more complex music but, as the noise in our environment has increased, it is our adaptation that further enables us to enjoy what previously was rejected. The music mimics the noise in the environment and, in turn, the environment programs us to accept more noise as music.

Who are these loud and noisy people? They are like fishermen hawking fish.” – Buddha

How much has noise increased in the past few hundred years? Statistical comparison is a struggle, but noise appears to have been a concern for every society throughout history. The Buddhist Digha Nikaya, committed to writing in 29 BCE, records some contemporary noises of concern:

“Ananda, was neither by day nor night without the ten noises,—to wit, the noise of elephants, the noise of horses, the noise of chariots, the noise of drums, the noise of tabors, the noise of lutes, the noise of song, the noise of cymbals, the noise of gongs, and the tenth noise of people crying, ‘Eat ye, and drink!’”

Allowing for the unknown volume of an ancient Buddhist toast, the loudest sound on the list is that of the Asian elephant, trumpeting at a maximum of 90dB. The decibel level of the loudest sound in a city environment would increase as time went on, pacing more rapidly in the decades leading up to the 20th century. In an 1896 article entitled The Plague of City Noises, a clearly irate Dr. John H. Girdner called attention to the “injurious and exhaustive effects of city noises” from such sources as horse-drawn vehicles, bells and whistles, animals, persons learning to play musical instruments, peddlers, and that most infuriating member of late 19th century street-theatre, the organ grinder. What Dr. Girdner and the Buddha share is a concern for largely natural sounds of animal and human activity. However, the industrial and urban development of the 20th century altered the make-up of street noise and a poll of New Yorkers in 1929 issued an updated list of ten sounds to break a Buddhist samantha, with every one a product of a mechanisation.

The everyday noises of Girdner and the Buddhists pale in comparison to what the modern ear has to contend with, especially baring in mind the logarithmic nature of the decibel scale. Rule of thumb: the sound must increase in intensity by a factor of ten for the sound to be perceived as twice as loud. A car horn (120dB at 1 metre), a jet flyover at 1000 feet (103 dB), a power mower (96 dB), a food blender (88 dB), and a car driving at 65 mph (77 dB at 25ft) could conceivably occur simultaneously and for extended periods of time, albeit in a particularly poorly-situated home. Even the average lowest limit of urban ambient sound today is 40 dB; a constant hum that crosses the frequency spectrum.

“Natural sounds generate a sinusoidal wave, with rounded peaks, which is easy on the ears. Many mechanized sounds are square or sawtooth shaped or have jagged edges. If you see them on an oscilloscope, you’ll know why they’re unpleasant to listen to.” – Gordon Hempton

The increasingly urbanised and industrialised modern world has become a place of almost constant unnatural sound. The American acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton contends that in the whole of the United States there are just 12 places that could be considered naturally ‘silent’. By measuring average noise intervals at various locations over time, Hempton demonstrated that in the state of Washington there are just 3 places that are free from anthropogenic noise for longer than 15 minutes, compared to 21 places in 1994. In the UK, research by Sheffield Hallam University found that Sheffield City Centre was twice as loud in 2001 as it was in 1991. With this increase in the spread and intensity of noise there has followed a general adaptation and acceptance of noise, but accompanied by some very negative consequences.

The word noise is derived from the Latin nausea, meaning seasickness, and noise can have many physiological and psychological effects that are deeply unpleasant, even causing permanent harm. In addition to the obvious hearing damage that can occur from repeated exposure to loud sound, diverse research over several decades has uncovered a variety of problems related to noise exposure. Fatigue, irritability, insomnia, headaches, anxiety disorders, depression and an increased prevalence of stress diseases have all been shown to be possible negative consequences. A WHO report from 2011 estimated that Western Europeans lose over one million healthy life years annually from noise-related disability and disease. Noise could also be making us less kind to one another, as research into noise as an urban stressor has found that a noisy environment can increase anti-social behaviour.

A series of studies at Wright State University in the mid-seventies found that noise interferes with social cues from a person in need of help and reduces helping behaviour. Further study in 1979, at the University of Washington, into noise and social discrimination found that noise may cause people to distort and over-simplify complex social relationships. Key to these outcomes, both physiological and psychological, appears to be our primal response system. Studies of blood chemistry have shown that exposure to noise causes an increased production of epinephrine, a central component in the fight-or-flight response. The more ‘unpleasant’ a sound, the more the amygdala, which plays a role in processing fear, is activated and therefore the stronger the emotional response.

The only rational reactions to an environment that threatens are either to escape or to adapt. However, even if one can ignore it, there is no physiological habituation to noise; an auditory assault affects us even when not consciously registered. Furthermore, it appears that the adaptation to noise that modern life requires is leading to an increased fear of silence. In 1999, the BBC accountancy office was refurbished with noiseless air-conditioning, double- glazed windows, and silent computers.

The makeover was effective in abating noise, but the employees were uncomfortable. They complained that the silence was stressful, leaving them feeling lonely and paranoid that others were listening in on their phone calls. In response, upon consulting noise expert Yong Yan from the University of Greenwich, the BBC decided to buy a noise machine to combat what Yan calls Pin Drop Syndrome. This covered the silence by producing a continuous 20 dB murmur of unintelligible voices, with the occasional snippet of bottled laughter, and the accountants relaxed into their faux-hubbub soundtrack. In a world of noise, silence equals exposure. The noise can fill in spaces that separate, cover up the sounds that bring attention and can blend individuals into an amorphous group. Perhaps it was this comforting, masking relationship with noise that the BBC accountants were found to be craving when absent.

Our ears have an inbuilt hypersensitivity to sound that was invaluable in the days when humans were hunter and hunted. We can hear a pin drop in a quiet room because our auditory system enhances the volume of a sound to several hundred times louder than the source volume before the brain itself registers the sound. While humans have transformed their relationship to environment and the conscious perception of noise, the brain and auditory system are still somewhat stuck in the fight-or-flight world of pre-civilisation. We tune out the noise in our daily lives but the physical and psychological forces are still present, pushing up blood pressure and promoting the release of stress hormones behind-the-scenes, even when we aren’t consciously aware of the sound.

“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating” – John Cage, The Future of Music: Credo, 1961

Today there is no firm basis for a distinction between music and noise. With the abandonment of traditional, harmonic definitions of consonance and dissonance, the distinction is entirely subjective and particular to context. There is no such thing any more as the ‘non-musical sound’ that John Cage wanted to highlight in his compositions; everything is fair game. We are born into noisy environments and the necessary adaptation means that the normative level of acceptable noise has been rising exponentially with each generation. But with musicians of today using white noise, the entire range of audible sound-wave frequencies heard simultaneously, where is there left to go?

The Austrian anthropologist Michael Haberlandt claimed that the more noise a culture could bear, the more ‘‘barbarian’’ it was. Hanatarashi’s bulldozer performance was nothing if not proudly barbarian, but the violent expression was peacefully received – unlike the riots that followed the performances of earlier noise music. Noise has found its audience and the Noizu crowd at Tokyo’s Super Loft were purposefully escaping any sense of tranquility, seeking out that dangerous thrill that the body provides when the fight-or-flight response goes haywire. Like skydivers and train- surfers they were after the exhilaration that comes from hacking the body’s primordial response mechanisms. They were all freaking out together, each body screaming to run but with safety in numbers and the perversely comforting wash of noise connecting and concealing everyone. The enjoyment of the performance came from the transgressive destruction on not just the venue but the audience themselves. They were pushing at the biological limits of their minds and bodies, going against the grain like the boundary pushing experimental music, in order to feel a rush. In earlier decades, or centuries, that rush could have been achieved with less. The charge of a herd of elephants or the clattering and cheering of a horse race might have once been at the upper limit of common noise, but with the constant, and constantly increasing, cacophony of noise in our environment today, the level of acceptable noise has been dragged further up the decibel scale and further out from consonance. The result of this trend is that the noise music listener will always be like a heavy drug user who requires an ever increasing fix. The Hanatarashi fans amongst us are bathing in extreme noise to induce the fight-or-flight response; musical adrenaline junkies looking for a high that the body and mind will continue to adapt to over time. Only, unlike drug use, everyone is taking noise everyday, whether we like it or not, and we have to choose to either embrace it or escape it.

But where to escape to, when silence is disappearing? Perhaps noise music highlights how people are too accepting of the damage and social alienation that the daily exposure to noise is producing. Are we all barbarians for living with noise that would have driven our forbears crazy? Noise is now presented by health authorities and scientific studies as a pollutant but, unlike with oil spills and insecticides, some people inure themselves to this pollutant through choice. By choosing to embrace the constant noise of modern life, with all of its negative effects, they are like the BBC accountants, a symbol of the slow death of silence. If a solution isn’t found, there might come a point where the silence on Earth is found through noise-cancelling headphones rather than a trip out of the city, and natural silence will have truly vanished. And what will the music of that time sound like? The Rite of Spring sounded like noise, even Beethoven sounded like noise to the ear of the day, so in a few hundred years time will we be looking back on Hanatarashi with a feeling of quaint nostalgia as we wonder how anyone could have considered such classics as Boat People Hate Fuck or White Anal Generator to be noise?




Can Landscape Writing Change the World? The Human Geography of Ivan Turgenev’s Sketches

Sketches from a Hunter’s Album (or, less commonly, A Sportsman’s Sketches) is a gargantuan presence in Russian nature writing. True, it rarely enjoys the acclaim of Turgenev’s later family saga novel Fathers and Sons or pithy novellas like First Love, but it’s up there with some of the greatest pieces of landscape writing of the century: from influencing Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels to becoming a cornerstone of the Russian Realist movement, it’s a giant of the art form that’s impossible to overlook in terms of craft or resonance. Sketches is the offbeat Russianist’s choice, the one for which there’s likely a dog-eared paperback in the worn satchel of a Cambridge postgraduate: newly-annotated, bubble-spined, never to be opened past the end of Michelmas term. 

Half poetry and (perhaps) half polemic, the work takes the form of a series of ruminations on the Russian rural landscape as a travelling huntsman journeys through its meadows and villages, forests and tundra, reflecting on the people he meets and their livelihoods as the urban face of Russia rapidly modernises. There’s an air of melancholy to many of the pieces as the narrator stumbles through the guts of the caucuses, rustic and ramshackle, lonely and unforgiving underfoot and brutal in their weathers–but Turgenev’s sketches aren’t about the kind of rural, nostalgic nationalism that characterises a large portion of nature writing from the nineteenth century. What looms large in these writings is a peculiar conjunction of social awareness and legitimate affection for the landscape, characterised by its focus on the Russian rural peasantry and their ways of living and dying. 

The human population of these short narratives are predominantly serfs–the ‘unfree’ peasants living prior to the Russian revolution, feudally bound to the landowning classes and often living in abject poverty with little hope of mobility or respite. Sketches was written at the very end of the period of serfdom, published between 1847 and 1851 and, upon release, promptly banned (and Turgenev exiled) for its unflinching attitude to the way in which these indentured families had struggled to sustain themselves for generations, living poorly and in poverty. As the titular hunter takes an extended trip through the provinces, he listens to their stories, their mythologies and their histories, which often recount the same tale: the land is hard, life is short, and both are governed by ritual and ghosts. But it is in this deep and curious relationship with the rural environment’s human geography that Turgenev’s unique take on the land itself becomes outwardly apparent. 

Sketches is, admittedly, beautiful: amidst the melancholy and the mire there are passages of sweeping, lyrical description that would put even Nan Shepherd to shame, ferocious in their use of colour and movement and powerfully tangible even in translation.

“It was a beautiful July day, one of those days which occur only when the weather has been unchanged for a long time. From early morning the sky is clear and the sunrise does not so much flare up like a fire as spread like a mild pinkness. […] Towards evening these clouds disappear. The last of them, darkling and vague as smoke, lie down in rosy mistiness before the sinking sun. At the point where the sun has set just as calmly as it rose into the sky, a crimson glow lingers for a short time over the darkened earth, and, softly winking, the evening star burns upon the glow like a carefully carried candle. On such days all colours are softened, bright without being gaudy; everything bears the mark of some poignant timidity.”

‘Bezhin Lea’, Sketches from a Hunter’s Album.

Yet these soaring depictions of Russia’s wooded landscape take on a new significance when we look at the ways in which Turgenev describes the people he meets. We find them often depicted in similarly zealous fashion, but more importantly, they often occupy a position between human and landscape: in the sketch Death, Turgenev’s hunter encounters a dying woodland, crippled by the unusually devastating winter of 1840. The trees are being felled by a workforce of serfs as their master tries to reap what profit he can from the brittle remains, and during the course of the day, a serf by the name of Maxim is crushed by the branches of a falling ash tree that had rotted the previous season. The serf hovers between life and death as a doctor is called. 

The mode of Maxim’s death is significant: like the oak and ash trees, he too falls victim to the merciless winter that choked out all foliage and greenery. Like the trees slowly rotting from the inside, he dies neither swiftly nor easily, left shattered and struck by the weight of the weather that ruined the woodland. His final breath is even described in animal terms, again as part of the landscape (“Trembling all over, like a shot bird”), laid out in a wagon in a manner similar to that of the great timber trunks that are to be carted away and sold. It is also perhaps significant that he dies in the service of his squire’s profit: although steering far clear of the ambitions of contemporary works such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (to which Death has on occasion been compared), Turgenev’s position on serfdom is plain. 

The serfdom is portrayed as part of the landscape just as it is part of the region’s human geography, affected by the same winds and weathers, and the serfs die in the same way as a bird or beast might: indeed, later in Death, a dying serf is bound in a sheep’s skin as he awaits the inevitable. By contrast, a dying Russian landowner passes from the world fumbling under her pillow for a rouble to respectably pay the priest for reading her last rites. There is a parallelism heavy in the text, a binary that implies the serfdom die as part of the landscape whilst the gentry remain concerned with finance and office. It’s an interesting position in that the peasantry appear much more connected with the land than do the members of society who actually own it, and through this subversion Turgenev delves into the notion of what defines land and landscape.

The same natural imagery is used to describe peasant figures throughout the entirety of Sketches: in one titled Meeting we are party to a meeting between a serf girl “with eyes like a doe” and a pompous valet dressed in gaudy finery. The girl stands within a wooded dell, clutching a bouquet of flowers and listing their uses (“Field tansies, and they’re good for calves. And these are marigolds, they help against scrofula”) as the valet announces he’s leaving, thereby spurning her affections. She is of the landscape–described as animal, rooted in the wooded hollow and brimming with an interior knowledge of the natural landscape that her companion doesn’t possess. He is other, external to the dell, standing out in the trappings of his finery and intent on exiting the landscape. 

It’s easy to discern some manner of disdain in Turgenev’s equation of serfdom and the landscape itself. In reducing the serf to something animal, something flora or fauna, there is an act of dehumanisation well-known in narratives of servitude: to reduce the labourer, the indentured, the slave to something less than human for the purposes of moral distancing. Turgenev’s approach is different. Although his characters are of the landscape, characterised by the same adjectives and subject to the same fears, winds and weathers, they are not lessened by the association. 

In a later sketch, Singers, the huntsman-narrator happens upon a run-down tavern in the desolate village of Kolotovka, which hovers at the edge of a perilous ravine. He enters to find two locals about to enter into a singing competition: Barrowboy and Yashka. Barrowboy is technically skilled and sings well, while Yashka–a young man who, despite his noble bearing, is presented as ashen and sickly–sings with less polish but greater passion, stilling the congregation and evoking thoughts of their national landscape. 

“The honest, fiery soul of Russia resounded and breathed through it and quite simply seized us by the heart, plucked directly at our Russian heart-strings. […] He sang, and in every sound his voice made there breathed something familiar as our birth-right and so vast no eye could encompass it, just as if the Russian steppe were being unrolled before us, stretching away into an endless distance.”

Singers, ‘Sketches from a Hunter’s Album”. 

Turgenev’s inference is plain: although Yashka is little to look at, his passionate song is the very personification of the Russia of the nineteenth-century popular imagination. Although he is poor, sickly-looking and likely a labourer or factory worker, he represents the epithets commonly attached to their homeland: determination, spark, the honest, fiery soul of Russia. Found in a tavern that threatens with every gust of wind to fall into the depths of a ravine, Yashka’s song resonates far beyond the confines of the tumbledown village. Russia is the tavern teetering upon the precipice of so many things: modernity, Westernisation and indeed an oscillating relationship with serfdom, which appeared one day on the brink of abolition and the next at its continuation. To Turgenev, Yashka and his song are the soul of the country, humble and hobbled by his station but representative of the zeal and history of the Russia he imagines, and within the dilapidated building Yashka too is at risk of the impending collapse. 

Singers evokes several emotions: a wistfulness for Romantic nationhood, a sense of affection for the indentured, even a grim consideration of what it is like to labour under the yoke of serfdom–but most importantly, Turgenev raises a question. The work asks, in a deceptively whimsical way, that if these indentured peoples are truly where the honest, fiery soul of the land resides, then what does that make of the land itself? 

Sketches forces the gentry from their horses and carriages. It is an exercise not only in nature writing and navigating the backwaters of a sometimes impassable Russian landscape, but also in underpinning the notion of nation with a sense of human geography. Examining as it does the relationship between those who own the land and those who embody it, the collection gained Turgenev enemies in the country and cities alike–yet Sketches was also cited by Tsar Alexander II as an instrumental part of his burgeoning understanding of the country he inherited, and he remarked to Turgenev himself that it played a large role in the domestic reforms that led to the eventual emancipation of the serfs. In almost animalising serfdom, breaking it down to its component parts and presenting it as a facet of the natural landscape, Turgenev counterintuitively succeeds in humanising the serfs for swathes of the country that previously spared little thought for the rural poor. This seems a curious, even backhanded way to effect social change, but it also speaks volumes as to the contradictory attitudes and priorities of the nineteenth-century nobility and the cultural focus on nationhood as countries across Europe industrialised in preparation for the clamour of the approaching century. 

One must note that emancipation wasn’t a simple process for Russia: many serfs found that the new regulatory systems post-emancipation permitted little more freedom than they had previously enjoyed. Many found themselves similarly indentured, but this time to communities and villages instead of single landowners and estates. The road out of feudalism was long and arduous, and these shadows of the past eventually became a driving force in the revolution of 1917. 

Sketches might be considered as having helped effect change on a national scale, but national changes are by nature mired in condition and compromise; consequently, in using Sketches as an example of landscape writing’s potential as a force for social good, the collection may fall a little short. As an example of how literature may aid in altering societal perceptions, however, Sketches offers a great scope of commentary on how landscape acts as a force in culture and how its importance in a cultural and even national mindset might be used to prompt transition, growth and an altered perception. Turgenev’s points are plain and well-made, his descriptions wry and fiery, and his characters and peoples are sometimes even heartwarming as they rally against the cold. Sketches is more than a simple harbinger of change; indeed, it’s a study in how displays of humanity evoke a human response–and, in turn, how simple it is for that humanity to have become eroded or obfuscated in the first place.  




Devotion | Litro Lab Podcast

Picture credits: Klára Pertlová

Today I’m leaving bloody footprints on the track back and forth that seems longer every day. It doesn’t seem possible and yet my bucket is both smaller and heavier than it once was. It’s full of leaking cracks and splinters stab at me. Each time I must drop the bucket deeper to reach the well’s diminishing reserves.

– Marienna Pope-Weidemann

This week on Litro Lab, we bring you a beautifully rendered podcast on the power and challenges of devotion. 2020 has been a difficult year, and many of us have struggled to find ways of regaining energy and motivation. With lyrical language and skilful use of allegory, Devotion is a story that encourages us to meditate on how we can be there for others without abandoning ourselves.

You can listen to the podcast on the player below, or subscribe to “Litro Lab” on Spotify or iTunes.

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An In-between World

How many times in a day do you say “when this is over, I’ll…?” How many plans have you put on hold since the pandemic zapped the world like a lightning bolt? Suspended in this strange in-between world, we have slipped into an in-between state-of-mind. The pandemic, sweeping over the globe in waves, has turned us all into residents of a shape-shifting world. We are in limbo in this home of ours. We make plans and unmake them. We dream of travelling the world. We remember how easy it used to be and wonder if we will ever get back to hopping on a plane without being swaddled in protective gear, weighed down by a tonne of dread. Every morning, we wake to a world whose contours confound us, unclear about how this will turn out, unsure what the future will bring.

Some days the whole thing feels like a dream. Sometimes it feels like we are freefalling, sent on a surreal trip that is designed to test our endurance. Reeling from the shock of it, we grasp at straws. Trying not to spin out of control, we ground ourselves by following the advice of medical professionals, poring over WHO guidelines, tuning into Dr Fauci’s reliable corona virus taskforce briefings… 

The pandemic has made most of us become acutely aware of life’s fragility. Because death is no longer an abstraction hovering in the wings, because we are forced to see sickness and suffering and loss up close, everything seems charged with meaning in this in-between world. Paradoxically, everything seems pointless in this in-between state, every pursuit a pipe dream, every ambition a seed without a chance to sprout. As hospitals overflow with the sick, as grief and mourning grind us down, as we fret about the health of friends and family and hang our hopes on a vaccine that is in the works, how do we find the courage to hope and plan and dream? How do we make art? How do we write books? Rooted in the shifting sands of the present, buffeted by the winds of uncertainty, how do we sustain our creative selves and conjure up a future in which our words and songs matter?

The creators of some popular tv shows and sitcoms have responded by looking our new reality in the eye. They follow the motto: ‘the only way to get over it is to get through it.’ So, the latest season of the charged medical drama Grey’s Anatomy features face masks, temperature checks, and a band of exhausted healthcare workers. The Good Doctor zooms in on the harrowing choices doctors and nurses are forced to make as hospital beds fill up with the Covid-infected. Patients, away from friends and family, are shown fighting their own lonely battles.

It’s not just the medical dramas. The emotional toll of quarantine, the rigours of social distancing and isolation, the tightrope walk retail workers have to pull off at work every day, the challenges of juggling parenting, work and home-schooling, the glory, humour, and horrors of Zoom meetings, the questions that haunt both adults and children in this ‘new normal’ are all thrown into the mix in shows such as This is Us, Blackish, and Superstore.

In Naya, a village in West Bengal, India, a group of patachitra (traditional scroll) artists have set out to paint striking, intricately detailed scrolls to capture the essence of our in-between existence. In some of these scrolls, the corona virus looms – a fierce monster with a hungry mouth. Others show a beast with a giant head and muscled arms stalking a terrified populace. Shades of fear, anxiety, grief, and glimmers of hope and human resilience animate these vivid scrolls. Different artists, interpreting reality differently through their creations, shine a light on our collective experience in the time of the pandemic.

Then there is the recent slew of dystopian fiction – set in the near future – that could possibly have been inspired by the disruption of our familiar rhythms. Don DeLillo’s The Silence, Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, and Jonathan Lethem’s The Arrest published within a few months of each other in 2020 are all set in an ‘arrested world.’ Technology – computers, phones, networks of commerce and travel – breaks down in these fictional worlds. Consequently, society breaks down. The world is thrown into a state of total upheaval, chaos kicks in, and the characters are left grappling with the unfamiliar. Perhaps catharsis for writers lies in creating such dystopias; and catharsis for readers in being drawn into their chaotic hearts. Dystopian fiction has stepped into the breach – a classic case of art offering us a chance to purge our emotions. The demons these fictional worlds unleash seem to have the power to tame the demons we wrestle with in our lives these days.   




Landscape Literature: Reclaiming the wilderness of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

“Our life is frittered away by detail! . . . Simplicity, simplicity.” 

Walden, ‘Where I Lived and What I Lived For’.

Such is the gospel of Henry David Thoreau. Transcendentalist, eco-anarchist and wild old man of the woods, Walden is a gargantuan presence in landscape writing that never fails to make the bookshelf of any suburban dad over the age of fifty-five with even a passing interest in rambling. 

That said, it’s also one of the most heartfelt and compelling treatises on the rural that continues to resonate within the landscape of nature writing to this day. In July of 1845, Henry David Thoreau packed up his life to live in an isolated cabin on the shores of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, to escape the irritations of modern living and develop his understanding of the land he resided in both as a writer and as a human being. The literature he created is a moving, heartfelt narrative of his life as a woodlander; and as he fishes and reads, marks the passage of the seasons, we become party to a deep and powerful sense of belonging within the leafy acres. We begin to question our own relationship with the everyday and the modern as Thoreau calls us to find simplicity, simplicity and experience the same urge to remove ourselves from the trappings of conventional urban society for a calmer, greener life based on an earnest relationship with nature. 

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

Walden, ‘Where I Lived and What I Lived For’.

But Thoreau’s peace of mind comes at a cost. He lives alone in the landscape, without the influence of modernity: he has no running water, no support network, no amenities closer than the nearest township of Concord, no luxuries and none of the trappings and comforts that the nineteenth century offers–but he is compelled towards the natural like it is a vital, biological part of himself, eschewing all else for it. He argues that it is through this transaction–gaining tranquility through the adoption of an ascetic life, choosing to nourish the soul over garnering profit or achieving societal renown–that we might achieve a life as we were intended to have, a life that is worth the living of it. But this philosophy raises some questions when we come to examine it apropos what it means for our own conceptualisation of Thoreau’s works and how they might still have meaning in a twenty-first century setting. 

In the construction of his cabin by Walden Pond, we see a writer whose intent to immerse himself in the rolling natural woodland is motivated by a distinct dissatisfaction with modernity and the compulsion to strip away the trappings of city life and live as he believed nature intended: as the most famous part of Walden reads, seen at the beginning of every eco-tourist vlog since 2005, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately”. Thoreau is dissatisfied with the face of the nineteenth century and what its complications have done to humanity’s precarious balance between enlightenment and the animal, removing them from the natural landscapes they came from and “liv[ing] meanly, like ants […] and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness.” In returning to that seminal state within nature, as opposed to living nearby it or, worse, without it, Thoreau makes a statement on the idea of what nature is worth within the landscape of a life. By foregoing the century’s common comforts and embracing the land’s precariousness and danger, he finds something of greater worth than the ease and affluence of his previous existence.

Walden implies that there is an innate desire to pursue wilderness, to expose ourselves to the danger of an unmanaged landscape–but what does that desire come to mean when we complicate it with the notion of the deprivation of comfort as an integral prerequisite? We explore, we ramble, we are inspired by, but we don’t live in the woods. Even were we to pack up completely and live forever alongside the lake, miles from anywhere, we still would live less completely in the landscape than did Thoreau, our cabins replete with the modern comforts of air conditioning, indoor bathing, eBay and Diet Coke. In that, we aren’t truly making the transactional sacrifice that Thoreau believes is key to living a freer existence. Our experience of wild country is for most of us devoid of the negative aspects that define Thoreau’s experiment. We might holiday in the landscape, but we are still foreign to it, landscape-adjacent as opposed to within

It distances us a little from the text: it cools the ardour a little to think that although we might sit on the same stony shores of Walden Pond, trail our fingers through the shifting pondweed, wander through the arrowy trees that formed the stack and body of the famous cabin in the woods, we are not interior to the landscape in the same way. We might camp out in the woods a night or two, but we can return to the relative ease of our suburban homes whenever we choose. We might spend a day hiking alone in the hinterlands, but a vibrant thread of red in the sunset might then be splattered across social media, connecting us with others across the globe and shattering our supposed isolation. We enjoy the luxuries of emergency support, rescue services and a much greater interconnectivity of transport, the thrilling absence of which gives Walden its almost unique character. In traversing these landscapes we are tourists, rendered other by our modern world, able to observe Thoreau’s anchorite devotion for the sake of his soul but never to emulate it on a level that would bring forth true understanding.

So, then, how may we appreciate what Thoreau’s writing truly means when, by dint of our modern existence, we’re so removed from the deprivation inherent to Thoreau’s chosen life that renders Walden such a compelling piece of landscape writing?  

It’s easy to get lost in the romance of the image. The figure of the lone, haggard, bearded man stumping about the perimeter of his rough-hewn homestead, growing beans and gourds for sustenance like some kind of nineteenth-century Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is compelling, and we’re drawn into the narrative in a way that we can’t help but look on longingly as he exists without friends, without delicacies, without a LinkedIn profile. There’s something of Christ in the Desert about it, tapping into our eternal fascination with the hermit, the walled-in priestess, and any and all who traipse back into an old high past as corporate life becomes more invasive and vines its way into the home. But what we tend to forget in the haze of this heady New England Mills and Boon is that Henry David Thoreau–grandfather of landscape writing, builder of cabins and naturalist champion of all things pious and good–wasn’t quite the ascetic heart of the wilderness that pop literature implies.

Henry David Thoreau was an educated white man of no small means, and although that doesn’t indicate that he never experienced danger or deprivation in his time on Walden Pond, it means that his choice in doing so might not be the high-stakes gambit for his soul that sells copy after copy, year after year. 

Upon graduating from university, the young Thoreau met fellow writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. The older man took a patron-like interest in him, and from there Thoreau’s literary aspirations grew. Whilst Thoreau focused his attentions on the natural from the very beginning, it was during this period that Emerson began introducing him to key players in what would solidify as the wider Transcendentalist movement, finding him employment in Emerson’s household and opening doors in the publishing industry that would have otherwise remained shut to the young writer. The pair often talked about landscape, advocating a return to the cradle of nature in their writings and championing the green and the good above all things modern and canny. Eventually, and with Emerson’s blessing, Henry David Thoreau left to embark upon his venture of simple living in the woods. 

What is often occluded, however, is that his homely plot by the side of Walden pond was actually situated on a swathe of land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, far from the heart of the forest. Likewise, the pretty dell that would become the setting for Thoreau’s magnum opus of solitude was less than two miles from the Emerson family home. And whilst the young writer did live simply–growing what he needed, buying only what he could neither build nor propagate–he wasn’t entirely unsupported by the society he reportedly sought to remove himself from: upon being apprehended by a tax collector and promptly jailed, Thoreau’s aunt bailed him out with a vast sum equal to six years of poll tax avoidance. We must ask ourselves: does there truly exist risk, danger and deprivation if, in a heavy snowfall, one has the option to wrap up and head to Emerson’s house for Saturday tea? Does one really risk the penalties of civil disobedience if, although against the writer’s wishes, extended family may rally to pay all debts and release one from the life-altering ramifications of a prison sentence? The genius of Walden remains unassailable, but the reality of Thoreau’s ascetic experiment is that the romance by far outweighs the reality: the stakes were relatively low, the networks of modernity still present. Thoreau, like us, was a tourist in an antique land. 

Yet it has no bearing on his art. 

Walden is characterised by its open-faced affection, and although its affected rustic heart may only be a stone’s throw from Emerson’s front porch, the work remains a triumph of nature writing that unlocks the green potential of the imagination and indeed compels us to simplify. The way Thoreau regards the forest-scape is moving, finding multitudes in the way his sun catches in groundswell, in the scurrying of his rabbits and the swaying of his ferns. The whole text sears with a vast, many-levelled appreciation of the processes of nature and season. It’s a labour of love in the purest sense; and although it may sometimes be difficult to share Thoreau’s philosophy, we can share his fascination, his great love of the land and his small part in the cycles that dictate his existence.

It is easy to look at Thoreau’s experience of landscape and feel exiled from the text, to believe that there’s no modern way to live in such proximity to nature, but the truth is that Walden was motivated by love of the landscape and a desire to ‘get away from it all’ in much the same way that we book secluded Airbnbs in the Lake District for a social media detox. Thoreau too had the option to go home–yet he chose not to, instead writing of his simple life in a way that, even two centuries later, continues to drive us into the woods, into the wildernesses, to consider the nature of what is vital as opposed to what is simply expected of us in our lives.

Walden is far from a philosophical masterpiece–contradictory, self-righteous at times, complex in its innovation and obfuscating meaning behind the lengthiest and most arduous passages–but it stokes us to passion. We too might venture out into the woods with the intention of living more deliberately, and even now the work inspires us to explore, experiment and deviate from the norm, as Thoreau himself did, to attain a richer understanding of ourselves. 




The Joy of Reading

The pandemic has fundamentally reconfigured the shape of our lives – both public and personal. Masks in place, we navigate the pandemic-hit world tentatively, alternating between panic and hope, despair and dreams, our eyes scanning the horizon for a vaccine and a glimmer of reassurance. It’s too soon to gauge the extent to which this season of uncertainty affects our imagination. No doubt novels and poems and paintings will be born of this churning. No doubt songs will be sung, and symphonies composed. Stories seeped in the heartbreak and grief of this time will be told. Novels that probe the depth of our despair and the resilience of the human spirit are in the works. But which aspects of this tumultuous time will they highlight? What new forms will writers and artists forge to contain the enormity of this experience? The answers are not within our reach right now.

One thing we do know for sure at this point is that people across the world have started to spend more time reading since the pandemic descended upon us. The lockdown(s) have spared many the daily commute to work, freeing up some time to read. Being a writer, I’m delighted to hear this. I cheer the news heartily. The more people read the more reason for us writers to keep writing. Reports from several countries have caught my attention. All of them agree that people – across continents and cultures – are reading more than usual.

So, what kind of books are people reading? Are their picks deeply personal? To what extent does the collective dilemma we’re facing at the moment influence our reading choices? Has there been a radical shift in people’s reading preferences in the time of the pandemic? Since human beings are complicated entities with widely differing individual needs and preferences, it would be absurd to expect an easy, one-size-fits-all answer. But I’ve been scanning recent surveys and news reports in search of discernable patterns.

My search threw up some interesting discoveries. For instance, in Europe, during the first lockdown, people turned to “pandemic books” like Albert Camus’ The Plague. The current phase has readers opting for books on Greek mythology and science fiction, which whisk them away to the past or propel them headlong into the future, both offering guaranteed escape routes from the chaotic present. Some readers connect their choices to the level of panic they are experiencing. Their choices during the initial phases of the pandemic when panic levels were at an all-time high were starkly different from the books they turn to in the current phase, where the needle of anxiety has moved to a less frantic, but persistent zone.         

Many people found comfort in the classics. Novels such as Middlemarch, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Crime and Punishment, and Don Quixote called out to them. When Chinese-American author Yiyun Li launched #TolstoyTogether, an online War and Peace reading group, 3,000 members from 6 continents flocked in. The group planned on reading 12-15 pages of Tolstoy’s masterpiece daily and get to the end of the novel in three months.

To some, the classics offered the reassurance of the familiar. They sought out old favourites, savouring every word, taking in the wealth of insights these timeless works contain. Love and loss, grief and sorrow, desire and duty – the classics have much to say on the questions that continue to haunt our lives. Some readers turned to the classics because these were the books – the literary tomes – they had always meant to read, a promise they had made to themselves and never kept. The classics were a challenge, a mountain they had finally found the time to scale. Many found the experience richly rewarding. Epiphanies were in store. Moments of grace and illumination galore.

It’s not all Flaubert and Tolstoy and Woolf of course. Thrillers, self-help books, cookbooks, books on philosophy, and topical subjects such as isolation, race, and politics are all in demand. Regardless of genre or type or subject, the good news is that people have rediscovered the pleasure of reading. They are reading to be entertained and to be comforted, to open up their hearts, to slip into another’s shoes and to see and touch and taste the world in fresh ways, to improve their skills, to relish wit and wisdom, to surrender to the magic of words.

The anxieties the pandemic have inflicted on us do weigh us down. It shortens attention spans. It interferes with our focus and slows us down, which means that even though we may spend more time reading the volume we read is reduced. But what does it matter if we read two books or three? It’s not a numbers game or a productivity contest. The value doesn’t rest on the tally because reading is its own reward.  




The Monster on the Green

One night a towering monster with eyes of coal and claws of jet black rock and skin like the stony ground itself stumbles into a village. The people panic, scream, flee into the hills. Some of the younger men fetch pikes and sticks and surround him. Some of the older ones expire as their hearts give out. Children cry plaintively.

The monster could very easily kill them all. Crush the houses and uproot the trees. Pick his teeth with the spire of the church the villagers labored for ten years to build.

But he doesn’t.

He is a tired monster. He’s lived a thousand years and eaten ten thousand squealing humans in that time. He’s erased more villages than he can count or remember. The screaming no longer excites him. The destruction no longer fills his heart with fire. He wants something else. Something other.

And so he picks his way to the center of the village and settles there on the green. For a while there is commotion all around him. Men bearing pathetic weapons encircle him: bread knives and walking sticks and masonry hammers. Their eyes and hearts and bodies quiver with terror. With a single sweep of his hand the monster could turn them all into bloody smears on the grass.

But he doesn’t.

Instead he sits there, quite immobile, and waits. Days, then weeks. Slowly, the panic quietens. Villagers return from the woods into which they fled. They bury the dead. They light fires around the green and watch him warily. They chatter.

The younger men, he can tell, would like to smear him with pitch and shoot him with burning arrows. The older men would like to pack up and abandon the village altogether. In the end, a middle road prevails. Months after he first arrives in the village, the villagers start to bring him offerings.

Tiny garlands of tiny flowers. Huge meals that wouldn’t sate him for a second, even if he were to eat them. Scrappy little collections of gold and silver. They pile their worthless gifts around him like an enchanted circle, as though that will somehow protect them. He sits as still as a statue and watches them. He considers, again, killing each and every one of them.

But he doesn’t.

Slowly, slowly, the panic recedes. Six months pass and he doesn’t move an inch. The villagers come to regard him as benign. A few still eye him warily, but the rest forget their fear and panic. The weekly market begins again, the pens and stalls erected in a circle around him. People decorate him with flowers and cut grasses. On summer days they sit in his shadow.

The monster watches them. The comings and goings of their daily lives. The baker’s apprentice starts courting the dressmaker, and they visit the monster and touch his toes for luck. A year later they have their wedding on the green, and drunken guests lounge against the monster’s stony skin. The baker’s apprentice (now the baker) credits the monster with the flourishing of their love in his speech. The monster, he says, is a miracle. A blessing on the village.

And so it seems to be. After that visitors start coming to marvel at the monster. A few at first, and then many more. The village swells to accommodate them. There are new inns, new taverns, new houses. The shops around the green thrive. Offerings pile up around the monster in a glittering barrow. A sign is erected, explaining his miraculous nature.

Years pass, and the monster does not move. It is different from his previous existence. No death. No destruction. No bloodtaste in his mouth. No screams in his ears. Just peaceful years passing by one after the other after the other. The monster considers this existence no better and no worse than his previous life. He does not care for the villagers. Humans are so small and so insignificant they are of no interest at all to him. This life is not better or worse. It simply is.

He could, he supposes, stay and be their miracle forever. He could let them prosper. He could keep them. Watch over them. While away his years like this, in peace and harmony and quiet.

But he doesn’t.




Lost and Found

Reading has always been my refuge. On bright days and dark, reading has remained as essential an activity as breathing. Reading shapes my writing life. The books you read—glorious, awful, middling—all make you the writer you are. The writers who held me spellbound in my childhood inspired me to try my hand at crafting my own stories long before I stepped into the tricky terrain of adulthood. To me, reading was and always will be pure joy. The written word gives me the power to enter other worlds, to live other lives. If a day goes by without letting me pick up a book from my to-read pile I write it off as a day lost. However rushed or chaotic the workday turns out to be, a book lets me catch my breath and centre my harried self in the quiet of the night. In this promise, I placed my trust.

And then the pandemic struck. The world literally ground to a halt. We woke up to a new reality, a new abnormal: lockdowns, restricted timings for stepping out of our homes, surreal grocery store expeditions, dystopian food shortages…all our familiar rhythms ruptured. The shape of our days morphed in ways beyond our control as news of the virus’s stampede threw us off kilter. Rumours swirled in the air. Fear hovered, ominous, insistent, a fog that refused to fade.

Instinctively, I turned to books, hoping literature would help me make sense of it all. The written word would surely be my anchor. The promise of art beckoned. With misplaced confidence, I picked up a book and burrowed into the couch. In a minute, the realisation that reading—as instinctual as breathing or blinking to me—had turned into an impossible feat hit me like a gut punch. I stared at the page in front of me. Words blurred into each other. Sentences refused to make sense. Plot twists whizzed past me. Clever phrasing and vivid imagery, conflict, character, context—all lost on my pandemic-addled mind.

Psychologists say that humans find it hardest to read when the fight-or-flight response is triggered. Being alive in a time of universal anxiety scrambles your brain. Chaos depletes your focus. This made sense to me on a theoretical level. The trouble was that reading has been my antidote to upheaval ever since I can remember. To be deprived of it when I needed it the most was a cruel irony. I felt bereft.

Reading and writing are yin and yang, river and rain. Without one, the other loses its vitality. A writer who doesn’t read is an oddity like a musician who doesn’t listen to music or a painter who doesn’t see colour. A blocked reader is a blocked writer. Can’t argue with that.

I stumbled through the haze, impaired by my inability to do any real reading or writing. Week days segued into housebound weekends. The frenzy of panic the pandemic had triggered simmered down to a stream of daily dread. One Sunday evening, as I was aimlessly doom-scrolling through Twitter, a quote from a Mary Oliver poem a friend posted caught my eye:

“When it’s all over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” 

Oliver’s lines got stuck in my head. Like the tune of a song you can’t shake off, they followed me everywhere: to the shower, the kitchen, the sun-dappled balcony, the freshly sanitised neighbourhood grocery store.

Gently insistent, they nudged me towards her poems, a stunning repertoire seeped in the rhythms of the natural world. Egrets and hummingbirds and ‘lean owls’ flapped their wings, still ponds and blue green seas and mossy glades shimmered. I was made witness to serendipitous moments of connection with nature. Invited to feast on wonder, amazement, danger, epiphany, excitement…

Oliver’s poetry was soul food and brain food. I devoured it like a starving woman. The wall, the stony resistance that had sprung up between me and the written word crumbled. The page offered no resistance. Once again, I was free to string words together, to marvel at a turn of phrase, to glean meaning from meter and metaphor. With a grateful heart and an armful of books, I headed to my favourite nook after weeks spent mourning my lost reading habit.

Mary Oliver and her profound insights on the connection between humans and the natural world rescued me from despair. Her poetry showed me my place in the natural order. I was a piece in a puzzle, a sentient being connected to millions of others. Oliver’s lines gifted me much needed perspective in a moment of extreme disorientation. They let me read again, breathe again. The cadence of verse quietened the cacophony inside my head. And from that quiet place, I went back to my first love—fiction.




Mondegreen

Soup for fifty in the MKZ, a vegan squat-restaurant half a kilometre from the Vondelpark. It was a recipe I’d tried before – avocado and lime – but the avocadoes I’d just bought from the Albert Cuypmarkt were hard, and the lo-salt I was adding had the effect of making it taste bloody. My reputation as a good soup-maker, earned by cooking up a meatless mulligatawny a few weeks before, was now at stake. I added things frantically, trying to balance out the flavours, but they just wouldn’t gel. Sharon, head chef of sorts, was hastily eating a cream cake (“it’s freegan”) and paying not a shred of notice.

And then there was the girl, of course there was a girl, Laura (pronounced L-OW-ra!) from Spain. She had blonde-brown curls, looser than mine, and eyes like the sky in a summer storm, occasional dark clouds and all.

She grabbed another would-be-escapee avocado and stabbed it with one of our many blunt knives. She eyed my mint-green mixture but said nothing. If this was a test of our friendship, she had passed it.

That morning we had watched the sun come up, sitting on the forbidden roof of my block of student flats, drinking warmish beer. The sky was the blue of a half-sucked Smarty. The ankles of my jeans were wet following an unsuccessful attempt to commandeer an empty houseboat on the Keizergracht, and there were two dark pink crescent thumbnail marks on my right hand from where she’d pulled me back onto the pavement. Then we slept for two hours under our jackets when daylight really struck, and cycled here via the market, where I’d insisted on buying the twenty unripe avocadoes.

One of the perks of working at MKZ was the free booze. Only able to afford beer or, at best, strong sweet port at the supermarket, we were spoiled for choice with the vodka and rum behind the bar. Technically Sharon was meant to keep watch over the stock but, having finally noticed how stressed I was about the now frothy soup, she opted to turn a blind eye to its depletion. We were opening in thirty-five minutes.

Unable to watch customers chew their soup, I went to stand at the back door. It was cool outside and my head slowly began to stop spinning. Laura came to stand by the door too. Elbow to elbow at the fire escape, we watched the sun draining back into the earth. There was a second where we might have kissed but it faded fast.

When it was finally dark and everyone had eaten their seitan curry and started moving from the bar towards the door, Laura made her way back inside and I followed. We got onto our bikes less steadily than we’d dismounted them just hours before, and made our way down towards Trut! another squat, transformed into a grotty but glorious gay club. We danced, although I hated dancing, and for a while forgot about who liked whom or why anyone would put limes in soup or whether we would ever be happier or what life would be like when we left this city and went back to our homes.

An old hippy in a hat came up to me, and said it was the best soup he’d ever eaten. I decided to believe him.

There was a song we listened to a lot in those days. I misinterpreted the lyrics, and thought they went: this is boring me, this is paradise. As I walked along the Keizergracht to a class; or up the Prinsengracht to meet a friend and dangle our legs over the edge, dangerously close to the canal, and drink copious amounts of red wine from one of the small bars; or even through the red light district, that time we had an assignment for the Gender Studies class – at these times, I recognised the city as a paradise I never wanted to be kicked out of.

I thought back to Edinburgh. Edinburgh was a slim, camp man with an air of pretension and a sharp-edged beauty, defying the clouds that threatened to blur his contours. Amsterdam was gentler, feminine, with all her waterways and the narrow buildings standing close together like girls sharing a cigarette on a night out in December.

Yes, Amsterdam was paradise, but I was never bored.

We were smoking a rare joint, stretched out on my rooftop, each with one headphone in, listening to the song on repeat. My little iPod was gathering heat in the early sun.

“Aiiiii,” she screamed. “It’s just so beautiful,” she said, “everything, so beautiful.”

I looked out across the rooftops and below, at the trams like vessels snaking through the city’s veins, and the bicycles with their spinning wheels catching the pale sun. My head was hazy with smoke and light.

“You’re beautiful, too,” I tried, the words nervous in my mouth.

“Becky,” she said. “BeckyBeckyBecky.”

“I mean…”

“Let’s change the song!”

She fiddled with the iPod. Another song went on: happier melody, more miserable lyrics.

“What does that cloud look like?” she demanded.

Caught off-guard. Rorschach response. “A hot-air balloon.”

“Whaaaat? You want to fly to the clouds. Aiiii, aiiii, aiiii.”

“Why, what do you think it looks like?”

“A pregnant woman.”

I squinted. Couldn’t see it. Realised she’d succeeded in distracting me. Resigned myself to forever holding my peace. Minutes passed, I was either stoned or sulking.

“Becky?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, okay. Okay. What do you think is so beautiful about me?”
Shit. “It’s— uhm— your, it’s your, eyes.”

“Oh come on!”

“What?”

“My eyes.” Flatly stated. “My eyes?”

“Yeah but not just…”

She leant down, hands at her face. Jesus. Had I made her cry? When her head came back up, one of her eyes was no longer sky coloured but a pale, autumn brown. She lifted her index finger, held the contact lens to the light.

“My eyes,” she said. Tiny smile. “Aiiii, Becky, Becky. So sweet, you are.”




Introducing the anal leader: Covid Warrior, Bolsonaro

The English-speaking world is unfamiliar with this creature in the right-wing zoo but today he has presided over far too much death and destruction to be ignored, besides watching over nearly 5 million Covid cases so far. I know, I know – this number is still as small as the genitals of an underweight cockroach in the Congo basin when compared to the phenomenal wreck caused by the tweeting twit Tump in the plutocracy of America or even the trauma inflicted by the mitron-muttering murderous Modi in godly India. But Brazil has made its mark. This beautiful land of beautiful people is also under the thumb of a right wing numbskull – a pattern that has haunted the putrid polity of this cursed planet in the past few abominable years. For the sake of abundant caution and because Noam Chomsky (admittedly, this author’s guru) says that the planet was never in graver danger, we must track all political weapons of mass destruction that poor Covid is scarcely a patch on. And while we may bemoan the formidable virus, we must be grateful to it for spotlighting the fact that democracy can create bigger assholes than dictatorship could ever dream of, and for significantly widening the divide between gold and shit for the benefit of even the politically colour-blind populace.

So this is an introduction to Covid Warrior Jair Messlas Bolsonaro. And in the early part of his introduction there are absolutely no surprises. Predictably, he is an army lemon, a fellow whose brains were snuffed out in military training to well beyond the theirs-not-to-reason-why numbing state. Not surprisingly, after retiring from monkey-service, he was in Brazil’s far-right conservative party which strangely goes by the name Social Liberal Party. But he hated the name so much that he soon snapped ties with them. Bolsonaro showed early promise as a right winger when as a soldier he spoke about money. The winning ingredients of a right-wing despot comprises soldierly witlessness spiked with deranged hyper-patriotism which is charitably called nationalism, manic money-making where petty-thief-turned-shameless-billionaire is sympathetically sold as a rag to riches story, and of course religious tribalism, which is both – a veil for criminal sinning by the ruler and the intoxicant for his asinine supporters. And Bolsonaro, while protesting about the low wages of the army, evidenced at least two of these three ingredients in 1986 when he wrote an article about low wages of army chaps. A fifteen-days’ arrest followed. Now an arrest for wrong reasons does point to a promising politician in the making. He was accused of planning to plant bombs in army units. Now by virtue of wanting to bomb places whose low wages he was protesting earlier, conclusively proved that he would one day be a right-wing stalwart that most of us would be baffled by while the rest kissed his ass. Polarization between right and wrong is what the political polarization of today is all about. It is not much deeper than that. Simply put, today, in some nations – the ones ruled by right-wing fatheads – people are of two types: the first, who like everything that is wrong and therefore ass-kiss the likes of Bolsonaro, and the second who detest wrong and wrong-doing and would like to ass-kick the likes of Bolsonaro. The reason why the former is winning is that they actually do what they would like to do and the reason why the latter is losing is because they never do what they would like to do. And so the winners actually kiss-ass devotedly but the losers are so dignified that they don’t do what they would love to do, which is to kick Bolsonaro’s ass. Physically. (Author’s note: The author confesses to liking Joe Biden’s “Shut up, man,” to Trump in the presidential debate because it is high time the liberal world steps out of its tuxedo either in underwear or naked to wrestle with the right-wing simian in the mud. The days of dignity will have to take a sabbatical if these shit-urchins have to be flushed.) Because lawfully, only lawlessness is allowed. And so a tiny minority of some 30%, united by driven ass-kissing, has hijacked democracies like the United States, United Kingdom and India, proving that in democracies, as in a septic tank, it is the spectacularly stinking shit of a sick skunk that rises to the dizzying dastardly top. The pattern is so effortlessly discernible that using a political scientist to decode this is like deploying a nuclear weapon to kill a rat. To repeat, the simple formula is: Take a mass of WRONG of very low integrity and stupendous greed, and let it feed itself to the brim with hatred. And soon what it oozes from its filthy ass will be like honey to the mouths of ass-kissing supporters.

Well, back to a subject of Bolsonaro’s glorious life and times. So after a first-degree conviction, he was acquitted by the Brazilian Supreme Military Court in 1998, like right-wing toadies usually are. The courts in all such countries have the same DNA with identical strands of impotency, and are driven by expeditiously delivering injustice while keeping justice pending till the criminal dies of natural causes that may include death at the age of 225 out of sheer boredom. In India, the court has recently ruled that those who are guilty of razing the Babri mosque are not guilty of razing the Babri mosque although they razed it, and in America, Trump is treating the Supreme Court like his ageing phallus with which he can play with at will and that it is none of anybody’s business. Coming back to the subject of Bolsonaro, well he was elected as a member of the Christian Democratic Party – like any right-wing toady who must be associated with some religious ideology (for want of a demeaning word for this particular “political” stance which should really be illegitimate in any state that isn’t theocratic) – and was then elected to the lower chamber of the Congress in 1990 and re-elected a few times. The word “lower” for such houses of parliament was meant to be a constitutional pun, one can infer in hindsight. But the moot point here is on Bolsonaro’s confounding re-election which is so reminiscent of the Gujaratis re-electing Modi so many times in their state as Chief Minister that now when the rest of India has experienced him, it cannot stop squinting hard at the Gujaratis and wondering if their bitter choice came from the need to compensate their ultra-sweet cuisine, even the savouries. Or if the hot air filled in the rump of a Gujarati pyjama gets extended to political choices where farts rule the roost. But jokes apart – though that is all we have – here is the real explanation for Bolsonaro’s re-election and it is a physiological one. See right-wing toadies are invariably re-elected a few times even outside Gujarat and that is because ass-kissing is decidedly an addiction. Studies have found that the entry mode of any addictive substance in any addiction of any type, is invariably an orifice. Example: weed from the mouth, a natural office, or drugs injected through an artificial orifice. But an orifice nonetheless. And the orifice in politics is bound to be the smelly one. The asshole. And therefore ass-kissing is quite the addiction.

Now, over the next twenty-seven years, Bolsonaro furthered his reputation as a conservative by following the tried and tested right-wing recipe that involves aggressive opposition to the usual suspects: same-sex marriage and homosexuality, abortion, affirmative action, drug liberalization, and naturally, secularism. And of course, the countries he came to like and love were the United States and Israel, default choices of furiously farting hyper-capitalists. But with India and Modi, things were kind of neutral because for a long time Modi, whose education is asymptomatic, thought Brazil was a type of bra and because Bolsonaro thought India was a poor man’s Amazon forest with snakes and where the few trees that remained, were being cut to create a station, a shed and a track for a Japanese bullet train without having created a road to reach that station simply because Modi was too old to play with a toy train but shitty enough to treat an idiotically expensive train like his toy. It was a matter of time when Bolsonaro and Modi both bumped into each other when each demanded a permanent seat for their respective countries in the Security Council of the United Nations after working hard to never deserve it and without understanding that the fundamental remit of the United Nations is world peace and the word peace, whenever uttered, plagued them with erectile dysfunction, while the word hate made them horny as hell. But back to blundering Bolsonaro, well he party-hopped a bit till he was afforded the opportunity to run for President and then won with a spectacular 55% vote, making the remainder 45% of Brazilians ferociously turn to Science for an explanation and angrily to God for an answer. That, we bloody pray to you and this is how you bloody fuck us! The research into this political calamity admeasuring a stunning 55% is on, but is futile. Dear Brazilians, it simply means that if you were one single human body, then 55% of your surface area would be taken up by your anus. But please don’t feel targeted. The author hails from a geography with an ever-growing crowd of assholes as well such that they even inhabit his WhatsApp groups of school, college, and other places he wishes he never was a part of. Yet, Science shrugs and coolly calls this evolution, and explains it thus: With increased global warming and the planet getting fucked by the humans, the only way humans can survive in these increasingly smelly circumstances is by increasing their assholery percentage to fight the menace like an infected vaccine fights a virus. Using steel to cut steel. But that obviously raises the confounding question that when climate change is behind the proliferation of right-wingers, and is therefore behind their disgraceful creation, then why do they denounce that very science which is behind climate change? The answer my dear, is found in pathology when it explains quite disarmingly that it is because right-wingers are plain shit.

Amen.

So on Bolsonaro, on getting elected, like any honourable right-wing cretin who has a pathological fear of intellect, Bolsonaro, was careful not to fill his cabinet with people more intelligent than him, but because most of them were, he safely filled it with army lemons. What he forgot however was that some army lemons, despite their lemonadic intellect, were still more intelligent than him. You can be an absolute dumbfuck and yet be like Aristotle when compared to another dumbfuck. And so many of them fell out of favour. The moral of the story, dear reader, is that even assholes have a hierarchy. The smaller assholes feel decidedly superior to the bigger assholes and so many felt it was below their anal dignity to work under this king-size anus, Bolsonaro. His Secretary of Government, and his ministers of Education and Justice were among the prominent ones who held their nose and scampered. But to be fair, in his first year, the crime rates fell. But to be fairer, in some right-wing regimes this happens because crimes by the government are simply not counted and they greatly outnumber the crimes by common man. And the criminal ones among Common Man are suddenly so wonderstruck that the lawmakers are lawbreakers now, that they are numbed into inaction for some time. But Brazil, like many countries in the developing world, is not merely developing in the present continuous tense, but has yet to become a country. So you see, you cannot blame an underperforming country for its performance because it isn’t a country yet in the first place. Ha! So on Bolsonaro, after his stunning assholery mandate of 55%, he fucked up royally in his first year in office. Exactly in the way he wanted to plant bombs in the army in which he was employed, in that very manner, he was now daggers-drawn with his party colleagues, and in all that acrimony, he left. But he didn’t leave poor Brazil alone. He cherry-picked those assholes in his party who were bigger assholes than him (believe it or not there were many) and quit to form his own party. It was now 2019 and then came his masterstroke. But to be fair, of all the right-wing blockheads ruling the world, only this man knew what the magic potion for right-wing proliferation was, and therefore of his own political longevity. Presto! Climate change. If he could accelerate climate change, then the percentage of assholes would increase and therefore, his voter base. And that’s what he did. He went after the Amazon forests and proceeded to batter the shit out of them. The deforestation was mind boggling. And given the sheer size and scale of the Amazon forests, imagine its political ripples across the world. Now if Trump is re-elected, you know who was behind his increasing voter base of assholes. That’s right. With the proliferation of asinine voters, Biden may well have to bid goodbye to his presidential dreams. And Trump will have a quiet ally to thank privately.

Covid Warrior Bolsonaro.

But where is Covid in all this?

Since the onset of Covid, where Brazil has now seen over 5 million cases and a bewildering lack of response to the crisis, Bolsonaro’s political fortunes and approval ratings have plunged as they have for most right-wing rulers. He himself had tested positive, again like some right-wing rulers. Like all right-wing rulers, he screwed up in handling the pandemic. But dear reader, just because you and I can see the embarrassment on his face doesn’t mean his doting dud voters can see it too. You see, the asshole is not only very trusting but it is physically also placed in a position where it can never see the embarrassment on its God’s face. Because it can never see the face. It is behind, on its God’s ass.

Moreover, have you ever met an asshole with brains?

Remember, Covid is the strongest message we ever got from nature.

Throw the haters out.

Or perish.




STEVE McQUEEN’S LOVERS ROCK TO JOIN THE 64TH BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL

LOVERS ROCK is one of five films from Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology alongside the festival’s Opening film MANGROVE

The BFI London Film Festival in partnership with American Express is delighted to announce that LOVERS ROCK, directed by BFI Fellow Steve McQueen, has joined this year’s programme. The film will screen on Sunday 18th October across two screenings at BFI Southbank as part of the LFF’s Love strand supported by Porsche, who are joining the LFF as new sponsors this year.

An ode to the romantic reggae genre called “Lovers Rock” and to the young people who found freedom and love in its sound, LOVERS ROCKtells a fictional story of young love and music at a house party in 1980. Amarah-Jae St Aubyn makes her screen debut opposite the BAFTAs 2020 Rising Star Award recipient Micheal Ward (Blue Story). Shaniqua Okwok (Boys), Kedar Williams-Stirling (Sex Education), Ellis George (Dr Who), Alexander James-Blake (Top Boy) and Kadeem Ramsay (Blue Story) also star, as well as Francis Lovehall and Daniel Francis-Swaby who make their screen debuts. LOVERS ROCKwas co-written by Courttia Newland and Steve McQueen.

The film, alongside MANGROVE, is one of five films from Small Axe; a drama anthology which comprises five original films created by Steve McQueen for BBC One. Set from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, the films each tell a different story involving London’s West Indian community, whose lives have been shaped by their own force of will, despite rampant racism and discrimination. MANGROVE will open the film festival on Wednesday 7th October and will play for free to audiences at BFI Southbank and in selected cinemas across the UK.

LOVERS ROCK Director, Steve McQueen said: “I’m so happy to be screening LOVERS ROCKat theLondon Film Festival, to show it here where it belongs is a privilege. I hope this film will bring back memories of parties past and look to the future of parties to come”

The 64th BFI London Film Festival in partnership with American Express is taking place from Wednesday 7th October-Sunday 18th October 2020. Over the twelve days the Festival will be its most accessible ever, presenting over 50 Virtual Premieres and a selection of highly-anticipated new feature film previews at BFI Southbank as well as in cinemas across the UK, offering audiences a unique chance to engage with the Festival in different ways.

The full programme is available at https://www.bfi.org.uk/explore-our-festivals/bfi-london-film-festival . All tickets are available to book now.

Small Axe will premiere on BBC One and iPlayer this autumn and air on Amazon Prime Video in the US.




Hackney Kisses

“Hackney Kisses” is a series of graffitied wedding photographs. In 2010, photographer Stephen Gill stumbled upon a collection of photographs taken by an anonymous photographer in the 1950s of couples kissing each other on their wedding day in Hackney, often by their three-story wedding cake. I have taken these photographs and added sketch-graffiti to them, giving them a vibrant, surreal, and sometimes intimate feel.




An Open Letter by Xi Jingpin to the Three Leaders of the Infected World

Dear Suckers,

Don mind the title I have given all you fuckers. It is a promotion as you can cee from the spelling. Talking of spelling, I am going to rite this letter in Chinees English. Note how I spelt “Chinees”. It is thuh correct spelling. How can you hav a language where thuh pronunciation does not matches thuh spelling. I will not allow it. Cee, when we say Zhao Enlai in Chinees, it is spelt as Zhao Enlai only. In Chinees. Now just as we Chinees are correcting everything else you suckers hav ruined in yor oan cuntrees so badly, we will correct yor language also. It is our Soshil Responsibility. So say thank you! Gud boys! Okay, now I have a simpill plan to maik this miner change in yor language happen very fast. I will ask Chinees investors to soon bye out all English dictionaries and chainj them. But this letter is not about yor stupid language. It is about clarifying fue points becaus otherwize you suckers are spredding misinformation about China simplee becaus I don speeks English, and China do not own Time Magazine, BBC, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and I forget the names of Indian media but then so duz everybody else in the wurld because they are as significant to the wurld as Hinduism. But as for western media bias, that will also change when Chinees investors bye them out. Meanwhyle, of cors we hav Global Times butt awnestly, that is still onlee as Global as that panicky minority religion – Hinduism. So untill this skued media bizniss is solvd, I hav kindly consented to my Central Committee to rite this open letter to you suckers, butt in correct English – Chinees English. I am sorry for maiking you wait for this red letter but I was very busy with a fue things. One, I was bizee in development work including maiking islands in South China Sea, roads in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh and on the Himachal Pradesh border. Now not many of yoo will no the naims of thees places but that is becaus they are in India and not just becaus you trader type of capitalists are generally illiterate. And two, I was bizee exporting protective geer of Covid 19 after exporting Covid 19 itself to you suckers. And you suckers has all been taikin the geer shaimlesslee and after that you has been biching about banning China to pleese yor that stupid part of yor peepal whose voats have maid you fuckers the main suckers of yor respectiv cuntrees. And now when we maik the vaccine, like all our othur products, it will be the cheepist and best and yor peepal will buy it. Because yoo cee you capitalists are not evin gud in Marketing. Now taik the exampil of OnePlus Chinees smartphone. And I am not evin talking about Oppo. So OnePlus phone understands yor citizens better than yor oan phone companies includings both Apple and Google Nexus (how stupid to call a phone by such a negative name “nexus” Are you illterate? Or is nexus a virchew in Capitalism?). It is called Conzumer Insight. And so it is not just about charging fare price, though you capitalist idiots will kill yorself but cannot stop cheeting custumers with stupid prices. So, OnePlus has so many secret features and anyone who duz illegal or secret things like many young peepal and old politicians in yor cuntrees, will luv OnePlus. Yoo three suckers should also try this phone. All three of yoo can store yor gurlfriend’s pictures without anyone getting to know. And for yoo Modi especially – this phone has wide angil lens so it can shoot your very wide gurlfrends also. I will gift yoo one phone in exchange for PLA taiking control of yor Himachal Pradesh state. This is over and abov our othur deal. Wink Wink! (Pssst! How is PayTm, yor demonetiztion launch vehical doing?) And yoo three must know that I knows thru MSS (Ministry of State Security), the Chinees Intelligence agency who all yor women are. Wants me to reveel? Butt that is not the point.

The point is that one thing you will have to accept. China has never had idiots as head of state lyke your cuntrees – America, England and India. So there must be sumthing rite about how we maik leeders in China. But cumming back to the point (I cannot spend so much time in that toilet which you call democracy which produces shits lyke you), the thurd reason why I was unabel to rite this open latter was becaus I was bizee in a program called AFTEP. It is the “App For Territory Exchange Program” that Modi and I hav verballee signed. So I taik some Indian territory and in exchange he bans a few Chinees apps to pleez his stupid voaters. That is what I like about Modi – how he looses and looses and still pretends to be hard. He is like loose motion sold as constipation to his stupid voaters. Anywhey. Let mee cum to the point. I have been thretning to cum for two long, I confess. Butt anywhey. Cee this open letter is about clarifying the Chinees point of view to all you suckers and yor misinformed peepals. I have been tolerating yor stupid taik on China after this Covid 19 pandemic for two long and there is an English provurb that has inspired mee to rite this letter. It says: The penis mighteer than the sword. So faar you all hav been ceeing the sword and mite of China. Now cee my penis. Here I cum. I will cum into each of you suckers won by won.

Now lissin you, Trump. I have studied you after checking on you on Baidu. You are ignorant about Baidu also you typical right winger? So, lyke you has Google in Amerika, same way we has Baidu in China. It is like Google onlee except that it is bigger. To maik it biggest however, I have a simpill plan. Chinees investors will bye out Google. Butt that is not the point here. The point iss that on Baidu, I found this stuff on you. And it maiks me wonder what rite at all you hav to talk about me and China you joaker. Let me putt this comparisun for the wurld to know. Furst, I will compair you and mee – t.i. (not e.i. because e.i. cannot bee short form of “that is”. Short form of “that is” has to bee “t.i.”) you, Trump and me Xi Jinping. Aftur I has compaired yoo and mee I will compair yor cuntree and my nashun, t.i. Amerika and China. Lett peepal then diside for themselves. Aftur I finish with you, I will compair myself with that fello who cannot evin stand strait. Boris Johnsun and his Britain. Actually he iss the reeson why I am riting this open letter in such a hurree. Becaus by the time I finish he may no longer be PM. Yoo cee in Britain the PM changes the day he has a whorse voice and cannot shout back in parliament. So funnee! This joak is called Democracy I am toald. And in India, PM changes for similar reesun with miner variashun. There the man who lies loudly becums next PM. And the won who gets Chinees software expurts to manipulayt the Electronic Voating Macheens stays PM. Democracy! Ha! How funnee! Butt Amerika is funniest. The won who looses becums President! I no yoo Amerikans are week in Mathematics but this is craazee isn’t it? But the funniest thing is that all you three suckers hav the cheeks to criticize Chinees systum. Cee, Chinees systum is best. Here whoever is harder becums the ruler. We hav erections not elections. Let me explane moar befoar I cum inside Trump. Actually why waist time. I shud cum inside all three of yoo together onlee.

So let me introdeuce myself. I am General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and also the Chairman of Central Military Commission (both since 2012) and President of the People’s Republic of China (since 2013). I am what is called the “Paramount leader” to maik cleer that no nonsence will be tolerated. Chinees systum has simpill ways of communicating that no nonsence will be tolerated. We don’t misuse Courts to do this, or use street goons in underwhere to do this. Nor do we treet Parliament like Wuhan fish market to do this. Nor do we tweet stupid tweets in all caps and exclamation marks to do this by insisting so many times that “I have all the authority” that it becums cleer yoo have no authority in yor stupid systum which claims to be a democracy but is not and claims to give you authority but does not. Yor donkey systum onlee gives yoo instability and mentallee unstable leeders like yoo three chimpanzees. Be honest. I am faar better than yoo three. Don taik my word for it, just cee yor performance. Post Covid and pre Covid. By the way what is this nonsence about “testing per million”. In China we test evrybuddy! I was shokked that the peepals in yor stupid democracy aar tolerating testing per million. Testing shud be free. Evrybuddy shud be tested. In just fue days China put up a full hospital. You wer not evin abel to copy us! And when we locked down Wuhan, you learned the meaning of lockdown from us. But how stupidly yoo three suckers implemented it. Wurst was yoo, Modi. Yoo locked down lyke you were shutting yor toilet. If you were in China (impossible, we don have donkeys like yoo) yoo would hav been locked up for yor stupid lockdown. And you Trump, yoo were so funnee thruout! Haw Haw Haw!

Giv me a minitt, I has to laugh!

Ahhhhh!

And yoo Johnsun, the virus evin got into yor ass. You call it arse in UK rite? When yoo travil to Amerika, what do Amerikans understand with the announcement: That ass Johnsun has arrived. Which ass they see you as? The ass with ears or the ass with a hole? Anywhey, we will taik care of all this when Chinees investors bye out all English dictionaries. Lett me cum back to the point. So tell mee Johnsun, how a leeder who cannot saiv his oan ass can saiv his peepals. I swear by the dragon, in China we hav never ever had such clowns leeding the cuntree. And the best paart is that you are elected! Haw Haw Haw! But yoo three will go soon. And here in China, I am President without any term limits. So I am not insecure lyke yoo three. I don hav to bullshit my peepals to survive. I don hav to lie. But yoo three are liars fighting a survival battle daily. You Trump will be kicked out in November. Johnson, in yor case you can be kicked out the day you cannot outshout members of yor own party in parliament. Yoo don even need opposishun to dethrown yoo. Any of yor colleegs will do to yoo what yoo did to that emptee cupboard Theresa May. And yoo Modi, yoo hav feer of loosing power. The day yoo looses power yoo will be hanged. Yor crimes are more than any criminal I know. But there is won more way all three of yoo can loose power which yoo suckers forgets. If China taiks Ladakh Modi even yor twenty percent underwhere supporters will be forced to set yor pajama on fire even without election. And Trump, as regards yoo, the “Chinees virus” as yoo call Covid 19, has alreddy finished yoo. Same to yoo, Johnson. Onlee Modi needs PLA to screw him becaus in his cuntree 20% of his Hindu cuntreemen feel that Modi is a cow who must be protected even he just sits in the middle of a marketplace and farts all day. Such a stupid democracy where 20% peepals decide who PM will be. You cee the funnee part is that China is also a better deomocracy than this. Lissin you joakers. Democracy is not just election. It is representation. And yoo three do not represent yor peepal the way I represent my peepal.

Now let me tell you about myself so that yor peepal can really no the difference. I went thru hell in my life. My father was imprisoned and died. I was on my oan since age fifteen. So, I lived in a cave in Liangjiahe. Another matter that still I don’t wear my suit as clumsily as you too white men, Trump and Johnsun. And as regards you, you hairy hare, who uses mushroom whitener on yor face and dresses up like an Indian bride who is waiting for her bridegroom since 2013, I know if you wear a suit you will look like a fat cow in a sari. I don why yoo are so ashaimed of yor brown skin that you eat fungus to whiten it. And evin then yor beard looks like it belongs inside the fly of a 200 years old gorilla. And you Johnson I don’t know which university and school you went to (someone tolded me you went to Eton and Oxford) but they forgets to groom yoo and tell you simpill difference between how to keep the hair on top in better condition than hair inside yor underwhere. But I was a “worker-peasant-soldier” student of Chemical Engineering and unlike you Modi, I have certificates to show for it. And unlike you Trump, I passed without cheeting. And unlike you Johnson, when I studied I really studeed. I did not keep phucking and phucking and phucking and study only to take a brake. And I rose from the ranks. I did not jump from Trump tower to White House or put a drawing pin on Theresa May’s chair befoar she sat down or kill 2000 muslims and talk bullshit about vikas, development, on which my track record is smaller than the little peanut in my pajama. I worked my way up. I did not get into politics very eazy. I was rejected seven times before I was taikin into Communist Youth League of China. In China yoo rize on merit and not by doing one communal riot or licking one dozen backsides. I applied ten times to join Communist Party of China. Exactly ten! And then I joined in 1973, when yoo Trump were selling real estate on illegal land, yoo Johnson were still clearly studying some bullshit. How yoo turned out is evidence of what went into yoo. And yoo Modi were washing saffron underwhere at that time and doing shady things which yoo cover up by saying you sold tea. There also I doubt of yoo can give anyone a single a cup of tea without putting poison into it.

Now let me stop talking about myself so that I don start lukking like you three megalomaniacs. And let us talk about our cuntrees and our performance. I will start with simple facts before I cum into you. So China is the world’s fastest growing economy. What yor peepal don no is that China is also the absolute largest economy in the wurld by purchasing power parity. Amerika is not. At $25.4 trillion, China is $5 trillion bigger than Amerika, $15.5 trillion bigger than India, and $22 trillion bigger than UK. So stop just talking about China as the fastest growing. We are also the biggest. Stop fooling yor stupid peepals. And yoo Johsun should stop reeding this letter now onlee out of shame. And yoo Modi don need to do that becaus you don know how to reed onlee and so yoo must not be reeding it in any case . And Trump you can at least reed numbers so reed this and STPU (Shut The Phuck Up). And yoo ignorant capitalists may not no this but Chinees economy is both centrally planned and market oriented. Private sector is 80% of our GDP. We also have the second largest number of billionaires in the wurld t.i. three times that of India, and eight times that of UK and slightly lesser than Amerika. We are the world’s largest manufacturing economy. We are too times bigger than Amerika, ten times that of India and twenty times that of UK. I suspect our manufacturing waste must be more than the manufacturing of India and UK. We are also the wurld’s largest exporter of goods. And we are the largest traiding nashun in the wurld. We are ranked 31 on Ease of doing business index, India is at 63, Amerika is at 6 and UK at 8. The reesun is simpill. India is louzee so it is at 63. And Amerika and UK are high becaus they has maid it easier for China to do business as the wurld’s largest exporters! Haw! Haw! Now here is what China is very proud of. And I don say this, World Bank says it. That China povertee rate fell from 88% decades ago to 0.7% in 2015. Can yoo three capitalists explain to me why China not only has the wurld’s largest economy and the wurld’s second largest number of billionaires and also the lowest poverty numbers? India has 73 Mn peepal (5.5%) in extreme povertee. Half of the wurld’s poor live in just five cuntrees and the highest number aar in India. In Amerika, 11.8% peepals live in povertee. Tell me Trump, why yoo calls yorself a developed cuntree? And yoo, Johnsun, yor UK has 21% peepals in pvertee. I can onlee hoap that with thees facts yor pepaal throws yoo three suckers out and boo yoo when you criticize China. I hav much moar to say, but this is enuf for this Part 1 of my open letter. If yor peepals are still fooled by yor China bashing then I think they deserve yoo.

Butt still we Chinees aar kind peepal. And this messij of mine is to the peepal of these three sad cuntrees. So we Chinees will still send you masks, PPE and vaccine. And if yoo want we can alos maik hospital for yoo which yor three suckers cannot maik. And if yoo want we can also do testing for each one of you. Ask all yoo want and we Chinees aar there for yoo. But do voat out yor three joakers. Don let them divert attenshun to China. I sincerely meen it for yor gud onlee.

Moar in my next open letter. Part Too.

So, Chow.




The Enemy Within

For someone who is located in excess of 13,000 km away from the United States of America, my life and politics are intertwined with American politics. After all, the USA is the archetype of an elder brother to my humble abode of Namibia. The elder brother will forever be older, faster, the superior athlete and try as one may, the shoes are daunting to fill. An elusive pursuit in which the younger brother never scales the heights of his predecessor. On 5 January 2020, I was up as early as two a.m. for an epic showdown between the one, the only Tom Brady and Ryan Tannehill in the NFL playoff game. Days before I had brushed aside the fluke loss to the Dolphins and I was adamant “TB12” would pull off a comeback tantamount to the revenge tour of the infamous Deflate Gate.

If you are an NFL fan or have access to your computer, you will know that The Patriots lost the drab of a match to the Titans 20–13 despite Ryan Tannehill’s meagre 72 passing yards! Why is this important? Well for me the Patriots’ loss was the worst part of my festive season, or so I thought. My wife, our three children and I were due to leave for the coast for one final time before the resumption of business and the Patriots had put a slight dent to my mood. All season I had watched Bill Belichick’s tottering offence for three hours after midnight in Africa! I had made every excuse for them each time Shannon Sharpe spoke in his critical superlatives he attested were passed down by his granddad. I was always in agreement with Skip Bayless that the Great Bill Belichick had one up his sleeve, but on this fateful dawn in Sub-Saharan Africa Coach Belichick had let me down. He disappointed possibly the most loyal NFL fan in this part of the hemisphere and that was as bad as my day could get. However, perception is subjective to each and every individual and time, as the great equaliser that it is, would tell if this would be the lowest point of my festive season.

Whilst the worst thing that had happened to me on 5 January 2020 was The Patriots’ loss to the Titan’s subsequently elevating Ryan Tannehill’s comeback, 9,000 km across the ocean in Singapore a couple were reeling from the devastating news that their three-year-old girl was the first suspected case of the “mystery Wuhan virus” in Singapore. Could what I would have given for Tom Brady to produce a legendary fourth-quarter game-winning drive be compared to what these parents would have given to get answers and closure concerning their little girl? Hindsight is a greater mentor and I believe had I known what fate awaited the three-year-old, and the world, in the coming days, I would have gladly conceded the Super Bowl to Mahomeboy.

However, in this existence of ours no form of ignorance and folly goes unnoticed and the grand reaper is always lurking in the shadows to execute or exercise his form of crude justice, if not revenge. On a fine Friday morning just five days after the Patriots’ defeat, oblivious to the impending fate of the world and the precarious nature of the turn of events the world over, enjoying my little slice of nirvana on the Namib Desert sand dunes whilst camel-riding with my wife and our three children, I would have my fair share of tragedy. A day I will never forget for as long as I breathe, a day in which a part of me was lost, forsaken and shattered, never to be found again. Whilst some events shock, only a few can paralyse the very fibre of our being. Having not been able to answer my phone whilst camel riding, when I dismounted I saw that I had missed a few phone calls from my mother. A few text messages were unread. What followed was the worst news a person could get, possibly the same news the parents in Singapore would also be told in days to come.

“Uncle Tatenda, Mom is dead!” That was my niece’s voice in a voice message as she tried to contain her grief. A mere teenager, fifteen years old, delivering the shocking news to me. They had tried to reach me whilst I was mounted on a camel like an Arab Sheikh; my sister had been involved in a fatal car accident and perished without a trace. Just like a vapour, here one moment and gone the next. At my lowest moment, on 10 January 2020, in China Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist and coronavirus whistle-blower had also started developing symptoms of a dry cough, which subsequently led to his death on 7 February 2020, after testing positive for coronavirus. Just a few days later, on 13 January 2020, I was laying my only sister to rest, oblivious of the fact that on the same day in Thailand the first confirmed case of 2019-nCoV had stricken a sixty-one-year-old Chinese woman who had travelled to Bangkok. Enduring massive blackouts every evening in Zimbabwe as I sought to comfort my mother, I knew nothing of this virus and the impending cloud of uncertainty that was engulfing the world. A few days after laying my sister to rest, on 15 January 2020, I was catching up on the sports news, distracting myself from my newfound reality by marvelling at the Australian Men’s Cricket Team who had chased down a target of 255 runs in 37 overs by pummelling an unbeaten 258 for the loss of no wicket against the mighty men in blue, India. Whilst distracting myself from my new reality, the fact of the matter is on this same day unbeknown to me and most people in the world 2019-nCoV had claimed its second victim in China.

Call me ignorant or whatever you will but as I went about my daily motions with my mother the only form of distraction I found, apart from Robin Sharma’s books, was sport. On 4 February 2020 all I wanted to find out as I woke up was whether Jimmy “G” did the unthinkable against the Kansas City Chiefs. I was enduring blackouts in Harare daily and, being away from Windhoek, Namibia, I could not get access to the Superbowl. I was willing to forgive Jimmy “G” (if you are a New England Patriots fan you will understand) and let him have a ring, as long as it came at the expense of Mahomeboy. I had a feeling that once Mahomes had a ring (which he now has) it will be a matter of time before he has three or more and I would gladly support anyone who can keep him at bay to preserve Tom Brady’s legacy. As we all know Mahomes, did what he does best and the rest is history. After watching the highlights on my phone, I was still insulated in my own cocoon ignorant of the fact that Li Wenliang and thousands more were fighting for their lives. On 7 February I hugged my mother, it was time for me to return to Windhoek, and for the first time on 8 February 2020, when I was given a health questionnaire to complete as I entered Namibia, I became aware of COVID-19.

Being in Sub-Saharan Africa I can plead ignorance to what was happening elsewhere. By the time I had assimilated back into my normal routine in the last couple of weeks of February 2020 the devastating reality of what the virus had done had become apparent, but not without coming across some disturbing, albeit plausible farfetched conspiracy theories that were creeping up. We were initially quarantined in Namibia on 19 March 2020 and I believe this is what I could term as the day of my epiphany. I scrolled through the canonical news channels to find out for myself how devastating this COVID-19 virus really was. I must say I have come to detest mainstream media due to the partisan nature of some of the reporting hence I hardly watched the news which explains part of my ignorance. To be honest I only signed up for Instagram in April 2020 during lockdown.

I remember an influx of emotions early in the morning as I saw military vehicles transporting corpses in Italy amidst deserted streets void of life. The atmosphere was so haunting and chilling that I spent a dozen hours watching the news without flinching. My heart swelled with emotions and I could not keep my tears at bay. As a father of three, two girls aged five and seven and a boy aged seven I remember thinking, “Lord, this isn’t the reality I envisage for my children.” A couple of days later it was raining and my nose was snotty and I began fighting my own diabolic vices. Worry and anxiety gripped me as my allergies exacerbated the situation resulting in me getting multivitamins and my regular hay-fever medication. I was gripped by immense anxiety as I thought I could have contracted the COVID-19 on my travels a couple of weeks before on my road trip from Zimbabwe. What a start to a new decade it would be for my mother, losing both her children in the space of two months. How would she cope with that? Were my insurances in place? Maybe I needed to call Michael (my financial planner), but I know mandatory blood tests would be the pre-requirement before upgrading the insurance.

The media exacerbated my fears as they sold the COVID-19 as a ruthless reaper akin to the Spanish flu of 1918. The only knowledge I had of this flu was from my fuzzy memory of World War I history and at this time it was all jumbled up with the Archduke Ferdinand – thus there was need for more research on this. Besides, how could I not when our two-week lockdown was extended by another four weeks. “They are hiding something from us,” was the chatter amongst my neighbours. Another third-world annihilation and eugenics conspiracy, was some of the talk. For those of you reading this who are not from Sub-Saharan Africa, welcome to our world. A world where there are no natural disasters or pandemics, let alone accidents. Every hurricane and tsunami is a detonation of a nuclear weapon in the Pacific, Atlantic or Indian Ocean by possibly Uncle Sam. Every car accident is a political assassination – and why stop there? Ebola is part of a eugenics experiment and HIV is a grander plot to exterminate the ethnical Africans.

Backtracking to my research on the 1918 Spanish flu, I decided to make use of the wisest man alive, since we have immortalised him in Sub-Saharan Africa, I am talking about none other than Dr Google himself, the grand sage whose knowledge stretches the multiverse. “Fifty million deaths,” was the first thing I saw on the Wikipedia page of the 1918 Spanish influenza. No wonder the evangelicals in the townships were preaching about the rapture. Yes indeed, in the townships the self-ordained prophets were crying out: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” The Pentecostals had defied the government quarantine regulations and held church services as they believed the rapture was nigh. In Namibia and South Africa alcohol sales were banned, leading to mixed reactions. Not to be the one to take Wikipedia at face value I did the next best thing; why not go to a trusted source and who better to give the facts than the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention? Whilst COVID-19 was not akin to the Spanish flu of 1918, it became apparent to me that the fifty million casualties our good doctor had stated was a reliable estimate and if preventative measures we not taken we could be unleashing the beast.

Armed with newfound knowledge on how to effectively sanitize and protect my family I embarked on a journey of social distancing and continued research keeping abreast of all the COVID-19 headlines. Piers Morgan rightfully called on the British government to carry out more tests whilst almost every government official reiterated the “Stay at home” message. In this era of political correctness and social media one thing was apparent, someone was bound to slip up and when they did the social police and Twitter-verse would be ready with both knives and daggers. In our quaint Namibia on 19 April the ruling SWAPO Party secretary general Sophia Shaningwa was at odds with the media regarding the alleged contravention of the Covid-19 lockdown regulations in which an event broadcast live on the national broadcaster featured the SWAPO Party President Hage Geingob, Namibia’s Vice President, Nangolo Mbumba, SWAPO Party Vice President Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah and top officials celebrating the party’s sixtieth anniversary to the disgruntlement of the masses.

Meanwhile on the same day as Namibians were distracted due to the media frenzy, it went unreported to most that the enemy was still out there causing terror in many nations. With Namibians distracted on the 19 April 2020, the WHO was releasing Situation Report 90 in which The Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) had reported fifty-five new deaths, which brought Africa’s death toll to 1,080. However, it seems that even in troubled times politics always “trumps” humanity, no pun intended. For the first time in a while one could literally view the world as a minuscule singular existence because the only news that was being reported was COVID-19 and this pandemic seemed to erase all borders – all but one, actually. It was the world and China but that’s a discussion for another day. In the same month of April at the same time our quaint country of Namibia was making a mountain out of a molehill, in the United Kingdom Dominic Raab was deputising for a frail Boris Johnson, who had tested positive for COVID-19. I actually said my prayers for the British Prime Minister and I realised that this pandemic was non-discriminatory.

By now everyone is aware or should at least be aware of what COVID-19 is, but if there is one takeaway from this ordeal, it is the realisation that we are such a fallen race. A race to be much pitied, I should say. I observed that even when facing a global existential crisis, politics always trumps humanity and there is nothing that currently unites the human race to fight for a unified cause anymore. We now live in a predominantly nihilistic society and of this I am convinced. I watched political leaders in the most powerful nations playing partisan politics with lives hanging by a thread. In a world where most people believe that our help comes from the West I saw the worst, everyone using the plight of many for partisan gain. I expected a truce amongst media outlets and political parties but the rifts only widened further with none offering a solution in sight.

With the CDC becoming my daily COVID-19 resource bible you can understand the horror when I read the tweet “Fire Fauci” in mid-April 2020. I couldn’t trust the CDC as well? Frustration, anger and anxiety were in the air again. By late April 2020 I was entangled in a web of confusion as most people still are today concerning this virus. Home-schooling kids under lockdown, multiple extensions and lack of facts can leave a person disillusioned. The twenty million deaths forecast in early March are nowhere close to what we have. With most of us void of basic essentials I recall satirical images of political leaders indulging in gourmet ice-cream whilst the media actively engaged daily in verbal wars with arguably the most powerful man in the world but to no avail. No closer to a vaccine than we were, Dr Fauci is seen testifying before the Senate with the noisy gong of the conspiracy theorists propounding another rhetoric to confuse the people.

The nihilists are protesting every form of preventative measure and they call it totalitarianism. China is now public enemy number one in the West but in Africa it continues to be the saviour. In Namibia Biltong shops were viewed as essential service providers and were not shut down whilst all restaurants and some retailers were initially closed. Domestic violence is on the rise in Africa yet the MeToo Movement is silent? The lack of priority has been appalling. In the British Isles people were more concerned with the conclusion of the English Premier League with certain Merseyside supporters threatening anarchy. In India the fate of the Indian Premier League seems to take precedence as Chennai Super Kings indicates a boycott if only local players are legible.

There is no one to speak for the voiceless as media and politics converge. A few months after the first confirmed case we have more conspiracy theories than we had at the beginning. Partisan political agendas have caused further rifts and the media has weaponised this. The verdict is still not sanctioned on China, we are neither closer nor further from the truth or to a vaccine than we were. If the current pandemic cannot unite us, of all eras in modern human history, we are a civilisation to be most pitied. Why worry about an existential threat from an extraterrestrial enemy when we are the enemy within? I am not innocent in this, I apologise for my initial ignorance. On 1 March 2020 I was enjoying Ravindra Jadeja’s spectacular superman catch of Neil Wagner at Christchurch whilst the rest of the world was enforcing stricter measures to curb this pandemic. We might not have a solution as yet, we might be a long way off from a vaccine but it’s not a far stretch for us to attempt to be human again.