The Conspirators

These days, she writes with urgency, pen moving steadily over paper, filling each page with shaky handwriting. Her tiredness shaken off like an old, heavy coat. She smokes more than usual, inhaling deeply as she watches the sun set through the window behind her desk. The only half-opened curtains throw shadows on her face, dust twirling in last rays of light. The days are getting shorter and nights colder, and since the start of the uprising fuel prices have doubled. They cannot afford to leave on the heating throughout the night. She sleeps with two blankets wrapped around her, but she is still cold. She stubs out her cigarette, then glances at her phone.

Quietly, she closes the door and hurries along darkening streets, as if movement itself constituted a kind of salvation. When she reaches the main square, she fastens her pace and looks back briefly, hoping no one is following her. She turns into an alley with electric wires crisscrossing overhead, like branches of trees. Mousa has left the door unlocked in anticipation of her arrival. She slips inside.

They exchange a tender embrace. “How is mother?”, she asks. “Same old. Refuses to leave the room where they arrested Ali.” She nods, not wanting to probe further. They gather a few things – folders, documents, Ali’s camera. Mousa’s room is sterile, almost clinical; resembling a conscious attempt not to leave a personal trace. Before they go, Mousa pinches her arm, a smile flickering across his face. “To everything there is a season, my dear …”

The streets are empty by now, curfew having started an hour ago, and they drive along in silence. A dog barks somewhere in the distance. The sky is dark but clear, dim moonlight filtering through the clouds. Through the front window of Mousa’s Toyota she can make out the silhouettes of houses rolling past. As they approach the outskirts of the capital, residential streets give way to warehouses and the occasional farm. Mousa lights a cigarette, tapping the steering wheel. She’s lost in thought when she spots what appears to be a checkpoint at the end of the road. In an instant, she frowns and turns to Mousa, knuckles turning white from clutching her bag. Mousa motions her to be quiet, slowing the car until it comes to a standstill. He reaches for his phone and types a few words. It lights up with an incoming call. “Are you sure?” Mousa whispers. “And a time to every purpose …” he mutters to himself. “It’s deserted. We’re in the clear.” He squeezes her hand.

They park the car at an abandoned factory site. Before the uprising, tires were produced here; a rusty sign still indicates the name of the owners, who have long left the country. A burned-out vehicle marks the entrance of the main building. Mousa touches her shoulder in affirmation as they enter. Inside, they are greeted by a group of six, two women and four men, “fellow conspirators,” as Mousa likes to call them, sic semper tyrannis. Saleh, the tallest, his unruly hair held in a ponytail, invites the newcomers to sit. He has positioned a small satellite television on top of two empty boxes. “Just look at this.” He motions towards the TV; it flickers briefly before an image of the leader appears. Dressed in a suit, he is addressing parliament, his voice reverberating from the marble ceilings:

Seventy-four years ago, our noble countrymen shed their blood in the struggle for independence. Out of independence, we created order and progress. Now this order has come under threat. We are engaged in a great fight to contain the forces of chaos and darkness unleashed upon this soil by traitors of the homeland. To those of you in the ranks of this nation without honor, who side with the terrorists, let me say this: I am willing to rinse the streets of this country with blood, to drain the last ounces of resistance, until this nation is once again pure and worthy of my guidance.  

Saleh switches off the TV and turns towards the assembled. “This is insane. Absolute madness.” Mousa nods; others concur. Their voices blur together and then slowly fade away. Her gaze wanders for a short while, a shiver running down her spine. Later, she will remember only fragments, her recollection fractured like glass shattering on concrete. The doors burst open. Men in uniform enter, shots are fired. Mousa flinches; Saleh screams, hands thrown up in the air; bodies tumble over one other. She makes a dash for the exit, and from the corner of her eye catches sight of Mousa. He appears calm, and when their eyes meet, she recognizes the expression on his face, an expression she knows well. I’m sorry.




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 CROOKED MAN’S KNEE

A crooked man used to visit our house from time to time. Mother would see him through the coloured glass and call up the stairs to Father.

“Your friend is here,” she’d say and Father would fly down the stairs to let him in.

Father’s friend was big and strange and so much like the man from the nursery rhyme that we were certain it was him: a crooked man that walked a crooked mile. He wore a crooked hat and held a crooked stick that he’d swing before him, jabbing at the ground like a boatman with an oar.

John, our eldest, says that he wasn’t really all that tall. He reckons the crooked man liked to seem taller than he was and this was the reason that he wore such a tall hat, and why that coat that made of his body a great rectangle, and why that pair of trousers whose ends dangled not much lower than the knee. And why else bother the door of a family with small children than to loom tall above them? Well, that’s John. In our memory, the crooked man was the tallest of all creatures. He would stand on the mat for a moment when Father opened the door, dip his head and cross over, into the hall.

*

We weren’t really frightened of the crooked man – Father let him into our home, after all – but we knew it was best to be out of the way when he came. Mother would busy the younger ones in the kitchen, or gather them in the back room. We older ones tended to hide upstairs, sometimes creeping to the edge of the landing to see if he was still with us. Father would take the crooked man into the front room or else into the back garden, where they’d prod sticks at the overgrowth or cobble together the beginnings of a bonfire.

When the crooked man did speak to us, we found him hard to understand. He used peculiar olden-time words and made jokes that weren’t really for children, but he was really very kind. He grinned and winked and ruffled our hair if ever we came near. He made pennies appear from our ears and offered us wrapped chocolates from deep in his pockets. The chocolates were always powdery and hard and misshapen and not to be eaten, and the pennies were only ever coppers, but the younger ones collected them gleefully, like treasures.

Little Ruth loved them especially. She would sometimes sneak into the front room when the crooked man was round and throw herself about his calves. Father and Mother called her magpie and spy and the crooked man would call her scallywag and run his big hand through her hair and Ruth every time would dash, grinning, from the room with something small and shiny in her hand.

*

There was once a time when the crooked man came to stay with us. Mother said that he needed some time to get back on his feet and that Father had offered him the front room. When he arrived, he carried a huge army bag, like a great big sausage, on his shoulder. Mother and Father welcomed him at the door, and those of us that were about made coy greetings before scattering in our usual way. Later we were more relaxed. I came down with John and Sarah when Mother was preparing dinner and the crooked man was sat in the corner of the room, arms crossed, on a low stool. His mouth was spread wide, and it curved up at the ends like a cat’s or a crocodile’s. A pipe jabbed out from its middle. The stool was an old thing he’d got from the garden. It stood on three legs, about a foot from the ground, and it wobbled. It was no good to anyone really, but the crooked man claimed the stool as his own for the duration of his stay. He used to carry it about the house with him, park it in a corner and lower himself onto it, groaning with the effort.

*

Most of the time the crooked man stayed in his room. You’d forget he was there at all and then the front door would slam and you’d know he was on one of his errands. On dry days he wandered into the garden to smoke his pipe and potter about. He used to pick up the broken toys from the lawn and try to fix them, but he wasn’t terribly good at it. He’d mess about with screws and a hammer for a couple of days before tossing the pieces back into the grass.

We grew to like the crooked man, I think. There was something comforting about the way he said so little, smiling away at us through his beard. He kept a pack of cards in his pocket that he liked to shuffle in his grubby hands. He’d show us tricks, and we’d try to work out how they were done by watching his fingers move.

Then one day Father came home and asked where he was, and Mother said she didn’t know, and they both went to the front room. John and I and the older ones watched from the stairway. The crooked man was there with Little Ruth upon his knee. Father stood before him, shouting and thrusting a finger. He looked so small in his fury against the man’s huge body. The crooked man said not a word but gathered his things and left the house and he wasn’t staying with us after that. Mother said that it was about time and let the windows open to air the room, and the stool went back in the garden.

*

Soon after, the younger ones began telling tales about the crooked man. They’d seen his hat over the garden fence, or they’d spotted his long coat and his arms go by the window. Mother said not to be silly, and we older ones laughed and rolled our eyes. One day John told the little ones that he’d seen the crooked man too, and Mother got angry. She told us to drop it and we did, and the younger ones soon stopped telling their tales.

*

Much later, when Father died, we let the crooked man back in. John had found him sleeping behind the garden fence, underneath a bush. Time has not been kind. The crooked miles had taken their toll upon the man, and he was now so tatty that we feared he’d fall to pieces if we lifted him too roughly from the leaves. He was not nearly as huge as I’d remembered, but how much this was the fault of my childish impressions and how much we each had aged, I can’t tell.

When we invited him back in, the crooked man accepted as though the offer was long overdue, and he settled in quickly. He claimed, this time, not a lowly stool but the high-backed Chesterton in the lounge. His pipe was no longer restricted to the back garden, and the smell of its smoke permeated the air and the furniture of every room. Little Ruth was grown by now and she sat upon his knee as she pleased while father’s body rotted in the ground beneath the buddleia bush.




Product Placement (While You Dream) | Litro Lab Podcast

Picture credits: Halloween HJB

You’re in a maze, there’s a breakthrough —
then stuff ‘recommended for you’;
you’re bouncing, soon you’ll be aloft —
try toilet paper that is soft.

Craig Kurtz

This week on Litro Lab podcast, we bring an experimental piece that mixes poetry and music. In the era of streaming platforms, many of us rarely watch TV advertising. Yet, ads themselves keep popping up where we least expect them: on our social media feeds, emails, our phones… This musical poem explores the ways advertising has evolved, testing some unexpected boundaries along the way.

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



Did you like this podcast? Listen to Commute by Joel Marten next.

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When to take a pregnancy test and when to prune roses

Remove all remaining leaves. That way you can see the structure of the bush clearly.

Don’t think about him. You had three pints and a Bacardi – give yourself a break.

Cut dead wood. Brown is dead, green is living.

He says ‘to be honest’ all the time and you loathe people who say ‘to be honest’.

Open up the centre of the plant. Take out crossing branches. They can rub.

Picture your kid saying ‘to be honest’ all the time.

Remove any thin, weak growth. Anything thinner than a pencil. 

His dick is huge.

Cut above an outward-facing bud-eye. New stems grow in the direction of the bud, so the goal is to encourage them to be outward, not inward.

He’s never been out of Tipton St John.

Protect freshly cut canes from rot by sealing wounds.

You’d be a neglectful mother.

Clean up the surrounding area underneath. Leaves and branches should be disposed of as pests could be lurking.

He’s a safe bet.

Feed your roses.

His dick is huge.  




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 Wrong Person Goodnight

“What time is it?” one voice asks into the phone.

“Did I wake you?” another answers. “It’s about half three.”

“Has someone died?”

“Not yet. It’s far more serious than that.”

“Well in that case I’d better sit up.” The sound of pillows being punched into place filled the dark room. “Where are you?” he whispered.

“Walking home.”

“I can hear your feet.” And he could, footsteps on solid ground. “Are you drunk?”

“I drink, therefore I am.”

“I’m sleepy, that’s a little like being drunk.”

“I’ve got up my drunken shield, concocted of the majority of one bottle of white wine, at least one shot of Sambuca and several gin cocktails. Now I can say anything, ask you anything and not remember it in the morning.”

“You got something to say to me?”

“I do.

“Give me one sec then.”

He swung his feet out of the bed and took large, slow steps towards the door, taking a glance back into the room as he closed it conspiratorially behind him.

He sat up in the single bed of the spare room, bringing the sheets around him so he looked like a miniature Buddha in the dark. He listened mostly, speaking only occasionally to let them know he was still conscious, still listening. Saying only okay, yes, I understand, it’s fine, really, it’s fine.

“And that’s about it.” They finished.

“Okay,” whilst listening he had moved to the edge of the bed and rolled up the blind of the bedroom window. Outside, black plastic bin lids radiated with the amber glow of a single streetlight. A back yard door swung on its hinges. Something moved in the darkness. Or perhaps he had just imagined it.

“I’m about to go into the tube, can I call you right back.” This wasn’t exactly a question that needed answering.

He went to the bathroom. The light was harsh and abrupt. After pissing he splashed cold water onto his face, as if he was in a film. His face was lined and mottled from sleep. Idly he put his hand down into his boxers.

The phone vibrated on the cistern. He moved quickly back to the spare room, sat down and answered.

“The tube was horrible.”

“Are you walking home alone?”

“I’ve got you for protection.”

“I’ll keep on the line.”

“You haven’t changed your mind during the ad break have you?”

“No,” he laughed through his nose. “I haven’t changed my mind.”

“What’s home like now? Does everyone still go to The Neighbourhood?”

He laughed. “No, Neighbourhood’s gone. There’s not many people around anymore really.”

“We’ve all drifted away. I think we’re in need of a good funeral or wedding, something to bring us all back home.”

“There’s always Christmas.”

He stretched his arms out in the dark, arching his back uncomfortably, keeping the phone to his ear.

“I drove past our old school last week,” he said after a pause. “They’ve rebuilt it, into the shape of a cross.”

“That old place.”

“Other stuff’s being done up. We got a couple Costa’s now, a market, all that kind of thing.”

“Everything’s everywhere.”

“Except people, we’re still just in one place.”

The line went quiet, except for footsteps.

“It’s better to have said it, I couldn’t have not said anything.”

“I know,” he said. He didn’t know what else to say.

“I’m back now,’ the voice said abruptly after a protracted silence. “Ever the gentlemen, walking me back to my door.”

“Here’s where I kiss you on the cheek.”

“You want to come in for a coffee? That’s what they say isn’t it, in films?”

“I believe they do.”

“Except this isn’t a film. Imagine how sad I’m going to be when I realise I’m old and my life wasn’t actually a film and I’m nearly dead.”

He slept in late the next morning and was woken by the hairdryer. He sat up and rested his weight on the ball of one shoulder. The dryer clicked off.

“You were up late.”

“Yeah,” he lowered his chin towards his chest. “I got a call.”

“Strange hour.” She looked and didn’t look at him in the reflection of the mirror whilst combing her hair.

“Was an old school friend,” he stared deliberately at her, waiting for her eyes to meet his.

“Oh yeah,” she said, looking at her own reflection. “Anyone I know?”

“No, I don’t think you ever met.”

She dressed in silence. Before leaving the room she turned to him, “don’t forget to make the bed,” she said.

“I won’t.”

“The spare too,” her voice came from out of the room, already moving past the threshold and away from him.




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?




Unfit for Execution

I.

Can you dream your own death? Once, while sleeping, my life was spared because I had a cold.           

One by one, people in single file were being flung off the subway platform onto the tracks. It was winter, a season no less harsh for existing only inside me. I was five and traveling alone; the adults wore worn, scratchy coats that flapped like the flags of defeated countries as their bodies fought the air. The tunnel’s acoustics amplified their screams, the only sound besides the thud of bodies. Everything was regimentally organized, and I took my place in line.

            When my turn came, I explained in reasoned tones that I should be allowed to live because I was sick. The executioners, also bundled in big, drab coats, huddled to consider me: a child coughing, sniffling, wheezing, hardly able to breathe.  They nodded and waved me away.

II.

At the age of 17, I dreamed that the executioners returned, still wearing bulky overcoats but now standing in the kitchen of my parents’ house. There was no food, for this was a place of hunger in a country of famine. At stake this time: not my life, but control over knowledge that affected the future of humanity. An object that resembled a ping pong ball contained the secret of the universe; a hidden spring, if touched just so, would unlock it. We grappled for its possession, scuffling on the black-and-white checkerboard floor like breakaway chessboard knights. Could the world, here in this kitchen, be won or lost to the sound of panting, the odor of cold, dirty wool? The wall clock, ticking its impatience, commanded me to seize the moment. So I did, wresting the ball back. Realizing that the executioners could retake it before I found the hidden spring, I crushed the ball in my hand.

            The men froze and stared, coats heaving with their still-ragged breath. An eye like a Cyclops’s filled my palm and a voice through my lips declared, “The eye/I? sees all things.” I stood with my enemies, listening for more, but there was just silence. And cold.




Sam Steps On The Gas | Litro Lab Podcast

Picture credits: Alvin Harp

He’s been driving for hours. Driving West. He’s now in the middle of New Mexico. He feels good despite the exhaustion. He’s focused laser-like on the road. It’s a cold dessert night One of those nights when the stars are painfully vivid, and lizards’ blood begins to freeze.

– Gideon Berger

This week on Litro Lab podcast, we have an experimental piece with original music. On a time when many of us are stranded in one place – do you ever dream of taking a solo road trip? Get out of your house to join Sam while he drives through the desert at night. This will be a journey full of bizarre occurrences in which reality becomes gradually weird, visceral, and even sensual.

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



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One Noble Truth — Japan Snapshot

Suffering. All life is subject to it. The first of the four Noble Truths, the shisho-tai. It is the only one of the four that I readily embrace still today. The desires which are said to cause the suffering I just can’t seem to annihilate, and hence I might not make it to that state of eternal peace we all seem to be running away from. But long ago I did embrace the fourth Noble Truth, or the attempt to efface selfishness by following the hassho-do, the Eight Fold Path. These include the rightness of belief, speech, action, effort, livelihood, resolve, thought, and meditation. And this is what led me to Japan the first time, long ago. Fate again had me placed in the Land of the Gods: Some bureaucrats placed me there in a small town in the board of education.

I left behind (planning to return, of course) a life in Paris, a future of great cheese and wine, and, well, Paris, to live in the countryside of Japan, two hours from Hiroshima, in a town on the Japan Sea coast that smelled of fish, a town of less than 53,000 (officially), in a place someone like the writer Alex Kerr would lovingly label “Lost Japan”.

The Lost in “Lost Japan”

Mr. M: “Remember!”

Me: Uh…What?

Mr. M: “My name!”

Me: Uh…OK. Uh…could you tell me your name first?

Sometimes teaching English in Japan can seem like you’re teaching in a madhouse. In this case the metaphor was reality; I was teaching in one. And, of course, my student-patients were more sane and pleasant and interesting than those in the unofficial madhouses labeled schools.

I can’t recall now how I ended up visiting N Hospital for the Mentally Ill a few times a month to join a therapist running an EFL class attended by people diagnosed with schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and depression. Probably as a favor to someone. Certainly I was trying to follow the Eight Fold Path at that time.

You may think it strange that someone would propose it therapeutic for people especially prone to the negative impact of stress to study a second language, but someone would and did. So people who, almost by definition, have trouble with language, with social relations, with things like appropriate conversational turn-taking, were gathered in a circle for our twice-a-month English conversation class. The idea appears to be grounded in social skills training therapy. And I was very moved and happy to see that it seemed to be a positive thing for many in the group over the one and a half years or so I was able to devote to it.

I and Mr. M, who was the first person to speak to me on that very first day of our class, enjoyed those days of sticking to our rightness of effort. He didn’t speak much, but would often give me sincere questions with an earnest though at times malevolent scowl, followed by, after what he felt was an appropriate response from me, an impish grin. For example, during our second class we had this exchange:

Mr. M: “Do you have a complex about it?”

Me: Uh…about what?

Mr. M: “Being short.”

Me: Uh…now I do.

I looked forward to the two Saturdays a month I would spend at the hospital. Walking along the river in the morning and watching the fish jump and the sagi (heron) trying to catch them. My main work teaching at the town’s junior high schools was not generally something to be looked forward to, so this was my chance to enjoy my profession.

Some of the students were in a torpor at times, heavily medicated, and the others were garrulous. I couldn’t help, like any teacher, taking a liking to certain students. There was the one who promised to marry me in five years if no one would have me. And the woman who launched into her original song while playing guitar the first time she joined the class. There was Mr. D, who couldn’t come to a class because he “had been a bad boy” and wrote me a very in-depth report in very good English tying in the use of bad words in the pop culture to the economic decline. And Mr. K, an outpatient and former English teacher who played a great guitar. I sometimes saw him at a local restaurant where we chatted and both enjoyed some akaten, a kind of fish paste with some togarashi. But my favorite may have been Mr. Y, a young man who suffered from bullying in high school, partly for being smart. He stopped going to school and suffered from severe depression. I later learned that his father was in the same hospital, also depressed. He had a sweet disposition and loved to chase after information about anything. He wore unstylish glasses and a bad ponytail. In our group picture you would be forgiven for guessing he was the sensei and I a patient.

At some point my regular job teaching at six junior high schools burned me out and all I wanted to do was sleep on Saturdays. Maybe I was depressed. And so I arranged for a friend to take over the Hospital classes.

A year or so later I met Mr. Y (now without ponytail) again near a small rundown market close to the sea and we chatted briefly. He was off to his job at a fish-packing place and beginning his new life with a radiant smile and seeming confidence.

“I’m enjoying my days now. Day by day finding some moments to smile at the world instead of frowning at it.”

We shook hands and he wished me well, maybe sensing that it was I who was starting down my path of frowning at the world.

DM Zoutis is a farmer and writer in Hiroshima and Shimane Japan.




Borealis

I have the world’s most embarrassing parents.

No, hear me out. I realise every teenager says that. But whatever you’re dealing with, I promise mine are worse. I’m famous for it.

That’s the really annoying part about being a household name. You can’t control what people know, or choose not to know. And what I bet no one will ever mention when they tell this story, what they will conveniently forget, is that I am fifteen. Where I come from, that makes you silly and irresponsible. At least, that’s what it is half the time. When it isn’t the opposite. But that isn’t a compliment either.

Honestly, most of the time I just wish they’d make up their minds. You’re old enough to know better, they chide, but also, somehow, too young to know what you want. You’re too silly to make your own decisions, they’ll say one day, and the next, it’s time we started thinking about a husband for you. Too young to talk to boys unsupervised, but old enough for the marriage bed. Too young to decide, but old enough for a man to decide on me.

Bullshit.

Can you imagine how boring it is being a teenage princess in the richest palace in the Aegean? We have bronze-clad armies ready to sail to war at my father’s command, half the archipelago sails to our shores to pay us tribute, but no one talks to me like I’m a human being. My mother thinks she owns me, my father really does own me, and while my life is a world apart from that of the actual slaves he owns, he’s still going to be selling me. To the highest bidder. Like a prize heifer.

Ugh. Bad choice of imagery.

Here, you see, we come to the reason for my being way out in front in the embarrassing-parents stakes. Everyone has this mortifying fascination with my mother’s bedroom preferences. Which is cringeworthy enough as it is before you even get into the specifics as to why. No kid should have to be so constantly forced to think about what their parents get up to in bed. Add in an entirely unfabricated allegation of bestiality, however, and you might start to realise that here is one reason I am glad I don’t go to school with the normal city kids.

If it had been any other kind of weird proclivity, it probably wouldn’t have got out. After all, I live in a place and a time that is really quite notorious for the kinds of goings-on that have at this point stopped raising eyebrows. And in any case, they’re the king and queen. People who know what’s good for them normally wouldn’t talk.

The problem was when the baby grew up. Because there’s really no way to pretend that the giant labyrinth you’ve engaged the best architect of the age to build has any other purpose than to imprison your eight-foot-tall, carnivorous, half-bull-half-human teenage son. I am Ariadne, and all I’m known for on this island is that my mother gave me a Minotaur for a brother.

You may be starting to realise why I find it so hilarious that my parents think themselves qualified to find me a suitable husband.

The hilarity is lost on them, however, and so the self-contradicting farce continues. As I see it, the only appealing part of the entire exercise is the possibility of getting off this ridiculous island. Escape from my absurd family drama. Escape from the place where I’m known entirely for being not just the daughter of the king and queen, but of that particular king and queen. I am Ariadne, and I will not be known just for that.

Of course the downside of this particular strategy is that it involves becoming the property of someone else instead, but it’s the best plan I’ve come up with so far.

And then one day, a ship glides into the harbour. A ship flying black sails, with Athenian colours on the mast. From that ship there disembarks a man with muscles you’d call too much if you saw them on one of the heroic statues in the palace entrance hall. He strides towards the palace and, after a brief overheard conversation, I know what he thinks he is there to do. In the same instant that I decide I absolutely despise him, it occurs to me that my ticket out of here has just arrived.

Which is how it comes about that two hours later I have performed the most mortifying display of abject adoration and vapid, simpering teenage flirting this world has ever seen. It’s so humiliating I almost can’t go through with it. But it’s worth every cringe when he comes back out of the dark mouth of the labyrinth, his tunic dark with the Minotaur’s blood, which he has only been able to spill because of the sword and string that he hands back to me as I run to meet him.

We must leave, I say at once. My parents will know.

Ah, he says, well—

You promised, I wheedle, half clutching, half caressing his scratched, bruised arm.

I sense the sigh he manages to repress. Don’t worry, I know exactly what he is. I bet the stories will call me madly in love with him. Not even slightly. He’s twice my age, and entirely in love with himself. He doesn’t have room for anyone else. But that’s not what matters.

What matters is that he sails me away from the place I couldn’t ever have escaped on my own. When we stop in on an island for the night, he looks resignedly at me, as if expecting me to throw myself at him, but I make a point of lying down on the sand some distance away. He doesn’t protest. For a moment before I fall asleep, I almost respect him.

And then the chill of early dawn jolts me awake and he is gone. Crew, ship, supplies, all gone. Fled in the night from a promise I wasn’t going to make him keep.

Bastard.

I don’t know how long I stand in the shallows, screaming abuse at the black sails shrinking towards the horizon. Coward, I yell. Ungrateful, cheating coward. We’re raised to wait for you to marry us, and then you’re too scared of commitment to risk so much as a thank you. I didn’t want you to keep me. I’d have left you alone the moment we landed in your harbour, let you carry on with whatever life you had before. You were just supposed to give me a chance at one too.

When my voice is all but gone, I turn away from the sea. I’ve got absolutely no way of getting away from this new island I find myself stuck on, so I might as well take stock of what I’m in for.

Not a soul in sight. Grey waves, grey sand, grey driftwood languishing beached along the tidemark. The bleached, sea-smooth gnarls look like unburied bones picked clean by seagulls. I’m trying not to project, but just now it’s hard not to imagine finishing up like that. I am Ariadne, and no one will even know I’ve died.

Something odd happens to my awareness; it’s as if I’ve skipped a few seconds. One moment I’m alone in the breeze on a shore made colourless by the bleak light of dawn. The next, there’s an explosion of cymbals and shrieking flutes, a chariot drawn by tigers careers to a halt in the sand in front of me, and from it springs – a god.

There’s no doubt that this is what he is. I know his name at once. The musical entourage is a dead giveaway, for a start, but even without it there could be no mistaking the wreaths, the garlanded staff, the eyes it hurts to meet, the sinuous, fluid form that never quite stays still. Of all the gods who could have taken an interest, it had to be the one with the talent for bewitching people.

Hello, he says, come with me. You were abandoned by the man Theseus. Become the consort of Dionysus.

One minute ago I would have said any way off this island would be fine by me. But not this, not this. Belonging to a god? It would be like being a flame that is never allowed to go out.

Why do you hesitate? he asks. I will give you anything you ask for.

His eyes stay on me even as he continues to sway to the music, his body an unbroken, ever-changing wave, every part of him moving except for his head, which stays statue-still as he watches me. The motion of his entire body is centred around that transfixing dart of a gaze, making me think of a bird of prey that beats its wings every which way against the wind in order to stay absolutely still, its eyes riveted on the hapless creature below.

His stare is so intense that I have to look away. No one could hold that gaze, not without beginning to succumb to what it holds. Still I say nothing, but once I’m no longer being pierced by those eyes, I realise that his words do at least bear thinking about. Take him? Never. But take what he offers?

I’m not stupid. I’m not going to be trapped into agreeing to binding conditions. But there is no if in what he has said. And I know that if I’m going to survive on my own, I could use a head start. I am Ariadne, and I will not end as bones without a name.

Steeling myself, I look back at the god. I still don’t know what I’m going to say, but it would be unwise to let him know that. Then my eyes flick past him, towards the entourage, who’ve finally stopped their racket to listen. And it comes to me at once.

Your tigers, I say. Give me your tigers.

He can’t hide his surprise. Without the music, he’s actually stopped dancing.

You’re a god, I continue. I bet you don’t need them. Me, I’m stuck here unless I can catch a lift. Can they walk on water?

He answers before the question registers properly. Yes, they can.

Perfect.

It’s as if that power in his eyes has gone dormant, and I can see him thinking. Wondering where he left the loophole. Really, you’d think being a god would make his thoughts beyond mortal comprehension, but actually they’re now written across his face just as clearly as anyone else. It’s exactly like watching Theseus looking for his way out. Except this time I’m a move ahead instead of behind, and he knows it.

The silence stretches out so far that I realise I know how this is going to end. Stupid, I rage in my head. You think you can outwit a god? Haven’t you learnt what happens to people who try to do that? This is a god who makes people other than themselves, who has only to shake his staff to make them dance to his tune. It doesn’t matter that you outsmarted him. He isn’t bound by words, or by what you want. Just like all the others, he’ll explain that you’re too young to know that and take what he wants anyway.

And then he smiles and steps aside. Well played, he says.

I think I do a fairly good job of looking as though I knew he would do that all along. Without a word I stalk past him and step up behind the tigers.

I don’t want to ask him how to control them. I wish I could, but then I would owe him. Instead, I glare defiantly at them as I pick up the reins. It’s just horses, I tell myself. Really furry, stripy, feline horses. I can drive a chariot with horses. How different can tigers be?

But they’re growling and lashing their tails. They know I’m not supposed to be there.

Then he realises. He takes them by the chin, one in each hand as if they’re kittens, and they can’t look away. You are hers now, he tells them, and the growling stops. When he straightens up, I nod at him. I can respect him for that.

Taking the reins into one hand, I pull my diadem out of my hair and chuck it down in the sand without looking where it falls. That is not how I will be known now. As I wheel the tigers round to face the empty shore, a bubble of joy dares to start swelling under my ribs.

May I take this? he asks.

I turn back. He is crouching in the sand, hand poised over the diadem.

Do as you like, I reply. It isn’t mine any more.

And I let the tigers have their heads, and we charge away across the sand.

There’s a flash from behind me, and I look back. The god is no longer holding the diadem, but high above him, bright even in the brightening sky, are seven stars in the shape of a crown. Not the crown it was, the one I inherited, fashioned by the royal line, but a shape that is entirely my own. Seeing me look, he calls after me.

So you will always be known.




I Dwell in Books

I dwell in books, works of art, the afterlife, while doctors gather symptoms and label incurable. A princess wore this disorder, and a well-known beauty; in the Netherlands I qualify for death by euthanasia. My mother and son visit this morning, we stare at his sympathy card: no words, he drew stickmen and flowers and Mother painted it smooth. Papers to sign, radio plays low. Panes of glass shiver in August air; the news broadcasts forest fires, yet forecasted rain still called dirty. My roommate wears the name of my mother’s mother; a ghost I assumed, invisible, until I awoke to her shadow on bed curtains, huge and mute and starving. I call for you, Anne, Sylvia, Franz, Vincent, clouds, rain, storms.




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.

To subscribe to our membership packs, which includes all print issues delivered to your door, full online access to all short fiction, old issues and archives: click here.




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. 




Daytime Moon

On Saturdays Mr. Mathur came to the apartment to teach my mother the Hindu way. A retired jeweler, his life was now devoted to spirituality. He wouldn’t take money so my mother often gave him little presents of flowers or fruit. Her job at Paramount did not pay much, which meant sometimes on Saturday mornings she grabbed a pair of scissors and walked around the block, returning with a couple of our neighbor’s Bird of Paradise blossoms. Every day at Paramount the producer made her cry and every day my mother hid in the Ladies Room until she got over it. One Saturday she overslept and said to me, “Go to Ralphs and get an orange to give to the teacher.”

January was orange season and the orange turned out to be six cents, no tax. Outside the store someone was calling my name. Freddie. Since preschool he had been in my class. Now we were sophomores together at Uni High. More importantly, Freddie straddled a cherry red Honda scooter. He said, “Wanna go to Hot Dog On A Stick?”

My mother and I used to go all the time, except now we were nearly full time vegetarians. In high school, she had worked at Hot Dog On A Stick, wearing the crazy hat and squashing the lemonade. I would have liked to have worked someplace after school to earn some extra money but she said I couldn’t because of my poor grades.

Freddie and I sat on a concrete wall eating the hot dogs and watching the sun bang off the ocean. The scooter belonged to his uncle and his uncle was in the Marines. Freddie was pretty sure his uncle would give him the scooter if his uncle got posted to Okinawa.

“The guru,” Freddie said. “What does he do?”

I pointed to the hot dog. “This is a delusion. Once you begin a life of meditation, you can see that.”

“The hot dog?”

“No. The wanting the hot dog.”

            “You meditate?”

            “No.” Even my mother did not meditate all that much. She lay in bed with the pillow over her head.

By the time we got back to the apartment, the lesson was over, but Mr. Mathur was still around, standing with my mother on the sidewalk, and pointing to something in the sky.

 A daytime moon. Only half of one, tilted towards the sun, a silver tennis ball that floated just above the palm tree.

“Oh, hello, Freddie.” My mother smiled when I handed her the orange.

I hadn’t thought about it before, but were the moon and the sun ever supposed to be in the sky together? One gave way to the other, right?

“Where did you get that scooter, Freddie?” my mother asked.

A narrow white cloud was streaked across the sky. At the beach today children had been playing and I felt the urge to join them though Freddie and I were too old to play in the sand.

“My uncle,” he said.

Mr. Mathur was pleased with the orange. An orange was an excellent fruit, he said, the color especially. Man could never produce anything as amazing as an orange. He peeled the orange and split it into four parts, one for each of us. After he ate his part, he folded the peel in half and ate that.

The orange was delicious, the best six cent purchase I had ever made. Also I have never been able to replicate that moment.




The Appellant

IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE
QUEEN’S BENCH DIVISION
THE ADMINISTRATIVE COURT

Before:
MR JUSTICE EVANS

Between:
JASON GREENE

Appellant

-v-

THE CITIZENS’ HEALTH COMMISSIONER

Respondent

Judgment

Introduction

1. This is an appeal against the decision of the Citizens’ Health Commissioner (‘the Commissioner’) to refuse to grant a licence under Section 20 of the British Rights Act (‘the Act’).

2. In April of this year the appellant, Jason Greene, applied for a Section 20 licence. In May, the Commissioner notified the appellant that his application had been refused. The reason given for this refusal was that the statutory criterion for obtaining a licence had not been satisfied. The issue for this court to consider is whether that was indeed the case.

Factual Background

3. The appellant is 26 years old. He lives with his wife, Joanna, in a two-bedroom flat in North East London. They have been married for 5 years, but have lived together for 7, and have been in a relationship for 8. They have no children.

4. Although the appellant does not own his home, he does own one car, and has around £5,000 of savings spread across two separate bank accounts. Evidence of these funds has been shown to me with a view to demonstrating that the appellant and his wife are financially stable.

5. The appellant left school when he was 16 years old, so did not receive a full secondary education. However, he did secure an apprenticeship with a construction firm, and has since completed numerous courses, specializing in bricklaying. He is now in his fifth year of employment with his current company, Mason’s Masons, and I have been presented with four character references written by his colleagues and superiors. By all accounts, he is a diligent, industrious, trustworthy and courteous employee.

6. The appellant underwent the Mandatory Paternity Programme (‘the Programme’) 7 years ago, when he was 19 years old.

7. The appellant’s wife is employed as a staff nurse at the Royal North London Children’s Facility. She took up this position 3 years ago, after completing specialist paediatric training with the Greater London Health Authority. I have been presented with three character references relating to Mrs Greene: one from her current supervisor, one from a colleague, and one from her line manager. Each reference documents, in some detail, her devotion to the children she treats, frequently working in excess of her allotted hours in order to assist with the care of those who are vulnerable and traumatized.

8. Finally, I note that the appellant pleaded guilty to one charge of theft 6 years ago. He received a community-based sentence, and although he does not appear to have offended since then, his brother, his cousin, and his uncle are all known to the police. The appellant’s wife does not appear to have a criminal history.

9. In April of this year the appellant provided the Commissioner with all of this information as part of his written licence application. He included supporting documentation, as required, and attended an interview with the Commissioner’s office, as is now standard. None of the aforementioned facts are in dispute.

Legal framework: Sections 18 to 21 of the British Rights Act

10. Section 18 of the Act provides for the government to create a Mandatory Paternity Programme, to be overseen and administered by the Commissioner and his office. The Programme is now in its tenth year.

11. The Programme requires all ‘eligible persons’ to do two things: first, to register with their local health authority, and second, to undergo ‘the standard procedure’. This procedure is defined in Section 18(2) as a vasectomy.

12. Section 18(3) defines ‘eligible person’ as any person who:

a. is male;
b. is resident in Britain;
c. is aged between 16 and 60 years old;
d. is sexually active;
e. is of the relevant means.

13. Section 18(4) defines a ‘sexually active’ person as any person who is not already sterile, and defines ‘the relevant means’ as having an income that is below the ninety-eighth percentile.

14. Section 19 of the Act creates the offences of failing to register with a local health authority, failing to undergo the standard procedure, and fathering children without a licence. All of these are punishable by 12 months’ imprisonment, the withdrawal of employment rights, and the termination or confiscation of any children conceived illegally.

15. Section 20 of the Act provides that, having undergone the standard procedure, any eligible person may apply to the Commissioner to obtain a licence which permits (i) the reversal of the procedure, and (ii) the fathering of children. The sole criterion for the granting of such a licence is that the applicant proves himself to be ‘a fit and proper person’, and thus deserving of paternity rights.

16. Section 20(2) states that when the Commissioner is assessing whether an applicant for a licence is a fit and proper person, he must have regard to the following considerations:

a. the applicant’s means, and whether he is financially stable;
b. the applicant’s background, which includes ethnic, religious, and social ties;
c. the applicant’s domestic circumstances, and whether he enjoys domestic stability;
d. the applicant’s family, and the risk that may be posed by the replication of biological traits;
e. the public interest.

18. Section 21 provides that when the Commissioner refuses to grant a licence, the applicant shall have an automatic right of appeal against that decision. Appeal lies to this court. The appellant is now exercising this right of appeal, arguing that the Commissioner’s decision was wrong. He appears alone, without legal representation.

Discussion

18. The sole issue in this case is whether the appellant satisfies the statutory criterion for the granting of a licence: that is, whether he is a fit and proper person and as such, deserving of paternity rights. The Commissioner’s office has failed to provide either the appellant or this court with anything approaching an explanation for its original decision, but I note that it is under no obligation to do so.

19. In assessing the appellant’s licence application, it is helpful to consider the purpose of the Programme and its licensing regime. This was laid out by the Home Secretary, Sir Harvey Jenkins MP, as the Bill made its way through Parliament. I quote from Hansard:

The policy that is contained in this Bill will safeguard not merely the future of the British people, but also their flourishing. It will act as a critical brake on our great nation’s population growth, allowing us to manage the resources we have at our disposal in a fair and responsible way – both the natural resources of the living world, and the man-made resources of capital and concrete. And it will ensure that ours is a truly meritocratic society, in which only those who have proved themselves to be deserving are permitted to enjoy the ultimate privilege: that of imitating God by creating life. Perhaps most importantly, though, it will secure our legacy by guaranteeing that only the brightest, only the best, only the most noble amongst us are entrusted with taking our country forward. When one reflects upon this trans-generational scope, it is difficult to conceive of a policy that would be more beneficial to the great British people.

20. The appellant argues that he is a fit and proper person on the following grounds (turning to the considerations listed at paragraph 16, above):

a. Means: he and his wife are financially stable, with regular income and savings of around £5,000;
b. Background: neither he nor his wife are affiliated with any ethnic, religious, or social group that might compromise their fealty to the British state;
c. Domestic circumstances: he and his wife have been in a relationship for around 8 years, without interruption, and there is no reason to think that this will not continue;
d. Family: although there are members of the appellant’s family who have been convicted of criminal offences, they are effectively estranged;
e. Public interest: granting a licence to the appellant would serve the public interest in two ways: first, by demonstrating how the privilege of parenting could be earned; and second, by allowing the appellant to serve the British state by raising a child who embodies its values.

21. The appellant’s efforts in arguing his case are laudable, and much of what he says is true. I fully accept that he has achieved a level of domestic and financial stability, but his application is haunted by the spectre of criminality.

22. In respect of his own criminal history, he has argued that the case of Cathcart v The Citizen’s Health Commissioner establishes that a single criminal conviction need not preclude the awarding of a licence to an individual who otherwise meets the criterion. However, the facts of this case are quite different from those in Cathcart.

23. First, the appellant’s conviction is for theft: an offence of dishonesty. The very existence of this conviction shows him to be a dishonest and deceitful man. Such an individual will never be deserving of paternity rights, and it is plainly not in the public interest for his criminal tendencies to be replicated. In contrast, in the case of Cathcart,Lord Cathcart’s conviction was for driving with excess alcohol, which does not reflect any equivalent underlying flaws.

24. Second, Lord Cathcart was and remains a public figure of considerable wealth and repute. Any man of his stature will be deserving of paternity rights, and it will always be in the public interest for the traits of such esteemed individuals to be replicated. The appellant holds no comparable social status.

25. I note that I am also deeply concerned by the appellant’s family background. Although he claims to be estranged from the criminals within his family, his own criminal history strongly suggests a link between his character and theirs. Naturally, this heightens the suspicion that his criminality would be replicated in any child that he has, and thus lends support to the view that the granting of a licence would be wholly inappropriate.

26. Finally, I do not accept the argument that granting the appellant a licence would be in the public interest because it would (i) demonstrate how the privilege of parenting could be earned and (ii) allow the appellant to serve the state. The public are well aware of how the privilege of parenting can be earned, and the appellant may serve the state in any number of alternative ways.

27. I applaud the appellant and his wife for the ardour and tenacity with which they have pursued this appeal. I also recognise that they are hard-working Britons who, in another time, might have made satisfactory parents. However, Parliament has made it clear that only the most exceptional among us are deserving of paternity rights, and the appellant does not fall within that category. His criminal history and connections render him an unfit and improper person; one who is not and never will be worthy of the great privilege of creating life. Granting a licence to such an individual would fundamentally undermine the purpose of the Programme, as outlined in paragraph 19, above.

28. For all of these reasons I dismiss the appellant’s appeal and make a Standard Costs Order against him for bringing his case before me. This is to be paid within 7 days.




Oyster

You wonder if she’s dead. The girl in that photograph. The well-known one—photograph, that is, not girl. She’s lying at the centre of a caved-in car roof, buckled metal ripples out from under her. It’s a perfect composition; a delicate balance of soft flesh and sharp steel. You see it a lot. Replicas, mostly. Music videos and haute couture fashion spreads, that kind of thing. And there’s a particularly famous silk-screen print. It’s old. The photograph that is. And the car. Not the girl, though; she’s very young.

But is she dead? It’s important that you know this. And no, you don’t mean dead outside the photograph. No. That would diminish it, wouldn’t it? Lessen its beauty. Admit it. You’d be disappointed if, after the shutter snapped, a male voice shouted “that’s a wrap”, and the girl sat up, stretched her stiff limbs, and stepped down from the car roof into a long, unremarkable life that ended one distant night in silver-haired sleep. Yes, you would. But if death were closer… to her, to the photo… If, minutes after this final flash, perhaps as she dashed to meet her beau at their favourite seafood restaurant, she was rammed to immediate death by an overzealous squad car, then the photo retains some value. But it decreases, doesn’t it, the longer death prowls the edge of the frame. Even if it’s only for a day or two, or however long it takes for bacteria lurking in undercooked oysters to kill an otherwise healthy human. There’s a ratio to these things: beauty, time, death. So, you concede, a final photo of a soon-to-be-dead girl is all-well-and-good. But for it to be beautiful, you need to know.

For it to be beautiful, you need to know that the car, a limousine, is parked on New York’s 34th street, a little after 10 on the morning of May 1st, 1947. You need to know that the observation deck on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building is 1,040 feet high and that a ticket is required to access it. You need to know that she purchased a ticket. For the photograph to be beautiful, you need to know that it was taken about four minutes after her landing. You need to know that she was twenty-three when she jumped.

Can you look at it? Do you flinch? It’s bloodless, after all. No bones piercing skin, no sign of solid turned to liquid–although reports say that when they tried to move it, the body was little more than mush held together by clothing. A meat scarecrow. But you can’t see any of that. And perhaps this disappoints you a little. But the body hadn’t settled long enough to dissolve when photography student, Robert Wiles, snapped its image. He’d be drinking coffee in a local diner when he heard whatever sound is made when human meets steel at top speed. LIFE Magazine’s Picture of the Week. Page forty-three of the May 12th issue. “The Most Beautiful Suicide.”

Her name was Evelyn McHale.

She wasn’t beautiful.

Only the photograph is beautiful.

An exquisite shot; as artful an arrangement as you could expect to see in an edgy advertising campaign, the kind found only in those thick, heavily scented magazines. The slightly elevated camera eye allows us the full length of the upside-down body and the wrinkled steel spreads from beneath, as if she’s simply flopped backwards, after a long day, on to a bed of black metal. About her head and to the right of her feet are white dots, glass fragments that give sound to the image. The sound of calamity; the smashing of a million, million cells in a single instant. The sound of hysteria. These same tiny dots give it movement; a bounce-less energy of down, of plunge, of end. Delicate and devastating. Like one of those slow-motion films of a water drop crashing onto a leaf.

At the top edge, there’s the blurred suggestion of people. They’re very close. All men, it seems. Trench coats and cigarettes, fedoras at cocky angles. Officials perhaps? The type called to deal with situations like this. But then you remember: four minutes. There’s been no time for police or tape or procedures or statements or questions or identification or loved ones. So, these men are just there. De-mobbed veterans, stormers of Normandy, liberators of Belsen. They’ve seen worse. Perhaps these fuzzily rendered Joe Publics turn to each other, and silently decide: Let’s start at the top. With her feet.

Shoeless. Though shoes seem to be the only item of clothing lost during her free-fall. A flayed stocking drapes her right foot, and the elasticated top of its partner is visible under her left knee. Of course, we wouldn’t normally be able to see this—her knee that is, but in this prone position, her skirt is hitched a little higher than usual. Her ankles are demurely crossed. There is a suggestion in some reports that this was done by the first police officer on the scene, Patrolman John Morrissey. To preserve her dignity.

Moving our eye down the photograph and up her body … her legs are solid. Strong calves, meaty, not fat; brimming with mid-western vigour. Travelling up the curve of her thigh, the suggestion of fullness, of sturdiness is again apparent. The phrase “good stock” comes to mind. But then the curve streamlines, cello-like, to the hips and what was robust becomes voluptuous. And not just because of those Mansfield-ian proportions. No. See the hole? Just above the crotch? A missing button. A burst of sex. Like water gushing from a ruptured pipe. 

Strangely—and we’ve arrived at the breasts now—this sexual surge doesn’t continue. Maybe they’re rendered flat by the angle of the lens, or perhaps her bra is not engineered to prop them up. Maybe it’s her “Thursday” bra; thrown on without thought because it’s comfortable and, well, who’s going to see it? Or perhaps her breasts just are small. Now is not the time, the Joe Publics agree, to consider such things.

But lifting our eyes to the throat, we note a different sexual charge. Not overt, like the burst button. More vulnerable, exposed. The slight incline of her chin suggests she’s offering it, her throat that is, inviting it to be kissed, bitten, or licked. And her lipsticked-lips feel wet. Open, mid-pant, a response to a mildly erotic dream. Then there’s the pearls. Perhaps it’s because they’re so close to that meaty lower lip that they too seem so wet and fleshy. Or maybe pearls are always like that. Brutal too. Snatched. Rewards.

A gift, maybe. Let’s suppose they are. From the beau. His name is Barry Rhodes. Barry Rhodes of Eastern Pennsylvania who, at the second this photograph is taken, believes that in one month, Evelyn McHale will be—as she has agreed to be— his wife. Barry Rhodes, who first saw Evelyn at a New Year Party. Who—we might imagine—watched her from his own empty table. Watched her laugh too late, too loud, too soon; watched her square-peg-self search for a way into an invisible round hole; watched her eager smile grow evermore desperate; watched it freeze, then thaw, melt and drip from that round, heavy chin. Every time she tried to talk, drip, to dance, drip, drip, to sit, to do, to be, to fit drip, drip, drip. Perhaps Barry Rhodes, engineering student, living at home with his mother, watched Evelyn McHale struggle into an ill-fitting coat, and stumble on ill-fitting shoes and then, certain no one else was watching her, thought to himself: This is the ill-fitting girl I’ve been watching out for.

Let’s imagine him, kind, colourless, Barry Rhodes, presenting his girl with this string of pearls at their favourite seafood restaurant. Let’s imagine he thought it witty. And let’s take the liberty to reanimate Evelyn McHale. To sit her upright, alive and unremarkable, her knees covered. In her hands, a velvet box. There they are, sumptuous and white against red fabric.

“Y’know, the way these things are formed, Evelyn… so interesting,” white-bibbed Barry explains, “They’re these irritants. Like a splinter, or a spec of grit in your eye.” He picks up a shell from his plate, points to the pink, lip-like animal inside, “so this little guy, he needs to protect himself, right, from this infection. So, he—or she, I guess—secretes this stuff from its glands. Layers and layers of this mucus stuff. All around this infection. To isolate it, y’know?”

She tries to hide her distaste, her instinct to recoil from the strangely obscene animal that disappears down his convulsing throat.  

“So when they prize the shell, the oyster’s shell, open,” his chin glistens with exquisite juice and she focuses her eyes on the contents of the box, “they find…”

Tiny balls of mucus, she says. Then she lifts them, dangles them in the candlelight, and she fancies she can see the source. The piece of grit, the splinter, the cut, the ache, the pain at its centre. Tiny balls of infection, she says. Then she notices his open mouth and the familiar jolt of shame makes her eyes water and her fists clench, because she tries, she does. She tries and tries and tries but still… …I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…

He chuckles then, ‘No, no you’re right,’ he says, because he loves her and is happy to retune his pitch to hers. “Pure Timeless Chic is how the sales girl put it! Ha! Whatever that means!”

She puts them on to please him, and feels their sickness against her throat. He smiles. ‘The girl said they’re the same type Lana Turner wears.’ He pays the bill and places her ill-fitting coat on her shoulders. ‘And y’know Evelyn, every woman should have a set of pearls.’

Gentle, well-meaning Barry Rhodes, who we have to imagine didn’t immediately the recognise the elegant beauty in the photograph as his Evelyn. Barry Rhodes, who’d rolled out and off her the night before she jumped; who then re-adjusted his flannel pyjamas, and planted a brisk but tender kiss on her cheek, before scuttling back to the twin bed made daily by his mother.

“’Night, Evie. Early start in the morning.”

Barry Rhodes, who can’t recall their parting words because she’d had to dash to make the 7 am train from his home in Eastern to Grand Central station, or else be late to her bookkeeping job in Lower Manhattan. Barry Rhodes, who saw no signs, and had no clue, who told investigators that she was as happy as any young girl about to be married. Barry Rhodes, who spent the remainder of his eighty-five marriage-less years, wondering just how happy that was supposed to be.

She’s clutching them – clutch is the verb used with pearls. In a white gloved hand. Turner-esque elegance with a smatter of Davis-ian melodrama. And, could we venture, a soupcon of Monroe’s innocence, mixed with a hint of Baccall-ian cynicism? Yes, there in the combination of raised chin and parted lip. A naiveté and a seductiveness. The virgin and the whore. Or maybe it’s confusion we see. Maybe she’s wondering why her descent is so rushed; why she’s hurtling like a brick and not billowing like a leaf. Why she doesn’t feel light, doesn’t feel relieved of her cumbersome mass like she expected. Because for god’s sake, that’s why she opted for this method! Why she hasn’t slashed or swallowed, gassed or garrotted. Maybe she’s wondering about why the windows of this, the tallest man-made structure on earth, this mammoth feat of engineering and imagination, watch her fall with such icy disregard. Will they remain closed? Will no one try to catch her?

Maybe she’s surprised at just how easy it is to die. 

Turns out all you have to do is buy a ticket.

It’s in her purse. The ticket to the observation deck. In her purse, next to her carefully folded, ill-fitting coat, 1,040 feet above the limousine roof. They’re given to a Uniformed Man who rifles through them to find the answer. The note isn’t addressed to anyone in particular, so perhaps Uniformed Man feels that he is as entitled to read it as if his name were on the envelope. He reads:

I have too many of my mother’s tendencies

At this time, Uniformed Man doesn’t know about mother. He doesn’t know that mother is the former wife of father; that father’s name is Vincent McHale, that mother’s name is Unknown; that Unknown mother is mother to all seven of Vincent McHale’s children, the sixth of which was named Evelyn; that Unknown mother called her Evie; and that one day something happened and Unknown mother was gone. And when she left, she left all seven of her children. But her tendencies, these she left only with her sixth born. Tendencies: tender gifts wrapped in complex codes, in cells, in blood, in hair, bones, and proportions of hip, thigh, and breast. Little hidden infections.

Let’s suppose one day, before Unknown mother disappeared, she invited her little Evie into the dark, smoky boudoir she seldom left and which stank of her unwashed illness. Perhaps Little Evie was nervous to enter this room, perhaps she sensed its danger. Imagine Little Evie. Number 6, hand-me-down, unnoticed. Imagine Unknown mother, tangled in grey sheets on an unshared bed. Imagine Little Evie’s round face held fast against Unknown mother’s bony chest. And now imagine Unknown mother apologize for being:

‘a little late… I should have told you a while ago… about the things that happen….to young girls… about what will happen to you…’

Picture Little Evie, watching the wet drops that fall from Unknown mother’s face landing on stiff sheets with an audible plop.

‘… but I’ve not been very well and… Plop, plop…things are going to happen … to you…Plop, plop…and you need to be…prepared.’ Plop, plop.

And Evie wants to wrestle out from Unknown mother’s grasp, to run from her rank body and poisoned breath. And she wants to tell Unknown mother that Big Sister Helen has already explained everything. That she did so after finding panic-stricken Little Evie stuffing red stained sheets into the garbage like she had been for months. And now Little Evie wants to tell Unknown mother to save her foul breath, but then Unknown mother’s voice tolls, cold and clear.

‘…I worry about you, Evie…plop, plop…You’re just like me.’

Perhaps around Unknown mother’s neck, there are a string of pearls. Perhaps she says to her Little Evie, “Do you know why they make them, Evie? Do you know why the oyster makes pearls?” Perhaps Unknown mother bestows these pearls, along with her tendencies, upon her sixth born. And perhaps Unknown mother, flipping idly through the May 12th, 1947 issue of LIFE Magazine, is arrested by the image of “The Most Beautiful Suicide” on page forty-three, but doesn’t recognize her not-so-beautiful daughter until she reads her name in the accompanying caption. Perhaps Unknown mother clicks her tongue knowingly. Or perhaps where she is, she doesn’t have access to things like magazines.

Perhaps Uniformed Man, note in hand, imagines a scene similar to the one you’ve just imagined. Maybe he nods and thinks; That explains that! Imagine him reading on, deciphering hasty blue scribbles, doodled whirls, pressed hard into the paper. Imagine the note is covered in them, these inky tornados, mini storms surrounding a polite request for cremation, and an emphatic plea for no one in or out of the family to see any part of me. Of course, Uniformed Man has no idea that it is far, far too late for that. 

Too late because Robert Wiles had the presence of mind to grab his camera from the lunch counter he was sitting at when he heard death’s unmistakable smash. Robert Wiles who had simply raised the Kodak Six-20 above his head at an angle that was either instinctive or accidental, and depressed the exposure button; who was, for our imagined purposes, an indifferent student of photography in whom his instructors discerned no flash of remarkability; who entered his bath-cum-developing room with no visual memory of the dead girl on the car. Robert Wiles, who stood in the chemical darkness, congratulating himself on his fine artistic eye, as the image emerged in fluids and became memory.

Yep, the Joe Publics think as they sit at kitchen tables and snip a rectangular hole on page forty-two of the May 12th issue of LIFE Magazine, That’s what I saw, exactly as I saw it. Then they stick it into books scraped with other things they saw at Iwo Jima and Omaha Beach. Yep, that’s what I saw.

It’s left to Big Sister Helen to identify the messy remains with her own eyes. She has to hurry because the neighbour watching Little Bobby has to go to work at 3 and she couldn’t very well let a small boy see his aunt’s dead body now, could she? Perhaps Big Sister Helen is shocked. Perhaps she is not shocked. Perhaps she always knew that she, Evelyn, that is, had too many of their mother’s tendencies. Perhaps she’s distraught at the site of her sister’s pulverized remains. Perhaps she’s seen worse.

Perhaps she is given a bag. Plastic, transparent: Items Found About the Person of the Deceased. Clothing has been incinerated of course; nothing to be gained from the fibres that held Evelyn’s innards in. The stockings too. Her shoes, well there’s a bit of a mystery there, ma’am, Another Uniformed Man explains. He hands over the bag of Evelyn, and Big Sister Helen thinks: Shouldn’t there be some sort of ceremony? Turns out she just needs to sign and date here, and initial here and here.

Let’s imagine Big Sister Helen as the type of person who waits for the privacy of her own home to go through the belongings of a deceased sibling. That she removes a pearl necklace from the see-through bag on her kitchen table. Maybe Big Sister recognizes Unknown mother’s pearls. Maybe she holds them up to the light, watches them blink with tired lustre and thinks: These really should’ve be mine, anyway.

Or maybe she assumes they’re a gift from Barry Rhodes. Will he want them back? she wonders? Or would it be in bad taste to…

And no, she never once wonders how these creamy mucus balls are formed.

But let’s also think practically; it’s very likely that the necklace had to be cut from a stiffened clutch or pulpy neck. So maybe unfettered pearls spill from the bag onto the table. Maybe they bounce, scatter and roll and Big Sister Helen scrambles to retrieve them before Little Bobby one shoves one in his mouth. But still, maybe for weeks, for months, for years —long after Big Sister and Bobby are gone from that kitchen in that house—tiny balls of grit are found lurking in dusty corners and crevices.

And now you know. The girl on the car is dead. Indelibly so. All you need to do is purchase a ticket to see for yourself.  Yes, for the bargain price of $20 (plus tax) —$10 on Good Friday— you can examine every inch of Evelyn McHale’s beautiful death. And you think about it. About buying a ticket. Of sitting there in front of huge silk-screen prints, and absorbing this piece of art. And while you do, you might think about Robert Wiles, and you might wonder if the money he made from his photograph was enough for him never to have to publish another one ever again. Or was he too overcome with guilt for having foiled Evelyn McHale’s one desire for self-obliteration to continue as a photographer? Maybe. Or maybe he just wasn’t any good. And then you wonder if Barry Rhodes ever spent $20 to see his Evelyn in her pearls? Or Big Sister Helen, or Little Bobby. Maybe even Unknown mother. And then you wonder: what did happen to those pearls?

And so maybe you go there. Maybe you spend $20 to look at her for as long as you want —between the hours of 10 and 5.

Please make sure no one in or out of my family sees any part of me.

Could you look? Would you flinch? There’s a joy in it, isn’t there? In the flinch. Because she really is dead, you know. In the photograph. And out of it. Can you see them? Her mother’s tendencies? Maybe in the burst button at her crotch, or in the wet, parted lips? Perhaps in the string of tiny infections around her neck.

She is not beautiful.

Only the photograph is beautiful.