Friday, 26 February 2010

Digging For Australia #fridayflash 650 words

Why is it, when the weather's not even particularly warm, ice cream nonetheless melts? Runneling through your fingers before you've even stepped away from the vendor's stall. More pertinently, why is it that my son even hankers after the chill fruit smack of frozen ice? Like a desperate old bar soak, he has dragooned me into also having one, to keep him company. Even though I know its frigidity will inevitably sting and set my teeth on edge. But seems I must render him some penitential reparation, for having dragged him out here to this fitful pleasure zone in the first place.

There he sits on the desolate sand. Like an unturned out sandcastle huddled in its plastic mould. His body is still spasmed for, and from the city. Our tower block on stilts, which merely serves to channel the wind beneath such vaulting limbs. A piercing, penetrative force that pinballs us backwards and keeps us from successfully escaping its concrete flippers. Until today that is. When I ferried him here, solely to be embraced by the lapping waves as they lay feeble supplication at his feet. But he is yet to unfurl himself toward their anointing. Rather than spreading his being into the limitless expanse of space, he is hunched like a panhandler who has been working the streets too long. And him only six years old.

Where he's plopped himself down, he straddles the sand's water table levels. The dry, powdery grains too wispily diffuse to hold any integrity within his actual bucket. And the darker stained grist that offers solid architectural possibilities. The long-handled spade stands unmanned (unboyed?) within the lighter strain. Redundantly wafting in its own thin rootedness. A miscalculation on my part. Far too unwieldy for his little arms. A grasp of physics or geometry whichever it is, far beyond my reach. Maybe he'll inherit a natural comprehension of the world from his father. But we've no way of ever knowing that now have we?

However, he is no more frozen, nor less motile than these rippling ice creams. There appears some synergy between him and the sand after all. His hands kees burrowing into it at the borders of his seated self. Scooping out handfuls, and casting them away. Casting a rune around himself, or building a moat? To fend off whom exactly? And still he pilots his hand down. Hoping to strike oil, or water perhaps? But he is too far from the lip of the sea for it to mine through the sand and fill his trench. He has beached himself up in dry dock.

The pace of his digging noticeably increases as I approach. He has fully encircled himself now, ready to see out a siege? If he had preserved straighter lines, then I could convince myself he was limning a magic carpet for him to take flight. All I can apprehend now, is him trying to tunnel through to Australia on the other side of the world and as far away from me as possible.

The transfer of the cream-slicked cone into small fingers gritted with sand, conspires to deliver the inevitable fall to earth. An Icarian fusion on a day devoid of sun. We both stare down dumbly at the lugubrious cone, presently performing a reasonable impersonation of a large whelk shell. Then I see his eyes crinkle towards the encompassing of all years of future disappointments held out by the world. Quickly I proffered him my cone and cradled his fingers around it within my own. One always needs a back up, a plan B, a second option. A stand-in. Unfortunately I had just the one child and said child had just the one mother.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Morning Assembly #fridayflash 480 words

He'd never any toys when he was a child. Well, when he was younger than he is now. Left to peck with his fingers in the dust alongside the chickens. He didn't even know he was draughting imaginary maps and coastlines that now he was surveying for real.

There was no instruction guide for this kit. No box with a picture on it for comparison. It was however made in China, more coastlines away from his home than he could ever limn.

The flat curved box with the grooves was easy. He knew where that went, but it was ever the last piece of the jigsaw. The other chunky part, the wooden one which vaguely echoed the shape of a hobbyhorse, not that he had ever seen one of course, well that too was relatively straightforward. Though it was the one that posed him the greatest trial, forever slapping his shoulder with tremendous vigour. More so even than his father, or the man presiding over him here.

No, what caught him were all the fiddly bits. The bits that actually looked like fun. First there was the spring and a metal gulley you could make it slide across. Push the spring back with your fingers, then release it and watch the spring dart across its cradling runway and fly out like an arrow. Then there was the bolt. You could wedge it into the ground and then roll or throw miracle fruit towards it and see which gets the closest. Of course he would never be allowed to stick the bolt in the ground and get it covered in smut. Then he would most likely feel someone's hobbyhorse smashed over his head by the man in charge.

The thin tube, my how fine a blowpipe might that make, for going hunting bush monkey or birds. A silent and deadly weapon, like the old ways. Though he knew if he brought this tube to his mouth, it would taste of oil and make him retch. But he knew metal toys needed oil to keep all their parts working. And finally, the strange little drum. That seemed to do nothing at all. Yet if he held it to his ear and shut his eyes tight enough to block out the world, if he then shook it he could just hear the sea moving about inside it. Like listening through a conch shell, but so far more distant. All the way from China perhaps. Did China have a sea of its own? The man had told them that the drum contained a gas, not water. But to him it sounded only like the waves. Alas there was never sufficient hush around in the camp for him truly to be able to hear it quite enough and prove the man wrong.

"Okay boys. Thirty seconds only to assemble this AK47. Or I shoot you".

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Raw War Footage

Read a very interesting article "The Pleasure Of Flinching" by Nicholas Sautin in Guernica Magazine's online site.

Ostensibly a review of Argentine Mauro Andrizzi's documentary "Iraqi Short Films" which is an unending diet of war and soldier R&R footage from Iraq. All culled off the internet and none of it shot by the film-maker himself. The footage is bloody, unmitigated shots of death and dying. War porn. Combat snuff.

To my mind such images raise an unsolved dialectic of questions, both pro and con.

Firstly, I would far rather these images existed than the surgical strike videos the army fed us from the Desert Storm Campaigns. Here at least you can see what death actually entails, rather than what amount to little more than video game sequences offered up by the military. These images redress the balance of those who would want to sanitise war.

Or do they? While I favour any global citizen being able to post their own eye witness report on a warzone, to get around the editorial control of TV stations and newspaper proprietors and the restrictions placed on journalists embedded with military units "no operational details for security purposes", one has to also ask the question of whether the citizen eye witness is any more reliable? By this I don't mean that they may lack any grounding in editing. More that how do you know you're not being fed a line, that the footage isn't in fact raw and unedited, but crafted for propaganda purposes? By either side in the conflict.

Which begs the question who is watching these videos at home on their computer. On one side it is pretty clear. Those prosecuting the resistance in Iraq or Afghanistan view images of 'glorious' operations such as IED explosions, and atrocity images of their own dead and dying brothers and sisters in villages and at weddings, as recruiting tools pure and simple. Your Faith needs You, the modern day recruitment poster child of death. To me this ties in with the psychology of those fighting the war against the 'invaders'. This is war and snuff porn and it works on the psychology of disaffected youth, who feel stakeless and unfulfilled in the modern world. Who feel the weight of the history of humiliation and servitude of their people on the global map. Who have no outlet for their male fantasies of strength, honour and dignity in a conventional way. But here they can connect to being warriors somehow. The equivalent Oriental Grand Tour, kill an infidel in every one of Iraq's holy cities... This is what it means to be male in the 21st century for this cohort of young men. This is the fuel of their fantasy life and is not too hard a task to attach some basic propellant of ideology to it. Death porn is pitched just right, to young men who feel they have nothing to lose in a no win society anyway. Death is the everyday currency of exchange. Tit for tat. Escalation. Revenge and reparation. It's how you can behead a human being live on YouTube...

But what of the non-combatants tuning in? Notionally those non-Muslims who watch death and torture porn? I am on less sure footing here as I neither know how many are return customers rather than once only purveyors and also why war footage porn appeals to them where say sexual torture porn does or doesn't. Presumably there is this constituency I alluded to above, those who opt to get their 'news' from these unofficial and alternative sources, but again I raise the question of how they know they're not being hoodwinked? I can recognise a video that's looping the same explosion over and over, but these are the most basic of examples. There are bound to be some far more sophisticated and lovingly crafted. Is the viewer at home really able to penetrate such artifice? At what point does a reasonably regular diet of such images inure and desensitise the viewer? To reach the same point of dehumanisation as the Jihadi watching the same images in order to stoke his fire and gird his loins? I guess I'm saying, what is the point of watching endless videos of death and carnage, if you're not a combatant? Or at least what is the endpoint? Will it make you march harder on a demonstration? Write with more frothingly outraged vocabulary in that letter to your MP? Are you maintaining some sort of spreadsheet collating the bodycount there in your study?

So there are few definitive conclusions to be drawn. We need alternative sources of data from warzones, but can we trust them any more than official versions? Their logic is crystal clear as far as combatants go, but what exactly are non-combatants deriving from repeated trips to the YouTube well? Maybe we should start inquiring as to what hunger for such images tells us about the psyches of both direct combatants and non-combatants and then maybe, just maybe, we the people will figure out how we come to get into such entanglements of war in the first place; why young men pick up rocket propelled grenade launchers and why the soldiers who go in after them are led by men with no understanding of what's involved.

It's the new Catch-22. You have to watch suffering endlessly in order to bring about an end to the suffering. Don't think this one's gonna fly though somehow. Do you?

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Knell Quartet - #fridayflash 1000 words

The Jester sat down on the edge of his mattress. He laboured to bring one gout ridden leg up to lay across the other. The jingle bell at the tip of his pointed toe mocked each serrated movement of his limb with a tinkle. He grabbed his ankle to arrest its dinging. They had always given him away. Betrayed his advent. People would halt the progress of whatever parley they were engaged in and turn to stop him in aisles and antechambers, demanding an instant jape or trick from him. With the pain in his legs, the aches in his heart and the sour surge of ill-humours throughout his body, his buffoonery was all played out. Touched by God people said of the poor fool. But the King was cert no longer touched by his rib-tickling. These days he only seemed to rub his Majesty up the wrong way. Just like this mattress which had sprouted tickling sticks of horse hair all over its clapped out rind. It had cradled his own pith here in the Palace since the day he had first shaken his bauble in humour. Seemed like everyone and everything was at the threshold of being put out to grass, with such cankers abound in the kingdom. He managed to work off both of his shoes, while still holding the jingle at their tips. For he didn't want to alert the Devil to come ask him for a prank.

* * *

She lay her weary body down on the straw mat. Having been dancing all day, the sound of the bells were still reverberating inside her head. She had dedicated to herself and to her parents, to be not just a temple dancer, but the most refined and elegant mover of them all. To devote herself to her god and master. She had ascended from the fifty, all the way up to the two hundred bell ghungroos. The weight had been excruciating to bear, but only to better suggest the litheness of her movements picked out in such a deep, thickened sound. She wore them in her sleep, to better temper her muscles to their burden. It made for interrupted slumber. Since each time she turned in her dreams, she was serenaded by a langourous pealing, each time prompting her that she must jump to it in order to dance for a spring-borne water spirit. It was on being awoken in such manner and waiting to return back to sleep, she often wondered why she never heard the demure tintinnabula of the other Devadasis' bells. The door opened to her room. A male voice demanded her to take off her anklets. "Why? Do you not want me to dance for you oh spirit? " "You are an untouchable, you do not address yourself to me. But yes, you're going to dance for me all night".

* * *

Fearne watched through the mullioned kitchen window that gave out on to the rear garden. Her siamese was striding through the long grass and suddenly she felt privy to millennia of leonine evolution, albeit scaled down for suburbia. The cat was indubitably filled with a purposeful prowl, but there was no prey anywhere to be seen. The tocsin bell hanging from its collar was fulfilling its mission. An early bird warning system to stymie the sorties of the sinuous slayer. Man's adaptive response, to stamp our own rhythms on Mother Nature. Be it placing a bell on a goat to lead its brethren to fall into step behind it. Or the rough music placed around the neck of a free thinker who looks to go his own way. Now Fearne couldn't believe her eyes, as the cat stopped at a rose bush primed with thorns and rubbed himself adroitly against its spines. Sure enough the halter was adroitly transferred to the plant, the collar gently flapping like a snake's sloughed skin in the breeze. Meanwhile the cat marched back to reclaim the garden savannah's leonine throne. Modestly piped in his triumph by a faint chime.

* * *

The monk surveyed the damage wrought by the soldiers in their big dead cow boots. Even though steeled against superfluous feelings, he could not but shed a tear. The salt water drop seemed reluctant to release its anchorage in the bay of his eyelid and his vision was blurred. An overturned candle on the floor was still aflame and its feeble tendril rays seemed to reach out towards him. He knelt down to right it and as he raised himself back up, brought the candle up with him at eye level. He looked right through its golden streaming light, which together with his water-clouded vision combined to throw a corona behind the head of a terracotta image of the Buddha. He knelt back down again, feeling he was witness to a great sign, the light of revelation itself even. The tears poured copiously now and he wiped them clear from his eye. Alas, now he could see quite clearly that most of the Buddha's face was missing. Stoved in by a rifle butt. Ugly jagged gashes effaced any serenity. Only the mouth remained, sealed without comment on what had befallen the shrine. The tips of the fingers clasped together in humble prayer had been hacked away. He looked at his own fingers, covered in dust from rooting around the floor for profaned offerings. He reached into the fold of his robe and drew out his tingsha. Or what remained of it anyway, seeing as the binding had snapped and only one of the small bronze cymbals remained. There was to be no cadences to open up his heart to sing. No vibrating struck sound to fill his emptiness. This bronze cymbal had rid itself of all earthly attachments. But in doing so there would be no placating the hungry ghosts and they would assuredly send their cruel minions with their boots and rifles back for more offerings.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Literary Frankenstein's Monster

Reading a blog and comments about whether anyone is interested in author interviews over at Farm Lane Books one question that seems a stock of the author interview is 'which authors do you admire' or 'which books influenced you?'

I've yet to be asked this question as I've had some pretty groovy (no apologies for using that word, it gets to the nub of the sentiment) interviews (listed at the end of this post). But it did set me thinking and this is what I've come up with:

I'd like to write a book with the following attributes (influences)

The lyricism and metaphorical creativity of Jeanette Winterson
The linguistic explosions of Don Delilo and Gary Lutz
The socio-political sweep of Michel Houellebecq
The subversively gentle guiding narrative hand of Franz Kafka
The dialogue skills of Hubert Selby Jnr

There, that's a rum bunch for you to try and meld together into a single work!

Still, I gave it a fair crack in my novel "A,B&E" ...Think I went a bit awry on the Kafka gentle steering though. My MC grabs your hand and takes you for a rollercoaster ride. And seeing as there's probably less than a thousand words of dialogue, the Selby Jnr part looks a bit neglected too.

What would be your Frankenstein's opus? Who would it consist of?

Emprise Review
Whispers Of The Muse
Year Zero Writers

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Terry Pratchett's Richard Dimbleby Lecture

Last night on the BBC, Sir Terry Pratchett was the first novelist to deliver the august Richard Dimbleby Lecture. I say deliver, but due to his condition of early onset Alzheimer's disease, after a short introduction, he passed his written speech over to be delivered by actor and friend Tony Robinson (of Black Adder fame). This had the curious affect not dissimilar to when the IRA could not be shown saying their own words on British TV, but had to have them spoken in voiceover by an actor. Straight away it distances you from the affect of the words, (as was intended with the IRA), you are taken away from the inflection and the expression of the speaker himself, because he is not actually saying them. While the camera lingered on Pratchett at length for his reactions and clearly his face revealed all sorts of emotional responsiveness, it still confers the unfortunate feel of someone laughing at their own jokes and welling up at their own sadness, all the while seeming strangely removed from their own words. I fully appreciate the reason for this decision, that the disease itself makes protracted speaking a titanic feat to pull off. Some people will feel this method underlines such a fact. Others may feel it to have been more powerful if he had tried to deliver the words himself, slurred or tripping up and with the actor coming in as prompt or periodic reliever.

I was also reminded of that other great TV interview on the eve of a fully anticipated death, that of the TV playwright Dennis Potter. He sat there, fingers curled over clawlike by psoriasis, quaffing from liquid morphine such was the pain he was in for the duration of the interview. To me, this remains the most trenchant argument in and of itself. Two fine minds, still evidencing their clarity of thought, all the while their body is failing around them. There could be no clearer representation of mortality, the fate that is due to come to us all. They can speak of the onrush of death with supreme eloquence, but to me the clearest statement is the physical manifestation before our very eyes.

Why might this be important? I believe it is so because we are a society that still won't talk about death in the open. En masse we are no longer able to underpin it reassuring religious credos promising an afterlife. (Some still do possess such facility, but they are in the minority within our society). But instead of turning this void round into a consideration of both what death means and therefore stemming from it an inquiry into the purpose and meaning of life, we just keep both remote from our everyday functioning selves. If for example we truly apprehended the physical pain of unravelling as demonstrated by Potter and Pratchett, then we might not so casually inflict it on others through wars abroad or even drunken fights outside bars. But no, we will continue to shuffle such dark dreads under the carper and slay one another in desultory fashion.

I confess I am terrified of death. Not as Sir Terry mentioned yesterday the moment of dying which according to polls cited by him is the greater fear of the overwhelming majority of us, for me it is the eternal extinction thereafter. Of course the moment of dying can be drawn out, lingering with terrible pain. But for me that can only be increased exponentially by the certain knowledge of what lies beyond, ie nothing. (Sorry, but I just cannot console/delude myself that there is anything other). I was present when my Grandmother died, surrounded by all her family. And she struggled and clung on and could not get comfortable and moved around as he body betrayed her for the last time. And when she finally did settle in the final rest, all the pinched lines of struggle and tension vanished from her face as the muscles relaxed and let go. She had pretty much the 'best' death imaginable given that it was in the bosom of those she loved and supported by reasonably sensitive medical management. And superficially witnesses would remark how serene she looked and offer the nostrum 'she's at peace now' after a long, debilitating illness. I simply don't buy that, for her or for me.

Mortality and its corollary the purpose of life (what some refer to as the human condition) informs every piece of work I write. All the themes beloved of literature, such as redemption (in life), enlightenment, revenge, betrayal et al, are mere fripperies in relation the the puppet master that cuts all their strings at the finale, that being Death. Death is a far greater taboo than incest or pedophilia to my mind, because it affects each and every one of us (not to say of course you can't explore the others, just a polite inquiry why death seems so under-investigated by comparison).

As to the meat of Pratchett's interview and where the media vultures will inevitably gather, his plea for euthanasia to be legalised. Intellectually and morally I agree with him, (though my cynicism runs such that some will exploit any law to 'off' unwanted elderly burdens or gain access to inheritances and be able to get around the checks and balances the law may provide). Personally, with my terror of non-being I could never fly myself headlong towards my death any sooner than was ordained for me. But Pratchett was at pains to try and change the terminology from "Assisted Suicide" to "Assisted Death." Having cleared the blood up after a family member's serious unassisted suicide attempt, I'd just like to suggest that the consent of a terminally ill person to their own foreshortening by human agency, IS a suicide, even if delivered at the hand of another. Now there is nothing wrong with the notion of suicide to my mind. In fact, in a rational society it should form a central part of the debate about life itself. For if we strive to develop a consciousness from the moment of birth, if we labour to establish ourselves within a material existence whereby we can feed and clothe ourselves and form relationships and sire children, only to have it taken away randomly and permanently- the only question might then be why wouldn't we commit suicide? How can you make informed decisions about the right to die, if we don't even know what we mean by the value of human life in the first place?