The crucial difference between songs and records is that a song is an idea and a record is a thing. The clue’s in the name: a record is a record of its own creation. Even with the impact of multitrack recording and digital workstations, a record is a document of a place and a time. A fixed point. Did the singer have a cold that day? How did the instruments sound? Were the band getting along? Where were the mics placed? Did Sting accidentally sit on a piano?
“A Day in the Life”, The Beatles
If you catch the author of these words in a particularly grandiloquent mood he will argue (at tiresome length) that A Day in the Life is the high-water mark of 20th century music – an ambitious, ambiguous masterpiece that’s as close to transcendent as pop has managed to achieve. After a rising orchestral glissando, the song climaxes with an E-major chord played simultaneously on three pianos and a harmonium. As the note rings out for forty triumphant seconds, the vibrations drifting off into the universe, Ringo Starr’s shoe squeaks as he shifts his weight in his seat. Improbably, it’s the perfect ending: an art form’s apogee, recorded over 34 hours, and in its final moments you hear Ringo fidget.
“Mack the Knife”, Ella Fitzgerald
Kurt Weill’s standard Mack the Knife has been recorded by so many artists that you probably have a version of it out there somewhere, but few iterations compare to Ella Fitzgerald’s 1960 live performance. After the first verse Fitzgerald went completely blank, but managed to style it out, singing “Oh what’s the next chorus to this song now/this is the one now/I don’t know/but it was a swinging tune and it’s a hit tune/So we tried to do Mack the Knife” and continuing to make up two further verses without missing a beat. Fitzgerald was such a pro that she – by her own in-song admission – made “a wreck” and still ended up winning two Grammies for the performance.
“Black Country Woman”, Led Zeppelin
A common childhood memory: the weather is glorious and your teacher, in a beatific mood, agrees to have class outdoors for the day. For adults, unfortunately, the insect-alluring reality rarely matches the fantasy. Led Zeppelin learned this when they decided to use the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio (like a mobile library but containing a mixing desk and drugs instead of paperbacks) to record Black Country Woman in Mick Jagger’s garden. As soon as they started taping a plane appeared overhead, but they chose to keep this in along with their discussion about keeping it in. This ended better, at least, than the other occasion they attempted recording in a garden and Robert Plant was attacked by a flock of geese.
“Infested with self-pity and anger” following a break-up, in 2011 Liz Harris – the artist and musician known as Grouper – accepted a residency in the small Portuguese town of Aljezur. Alone for days at a time, she would take field recordings and walk miles through the ruins of old estates. After a storm brought a power cut, she sat at a piano in the dark and played an aching instrumental called Labyrinth. A note or two from the end, something happened: the power returned, and floating across came the sound of the microwave switching back on. Harris decided to leave the song how it was; the result is perhaps the most haunting, lonely microwave beep you’ll ever hear.
“30 Hours”, Kanye West
The perfectionism of Kanye West’s music stands in contrast to his self-sabotaging public impulsiveness, which is why something seemed different about The Life of Pablo. West – a recently-married new father, preoccupied by other creative interests – continued to fiddle with the album in the months following its release, unable to get it right. He was so distracted that in the middle of an improvised verse during the song 30 Hours his phone rings and, unbelievably, he actually stops to take the call. “Yo Gabe, I’m just doing an adlib track right now”, he says, the tape still rolling, “What’s up?” While the moment amuses, it’s hard to imagine the hungry young producer of a decade earlier being diverted by anything.
“Oh Comely”, Neutral Milk Hotel
Considering the (lovely) magazine that’s named after it (but we’re biased, don’t take our word for it), Oh Comely is far darker and stranger than you might expect – eight and a half minutes of mass graves and sitting inside a stranger’s stomach and wanting to save Anne Frank in some sort of time machine and adulterous fathers who “made fetuses with flesh-licking ladies while you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park”. Jeff Mangum had been asked to sing a verse as a soundcheck, but ended up performing the entire song in a single take. As he finished, his astonished collaborator Scott Spillane, standing in the sound booth, screamed “Holy shit!”. He speaks for us all.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Eight. Illustration by Matsuo Reiko.
It’s a compelling proposition: in her latest stand-up show Dope, Mae Martin details the significant addictions of her life, one by one. First, as a child she becomes obsessed with Bette Middler’s performance in Hocus Pocus, coaxing her parents into taking her to the cinema to see it over and over again. Her next fixation is live comedy, as she attends clubs around her native Toronto five nights a week, “a creep hanging around stage doors”. Then, at the age of 13, she becomes a stand-up herself, soon dropping out of school to focus on it entirely. A child in an adult world, Mae becomes addicted to pot and then cocaine. Still only in her late teens, she gets sober after her family learns that she’s been dealing drugs to supplement her income.
The presence of Bette Middler aside, Mae’s early years have the potential to be bleak, heavy subject matter, which perhaps explains the time delay in her work. “It seems to take me a decade to talk about things”, she observes, “My last show was about my childhood and puberty, and then this is about the period that came right after. I hadn’t felt ready before now. I hadn’t processed it”. Her tarrying is understandable: Mae felt it was crucial to get the tone exactly right. “I think audiences can sense when you’re not being honest. It’s difficult to find the balance – to not be too flippant while also making it funny. You want to make sure that you’re able to go to that dark place and then bring people out of it again, to feel really in control of it yourself”.
To meet this challenge Mae decided to initially write the whole show “like a TED talk”, without any jokes in it at all. She spent time researching addiction, becoming interested in the work of Dr Gabor Maté, a physician who argues for a broader definition of addiction beyond substances. “It was the first time I’d thought about how addiction is really a pattern of behaviour that’s in different parts of your life”, she says. Mae found her research provided a way to temper the darker material (“it’s funnier to talk about being addicted to Bette Middler than it is to talk about being addicted to cocaine”), but this was also useful on a personal level. “I didn’t realise that you can alter your brain chemistry with things like exercise. I’m now going to the gym for the first time in my life. When I was a teenager I just chose cigarettes over any sports or physical activity. I’m still working through it all. I think that comes across in the show; I don’t really know the answers and it’ll probably be an ongoing thing forever, but that process is valuable. I haven’t had severe addiction problems in so long and I’m pretty vigilant about it, but it’s definitely something that comes up elsewhere in my life. Recognising that has been helpful”.
One of Dope‘s central arguments is that it’s important to understand the positive effects of an addiction as well as the negative ones, to locate what problem someone is attempting to deal with via their addiction. She uses the example of comedy in her own life: “When I found comedy it was filling a certain need, and that’s not a healthy relationship to have with anything. I felt like such an outsider and then I discovered this community of people who were not only openly saying what made them weird and gross and embarrassing but were actually being applauded and rewarded for it. It was such a revelation and I became obsessed. It’s all I would think or talk about. That was pretty damaging to me. It was less physically dangerous than a substance, but just as consuming”.
Although her obsession with comedy prefigured the burdensome addiction to come, Mae is equivocal on the consequences of starting her career so early. “I went through puberty on stage. I did the worst comedy. Thank God that YouTube wasn’t a thing and people weren’t filming on smartphones back then because I was super embarrassing, but Toronto was a great place to learn comedy in a safe environment.” She admits that comedy has ultimately been good for her, but this could only happen once it stopped having a monopoly on her thoughts. “I’m still passionate about it but now my life is pretty full so it’s just one part. I’ve been doing stand-up for 17 years and it mellows out. You don’t get the same huge high. I’m lucky that I’ve managed to turn that particular addiction into a career, but also I dropped out of school so I have no other qualifications. I had to make it work”.
Even without the difficulties of being a young adult in recovery, it was a complicated transition from child prodigy to just another working comic: “Later on I had lots of day jobs, but in my teens I was able to do it full-time”, she says. “I got tonnes of gigs because of the novelty of my youth. There were newspaper articles and buzz because I had braces and was talking about my parents and school. I was a weird circus act of a kid. I coasted for a long time and then I had to start writing. Suddenly I had to try to be good.” It was one of the many tough experiences that Mae weathered, coming out stronger on the other end. “It took me until my mid-twenties to be comfortable with being myself on stage. I always felt confident but I used to physically shake, I’d get so nervous. Now I don’t feel like I’m on a knife-edge where I could slip at any minute. There isn’t the fear that I might actually melt into a puddle on the stage or burst into tears. I still bomb sometimes and get nervous before big gigs but I’m okay. I know I can do it”.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Eight. Portrait by Liz Seabrook.
The relentless electioneering of recent years has been exhausting and demoralising, but politics isn’t wholly bleak: it will always be funny, at least, when animals gain constitutional power. “Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office” may sound like a ceremonial position, but consider this: the UK employs over 100,000 cats to catch rodents on government property. If cats were people – furry, serial-killing people – they’d be our fourth largest workforce. It’s crucial in a democracy to scrutinise those in charge, even when they happen to be a goat wearing a mayoral sash.
Felines have stalked Britain’s literal and figurative corridors of power since the 16th century, when Cardinal Wolsey’s cat attended official meetings. As tensions mounted across Europe pre-World War II, however, naming suffered: there was Peter, forced to diet due to indulgent civil servants; Peter II, killed by a car within months; and Peter III, called “Peter the Great” mostly because no-one ran him over and he stayed in shape. After keeping his patch rodent-free during that optimistic post-war idyll from 1947 to 1964, Peter’s death drew condolences from prominent pets including Etti-Cat, a cat enlisted to promote courtesy among New York subway users – in its letter, quite sweetly, Etti-Cat encloses a photo and requests one of Peter for its scrapbook.
What’s most impressive about Boss “Bosco” Ramos becoming mayor of Sunol, California is not that he was a black labrador mix, or that he defeated two human candidates, but that he occupied the post for 13 whole years. Upon hearing of the election, the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily called Bosco’s victory “a wakeup tonic for those kind-hearted people who are naïve and ignorant and blindly worship Western democracy”; in response, the dog-mayor accompanied a group of Chinese students to a pro-democracy rally. A bronze statue of the human rights advocate/belly rub enthusiast now stands in front of Sunol’s post office. Interviewed about Bosco two decades later, local resident Dave Rodgers was unequivocal: “He was the best mayor we ever had”.
As the Home Office reeled from the loss of Peter III, a replacement was found: a Manx cat called Manninagh Katedhu, promptly renamed “Peta”. Where previous cats were donated by cleaners, Peta was a gift from the Isle of Man’s Lieutenant Governor; her salary was double that of her predecessors, but in a blow for class equality, this was because she came from a diplomatic background rather than “the industrial grades”. Unlike her illustrious forebear, Peta was decidedly not great: internal memos described her as “inordinately fat” and she got into trouble for brawling with Harold Wilson’s Siamese cat Nemo. Eventually Peta was sent away to enjoy “a break in the country”, which is surely some sort of euphemism.
While Bubbles never held a formal title, his role as Michael Jackson’s consort made him the world’s most famous chimpanzee. In the late 1980s the pair were inseparable, with the primate accompanying Jackson on tour and sitting in during the recording of Bad. Inevitably this couldn’t last: as an adult Bubbles became aggressive and was returned to his original owner. Thankfully such mistreatment is increasingly unacceptable, but the old tabloid stories retain their appeal: the National Enquirer once reported that Prince had attempted to interfere with Bubbles using extrasensory perception, causing Jackson to ask, “What kind of sicko would mess with a monkey?” Bubbles now lives at a sanctuary for animals rescued from the entertainment industry, free from funkadelic telepathy.
Having endured two conservative premierships, Chief Mouser Humphrey met his match in Cherie Blair. The barrister attempted to get Humphrey ejected from Downing Street, but this caused such outrage that a photo op had to be arranged of her holding the black-and-white cat – to make Humphrey comply, Alastair Campbell sedated him. The story gets weirder. Humphrey was finally relocated “for medical reasons”, sparking rumours of murder: MP Alan Clark commented “Humphrey is now a missing person. Unless I hear from him or he makes a public appearance, I suspect he has been shot”. This forced a second photoshoot, in a secret location, of the cat posing with that day’s newspapers. Humphrey was alive, but had apparently become a hostage.
When the Wakayama Electric Railway destaffed its Kishigawa Line stations in 2006 to cut costs, stationmasters were sought to help the struggling line. The recruit for Kishi station was Toshiko Koyama, who would bring along his tortoiseshell cat Tama to greet passengers. A year later Tama was officially hired as stationmaster, and the former stray became so popular that she added 1.1bn yen annually to the local economy. Tama ascended steadily during her eight years in charge, becoming super-stationmaster, ultra-stationmaster and eventually vice president of the rail company. In 2015 news of her death elicited nationwide mourning and 3,000 people attended the funeral. Having genuinely rescued the rural line from oblivion, Tama posthumously received one final promotion: Honourable Eternal Stationmaster.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Seven. Illustrations by Jisun Lee.
I was 27 when I first learned that The Beatles is a pun. Even though I’ve known how to spell “beetle” for some time, I’d somehow never made the connection that the name evokes the Merseybeat scene from which the group initially sprang. Last month, despite having been a journalist for most of my adult life, it dawned on me that “news” is the plural of “new”, meaning that the news is a compilation of different new things that have happened. It’s possible that I am just exceedingly dim, but sometimes a piece of knowledge is so simple and self-evident that you are unable to recognise it. Such information is the nose in your field of vision: always there, unchanging, so the brain ignores it entirely. I bring this up because I’ve only recently realised that it might not be healthy to know what everyone you’ve ever met is currently doing with their lives.
The satirical American newspaper The Onion once published an article titled “Report: Everyone Starting New Exciting Stage Of Life Except You” – if, for whatever reason Mark Zuckerberg lost the rights to the name Facebook, this would be an ideal (albeit unwieldy) replacement. In an attempt to kill time while waiting for trains to arrive and kettles to boil, we have found ourselves in a sadomasochistic relationship with a gargantuan corporate entity. This entity uses the lives of people we know to make us feel bad about our own lives, and yet we cannot stop ourselves. Look at the interesting meals your former colleague has eaten. Look at the wedding of a childhood friend. Look at how many exotic countries your co-worker is visiting. Look at the house that the friend of your friend has bought. Look at your dream job being done by your university coursemate. Look at the beautiful child of your ex. It’s their birthday. They’re having cake. Social media can feel like everyone you know is at a party you’re not invited to, one you’re compelled to watch from afar. These people aren’t necessarily more content than you, but when confronted with curated glimpses of pleasure we can only reflect on our own comparative drabness: they are doing an exciting thing while we are looking at a picture, alone on the internet.
Study after study indicates that the passive consumption of online broadcasts from acquaintances increases feelings of loneliness and depression: the longer you spend visiting somewhere like Facebook or Instagram, the unhappier you become. We’re hard-wired to absorb information that is immediately available, and so we’re held captive by the stimulus around us. It isn’t just pop-up ads stealing seconds of your finite concentration and time: you hop online to quickly message a friend and before you know it you’re thumbing through the holiday snaps of someone who attended the same primary school as you, dissatisfied and obscurely glum.
The belated conclusion I came to, however, didn’t concern social media’s well-documented emotional impediments, as troubling as they can be. An equally pressing problem, I’ve found, is that we’ve inadvertently constructed a system whereby it’s possible to never lose touch with anyone ever again. Where once the default was that most people entered our lives and eventually left them again, now we have to make a deliberate decision to unfriend, unfollow or withdraw completely. Unless rigour is applied, the only people you ever conclusively disengage from are either horrible or insignificant enough to have left no impression at all. Everyone else is still there, simultaneously in our lives and not in them, their presence chiefly taking the form of random periodic reminders that they still exist. You’ve lost touch with them and yet you’re passing a spare minute by looking at photos of them attending the hen party of someone you don’t know.
At first glance, this seems like a quietly cheering innovation. So long as you don’t spend too long dwelling online, it can be heartening to see that someone who once meant something to you is doing well. If you’d been born any earlier in history you probably wouldn’t have spoken to that person from your primary school ever again, but now you get to see that they’ve become a seemingly functional adult with a job and a family and very strong opinions about car shopping. Good for them.
The mystery of what happened to people from our past isn’t more valuable than the answer, but we learn things about ourselves by moving forward, by shedding parts of our identity and taking on new elements as we go. Surely it isn’t helpful to see continual written and photographic documentation of all of the earlier strands of your life, as if they’re all still happening right now. The human condition is best served by a fading past, a vivid present and an uncertain future. There is value in drifting away from our past, in having people we know naturally fade into memory.
This isn’t about the dispiriting effect of these reminders: maybe the sight of someone you’ve been in a relationship with is acceptable on an emotional level, but how can you truly get over a person when evidence of them is presented to you by an algorithm every other time you’re waiting for public transport? How can the memory of someone from your past guide you when they still technically exist in your present? The secret to moving forward isn’t to act as if the past never happened, but it also isn’t to proceed as if it is moving along with you. For us to also become functional adults with strong opinions on car shopping then we need to keep the past exactly where it can play the most meaningful role: behind us.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Seven. Illustration by Ana Godis.
My lack of a criminal past owes more to cowardice than an abundance of virtue. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the prospect of rebellion, which made me an unlikely candidate for the task of getting expelled from the British Museum. The plan was hatched to explore unpalatable forms of touch, namely by nuzzling different artefacts until I unleashed an ancient curse/angered someone wearing a lanyard. For my quarry, I selected possibly the most famous space of any museum in the world: Room 4 (Egyptian Sculpture). If I was going to embark on a life of crime, this seemed like a fine place to start. What follows are my notes, scribbled as I dodged tourists and the wrath of Imhotep.
Rosetta Stone (196 BC)
For those with only an hour to spare, the British Museum provides a guide of nine objects all visitors should see. The Rosetta Stone is listed first. Their crowning glory makes an obvious target for devilry, but a knock on the thick glass confirms I’m getting nowhere near it.
Obstacles: Constant crowd, glass case, monumental historical value.
Difficulty level: 9/10
Sarcophagus of Merymose (1380 BC)
Devoid of any advanced “glass” security, the Sarcophagus of Merymose sits in the open, its only hurdle being the Please do not touch sign. As I scope out the joint, a tourist is photographed pretending to lick Merymose’s head. I conclude that touching the sarcophagus will make me literally no different from this buffoon.
Obstacles: Reproachful sign, idiots.
Difficulty level: 6/10
“The Younger Memnon” (1270 BC)
The noble, haunting face of Ramesses II is one of my most-loved pieces in the museum, but rests atop a plinth taller than me. While I could theoretically use the neighbouring “Statue of Roy” to aid my ascension, Roy presumably wouldn’t be pleased.
Obstacles: Personal attachment, statue placed out of reach like a biscuit tin, Roy.
Difficulty level: 8/10
Stela of Ptolemy IX & Cleopatra III (115 BC)
The stela looks like a towering granite fishfinger and stands on a marble block standing on three random bits of wood, as if someone has been playing Jenga with inappropriate pieces. Surely a hearty thwack to the correct spot would topple it – with a lucky aim, I could definitely smush the sarcophagus lid of Padihorhepui, maybe even King Psamtek I’s screen slab. As I wonder whether I can file my copy from jail (do prisons have good wi-fi?), I read the accompanying text. The stela was originally larger but two thirds of it were reused as building materials. It’s suffered enough.
Obstacles: Ancient instance of recycling functioning as contemporary guilt trip.
Difficulty level: 7/10
Colossal scarab (399 BC – 300 BC)
It certainly is a very large scarab. “This is one of the largest representations of scarab beetles to survive”, the caption agrees. Another eye-level piece, the statue depicts the god Khepri as a dung beetle, because sure, why not, and boasts a nearby guard. The conditions are perfect – with his fluorescent tabard the guard means business – so why can’t I strike?
In my research it became clear that touching things in museums, even in the name of dubious scientific research, is foolhardy. Aside from the perils of handling old, fragile materials, when we touch objects our fingertips leave a residue of dirt, sweat, dead skin cells, and sebaceous oils that devastate over time. The British Museum receives seven million visitors’ worth of dead skin yearly.
Infractions here are common but people pet the scarab like it’s an animal. They can’t help themselves. They see something amazing and reach out to touch it. I am reminded of my 8th birthday party when my mother spent hours making an elaborate swimming pool cake. The two-tone gelatine representation of water was so realistic that my friend Oliver felt compelled to poke it, prompting my exhausted mum to instinctively whomp the poor child on the head. Confronted with an ancient statue of an ancient god we are all transformed into children excitedly defiling a swimming pool-themed birthday cake. The action is understandable – we naturally use touch to gather information – but it’s worth at least a whomp.
I retreat to a bench to watch the scarab. It looks beautiful, and I reflect that it has looked beautiful for over two thousand years. It looked beautiful in the temple of Atum in Heliopolis, it looked beautiful in Alexandria, it looked beautiful in Constantinople, and now it looks beautiful in Holborn on a damp Wednesday. If it’s cared for properly it has another few thousand years left in it. Long, long after you and I have disappeared, this absurd, miraculous scarab will be sitting in a museum somewhere, and it will still confound the heart. This is my favourite place in London, perhaps. I hope no-one kicks me out.
Obstacles: Change of mind.
Difficulty level: 10/10
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Seven. Illustration by Jia Dong Lin.
On certain days it’s possible to wake up in a country you don’t quite recognise. From bruising austerity cuts to the spread of nationalism, it hasn’t been the easiest decade to believe in a fairer, more compassionate society. It’s one thing to lose a fight, and another to lose it over and over again. In search of some practical idealism, we spoke to Josie Long – comedian and co-founder of the charity Arts Emergency – about the positive steps that someone can take if current events have left them dispirited.
When you formed Arts Emergency you wrote a manifesto, and its final point said “Optimism is a weapon”. Why do you think optimism is essential?
The notion of not being cynical and resigned doesn’t feel like a mainstream concept. The whole nature of our press and even the national character is “just put up with it”. Much of the discourse in the country and a lot of what it means to be British is to deny yourself the idea that there might be something better out there and that there might be a chance to have a more humane society. Optimism is essential but I also don’t think it’s been an entirely depressing time. I’ve met so many people and been able to join in with things that have given me hope and consolation. If you look at activist organisations that have formed in the last seven years like UK Uncut and Sisters Uncut, they’ve managed to get issues such as inequality and tax evasion onto the news agenda. I’m inspired by people who are managing to effect change on a local level.
How do you think we got to this point?
What’s happened since Thatcher is the erosion of civil society, the erosion of ways that people can feel rooted in their community and useful as participating citizens in the longer term. That’s exacerbated by the housing crisis where young people have to move and move and move, and by pay going down in real terms so people are working harder but have less money. People are desperate and frustrated but they’re also disconnected from one another, and they feel let down by those who represent them. To contest this, I would say the best thing to do is to contribute regularly as part of something, no matter how small or seemingly disconnected from politics. I’m literally talking about joining a local group that helps young people learn how to garden. Anything where you’re engaging with people in a sphere that’s not inherently capitalist is useful to building a society that has different values.
If people are interested in such actions, what should be their first step?
You don’t need to set up your own organisation. A small amount of googling will find something to get involved with that you don’t even need to do the work of starting. It’s hard because services are being cut to the bone, but if you do have any ideas about what might be useful and there aren’t local groups already doing them it might be worth attempting to set them up. If you do have any sort of passions or a desire to work with younger or older people, now is the time to try.
I’d imagine it’s also a way to learn that there are those who share your values?
If you’re looking for enemies you’ll find them and if you’re looking for a fight you’ll find it, but by that same reasoning if you look for friends you’ll find them always. There are wonderful organisations everywhere if you scratch the surface, and the people in them will inspire you and make you feel like you can carry on. There’s a case to be made for caring for each other on a broader level. It’s not enough to say you’ll just look after your family and friends. We all have a responsibility to act as citizens and participate in whatever way we can. There’s a beautiful idea that you should live like you’re already in the early days of a better society.
What advice would you give someone who feels particularly demoralised?
The first thing I’d say is read Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit, which is a really useful book. She says you must “make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit”. Remember that you’re allowed to hold values that are different to your government and you’re not wrong and you’re not insane and you’re not in any way treacherous for wanting to have a kinder society that has values other than extreme capitalism. It’s important, just like with self-care and mental health, to repeat your values to yourself as a positive mantra. Don’t be unrealistic about the composition of the United Kingdom or what politics might mean at the moment. It’s wrong to expect socialism to suddenly romp home to victory when money and power are entrenched, but even though the Conservatives control something like 90% of the British media doesn’t mean that 90% of Britain holds far right views, it just means currently that’s the fight to be won. If regressive beliefs are dominant, that doesn’t mean there will never be room in this country for a social democracy. Things are difficult but you’re not going anywhere. You learn from loss and you try your hardest to regroup. You just have to keep going, because what else are you going to do?
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Seven. Portrait by Ellie Smith.
I am staring up at where the ceiling should be, except the ceiling isn’t there any more. In its place is blackness, and so I stare up at the blackness, at the abyss above my head. Sleep is no longer an acquaintance of mine. Like my old school friends, my former colleagues, my ex-housemates and almost everyone I’ve ever kissed, I have lost touch with sleep. Sleep feels like love: it would be nice, but it’s something that happens to other people now. I turn my pillow over as if that will do something to help.
My thoughts wander in the dark. There’s this thing in my mother’s head that she told me about once, and I thought she was teasing me until I looked it up and sure enough, it happens to other people as well. The thing she has is that she hears music that isn’t there. The synapses in her head fire as if she is listening to a song, but without any actual music to work from her brain just makes up the noises as it goes. A couple of years ago I realised that a version of this was happening to me too. When I am particularly tired I hear voices in my head, in all sorts of accents, saying things that people might say. These phantom sentences have nothing to do with each other, I haven’t heard them spoken aloud before, and they are not interesting, but they rattle on anyway. They start again now, and I pay them little notice.
I stare up at where the ceiling used to be and try to make sense of the darkness. There is not enough light for my eyes to adjust to much of anything. My curtains have been left slightly open, I suspect, as a faint orange crack on the mirror grows in detail. Logically I’m aware that it isn’t night everywhere in the world, or even that everyone nearby is asleep, but it doesn’t feel that way. At this hour it’s just me and the foxes.
Also: the radiator is making a new sound. I don’t know what that’s all about.
There is a place where each of us have lingered but that we rarely discuss. Human life is divided into three discrete sections: being awake, being asleep, and the bit which is both and neither. The latter is where I am writing from. At this exact moment – technically 02:37, but if you told me it was 03:37 or 04:37 I’d also believe you – I am lying in bed, my eyes squinting against the cold glow of my electronic tablet. It is now the only light in the room. The world reduces itself, at this time of night, to individual parts: the sensation of my right foot pushing against my left, the outline of my bookcase, the stray creaks from the radiator, the silence in the other rooms.
I used to live here, in this place. As a child I suffered from chronic low-level insomnia. Eventually I’d fall asleep, but it would take hours upon hours as I became progressively more afraid that I’d never sleep again. I felt guilty, like I was going to fail at school the next day, like school was already happening at that moment and I wasn’t there. The obstacle was that I was unable to switch my brain off. My body had not learned to slow its cognitive functions in the way it’s supposed to when you remove all stimulus and lie down on a comfortable bed in a darkened room. If anything it felt as if those functions were speeding up, thrown into sharp relief against the quiet gloom. Without anything meaningful to fill the gap, I would think about my inability to stop thinking, agonising endlessly as sleep revealed itself to be an impossible concept someone had made up in order to torment me.
This, like other childhood terrors, was a significant problem until the day it left and I virtually forgot about it. I’d still visit that place where everything is still except your mind, but I was only passing through. There was no profit to be had in loitering, surely.
The radiator has stopped making any noise at all, which is probably some kind of sign about the lateness of the hour. I’m trying not to look at the little clock at the top of my screen. It would not be a helpful activity. Anyway. As it’s just you and me, here’s something that I’ve never told anyone before.
Since I was a teenager I’ve maintained a ritual to fall asleep. What I’ll do is curl up into a ball and pull the duvet over every inch of my body, so that no light can enter and no part of me is exposed. Then I will imagine to myself that I am the participant in an urgent, highly-advanced scientific experiment. Perhaps even the fate of all life depends on its outcome, but this isn’t always clear. While dozens of shirted men and women scribble on clipboard nervously and jab pencils in the direction of a bank of monitors, my bed sits in the middle of a cavernous underground complex that a Bond villain probably hires out on the weekends. Every single person across the world is watching on their televisions, a global held breath, as machines clank away and numbers are counted down towards zero. My bed rises towards the ceiling and in that final moment, something impossible happens: everything outside of the duvet vanishes.
The universe has gone. Not only that, but it has never existed at all. I scrunch up my toes as I experience the entirety of time and space. This turns out to be a comfort beyond most others. Nothing bad has ever happened. Nothing is complicated or difficult. No-one has ever had an unkind thought about me, or fallen out of love with me, or been annoyed by or disappointed in me. From this position of cosmic solitude I’m aware that I’ll be able to bring the universe back later, and the world will be better for what’s happened, but until then there is just me, and beyond that, the void.
It doesn’t take much effort to understand what I find soothing about this scenario. It’s a fantasy I tell myself in which any worries I might have are erased from my life, and I am somehow feted for this. It isn’t just the nullification of the universe that provides solace: sometimes I imagine I’m on a raft floating down a river through black countryside at night, the only light coming from the pinpricks of stars overhead. I don’t believe the condition is unique to me; it isn’t the result of distress about my circumstances but instead comes from commonplace anxiety of the kind that naturally accumulates through the day. As we lie in our beds, we all attempt to shed our daily concerns so that we’re free to get a restful night’s sleep. Why else would we sleep alone or just with a loved one, covered up in the most private space in our home? Why else would we switch the lights off? We create a situation where the world disappears for a little while – I just happen to visualise the process. If my brain is going to trample ahead unimpeded, I may as well get something out of it.
“Resist the temptation to stay up all night writing before watching the sun rise with a cigarette”, our lecturer Ian warned us, “it’s not romantic and your work won’t be any good.” He was attempting to stop us delaying our essays until the final minute and esteeming bleary relief over the benefit of patiently constructed work. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. In the fevered stretch before any deadline, the library would transform into an impromptu class party: even if you had finished your work, you would be tempted to visit just to be where the (critical film theory) action was.
In contrast to my peers, I mostly followed Ian’s advice, give or take a night where I’d spent 17p on two litres of own brand cola and go to town on Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. This wouldn’t last. Much like my student loan debt, I brought writing deadlines along with me when I graduated from university. As my professional life grew around delivering quantities of words by specific, always impending dates, all-nighters became a part of my emergency writing kit, a toothbrush stashed in the side compartment of a rucksack. While I’m sure my lecturer was right that 19-year-old students shouldn’t procrastinate until the night before their deadlines (although they always will), there is value in working when the rhythms of life have slowed.
In his non-fiction book On Writing, Stephen King states that you should write “with the door closed”, a goal that’s increasingly difficult when the terrifying world news doesn’t end and a device hums softly in your pocket every few minutes. What I’ve found in these long late-night sessions is not the agitation of my youthful bedroom or the mad panic of the study hall, but a strange sort of calm. At night, the phone is in no danger of ringing. I’ve said farewell to my housemate. Everyone I know on twitter has gone to bed, and if I wait long enough, all of the Americans will go to bed too. E-mails stop arriving in my inbox, even the press releases and the spam. The distractions and the excuses fall away in equal measure.
This is not a new discovery. I’ve accidentally stolen a book from a former colleague on the daily rituals of the famous dead, and many of them were similarly drawn to the small hours. Marcel Proust wrote exclusively in bed while lying horizontally, his head propped up by pillows (Proust also lived off of two cups of coffee and one or two croissants every day, and that certainly will not do for me.) But as someone who spent their childhood trembling at the notion of a place which isn’t asleep or awake, it’s a revelation to find myself welcome here. As the world reduces itself to individual parts, eventually there’s just me and a blank screen, with seemingly all the time I need to fill it. The universe has gone, and I’m ready to begin.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Six. Photograph by Laura Ward.
It’s possible to wake up one day and completely change the world. Yes! We have it within us to see something amiss in society and to find a way to set things right. It’s why tyrants eventually fall and justice ultimately prevails: as a people we possess the capacity for action, for solidarity, for transformation. For every hard-fought strike, advance in civil rights or inspiring act of progressive defiance, however, there are those other occasions when it might have been wiser to not bother at all.
Paying Weezer to quit
When it comes to our favourite groups, the best always seems to be behind us: the strange new album with its strange new songs can’t possibly compare to the one we’ve lived with for years. Indie band Weezer have suffered from a notably acute version of this phenomenon, consistently upsetting fans since around 1996. 14 years on from that early apogee, Seattle-based grouch James Burns attempted to raise $10 million to convince them to call it quits, writing in his online proposal: “I beg you, Weezer. Take our money and disappear”. The band said they’d do it for $20 million, but regrettably for James the campaign only raised a few hundred dollars. Weezer are currently working on their disappointing 11th album.
Overthrowing George II
It isn’t easy to rebel against your own government. Historically most insurrections end in bloodshed and failure, and even if you do evict your ruler there’s a reasonable chance you’ll end up as much of a despot as they were. If you’re planning sedition, then, you’d better have good reasons. Charles Edward Stuart did not. In 1745 “Bonnie Prince Charlie” challenged George II’s throne believing that it belonged to his family, but failed after making tactical errors during the Battle of Culloden. A century later Jacobitism experienced a romantic revival, but essentially it was one aristocrat trying to replace another. Defeated, Charlie fled Britain disguised as a maid called Betty Burke. People were apparently easier to fool in the 1700s.
Electing a monkey
Hartlepool has a weird thing about monkeys. During the Napoleonic Wars – so goes the exquisitely bizarre, almost certainly apocryphal story – a French warship sank off the town’s coast, with its only survivor being a monkey dressed in full military uniform. Assumed to be a Frenchman, the simian was duly tried in court and hung as a spy. In tribute to this historic injustice, Hartlepool F.C. decided to make their mascot “H’Angus the monkey”. H’Angus fared better than his inspiration by being elected as mayor of the town on a platform of free bananas for schoolchildren. Stuart Drummond, the man inside the monkey, swiftly ditched the costume and served three terms despite failing to deliver on his banana pledge.
Constructing a Death Star
It’s extraordinary what people can accomplish when they get together. Please note that the word “extraordinary” does not necessarily mean good, or even halfway-sensible. In a valiant, misguided attempt to give its citizens a voice on important issues, the U.S. government launched a platform in 2011 for creating online petitions: if one garnered over 25,000 signatures it would receive a White House response. Inevitably, silliness ensued, as 34,400 people signed a petition asking for a Death Star to be built in the interests of national security. A government official – it’s possible they weren’t treating the matter with utmost seriousness – politely refused, explaining that it’d cost around $850 quadrillion and also “the Administration does not support blowing up planets”.
Repealing New Coke
Emotional attachment to grocery items runs deep, as anyone who is still calling them them Opal Fruits (19 years later) will tell you. A prime example: in 1985 consumers responded furiously when Coca-Cola’s formula was updated in order to keep up with sweeter rival Pepsi. Even though taste tests suggested a preference for the new version, executives hadn’t counted on the power of lifetime habits. The endeavour was considered one of the biggest marketing disasters of all time, and 77 days after the launch “Coca-Cola Classic” was deployed to soothe nostalgic customers, eventually displacing New Coke altogether. In a delicious twist, ingredient changes had been rolled out over the previous few years, so it wasn’t quite the same drink as before anyway.
Voting yourself out of existence
Many things that can arouse an existential crisis: a depressing tax return, reaching a particular age, an old classmate’s facebook post, 20 minutes in Primark. Unless you once lived in Castlewood, Virginia, though, it’s rare for dark nights of the soul to be caused by a ballot initiative. Faced with heavy taxes after the population dropped from 20,000 to 9,000 over a decade, council members proposed a de-chartering measure that would see the town absorbed by the larger Russell County. “There are more cows than people around these parts” said a councilman, presumably before sighing heavily. 749 residents voted for, 622 against, and Castlewood officially ceased to exist. At last count its population was 2,045. The message is clear: referendums are terrible.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Six. Illustrations by Jessica Wheeler.
The programme was called Mean Town. Pearl Mackie hadn’t heard of it before, but had been asked by her agent if she might be available. Since leaving drama school five years earlier she’d mostly performed at fringe theatres, but a lengthy spell in the West End production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time suggested that she was ready to move on to the next stage in her career. Mean Time, she would soon learn, was an anagram of “Woman Ten”, which was itself a codename for Bill Potts, the name of the eponymous Time Lord’s next companion in the tenth series of Doctor Who.
Pearl was to become well-acquainted with elaborate acts of subterfuge; few television programmes invite as much speculation as Doctor Who, a genuine national institution over fifty years into its run. Suddenly the word “unknown” was being attached to every description of her in the press, and she was sequestered in Cardiff for ten months to film the series. When we meet she is only weeks from the end of her marathon shoot, exhausted but palpably excited. “I just can’t wait for people to meet Bill,” she says, meaning it, “She’s the kind of person I’d want to be friends with. I think she’s awesome, but I’m probably biased because she’s me.”
More than most programmes, people are hungry to find out what’s going on in Doctor Who. What’s it like to work on something for almost a year under intense scrutiny?
Everyone wants to know about it. Friends keep asking me what’s happening, begging me to send them pictures. It can be difficult when you come home from work and you’ve had an amazing day, filming something really cool, and you want to tell someone but you can’t. I’ve gotten very good at discussing the show in non-specific terms, so I can explain without giving anything away. I just hate spoilers. My cousin used to tell me the ends of movies all the time. Five minutes into the film she’d say, “Oh I’ve seen this, he dies”. I’ve just started watching it! Now what do I do – should I carry on watching, knowing that this poor man is going to die? It ruins the experience.
How far in advance did you learn what would be happening?
We get the scripts episode by episode, which has actually been great. It’s something I’ve never experienced before: when you’re in a play you know the whole story from beginning to end, but one of the best things about this job is that I don’t know what’s going to happen next. As a real person I don’t know what’s going to happen to me tomorrow, so it’s interesting to have the same thing with a character, to gradually build on her over time. Very occasionally though there’s something you read and you think, ah, I didn’t know about that, if I had I would have put it in earlier!
Did you feel any pressure about joining such a well-established show?
I’d watched a few episodes, bits and bobs, but Doctor Who was never a massive part of my life. I’m 29 so I didn’t grow up with it. The show came back when I was about 16, and pretty much the only thing I watched back then was The O.C., in bed on Sundays. When I got the job I said, “okay, give me the back catalogue, let me watch it all”, but they told me no. Bill doesn’t know anything about that world, so they liked the idea that I was discovering it all at the same time as her. Also, it’s hard as an actor to watch a brilliant performance and not subconsciously take a little bit from it. If I watched any of the previous companions, who are all fantastic actresses, I’d struggle to not emulate some parts of their performances within my own, especially as they’d be in similar situations. I thought maybe it’s best not to do that for now, and when I’m finished I can binge-watch the whole thing.
You’re from South London, so is it helpful to film away from home?
It really is. I’m mainly able to head back at weekends but I do get homesick sometimes. It’s useful though because during the week I can put my head down and work hard, which I need because I have to be up at twenty past five every morning. At night I get in and have a bath, eat dinner, learn my lines and go to bed, so it’s handy to not be distracted by my mates wanting to go out for food, or they’re doing something and want me to join them. Even swinging by for an hour would be scary. “I’ve got to get back, it’s past my bedtime!” I’ve become Cinderella.
Was it an adjustment to act in an effects-heavy TV programme after mostly working on stage?
There’s a myth that you have to act smaller for camera. You can be quieter as you don’t have to project to the back of the auditorium, but there’s definitely room for subtlety on stage and broad emotional work on screen. The way my performance has changed regarding the technical aspects is that I didn’t really know what I was doing before! Peter Capaldi has been very helpful with that. He’s so experienced, it’s fascinating seeing the difference in his work: his performance looks great in real life but then you see it on screen and it’s phenomenal. I’ve learned to use camera angles – how to hit marks and tailor my acting to the frame they’re using. If it’s a close-up then you don’t want to do stuff that’s too big because it’s distracting. By the end of the first block, six weeks in, I’d probably done more consecutive hours of filming than lots of my friends who’ve been doing television episodes for years. I feel like I’ve learned my craft in front of the camera. But I haven’t seen it yet, so don’t take my word for it.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Six. Portrait by Liz Seabrook.
You die on a Tuesday, which surprises you for several reasons. Over the years before that fateful weekday you had generally avoided contemplating the circumstances which might prompt your untimely demise, but even if you had given it some thought, you certainly wouldn’t have anticipated that your death would come from tripping into the road after failing to tie your shoelaces. This was, after all, something that your mother had explicitly warned you about. In retrospect you’re lucky to have made it this far without dying elaborately as a result of not tidying your bedroom.
Before the enormity of the change sinks in, you find that you are slightly excited to be dead. It had not been in your plans for the week. Logically you understood that it would happen eventually, but in a small, unconquerable bit of your heart you always secretly believed that you would never actually die. Now that you have perished, it is like you’ve prematurely seen the final episode of a television programme that everyone is obsessed with. It was neither as painful nor as scary as you might have feared. It was not even the worst thing to ever happen to you. You have definitely had breakups worse than your own death.
You leave your body in the street and continue on with your day. It does not take long to adapt to the new reality of your existence. The closest you come to sadness is a passing concern that you should be feeling more sad than you are. Your death was just another part of your life, you understand now. What is unexpected however is that you are given no guidance about what to do next. This is much the same as during life, you suppose, but you had been conditioned to expect at least a brief consultation with some manner of celestial administrator. Even in death, you are still essentially on your own, and while this doesn’t upset you, it does leave you with a lot of time on your hands. It is probably not worth going to work any more, and your social calendar has emptied dramatically.
The sudden lack of a corporeal form is difficult. You spend a fruitless afternoon in a local library trying to read over people’s shoulders, but they are either too slow or too quick for you, and you soon lose patience. Cinemas and museums are better, and you discover that you now possess a level of attention that was previously absent when there was a million things to worry about. You rarely visit figures from your life: it is hard to see them upset, and almost as hard to see them happy. As fatigue has ceased being an issue, you cultivate an interest in hiking. Perhaps it might be fun to walk to another country, you think, although if you didn’t like the area then the return journey would take ages. You’re not sure if this is going to be it, forever, or if this is just a stage like the ones that came before, but you do know that you should probably come up with a plan. On balance, you mostly wasted your life; you do not want to waste your death as well.
What do you do next?
When we think about physical performance, we have a tendency to ignore the journey in favour of the result: how much, how high, how long, how fast. A career of effort, persistence and ambition can be judged on milliseconds, but a sporting life isn’t just measured by one’s personal best or the number of medals on the shelf.
As the theme of this issue is strength, we decided to speak to four women who are dedicating their lives to physical excellence. Although their pursuits and stories differ greatly, they’re each united by the same determination, the same bloodymindedness, the same audacious grit.
Megan Giglia, Paralympic track cyclist
Achievements: C3 world records in 3km Individual Pursuit and 500m Time Trial, gold at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Individual Pursuit, gold in Individual Pursuit and Time Trial at the 2016 Para-cycling Track World Championship, and an MBE for services to cycling.
How did you become interested in cycling? In January 2013 I had a brain haemorrhage that resulted in a massive stroke. I have issues with memory and co-ordination and my physical abilities, as well as other neurological problems and epilepsy. I used the bike originally just to get movement back in my right side. It was a way of handling my emotions: when I wasn’t ready to deal with them I’d blast it out on the road. Six months later I considered doing it competitively. My pre-stroke relationship broke down and I ended up cycling 120 miles to a friend’s house with my foot tied to the pedal and my hand tied to the handlebar. I don’t know how I made it there alive. My friend’s mum had terminal cancer, and she told me I couldn’t let others hold me back, that I should find something and take it all the way. I’ve always loved sports – I used to coach – and it’s the one part of me that’s stayed the same. The routine and structure of competition gave me a focus and a new beginning.
What was hardest about the experience? That period, where I’d gone from being completely fine, able-bodied as they call it, having my job, my family, a life around me, and suddenly I’d lost it all and had to create a new past. I couldn’t remember family members’ names, or what I liked, and I couldn’t taste so didn’t even know what food I enjoyed. You have to relearn so much about yourself, and because it’s not something I was born with, I had to work out what was wrong as well. It took two to three years to be able to say, “this is who I am”, rather than always refer to who I was. I call myself Megan the Second now.
What do you enjoy most about cycling? I strive for competition. When you go into the competitive environment it’s a breath of fresh air because it’s about what you can do rather than what you can’t. There’s a quote I like: ‘I’m not what happened to me, I’m what I choose to become.’ Within my C3 category, everyone is there because they cycle. They just want to pedal their bikes.
Have you had to make any sacrifices? You’ve got to be completely professional, focused solely on what you’re doing. It can become unhealthily addictive, and I’m definitely addicted to my sport. It becomes your life. Before Rio I had a partner for two years who I met after my stroke. I never thought I’d find someone who’d love and accept me for who I was, but I actually ended that relationship in order to progress. I didn’t have time for it and couldn’t give her what she needed, and I needed to focus on being the best I could be. You sacrifice so much. Sports is very selfish and I’m beginning to realise that, but I’ve got a better balance now. I have a new partner who’s very supportive and we’re dealing with things as they come along.
What are your goals for the future? I’m hoping to go to World Championships this year in Los Angeles, but we’ll see what happens. I’ve got a long way to go before I’m the best. I’ve got a Paralympic gold and two world records, but that doesn’t mean I’m the best cyclist. There are still so many technical skills I can improve on. I love what I do and that’s the only way I’ll get better. The day I stop loving cycling is the day I stop.
Emily Ackner, multi-sport athlete
Achievements: Completed solo 300-mile run across Cornwall in 12 days, founder of challenge-focused coaching programme Fit for That.
How did you get into an active lifestyle? From a young age I played a huge amount of sports. As I got older, I started skiing and snowboarding and got into coaching. Growing up in Cornwall, nature has always been at the forefront of everything I want to do and create. I like having an outdoor life.
What’s the toughest thing about training? I’ve had to become a morning person. You need to commit to days when it’s raining and horrible and sometimes you might not want to get out of bed, but that’s part of it. If you weren’t able to get through those tougher moments then the joy and celebration of actually completing a challenge wouldn’t be as sweet. If it was easy then you wouldn’t feel like you’d accomplished anything.
What do you enjoy most about it? You discover things about yourself. I love how it feels to push myself physically in the moment of taking a challenge. There’s real focus and clarity that you get from that time, be it on the road, on the trail, or in the open water. You can use your body as a vehicle for fun and adventure rather than just pleasing people with how you look. I want to lead an active life and to ensure through training that my body is strong enough to keep me going. From a coaching perspective, I want to help grow a community of women who enjoy exploring but also are mindful of putting in the work.
Have you had to make any sacrifices? If you’ve chosen something you’re passionate about then it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. My lifestyle has changed greatly over the last few years as I’ve prioritised fitness and that’s not something I regret. It doesn’t feel like it’s one or the other for me.
What are your goals for the future? I’m very much of the mindset that it’s easier to work towards a specific goal if you set yourself a big challenge. Over the last couple of years I’ve focused on endurance challenges which incorporate exploration so there’s something of a journey to be had both metaphorically and physically in getting to the finish line. I like to have one big physical challenge that I can do in a year that revolves around logistical planning, so this year I’m travelling across Croatia with a group of cyclists to raise money for a refugee cause – I’m going to swim 50 miles up the coast of Croatia, cycle from Trieste down to Dubrovnik, swim 50 miles back up and then finish with a 48km mountain race in Italy. Having a training focus like that keeps me going in the bleak winter months. That’s the main thing I’d advocate to anyone – have a goal that excites you. It’s a sure-fire way to ensure that you take the time to commit.
Maëva Berthelot, contemporary dancer
Achievements: Founding member of dance, live music and video collective Collectif Larsen, six years as a full-time member of the Hofesh Shechter Company, work with choreographers including Wayne McGregor and Emanuel Gat.
How did you become interested in dance? I started dancing when I started walking. I was always a very active child and gave anything a try. I had the schedule of a prime minister, and grew up surrounded by contemporary dancers. My mum taught dance, in a very different way from how I do now. It wasn’t strictly dance, but working with little humans to encourage movement and play. I spent Saturdays and Wednesdays at her best friend’s dance school. From nine in the morning until nine at night, going to every single class. It became more focused when I turned ten – I started doing half school, half dance, taking classes for people that wanted to become dance teachers – it was just me and lots of adults.
What’s the toughest thing about it? It’s not physically demanding so much as it’s exhausting. If you’re a full-time member of a dance company you don’t get a minute for yourself. You perform the work again and again, you tour again and again, and when you don’t perform you’re teaching or rehearsing. To be honest it’s been tricky. I could say it’s always fantastic but even as a teacher I try to make my students aware that it’s a hard job. There’s very little recognition or financial reward, so you do it for the love, and the level of commitment and dedication is something else. You work 365 days a year and you’re devoting all your time and energy. You don’t really have a life outside of the company. It’s been hard for me to sustain friendships and relationships.
What do you enjoy most about dancing? It demands everything but the feelings you experience, they’re amazing. My love for it has definitely gone up and down: when your passion becomes a routine it’s easily killable. It’s a daily challenge to make it fresh, to keep something spontaneous and honest in the work. That’s mainly why I teach. In a company, the dimension of enjoyment isn’t what you focus on. You don’t have fun, you work. You work hard. So my class is the opposite. I don’t necessarily teach a style, but try to help people find themselves in dance. Everything is connected to that first feeling when you started dancing, to those bursts of pleasure in movement. Sometimes you have to train to get that love back.
What are your goals for the future? I’m taking this year to do personal projects that I’ve always wanted to try. I feel like I need to work with movement in a different context – video art, photography, film. The dance audience, I know how to play with them, how to grasp their attention. I want to start working in a new way. After 30 years of focusing so much on one craft, it’s time to make sure I don’t fall asleep. I just want to start playing again. I want to keep on challenging myself, to keep learning and growing. I’m in a period of reconnecting with pure creative enjoyment.
Sorrell Walsh, marathon runner
Achievements: Completed five ultra marathons and 15 marathons with a sub-three hour personal best, co-founder of running crew Still Waters Run Deep and women’s collective WMN RUN.
How did you get into running? About five years ago my brother was training for the London Marathon, and I wondered why on earth was he going out running for 20 miles at a time. I was always active at school and then had a stagnant period through college, so I tried a one-mile loop near my parents’ house. I dry heaved the first time I did it but started to build up from there.
What do you enjoy most about it? For me running is about so many things but it gives me balance: if I don’t feel great one day I can go for a run and come back feeling better. I like the feeling that I’m achieving more out of life. Running is a physical activity but it’s very much a mental experience as well. If I achieve something with my own body I never thought I could, then I can apply that to other areas. I’m not saying I can become an astronaut, but it does open your mind up to possibilities of life, career or anything really. If there’s something I think I can’t do, maybe I am able to achieve it.
Have you had to make any sacrifices? I don’t feel like they’re sacrifices. I can always find more hours in the day; if I’m busy, maybe I’ll get some running done at lunchtime. I enjoy juggling life like that. Then again, when I’m home for Christmas and my family are all around, I feel like I have to get my work out in the morning because if I’m running all day it’s not fair to them. Sometimes it can be a bit of a strain but that’s my own responsibility. No-one’s forcing me to do this. If I want to get somewhere then I have to keep at it.
What are your goals for the future? It’s good to have lofty goals – whether I reach them or not depends on what I can actually achieve. I’d love to do the UltraTrail du Mont-Blanc, and the Bob Graham Round challenge in the Lake District, and in my lifetime I’d like to get a marathon time of 2:45. At the moment I’m trying to get faster, so I’ve got a coach now which is really exciting. Place and landscape is a big part of why I enjoy running so I’ve done marathons to see a new place or visit a new city: for instance, last year I ran the Sierra Leone marathon. The media portrays it as a place you should be scared to visit, let alone run around, but actually it was incredible. I’ve never met people who are so welcoming, even though they don’t have much. I only learned that by going. The temperature was about 35 degrees, but it’s more the humidity. You can’t naturally cool down so you have to watch your own body. Not that I would expect to get heatstroke, but they don’t have life support machines there. Obviously that’s a risk, but a lot of running is knowing your own body and your limits. And then pushing them.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Five. Portraits by Liz Seabrook.
The reed bends with the wind, so says the parable, while the oak tree breaks in the storm. This is a lesson about flexibility in turbulent times, or possibly about effective arboreal care, but it also argues that there are different kinds of strength. You don’t need to pull a boxcar with a rope or throw a beer keg over a beam to be strong. If you want to win World’s Strongest Man then you should definitely do these things, otherwise, remember that fortitude manifests in the most surprising places.
We are prejudiced by the limits of our own perspective. If an ant was the same size as an elephant, we’d recognise that they are incredible creatures, shortly before running away in terror. This would be unsuccessful as there are over 100 trillion of the sugar-loving creeps. In terms of power-to-weight ratio, the 47 species of leafcutter ant in the Americas are some of Earth’s strongest animals, capable of carrying leaves more than 50 times their own body weight. They feed these leaves to a fungus which they have carefully domesticated over a period of 30 million years, in order to sustain a colony containing millions of burly, tiny farmers. More impressive still is that they carry this remarkable weight in their jaws, which must be really annoying when you consider it.
The idea of “hysterical strength” grew from legend: Ireland’s mythological Cú Chulaind underwent a frenzy called a warp spasm while Norse Beserkers, devoted to a bear cult, supposedly charged howling into battle without mail-coats. Contemporary examples are less furious: in 2015, 19-year-old Charlotte Heffelmire lifted a burning pick-up truck to rescue her pinned father then drove it away on its three remaining tyres. Such acts aren’t quite superhuman – to briefly raise the end of a vehicle is extraordinary but not physically unfeasible – yet they are no less stunning for that. For all our problems, it is comforting to live in a world that produces 5ft 6in teenagers brave and selfless enough to lift flaming trucks when someone’s in danger.
London had a rough 17th century. After the turmoil of civil war and devastation from four major Black Death epidemics came the unimaginatively-titled Great Fire of London, which robbed 70,000 of its 80,000 plague-survivor residents of their homes. Staple Inn, built in 1585 to train and house legal professionals, was one of the few buildings to withstand the catastrophe, escaping the fire by metres. Over the following 350 years it would also survive direct hits from several Luftwaffe bombs, constant citywide development and the brief popularity of Noel’s House Party. Today Staple Inn hosts meetings for the body representing actuaries: it’s a testament to the building’s tenacity that it has endured so much for so long and still remains fundamentally boring.
A wedge (also: Milo of Croton)
Admittedly, Milo of Croton’s presence here seems anomalous. Far from being unexpectedly strong, the wrestler was famed for his physical prowess, winning six Olympic titles. Like many illustrious athletes in ancient Greece, Milo’s capabilities were exaggerated to semi-divine levels: one story involves him carrying a calf on his back every day until it became a full-grown – and presumably rather grumpy – bull. His appearance is instead warranted by his demise. Out walking, Milo saw a tree trunk split by a wedge. On attempting to cleave the trunk to prove his vigour, the wedge fell, trapping his hand. He was subsequently eaten by wolves. In one of the silliest, and therefore greatest, deaths in ancient history, Greece’s champion was bested by a bit of wood.
There is nothing about oobleck that doesn’t sound made up. This simple mixture of cornflour and water is named after a havok-causing slime in a Dr. Seuss story and is the cousin of mayonnaise, lava, blood and cement slurry. Its properties are where thing get truly suspicious: as a non-newtonian fluid, oobleck acts either like a solid or a liquid depending on the force acting upon it. You can slowly dip a finger into it, but if you try to jab it then the ridiculous substance will fight back. Oobleck is often used as a educational tool with hip teachers walking on it or slathering it on subwoofers, whereupon the force of low-frequency sound waves causes it to dance (if your definition of dancing is to judder around wildly, which mine is). One day, oobleck will surely enslave us all.
Hear me out. There is honour in accomplishing gruelling yet entirely pointless tasks. Perhaps while standing on one foot (at just the right angle to seem like he was levitating) magician David Blaine became interested in undertaking feats of endurance, which was strange given that people would obviously assume trickery was involved. His most famous effort was spending 44 days, for no good reason at all, inside a plexiglass box suspended by the Thames. For a short blessed spell in 2003, a whole city united in good-humoured bafflement. Crowds gathered daily. Paul McCartney showed up to see what the fuss was about. A reporter used a remote-controlled helicopter to taunt Blaine with a hovering cheeseburger. It was a simpler, better time.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Five. Illustrations by Rose Wong.
In the introduction to Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body, Sara Pascoe writes, “I’m not attempting to be the last word in a conversation, I just want to be part of it, and then I’ll sit back and listen some more”. The statement is beautiful but unnecessary: at every turn in the book, the comedian demonstrates an inquisitiveness towards subjects that tend to make people dogmatic. Existing in the space between memoir and scientific non-fiction, Animal explores love, the female body and consent from an evolutionary and sociological perspective, using bracingly honest examples from Sara’s own life. Miraculously, it is somehow also very funny. Sara sat down with us to discuss her work.
Why did you decide to create a book rather than another stand-up set?
In 2014 I was writing a show that was about all of the inherited things that you take into a new relationship, which was happening to me at the time. You have these three kinds of history: your own relationship history, your parents’ relationship and then genetic inheritance, what we’re conditioned to do. I was researching and kept finding things out that I wished I’d learned as a teenager or child, but what’s frustrating about comedy is that if something doesn’t have a punchline it’s difficult to find a legitimate reason for saying it on stage. I was going to do an entirely non-fiction scientific book, and then I thought that although personal stories are utterly subjective – the exact opposite of science – there could be a balance between the two. When we read a book, we filter it through our own lives and experience. The ones we really love feel like an amazing counselling session: you understand things about yourself.
What was the writing process like?
It mutated a lot. I originally had 10 chapter headings which would each be a part of the body. I wanted to do one on the clitoris, the vulva, the brain, but it became a complicated way of organising it. This is what people who want to write a book and haven’t should remember: writing is really messy, you just only see the final version. I wrote 20,000 words on karaoke that was never used, but it was a breakthrough because I realised I had personal things to say, and some of them wouldn’t be relevant but I needed to get them out of my system. With stand-up you always think your fear is the audience saying horrible things. What you realise when you’re alone is that you heckle yourself constantly. The thing you have to battle is your own lack of self-belief, the voice saying you’re not good enough. You have to shout back: “Shut up you! I’m going to do it anyway. You don’t have to read it!”
There’s a lot of equivocation in Animal: you always take pains to mention that it’s just your experience and doesn’t stand for all women. Why was that important?
My hackles rise when I read other people not doing it. We all make the mistake of projecting our subjectivity onto everyone, and in feminism that’s a real problem. It’s meant there are women who feel unsupported by other feminists, especially women who aren’t born into female bodies. I’ve written a book about female bodies, and so I had to make sure I was inclusive. My insecurity was also at the idea that a 40-year-old man would read it. Have I convinced him too? It forced me to ensure my arguments were sound, to stop a passive aggressive guy saying “well, what about this?” I always answered that question for him.
Were you surprised by any responses you received?
I’ve not really dealt with them. This is a helpful thing I’ve learned from stand-up. I thought at some point I would harden, that I’d get used to negative comments, and also positive ones where you’re misinterpreted, but I haven’t. So I’ve really protected myself, otherwise those bad sentences tattoo themselves onto your brain. Once someone tweeted about how I had a grating laugh on panel shows, and now every time I do one, at some point I’ll hear myself laugh and remember – oh, I’ve got a grating laugh. I’ll think I shouldn’t be laughing. I get in my head and that’s a place where you need to do the opposite. The internet is a door you can close, and you can choose what comes through to you.
The book argues that many of our evolutionary instincts that have developed over millennia are unsuitable for the modern world. Do you feel that this encompasses the internet?
Well, the dopamine cycle in the brain goes crazy with messages. Dopamine is essentially a chemical incentive to do things: our brain rewards us for making new social connections because that’s a sign of strength in the tribal group, and it does the same when we learn new information so we can avoid danger and stay alive. On the internet those two things are happening all the time, so we get depletion and need bigger hits. It’s an addiction circuit like any other drug that releases dopamine. Scientists did an experiment with chickens: you can train a chicken so they peck a button a certain number of times and get some corn, but if you make it a random number then the chicken pecks forever because it’s addicted to the process. It isn’t a regular pattern so they can’t walk away, because it never knows when the corn’s coming. That’s the same thing with checking e-mails. When I used to have wi-fi on my phone, every few days I’d get an exciting e-mail about work, but then I was checking my phone every 20 seconds, getting sad at the weekends because nothing was arriving. It’s a personal journey though. I would never tell anyone how to use their phones, especially if you get pleasure from it. It’s only if it starts to wear you down, or you feel depressed and you think one of the things affecting you might be that you’re getting your dopamine from a tiny computer rather than from people.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Four. Photograph by Clare Hewitt.
The end of the line. The final stop. This bus terminates here. There is a place where each of us is heading, a biological inevitability built into our cells. Just about the only sure thing concerning life is that it will end, and this makes cheating death the ultimate defiance of nature: to return from the grave is typically to become a messiah or the monster in a horror movie. Unless you happen to be a revenant, then, you need to get creative in order to escape your certain fate.
While the 19th century fear of premature burial was disproportionately widespread, there were enough real incidents to unsettle. Contemporary newspapers reported that on a July afternoon in 1894, Undertaker Jones and his assistant James were taking a coffin to their hearse. Its occupant Eleanor Markham had died two days earlier, and yet James claimed to hear noises. “You shut your flannel mouth, will you?” Jones told his colleague. “She is alive,” James replied. “Don’t you hear her knocking?” “Let us carry her as far as the hearse anyway”, the undertaker instructed but the family, by now aware of the commotion, ordered the coffin open. The attending doctor told the not-dead Eleanor to calm down. “It is a mistake easily rectified.”
The terror skink
Perhaps in an effort to avoid the limelight that comes from having the greatest name of any lizard, in 1876 the terror skink vanished. Native to a single islet in the Pacific, the reptile was considered extinct until its rediscovery in 1993. Accordingly it’s known as a Lazarus taxon, a species that disappears from the fossil record before reappearing again. In this the skink is not alone. Dozens of species have also faked their own deaths: the cahow was thought extinct for 330 years before 18 pairs were founding nesting on an uninhabited rock, while the Bermuda land snail disappeared sometime in the 1970s before a colony was found in an alleyway in 2014, presumably getting up to no good.
Saint Oran of Iona
European folklore is giddy with undead countesses surprising grave-robber sextons and dead peasants carrying their own coffins through the streets, but few tales conclude as deliciously as Saint Oran’s. Along with companion Saint Columba, the missionary tried to build a chapel on Iona’s ancient pagan burial site, but each attempt failed. A voice told Oran that a living man needed to be buried in the foundations, and so he agreed to be entombed. Days later, though, he stuck his head out of the ground, unhappily declaring “There is no such great wonder in death, nor is Hell or Heaven what it has been described.” Aghast, Columba reburied his companion, exclaiming in Gaelic, “Earth, earth on Oran’s eyes, lest he further blab”.
“Maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” Bruce Springsteen once sang, but then he also said “Go-kart Mozart was checkin’ out the weather chart” so you can’t take him entirely at his word. It’s possible however that he was referring to the wood frog, which withstands extreme winter conditions to return from death. By using glucose and urea as cryoprotectants, the amphibian can survive for months at a time with two thirds of its body frozen. You can argue whether a frog who isn’t breathing, whose kidneys are no longer functioning and whose heart has stopped beating is actually dead or not, but you cannot deny that whoever came up with the term “frogsicle” deserves every zoology prize going.
“I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the Western world”, read the inscription underneath Timothy Dexter’s statue. He was not a philosopher. The exceedingly eccentric Dexter, who stumbled into fortune after fortune, had commissioned 39 statues of great Americans on his estate and one of himself for good measure. His most infamous action – aside from his 1802 memoir A Pickle for the Knowing Ones (devoid of punctuation and entirely misspelled) – was faking his death to discover how his peers felt about him. 3,000 mourners attended the funeral as Dexter watched from below the floorboards, but he furiously dropped the ruse when his long-suffering wife appeared insufficiently upset.
Just who exactly do jellyfish think they are? What gives them the nerve? Virtually all organisms on this planet are subject to senescence, the deterioration of function over time. If you don’t get killed by a predator, succumb to a disease or tumble drunkenly into a wheat thresher then your body eventually ages and expires. It’s difficult, but those are the rules. They are firm but fair. Several species of the turritopsis genus, on the other hand, have somehow gotten the idea into their jellied heads that it’s acceptable to revert to the polyp stage using transdifferentiation, replenishing their cells and rendering themselves biologically immortal. What do they do with all that extra time? Nothing. Jellyfish can’t even read, the idiots.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Four. Illustrations by Sam Dunn.
“Jason, can you hear me?”, I said to the empty bedroom. “Are you there?”
Apparently I was not. I got up from my seat, plodded to the doorway. “Jason, I am giving you a sign. This is what the sign looks like.” I shook my arms around like I was trying to flag down an ice cream van, but the corridor remained stubbornly empty. “You’re remaining stubbornly empty”, I told it.
I’ve never had much of an aptitude for materialising on cue. Venturing to a new place inevitably results in me getting lost, so why did I think this occasion would be any different? If I struggle to find bus stops and unfamiliar pubs then what chance did I have locating a hallway years in the past? I’d probably overshot the landing. Right now I was somewhere in the late 90s, trying to warn people not to buy polyphonic ringtones.
I checked my bedroom again, just to be sure, and my subsequent sigh was heard by no-one. It all made sense. Of course I’d be an unpunctual time traveller.
When I was young I didn’t dream of becoming a teacher, veterinarian or engine driver. The first thing I ever wanted to be when I grew up was a time traveller. Having now traversed a few decades in slow motion, it’s clear that what I really wanted to be was Dr Sam Beckett, the compassionate, funny, unerringly decent protagonist of Quantum Leap. For a spell, however, my zeal masked my decidedly average scientific abilities. With the misplaced confidence of an enthusiastically encouraged child, I assumed that I’d eventually figure out some way to accomplish my goal.
In time, of course, my priorities shifted, as priorities tend to do, and I left behind my ambitions of moving at will through the fourth dimension. But I was still compelled, again and again, by stories about time travel. As a teenager I was truly haunted by The Time Machine by H.G. Wells; while the book’s sociological viewpoint is uncomfortably archaic, I will never fail to be devastated by Wells’ descriptions of the end of the Earth, millennia in the future. He evokes a world of abominable desolation where the only life remaining is a few monstrous crabs with gleaming eye stalks and ungainly claws, smeared with algal slime. If I could travel, this would be the place I’d go. Forget ancient Rome, the Renaissance or the Belle Époque. I want to see the very end of things.
Like the vogue for neon windbreakers, Quantum Leap stayed in 1992. Before I knew it I was 30, with no romantic partner but a respectable number of jumpers. And then I was cycling through torrential rain. As sodden corduroy clung to my legs and my glasses sundered responsibility for maintaining my eyesight, I cursed myself for not bringing waterproofs. If only I could go back, I thought, and then I did: back to the living room carpet of my youth, back to being splayed in front of the television on a Tuesday night, rapt and inspired. What was stopping me from returning to my dream and actually doing it?
I announced my plot to the rest of the oh comely team. When asked, quite reasonably, how I was intending to achieve the most consequential discovery in human history, I told my colleagues not to worry. I’d figure something out. How hard could time travel be, really? At this point it was a slight concern that my future self hadn’t returned to let me know that I’d sorted it all out, but perhaps he was biding his time. Surely he just needed a signal. I would head home and try to summon him there.
One of the great comforts in life is realising that the universe is essentially binary. Everything either is or it isn’t, and if the question can’t be answered in those terms then you just need to look closer until it can. Time travel, in the popular sense that we imagine it – as a journey from one place (now) to another (the future, the past) – either is or isn’t possible. The fact that I didn’t appear to myself, older, greyer, finally with a new duffle coat perhaps, did suggest that I was going to fail in my venture. It spoke to a broader problem: if time travel is possible, then why have we seen no time travellers? Occasionally a wag on the internet will dig out something that suggests time travel – a man wearing ostensibly anachronistic clothes in a 1930s crowd, another man in early film footage holding what appears to be a mobile phone – but this seems to provide evidence of wilful delusion rather than anything else.
There are competing rebuttals. If we’re able to develop time travel then it’s not a stretch to believe that we’d also develop ways of remaining undetected (hats?). Or maybe no-one has travelled to this specific time before. Or travel to our era isn’t permitted. Or we can only go forwards. The explanation I’ve always subscribed to, although it makes my head hurt, is that if time moves in one direction then we just haven’t looped back on ourselves: time travel in the present can only exist once there is time travel in the future, and we’re not there yet. Beyond the issue of time travellers in our own back garden (or hiding in the shed), the binary question leads to another concern: how long do humans have left? For this, it’s worth considering The Doomsday Argument, if you can look at its name without running away in terror.
The Doomsday Argument is a deliciously titled but contentious statistical theory that makes the case that if all humans are born in a random order then there’s a certain probability that any individual one will appear somewhere in the middle. The total number of future humans can therefore be estimated by how many have already been born. Disregarding the arguments around this argument, it suggests that there is only a finite period before there are no new people, either through extinction or some other event. This certainly pricks humankind’s fundamental belief in the exceptionalism of itself, but considering what we understand of life on Earth, the notion of eventual demise from natural or man-made events is plausible. If time travel technology is possible, then, can we invent it before our own extinction? 10,000 years ago we had only just figured out how to grow wheat. How far can we progress in another 10,000 years, or 10 million? Even if the pace of discovery eases from its current dizzying clip, it’s fair to assume that with a solid stretch of time our scientific understanding will increase substantially. But if we can develop time travel and have enough time to do so, would we even want to?
Unless you happen to be a six-year-old with a fondness for Scott Bakula, time travel probably isn’t high on your list of scientific priorities, and with good reason. Any benefits we might hope for are outweighed by the possibility of accidentally erasing giraffes from history, or worse. The potential for abuse is considerable, while even its most benign applications carry significant risk of unintended catastrophe. It is perilous enough that an entire subgenre of fiction is devoted to cataloguing all of the ways in which time travel is a Very Bad Idea.
The attraction of time travel for a writer is obvious, allowing characters to visit colourful historical periods with our present-day sensibility, winking at the audience while navigating head-scratching paradoxes. It is entirely possible, maybe even probable, that time travel is like a zombie apocalypse – an impossible idea that has struck something inside of writers and audiences because it’s so rich with narrative possibility. A science fiction concept like a colony on another planet is feasible, but perhaps a central facet of our perception of reality is that we’re unable to move through time at anything other than at our own regular, lumbering speed. We are on foot, and it’s not possible to invent a car. In a larger cosmic sense, maybe everything that has ever happened and ever will happen is happening at the same time, it’s just a question of perspective, and as humans who exist in our short, mortal, temporal lives, we are unable to deal with anything except what’s directly in front of us. The implausibility of time travel, and its deleterious effect even if we could wrangle it, may very well be the case, but my overly optimistic argument is that not everything that is possible has been thought of yet.
Time travel fiction is a warning to ourselves, but its enduring popularity also illuminates why we might just end up inventing it (if we can, which we probably can’t.) Scientific developments are often inconceivable until we start conceiving them. It wasn’t until we started writing about satellite dishes, palm-sized communicators and remotely-controlled mechanical hands that we started trying to figure out how to make them real. The modern world boasts thousands of small innovations that first appeared in a movie or a dog-eared paperback: even the way we count down to zero when launching rockets was taken from Fritz Lang’s 1929 film Woman in the Moon – he thought it would be more dramatic if the count went down instead of up. There aren’t always direct causal links, but the effect of fiction on our technological advancement is undeniable.
The debt that science owes to the imaginations of writers and artists isn’t sufficiently acknowledged, but art’s primary influence is more abstract. The first exposure most of us have to science is through science fiction, and the outlandish ideas that become reality are created by people who were once children captivated by those same outlandish ideas. A chance viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey inspires tomorrow’s spacecraft engineer, or a youthful love of Jules Verne leads to a life as an oceanographer. If someone does invent time travel this century, it’s not far-fetched to imagine that they might have once been a child obsessed with Back to the Future, or Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, or, indeed, Quantum Leap.
The inspiration I personally took from Quantum Leap wasn’t the one I’d anticipated. The programme didn’t drive me towards a career in theoretical physics; I couldn’t even make it through A Brief History of Time. I was more interested in the storytelling possibilities of someone putting right what once went wrong than I was with the science of the endeavour. The following year, I would decide that I wanted to be a chaos theorist because Jeff Goldblum was one in Jurassic Park. It would be years before I understood that it was the stories themselves I was affected by.
A few days after my declaration to invent time travel I sat in a pub with my friend James, telling him of my plan. “How hard can it be?” I said, my joke ossifying. He asked me what I had in mind, and I realised that I’d been picturing a shoebox covered in tin foil, decorated with a few knobs and wires sticking out. It was a device a child might make, playing pretend. Even the gentleman inventor of The Time Machine had a chair. I’ve got chairs at home, maybe I could use one of those? James asked me if I was just being silly. The thought festered because I was. How far had I come from the six-year-old version of myself?
The sobering, retrospectively obvious reality is that if time travel can be invented then it will not be invented by me. This is okay. Towards the end of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, the English teacher Hector describes how the finest moments in reading are when you come across an idea that you thought was special and particular to you, and it feels like a hand has come out and taken yours. The best that a writer can hope for, perhaps, is that some of their words might make a journey through the years that they themselves cannot. There are different kinds of time travel. Maybe someone will be inspired by something I write one day, and will make incredible advances that I don’t have the intellectual temperament for. I’m going to tell myself that this is similar to how I’m really good at coming up with band names while having no musical ability.
This is a lovely, comforting idea to reflect upon, but perhaps it also has direct relevance for the problem at hand. We think of everything as being saved and permanent now, but all is ultimately lost to the indifference of time. Shakespeare and Austen and Joyce will vanish as surely as an article in a printed magazine. H.G. Wells himself wrote 12 million words of journalism and fiction and we only truly care about a couple of his science fiction novels. Everything will fall until all that’s left are the monstrous crabs. I’m undo no delusions that my work will be looked on by gleaming eye stalks one day, but perhaps this piece of writing might find a place to weather the storm for a while. It’s binary, after all. Either time travel by humans is possible or it isn’t. If it is possible, then we will either manage to invent it during our brief spell in the sun, or we won’t. If that moment comes, then either these words will have survived until then or they won’t.
My mistake before, yawping out to my bedroom, was the assumption that I would be able to hear my own call, that the theoretical time traveller would be me. Of course it won’t. I was speaking in the wrong place, to the wrong person. So here I try again:
Distant future, can you hear me? It’s Jason Ward. Good afternoon. I’m writing to you from West Norwood Library in London, England (turn left at France, if you find yourself in Wales you’ve gone too far) at 16:10 on 14th November, 2016. I’m in the computer room; you will be able to recognise me as the one who isn’t using a computer, but is instead busying himself in a notebook while wearing an excellent jumper. If you’d like to say hello I am here, waiting for you.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Four. Illustrations by Abi Overland.
I was sitting in a Pizza Hut in the past, waiting to be disappointed. The conversation turned – as conversation inevitably does when I’m around Ben – to Doctor Who. Over a dozen years the programme has become the central tenet of our friendship; I assume he will spend the eulogy at my funeral defending his wrong-headed views on the Eleventh Doctor’s final costume. As we discussed its showrunner Steven Moffat and contributor Mark Gatiss, something peculiar happened: the pair walked in the door and sat down at the next table. The next table in a Pizza Hut. It was as if we had summoned the two most successful writers in television with our hunger for unexceptional Italian food.
This is far from the only incredible thing to have happened to me. Recently I woke up thinking about my first girlfriend, whom I haven’t seen in thirteen years. I spotted her that afternoon as she entered a sandwich shop. Once I lost my wallet on a bus, and a few hours later got on a seemingly different one to find the wallet sitting next to the driver. Of the 8,000 buses in London, I’d gotten back on the same one. When I was a teenager and landlines were still a going concern, I’d frequently pick up the phone to dial a friend, only to hear their voice on the other end of the line. They had called me at the exact moment I had lifted the receiver.
I’m not alone in being predisposed to experiencing uncanny events. In 1973 Anthony Hopkins was due to star in an adaptation of The Girl from Petrovka and spent an unsuccessful afternoon looking for a copy. On his way home he found one discarded on a bench in Leicester Square station. A year later, he spoke to the author George Feifer on the film’s set, learning that Feifer had lent his only copy to a friend who had lost it. It was the same copy. Or there’s the 2007 story of the local Idaho newspaper that happened to print photographs in two articles on its front page: one of a suspected thief caught on CCTV, the other of a sign painter decorating a shop window for Christmas. They were the same man. Or the episode of another rediscovered book: in 1929 the American novelist Anne Parrish visited Paris on holiday, popping into a second-hand bookshop to buy a copy of Jack Frost and Other Stories, which as a child had inspired her to become a writer. To her surprise, she found that the purchase had her name and childhood address written inside. The original copy she’d owned as a girl had somehow made its way across the ocean to the very shop she was standing in.
There is something satisfyingly ordinary about extraordinary coincidences. Life is peppered with them: in a foreign country you meet someone and find out they went to the same first gig as you, or the tiebreaker in the pub quiz is the fact you learned that morning, or the song on the radio seems to apply to your situation perfectly. Such incidents encourage superstitious awe, followed by reasonable explanations. If Ben and I constant talk about Doctor Who in chain restaurants, and Doctor Who writers are as susceptible to settling as the rest of us, then it’s not impossible that we’d end up in the same place at the same time. Likewise, there are only so many buses on each route, and in the days before the internet my friends and I had little to do except ring each other all the time. Maybe I’ve been in the vicinity of my first girlfriend on other occasions, but that day I was primed to spy her in a crowd because I’d thought of her. Even though the odds are still slim, with almost 9,000 hours in every year,sooner or later something spooky is going to happen.
Anything can seem like a miracle if it’s sufficiently improbable, but the truth is that our brains are built to recognise patterns in a world which sporadically throws a bunch of sixes in a row and is complicated enough to appear random. This doesn’t mean however that the eerily aligned can’t be significant. If, say, a swan takes sudden and dramatic flight at the end of a loved one’s funeral and it feels meaningful, then it is meaningful. What’s special isn’t that the deceased is saying goodbye via a random bird, but rather that in a difficult moment you needed comfort and your mind created something to hold on to. It was a sign: you made it. Powered by grief and love, you found your own way through the dark. Surely that’s more precious than esoteric divine intervention?
It is head-spinning to learn that a new romantic partner lived on your street for a year and you never ran into each other, but the true coincidences are of such a great magnitude that we have no way to process them except to take them for granted. Even just for me to be writing these words and for you to be reading them is an event so remarkable that it takes the entire history of the universe to properly explain it. Imagine how many things had to happen for us to be here on this planet, at this time, to be alive, to be aware, to expect to live a long life, to have access to modern medicine and Beatles records and cake, to be able to love whoever we want, to have the freedom to endeavour to make our lives exuberant and worthwhile. These opportunities aren’t shared equally, of course, and there are many, many fights worth fighting. We have barely begun. Although by most measures this has been a terrible year, it is a terrible year in a spectacular world. For us to be here, together, now: it is a privilege.
In 1980, the astronomer Carl Sagan released Cosmos, a book which explored the relationship between science and the universe. While filled with wonder at the scale and complexity of the universe, its most stunning idea comes even before the contents page, in the dedication to his wife: “In the vastness of space and the immensity of time, it is my joy to share a planet and an epoch with Annie.” This notion has taken root inside my head. The thing that astounds, I’ve realised, wasn’t running into Steven Moffat as I was talking about him. It came a dozen years earlier when I met a skinny kid in a stairwell on the second day of university. Yesterday he got engaged and asked me to be his best man. What are the chances of that?
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Three. Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti.
Our generation has been robbed. Technology trends towards the bland, as the curved electronic rectangles in our homes will attest. Before the height of aesthetic enjoyment was pebble-smooth minimalism, however, designers often had another goal: enchantment. Automatons were ancestors of the modern computer, but their creators also delighted in a magic trick: the illusion that they acted of their own will. Even in an age where all human progress is available in our pocket and is boring, automatons can spellbind us into believing, momentarily, that they are somehow alive.
Ctesibius’ water clock
We don’t know much about Ctesibius’ life, but it’s evident that career progression was easier in ancient Greece: his journey from barber to the father of pneumatics is surely the envy of anyone in a rum job. Among the inventor and mathematician’s many contributions were his improvements to the clepsydra, which measured time using the flow of water. As well as making a clock that was the most accurate in the world for 1,800 years (the earliest was found buried in Amenhotep’s ancient Egyptian tomb), he added singing mechanical swans, bells, puppets and best of all, an owl that moved.
It’s unsurprising that Japan is a robotics pioneer given the emergence of karakuri during the country’s Edo period, between 1603 and 1868. For two centuries these mechanised humans were a part of everyday life, performing in theatres and religious festivals and used for parlour tricks at home. Eschewing metal for native wood and coiled whalebone springs, craftsmen built karakuri that fired arrows, climbed stairs or acted out myths. The most popular dolls were chahakobi ningyo: forward-thinking marvels which could deliver a cup of tea to you. Teasmades are less impressive all of a sudden.
Singing bird boxes
The idea of a device that does just one thing is unfashionable today, but from the late 1700s until World War I the must-have item for Europe’s affluent was a tabatière that briefly produced birdsong. Its appeal was in its simplicity: a slider was pushed on an ornate box to reveal a mechanical bird, flapping its wings, moving its head and singing. Thanks to artisans like former clockmaker Blaise Bontems, such automata authentically recreated the songs of different birds from finches to blackbirds to nightingales. Bird boxes were the cousin of watches, but their only function was beauty.
The New Motive Power
In 1853, the Spiritualist John Murray Spear was seized by an idea. He would create heaven’s last, best gift: an electrically-powered messiah. The automaton, called ‘New Motive Power’, or the ‘Electric Infant’, or the ‘Wonderful Infant’, would exalt mankind. Spear was calm about his engineering inexperience: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and other spirit ‘Electrizers’ were working through him to build the machine, made of components including magnetic spheres, antennae, zinc batteries and a dining room table. After nine months, a ceremony: allegedly, the Electric Infant trembled, and then moved no more.
Animals are a mainstay of automata: in Jewish mythology, Solomon designed a throne where a menagerie of golden mechanical beasts would greet him and bring items, like if Wallace enjoyed trying to cut babies in half instead of eating Wensleydale. A grisly-yet beautiful 18th-century iteration is Tipu’s Tiger, which was the eponymous Mysore sultan’s prized possession until the British killed him and captured it. The semi-automaton/pipe organ re-enacts the mauling of a European man with accompanying tiger grunts and death wails, and is absolutely mad when you think about it.
The Jaquet-Droz automata
While they’re still made, automatons have been overtaken by the developments in robotics and computing that they anticipated. The form’s apogee was possibly the efforts of watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz and his workshop. His trio of doll automata, finished in 1774, remain astonishing: a draughtsman who can draw four images (blowing his pencil every now and then), a musician who plays the organ, watches her fingers and appears to breathe, and a boy whose 6,000 parts, programmable memory and goose feather quill are capable of writing anything. As an expression of mechanical imagination, they are wondrous.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Three. Illustrations by Eleni Kalorkoti.
As you spot your third grey hair in the bathroom mirror, you realise that soon the day will come when you stop counting them altogether. Your initial response to this information is a slightly larger helping of mashed potatoes, but the thought lingers, stowing itself away in a sunless alcove of your head. Even though a quarter-life crisis has always sounded ridiculous, there you are anyway, feeling like you’ve somehow fallen a lap behind.
That night, alone on the internet, you find yourself buying a return ticket to Egypt. You regard the foreignness of your actions as a good omen, lest they be the opposite. Two days and several plane-swelled cuticles later you arrive in Luxor. Unsure of what to do, you locate a bar and lean against a wall for a while. The foolish, broke sensation, you tell yourself, is jet lag. Exhausted and unable to sleep, listening to an indecisive bathroom fan, you hope to awaken in your own bed with familiar boredom to look forward to rather than this strange, new variety. It doesn’t happen.
With no plans for the next week except dodging calls from your parents, you join a bus tour run by your hotel. The driver is brusque and the air conditioner strictly ornamental, but it feels good to be heading somewhere. In the cool, crisp gloom of tomb KV5, you are very almost happy. Hanging back from the sharp-elbowed muddle, you stare at a carving of a crouching jackal and remember your first trip to the British Museum: the expressionless stone faces, the jasper scarabs, your grandparents’ hands holding yours, the slice of carrot cake they bought you in the café. That world is gone, too, you reflect, just limbless statues in your memory now. You don’t notice the tour group turn a corner.
Deep beneath the baking Nubian earth, dread kicks you in the throat. You have been inadvertently abandoned. A lope becomes a sprint, and within minutes you are yelling loudly enough to raise the dead. There is no reply except the echo of your own panic. One wrong turn begets another and you trip into a room not marked on your map. The chamber has been long ransacked, but you – once a child devoted to any sort of story with a secret passage in it – are quick to spot that an apparently sealed doorway is a folly. Sucking in your stomach and hoping for the best, you squeeze into the darkness.
It is difficult to hear what the man says over the sound of your ears rushing with blood, but you do learn that he is, among other things, the High Priest of Ra in Heliopolis, the sixteenth son of Ramesses II, and definitely not dead. Unfortunately you don’t pick up his name, and it passes the point where it’s socially appropriate to ask him to repeat himself. Perhaps it sounds like Merry. In exchange for helping him pass on from this world, Merry says, he will answer any three questions about the universe. His English is excellent for a 3,000-year-old Egyptian prince, you think, but decide not to mention.
Merry fingers an amulet in his left hand, while you wonder if this is some kind of ruse. If it is, then he has found the perfect bait; the unknown has always held an ambrosial fascination for you. When you were of carrot cake-eating age you used to carry around a book that documented famous unsolved mysteries: ghosts and man-eating trees and those two Mexican students who accidentally time travelled in their car. Although most of those stories seemed silly even back then, the promise of answers was endlessly tempting. Is Bigfoot real? Have extraterrestrials visited us? What did Lewis Carroll write in those missing diary pages? Did Spring-heeled Jack actually stalk Victorian London? Mystery was an ellipsis at the end of a sentence. It made the world feel more alive.
You are swamped by the enormity of the prince’s offer. It exceeds the eccentric and touches upon the divine. Is there a god? How do you cure cancer? How did life on this planet originate, and how will it end? Is there a way to be happy, or at least to start feeling like you’re living in the right direction? It is a trap. It has to be a trap. It can’t not be a trap. You are stepping, almost certainly, into disaster. Tremendous relief washes over you as you realise that you mind hardly at all.
What three questions do you ask Merry?
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Three.
You’d always assumed that Desert Island Discs was purely theoretical. The unsmiling men that greet you upon your exit from the recording studio, however, appear to have other ideas. As you are sackclothed and bundled into a series of vehicles, each echoing more than the last, you conclude that accepting an invitation from that friendly radio producer was probably a mistake. You finally pass out in what you are pretty sure is a cargo hold, awakening an indeterminate amount of time later to the sound of waves crashing against your terrible Wednesday morning.
Tropical solitude. It had sounded like such bliss. Sand against your shoulders, a light orchestral serenade, herring gulls, your arm squinting out the sun. As ever, life in your dreams looks brighter than your life really is. The sweltering atmosphere waits for rain that won’t rain. There is little to see and even less to do. Worse still, it’s embarrassingly evident that your choices were ill-advised: the crate of Easter eggs you’d requested as a luxury are melting, while the book of short stories by the Edwardian satirist Saki contains scant useful information on desalinating seawater. At least there is the portable record player, you think, but six recordings and 22 minutes later you regret opting for quality over quantity. Tubular Bells Part One alone is 25 minutes long. You could have learned to love it. Or why not American Pie? It goes on for about half a day. You suspect that your future holds little except malnourishment and onanism. “I’ve made it through worse scrapes than this,” you remark to a crab that isn’t really paying attention, but no examples spring to mind.
As you daydream about Kirsty Young and how you will sue her, a throbbing in the distance announces the arrival of Trouble. Three black dots menace the horizon for the whole four minutes and 34 seconds of Disco 2000, before revealing themselves all at once to be a trio of skiffs. Their crews, shimmering in the afternoon, are armed no matter how much you pretend otherwise. “This isn’t going to end well,” you tell a pile of rocks. It’s unclear whether it agrees.
After the Trouble, before the endless wait to come, between handfuls of slurried chocolate goop, you reflect on how you’ve been abusing the word ‘unspeakable’. Nothing you have done in your life has been truly unspeakable until now. The bodies. The burnt lips. The things you just did. You wouldn’t even know where to begin. Wiping the blood off the player, you put on the final record, grimly satisfied that you brought the right song for the moment after all. The needle finds the groove while you stare at nothing in particular and wait for rain that won’t come.
What song do you listen to and what do you do next?
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Two.
Just because something is a pencil sharpener with I WENT APE AT BRISTOL ZOO printed on it doesn’t mean that it can’t also be a profound human gesture. A souvenir’s value is not the object itself but what it represents: a symbolic memento of an experience in your life, passed on to someone you care about. The British, naturally, embrace kitsch tat, but most cultures have their own version of the tradition. In the Philippines it is called pasulubong; the word translates, quite beautifully, as “something meant for you when you welcome me back”.
Sticks of rock
If someone invented rock today, they’d go sharply out of business. The appeal of the boiled sugar confection isn’t its mintiness, but the evocation of summers long faded; you’re not buying toffee, you’re buying candy-striped nostalgia for someone else’s past. As your teeth complain and before disappointment sets in, you’re transported briefly to an era described by Graham Greene in – fittingly – Brighton Rock: ‘With immense labour and immense patience they extricated from the long day the grain of pleasure: this sun, this music, the rattle of the miniature cars, the ghost train diving between the grinning skeletons under the Aquarium promenade, the sticks of Brighton rock, the paper sailors’ caps.’
The Last Supper (now in 3D!)
Devotional artefacts are among man’s earliest souvenirs, appearing as far back as ancient Mesopotamia, but more compelling than votive candles and ritual articles are the items of gaudy religious merchandise that share more in common with plaster-cast Eiffel Towers than with rosaries. There’s something endearing about an object that aspires towards the spiritual but lands upon gloriously cheap, be it a gold chalkware statue of the Last Supper, an unreliable clock in the shape of a temple or an anatomically confused nativity set. These souvenirs avoid offence by how silly they are – who wouldn’t be thrilled to have an aunt return from a holy site with a winking hologram Jesus?
If someone knocked over the internet and austerity wiped out the country’s remaining libraries it would be possible to entirely reconstruct the sum of human knowledge through souvenir tea towels. From breeds of terrier to the rules of field hockey to German wildflowers to the cafés of Anglesey, there is nothing we know as a species that we haven’t put on a linen rectangle. We are bewitched, drawn to kitchenware that brightly imparts information: at this exact moment in a RSPB gift shop in Dungeness a retired couple are buying a tea towel that explains Balkan proverbs, another that depicts the 31 sea areas of the Shipping Forecast and a third that lists every person you’ve ever kissed.
The main problem with gift-giving is that there’s just so much of it: over a lifetime you might have to come up with more than 150 presents for a parent, someone with their own income who can buy the things they want already. Laziness is always tempting when faced with a never-ending obligation, and even more so when a loved one makes the mistake of mentioning that they enjoy something. In essence, thimbles are interchangeable with keyrings or porcelain elephants or any other tchotchke: if you say you like one once you’ll receive it as a souvenir for the rest of your life, thimble after thimble until they bury you, handfuls of thimbles scattered into your lonely, embroidery-primed grave.
As the once reigning Spanish souvenir of choice you’d think that Britain’s streets would be teeming with these asinine knick-knacks, but today they’re rarely spotted. While donkey sanctuaries receive disproportionately large contributions compared with other charities, their shorter, sombrero-wearing cousins have fallen from fashion. This is a shame: Though they were always tacky, in the 1970 s they also stood for the working class’s newfound ability to engage in foreign travel. That this travel was mainly to Benidorm was beside the point. For a short time, to disembark from an aeroplane with sunburn and a straw donkey under your arm was to know freedom.
Like the text messages of an excited teenager, Oxford Street is riddled with emojis. In cushion form, they smile, cry, blow kisses and wink with tongues hanging out from seemingly every other shop window on the wretchedly busy thoroughfare. Unless emojis have gained pillowy sentience and are in the early stages of revolution, they are emblematic of the modern souvenir trade. As foretold by runes discovered in the basement of M&M’s World, souvenirs, like everything else, have failed to escape homogenising globalisation: instead of a cheaply-made teddy dressed like a Beefeater, you can now buy a cheaply-made cushion dressed like an ideogram from your phone.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Two.
On a street that you’re never able to find again you enter a shop with no windows. Over the years to come you will often think of it in idle moments: half-asleep on a fading couch in your middle age, you will try to persuade yourself that you imagined the whole afternoon; some years earlier, staring at a pre-packaged sandwich, bored and lonely in a mini-supermarket, you will almost believe you might rediscover its location if you could only take the right turn. Neither conclusion quite convinces you.
The ostensible reason for your visit is a friend’s birthday, one close enough to give you an excuse to kill time in a shop, but not so close that you actually need to buy anything. You experience a dull, familiar ache as you fail to discover what you’re looking for, but as you start to leave you spot a brooch that could have been made for you. Even though the price is a little high, you buy it anyway.
At home you open its box to find a note. It says that the brooch has unusual properties, which are that it grants you the ability to re-experience (but not alter) any three-hour period from your life. The note also points out that although the brooch will never stop being a brooch, it can only facilitate such transport twice. Years of fake chumminess from smoothie bottles has made you rightfully wary of talkative packaging, but you decide to give it a go. “Take me back three hours into my past!” you announce with a flourish of your hands, and the brooch complies. You relive the aimless wandering along side streets, the time spent in the shop, the wait at the bus stop, the walk home, the kettle boiling, the tea that follows, and then there’s a jump and your hands are raised in the air in an act of half-hearted divination.
The amazement you feel is swiftly replaced by anger as you realise you’ve wasted 50 per cent of the only magical opportunity you’ve ever had reliving events which have literally just taken place. This anger is succeeded by nausea, which is then succeeded by excitement. You still have one more go. It’s a true privilege: you are able to experience absolutely any three hours again. You consider saving this second journey for a rainy day, but it’s raining now. You tell yourself that you can always return to the shop and buy another brooch tomorrow, after all.
What three hours do you choose?
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-One.
To have an adventure is to go somewhere you’ve never gone before. Historically, this was taken in a literal sense – foreign climes were where all the exciting stuff was kept – but the notion no longer applies. With travel as achievable as it has ever been, going abroad isn’t enough: by its very definition, a holiday isn’t an adventure. To really have an adventure, then, isn’t about exploring the new, but risking something of yourself to do so.
Deciding this, admittedly, was rather convenient, given that my passport has expired and it’s reasonable to assume I’d fare poorly against a gang of river snakes. I stand by my belief regardless. On being asked to conceive of an adventure I could undertake, I thought about what scares me. Aside from my undying terror of giant squid, my fears – like most people’s – are mundane: social awkwardness, romantic rejection, embarrassment, strangers with nametags. As I pondered what could possibly combine these perils, I understood with an immediate, sinking clarity what I needed to do.
“Oh Comely only wants me to go speed dating,” I’d tell anyone who’d listen. “Doesn’t that sound excruciating?” Not for the first time in my life, I was lying to the universe. Despite my protestations, I was quietly curious about organised singles events. While speed dating has always seemed like a very particular type of horrible, it had started to hold an allure beyond morbid fascination. At a certain point, without me even noticing, being single had become a defining part of me. It’s not that I didn’t meet lovely people, but I hadn’t found the thing that worked yet. In my lowest moments I felt like Ioan Gruffudd searching for survivors at the end of Titanic, yelling “Is there anyone alive out there?” into the black Atlantic. It’s a lot of pressure to put on an evening below a pub in east London.
Once I’d chosen to make the leap and book a speed dating ticket, it seemed fitting that I was overwhelmed by options. Should I go to the night where you each bring a favourite book? The one where you use 18th-century fans to flirt? The one where you play Lego? The one where you don’t speak and just spend two minutes looking in your date’s eyes? Each sounded more terrifying than the last. After concluding that the world doesn’t contain enough alcohol to equip me for intimate karaoke duets with strangers, I opted for Last Night a Speed Date Changed My Life, which promised, mercifully, to “not rewrite the speed date rule book.” I spent the following week beset with the low-level anxiety of a cat, convinced that death lurks in every unexpected rustle.
The thing they don’t tell you about speed dating is that most people don’t actually go alone. The clue, perhaps, is in the discounts that encourage dual bookings, but I was disheartened to enter a room already whirring with conversation. Unsure of whether it was appropriate to approach other attendees, I composed imaginary text messages, followed by real ones to my friend Hannah – “They all think you’re a cop!” she kindly suggested. The silt of nervousness had barely settled before I was commandeered by the host, who showed me around in a courteously intended gesture which certainly didn’t make me look conspicuous.
Once everyone had bought a drink and hurriedly gulped a percentage of it, we took seats and the rules were explained. Each date would last three and a half minutes, after which the 24 women would remain seated as the 24 men rotated. A soft trilling announced that we’d started, instantly followed by the cacophony of 24 simultaneous conversations.
This was the moment I’d been excitedly dreading. Two dozen strangers with slips of paper on which to write their thoughts about me, who had paid actual money to evaluate my potential as a possible romantic partner. It was really happening, and it was… absolutely fine. Of course it was. People are people: some are dull, some are cold, one or two are splendid, and everyone else is nice enough. My fear that speed dating would be fundamentally awkward was accurate, but it was also a reassuring collective endeavour. It was clear that if we didn’t throw ourselves into proceedings the experience would be harrowing, and so everyone made a tangible effort to act friendly and engaged. For three and a half minute sittings, we were trying to be our best selves. My best self, unfortunately, is much like my average self, in that he is incapable of retaining pens. Half a dozen dates in, I was already forgetting people, and my notepaper was unhelpfully blank. Which one was the nervous teacher? Who liked climbing? Who spent the date talking about how much she liked the previous date’s glasses? The presence of groups further complicated things, as I made my way through lawyers, film production friends, and the members of a triathlon club.
I was still questioning if this fogging memory signified something when I shook hands with Olga.
She did not say hello, or ask me how I was doing, or how my weekend had been. Instead:
“When do you remember first rebelling against your parents?”
Oh boy. She’d brought questions.
I obliged, and she reciprocated. Her story was funny, sweet, disarming, and two minutes long. We changed subjects. I was telling her about Welsh folklore when we heard a familiar trilling. She looked mortified. “I’ve wasted all our time!” she said, and asked if she could buy me a drink during the break. I attempted to appear like someone for whom this question is completely typical, and said yes. I do not remember the dates that followed.
Olga led me to the bar and we spent ten minutes making each other laugh. She was direct and confident. She was a pleasure to talk to. I wondered, momentarily, whether I should be circulating. It wasn’t an option. At some point a thought crept into my mind, one which said this is the thing that works, and I ignored it in the hope that it wouldn’t go away.
The most apt comparison to speed dating is the Eurovision Song Contest, where the Hi-NRG dance numbers all bleed together by the end. I still put in effort during the second half, but found myself repeating answers I’d given an hour or two before, as early witticisms ossified into rote material. Perhaps this would have happened anyway: how many new people do you usually talk to everyday? Eventually there was one more date – Muni, who planned to go on a race with her dog, and is surely my best friend in another universe – and the night was over.
As a social experiment it was fascinating to take part in something with an explicit romantic purpose. With just one acknowledged goal, our senses were quickly honed, and we soon became ruthless. While many attend gigs, clubs and historical walking tours with the idea of meeting someone at least partially on their mind, here the pretext of a separate activity was stripped away. This suggests the exact structure of such an event is ultimately trivial, a high-concept distraction to sell tickets. What speed dating offers is a concentrated version of life: a single person meets other single people, hoping one will stand out from the crowd. This rarely happens, but its rareness is what makes it meaningful.
I visited the clothes rack and retrieved my jacket. Some people were still sitting at their last tables, or had returned to earlier ones. There was a tap on my shoulder. Olga. She pursed her lips in a mock frown.
“You’re not leaving, are you?” she asked, and we both knew what my answer would be.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-One.
Alexandra Roach is conspicuously nice. This sounds like damning her with faint praise, but Alex’s defining characteristic is her easy, generous warmth, a quality which carries over into her work.
The Welsh actor’s professional life began in earnest when she played a young Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, but she’s acted since joining the Welsh-language soap Pobyl y Cwm as an eleven-year-old. What’s heartening is that this niceness doesn’t come at the expense of ambition – in one of Alex’s many references to the strong women who have inspired her, she mentions how working with Meryl Streep reassured her that you can be personable and decent and still achieve great work. “If it’s good enough for Meryl, I’m going to stick with that,” she says.
Even with a career continuing to gain momentum, however, when we meet she admits she’s at a crossroads. A veteran of her industry at 28, Alex is impatient for her next challenge, and is taking control of her career to nudge it in new directions.
You recently moved to Bristol. Did you want to live away from the acting profession?
I was struggling in London somewhat. I wasn’t feeling creative and was often in a bad mood, which isn’t me. I thought: hang on, let’s do something about this, so I took myself away and have spent the past few months resetting. It’s important to question what you do, and I’ve been acting non-stop since eleven. I’ve been writing a lot since, so it was definitely the right move. My friends are still in London, that’s the only thing. It’s been a month though, so give me time! I’m just trying to make pals. Hanging around my yoga class for ten minutes more, putting on my socks really slowly.
Do you approach acting differently as an adult? Is it still fundamentally the same job?
If I approached everything as I did when I was eleven that’d be strange, but I’ve still got that strong instinct. I don’t overcomplicate things. When I start a role it’s almost like my atoms change and I become that person. Subconsciously they become a part of me, so I don’t think about it too much. At eleven I probably didn’t think about it at all.
Although you’d been acting for several years you decided to go to Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. What was that like?
I’m glad I went but it was difficult. It’s exactly how you’d imagine it. I remember one teacher said I should stay in London alone for Christmas and listen to Radio 4 to stop my accent getting any stronger. I didn’t do it. People told me I needed to lose my accent and I said: “No, I can do other accents fine, that’s my job. This is me. I’m not losing me.”
Coming from a former coal mining town, did you worry about the response when you were cast as Margaret Thatcher?
I’d love to sit here and say I mulled the part over but I got that phone call and it was one of the best calls I’ve ever had.
It’d be hard to turn down playing the young Meryl Streep.
“No, sorry Meryl, it’s not for me.” Imagine! My grandfather was a miner but passed away before I did the film, so that’s always something I wonder about. What would he have said? I was nervous about going back to Ammanford because there was such animosity towards Thatcher, but everybody was really interested and wanted to chat about it. It was a challenge because I was tasked with making her human. Politics aside, I saw a lot of myself in her, this ambitious young woman trying to take control of her life. At the time several people told me I couldn’t make it, and I felt a steeliness inside.
You mentioned you’ve been writing. How did that come about?
I’ve acted for so long, and it’s not that it’s unfulfilling, but I wanted more control. On some jobs they hire me, I turn up, someone else’s words are given to me, I’m told where to stand, where to look, sometimes even how to say the lines, and I feel like I need more. I look at Lena Dunham and other women doing it themselves and I think I want a bit of that.
What are you working on?
I’m writing three television one-hours with Ruth Jones, who co-created Gavin & Stacey. The project is actually based on my mother. When she was in her twenties she was working as a nurse in the Valleys and in an abusive, dead end relationship. One day she was flicking through a magazine after a massive row, and there was an advert saying an American family needed an au pair. She’d always dreamt of America, so she ripped it out, put it in her pocket and went home to another row. She decided to write to the family, telling them her story, and five weeks later a one-way ticket arrived. She couldn’t just pack her things and leave though because he was really controlling, so every day she’d take a pair of knickers in her bag and give it to her best friend, who slowly filled a suitcase for her. When the time came my gran drove her to the airport and she was gone. It was the late 60s so she hitch-hiked around America by herself and joined in the hippie movement and became a free spirit. I only found out about eighteen months ago when she told me over a drink. I knew she went to America but not why or how. It was definitely the wine. We’d had a couple of bottles.
At what point did you decide you want to write about it?
Oh, from the second it left her mouth, but I had to wait. I went to Ruth a year later. She knows the Valleys, she knows the humour. I didn’t consider anyone else. Now we meet every week at her house. She’s been so positive but it’s scary when you’re starting out. The other day she asked me to forward what I’d written, and I was hovering over the send button for ages. But it’s exciting. I’d be playing my mother and Ruth would be my grandmother. I’m really giving it a go.
Has writing about your mother changed your relationship?
Yes. You think your mother’s just your mother. I’m guilty of it. You forget she had a whole life before you. Last week she gave me her travelling diary and I’ve been delving in, getting to see her as a young woman going through all these terrible and great things. There’s a reason why her advice is so good: she’s been there before. I feel like I’m finally getting to know her.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty. Photograph by Liz Seabrook.
He was mine, that frog. His name was Freddie, and somewhere within his squidgy interior was a bell that rang if you gave him a good enough shake. A frog isn’t the sort of tailless amphibian you bring to bed – no-one has ever taken a frog on holiday, or reached for a frog when they’ve struggled to make school friends – but he was a valued member of my menagerie all the same. He’d been there throughout my childhood, he hadn’t pealed up a fuss when exiled to a bin bag in the attic, and he’d somehow survived the great stuffed animal diaspora to be sitting here decades later in my parents’ house. Freddie was solidly B-list, but he was decent. He was my frog.
“That’s not your frog,” my sister said, giving him a shake. I suppose she would know. As a youngest sibling, a lot of the things that you think are yours turn out not to be: picture books, cardigans, a penchant for cake. Once my mother told me fondly about how, as a child, I’d requested we hold a hundredth birthday party for my teddy bear. I was feeling oddly proud of my young imagination when she corrected herself: no, it was my brother who did that, not me. Maybe it’s true that youngest children are indulged and given freer rein, but they still have to elbow their way into a world that was getting along fine without them. So of course Amanda was right. The frog had been new to me but it wasn’t new. It had lived nearly an entire childhood: hers, because she was here first.
My sister has always been older than me. That seems like a redundant point to make but it’s crucial to explaining our relationship. On the day I was born she was eleven years, two months and twenty-three days old. As we grew up that fixed gulf moved with us. When I was a toddler, Amanda was entering adolescence. When I was a child, she was in her late teens. When I was a teenager, she was in her twenties. I was forever a couple of laps behind, incapable of catching up.
As siblings we were defined by our age difference. There was a distance between us, eleven years long. It’s not that she disliked me – as a writer I’m benignly cursed by my undramatic, loving family – but I was always too young to connect with in any meaningful way. When it counted, we supported each other: at three, I cut my face misguidedly trying to shave and she held me all the way to the hospital. But we weren’t ourselves yet, we were our roles. Older sister, younger brother. Our personalities didn’t even get to clash, because what eighteen year old wants to socialise with someone who’s seven? Unless you wanted to discuss favourite Power Rangers (Billy, obviously), I had little to offer in terms of conversation.
To be a younger brother is to know what it means to be tolerated. Amanda’s unenviable task was being the first person in the world to find me actively annoying. I can’t blame her. I scrawled my name in her favourite books. I watched the same three videotapes over and over again. I was a fussy eater and an insomniac. I owned several albums recorded by the Smurfs. If I’d worn a backwards baseball cap I could have been an irritating kid brother from a soft drink advert.
I can’t imagine either of us considered the situation much, however. There were no ill feelings to resolve, no unhealthy dynamics to address. She was just my sister, and I was just her brother, and that was fine. Our attentions lay elsewhere. While the trajectories of romance and friendship often agonise, there’s a tendency to treat family members as immutable. What you don’t envision is that as you change, they do too, and consequently the relationship also evolves. When you’ve known someone your whole life it takes time to notice you’re no longer the people you used to be.
By the time I did realise, it had been a while already. Something had shifted. We’d spend whole evenings just talking and I wouldn’t be obscurely worried that she’d rather be elsewhere. We found we liked being around each other. We believed in the same fundamental values. I wasn’t the tiresome younger brother anymore, and she wasn’t the exasperated older sister. Our lives had moved on. She’d met someone wonderful. I was marginally less inept.
Although my sister will always be eleven years older, it’s not the gulf it once was. We’re still very different but that’s alright: I rarely feel as much like an adult as when we’re having a good conversation. We connect. I think she’s formidable. I hope she finds me funny. It wasn’t until something new emerged that I understood absence had been there before. Amanda was always my sister, but it took us a quarter of a century to become friends.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty.
Without even noticing, you invest emotional energy in people who create things you like. Regardless of whether they are musicians, writers, film-makers or something else entirely, they assume a function in your life akin to a favourite sports team: you take pride in their accomplishments, defend their honour against the unconverted and become disheartened when they stumble. You root for them. You love to see them win.
This instinctual solidarity makes the arrival of that familiar sighing sensation in the chest especially disappointing, as you discover you’ve seen everything they has to offer. While there’s pleasure in watching them return yet again to the territory that was so exciting originally, it is also dispiriting to realise that they’ve run out of new things to say and new ways to say them.
Despite regularly inhabiting different characters, actors aren’t spared from this fate either. Being typecast is a lurking hazard of the job: when you demonstrate you’re good at one type of thing, people want you to keep doing it. Viewed in this light, Maxine Peake’s career is even more impressive. It would be easy to imagine how she might have got snagged on the success of her early comic roles in dinnerladies and Shameless, subsequently becoming doomed to play variations of “brassy and bombastic Northerner” until retirement age. Instead, Maxine’s vital, daring performances chart new ground as she has embraced the challenge of portraying everyone from Hamlet to Myra Hindley. You never quite know what she’s going to do next, but it’s always worth a look. That sighing sensation is thankfully absent.
As these thoughts bobbled around my head, I took Maxine to the most echoey corner of the Barbican for a chat.
Given this issue’s theme, I thought it might be nice to talk about the idea of change in relation to your work. Acting can change constantly, can’t it? Is that a part of the appeal?
Definitely. I find it difficult to stay in my seat. When I’ve done a few series of a programme it becomes really hard to come back to a character, to attack the same person again. Even though the audience might not notice, I’ll have slightly changed in the months since we last filmed, or I’ll have different ideas about the part. My attention span is quite short. I don’t want to get bored doing something and become complacent. I tell myself that I’ve done that thing now: successfully or not, I’ve ticked that box. It’s time to move on.
Was it difficult earlier in your career to establish that you didn’t just want different projects but different kind of projects?
Yes, and it might have been an easier career if I’d said okay, this is what I do now. After I played Twinkle in dinnerladies a lot of scripts came in that were substandard Twinkles, but I’d already been the proper one. I just had to tell them I wasn’t doing any more of those thank you very much, even if it meant I probably wasn’t going to work for a bit. You have to try to steer the boat yourself. I’m usually looking for a challenge. If I get sent something and don’t know why they think I can do the character, that’s usually why I have a go. “I don’t quite get this one yet. Great!”
Is that why you moved from London to Salford?
It gave me more artistic freedom really. I suppose it gave me more time. It took the pressure off. I just remember thinking if I bought a flat in London I’d feel trapped. I would have to do jobs to pay a mortgage. Of course, most people get up in the morning and go to work because they have to. It sounds arrogant but I didn’t want to get stuck doing that. It depends what you’re in it for, and for me it’s never been the money. I wanted to be able to pick and choose what I do. There’s little worse than being two weeks into a shoot, wishing you’d never said yes and you’ve got months to go. It’s got to be fulfilling for me to get something out of it.
In that case, what’s fulfilling about your role as an Associate Artist for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, where you also played Hamlet?
It’s the luxury of being able to have a creative partnership with Sarah Frankcom, the artistic director. To have that building where we can ask ourselves what do we want to do, and then do it. I don’t want to hog the theatre, or for people to think oh no, not Maxine again, so we try to keep it sporadic and do a piece together about once a year. I feel really blessed about it. Someone asked me recently how much of a feminist statement Hamlet was, but it didn’t start as one. Me and Sarah just said let’s do something where we really have to push the boat out and it’s going to frighten the life out of us. The scarier the better, you know? So Hamlet came out of us asking what is one of the most difficult and monumental pieces of theatre we could do. I’ve got this opportunity, so why not push myself? And it’s amazing what that play can absorb. I played Hamlet as trans: a character who was born a woman but felt more comfortable in a male body, and the play took it. It seems to be able to support whatever themes you throw at it or whatever route you decide to take.
As well as acting you’ve also started to write plays over the past few years. Is that a part of the same process?
Yes, it’s been about feeling able to have a go at what I want to do. I spent a lot of my early years being very self-conscious. It’s not that I was under-confident, but now I feel more secure people will actually take a bit of notice because of the body of work I’ve got behind me. I wanted to write when I was younger but I just thought, well, who’s going to take me seriously? It’s not that as you get older you get more confident, it’s just you care less. What’s the worst that can happen? Nobody’s going to die. It was like that with Hamlet. It could have been a disaster. People could have said it was the worst Hamlet they’d ever seen. So what? Obviously you want to do things that people like because they’ve paid their hard-earned cash to see you, but you’re allowed to try new things.
Does that shifting attitude apply to being a public figure too? In recent years you’ve spoken out powerfully against austerity: is that something you feel more comfortable doing?
I’ve sort of always been that way, but people pay more attention now. I remember when I would do interviews for Shameless: I’d talk about being in the Young Communist League when I was 18, and they’d ask me how I lost all the weight after dinnerladies. Nobody was particularly interested in a young northern female talking about politics. I suppose I’ve banged on long enough now that people ask me about it. For me it’s all tied in. When I read a script, I ask myself questions. Is that character is a female role model? What are we saying? What’s the message in this piece? It’s all linked, so I thought I might as well be open about it. I think television especially has an important part to play in changing perceptions. We need to get with the programme and show Britain as it is, this amazing multicultural melting pot with people from all walks of life. I find it so frustrating. You watch telly and so much of it doesn’t reflect us. There’s still gender stereotyping, class stereotyping, race stereotyping. We’re not putting a magnifying glass up to Britain and I don’t know why. How are we still so very behind?
Do you feel an obligation to take roles in socially progressive projects?
I do. It’s funny, what I find now is that scripts are getting much more female heavy, but I’m not sure if the parts are actually getting any better. You get some amazing female parts, but at the moment I get offered a lot of women in their late 30s, early 40s: last stab at childhood, last stab at a family. Me and my friends are in that age range and that’s not what we sit around and talk about. There’s more to women. Come. On. Female writers can be just as guilty of it. This is why doing things like Hamlet’s cross-gender casting is important. Women don’t have to sit and suffer in silence and say, well, I’m at that age where there are no good female parts. Grab yourself a good male one and go and do it!
What would you like to do next? Do you look ahead to where you might want to be in the future?
I would like to continue. More theatre, film, good television. Just to be able to carry on doing scripts that I want to do. It’s more difficult as you get older. I guess that’s where the writing comes in, and theatre as well. My dream when I was younger, and it seemed like a dream because I was a working-class oik from Bolton, was to be a classical theatre actress. I wanted that but I was never quite confident enough to vocalise it, so I went all around the houses. Now I’m starting to do the theatre that I really want to, and it’s taken me over twenty years to get here.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Nine. Photographs by Liz Seabrook.
If, say, you’re researching the Lancashire folk singer and historian Jennifer Reid for an upcoming interview, the first thing you’ll read on her website is that she self-identifies as the “pre-eminent broadside balladress of the Manchester region.” This august position, she will later gladly admit, is partially due to a lack of competition: Jennifer is the only broadside balladress in the Manchester region. In fact, she’s the only broadside balladress in the country. And she made up the word balladress, so there’s that, too.
In spite of being the only iteration of a thing she invented, Jennifer wasn’t how I expected someone who devotes themselves to the study and performance of Industrial Revolution-era ballads to be. “I’ll never not be crazy, so it’s always good to have The Booglies,” was one of the first things she said to me, enthusing about her punk 1950s rock-and-roll band in which she “rasps and screams and prances about.” It wasn’t the omnipresent tattoos that caught me by surprise but her attitude of irreverent, puckish vim: it takes a certain kind of freethinking apostasy to create a profession that no one else does and then become pre-eminent at it.
As Jennifer started to tell me the history of her chosen field, however, I realised that everything about her made absolute sense. She is exactly the sort of person who would voraciously devour broadside ballads and try to make others equally excited about the topic. She is, in short, a radical.
I used to have a really good definition for it. Hold on. Yes. A broadside ballad was a poem intended to be sung, printed on a piece of cheap paper. Ephemera. They weren’t supposed to last. The paper was so thin that you’d get it, learn it, paste it up on the pub wall, forget about it and paste over it with a new one in a couple of days. But they’ve survived. There’s 5,000 in Manchester alone. People just didn’t want to let them go.
How long were they popular for?
Oh God, ages. They were around from the 1500s all the way up to the 1900s. They had black Gothic print and evolved into garlands, which evolved into chapbooks of poetry. Broadsheets were easier because you could have them in a roll on a stick, like toilet paper—pull it down, cut it off , sell it, pull it down, cut it off , sell it—so it was easy to just shove them out. When newspapers started becoming popular they were seen as gossip. Newspapers were rooted in fact whereas broadsheets became a guy shouting, “Murder! Betrayal! Torture!” It was all a bit medieval by then.
How did you first become interested in broadsides?
I was in Barcelona and we were squatting and after a year I ran out of money, so I started e-mailing all the cultural places in Manchester like Chetham’s Library and the Working Class Movement Library, saying I was interested in Lancashire folk music. Chetham’s got back to me and said they had this collection of ballads, seven big volumes of them. I looked through them and realised that I recognised some of the tunes but not where from. I started to sing them, and catalogued and digitised them all. And then the artist Jeremy Deller got in touch and asked me to sing on Newsnight and from there it went on.
Were you raised with folk music?
No, no, my parents don’t like folk music. Dad likes Leonard Cohen, Mum likes Bryan Ferry and that’s where it stops. Both police people. We’d go on holidays to Turkey because they liked getting tanned. It wasn’t my background at all; I’d never been to a folk festival in my life. But, I don’t know, things chime from it. Working class struggles. I can’t not be interested. I can’t not tell people about it. These songs, all these trade union songs, early anti-Corn Law and Peterloo Massacre stuff and the big mill disasters, it’s all really important and it’s exactly the same as now. I think people should focus more and learn from the past so we can move forward.
The ballads were created for working class people. Were they made by them too?
Some were. There were people like Tommy Armstrong, the Pitman Poet. He’d work in the pit, write poems, sing them, be at the front of strikes and represent the people. But then you had places like the Seven Dials that used to be a big London printing powerhouse. There was a famous printer there called Jeremy Catnach. He was a bit of a git. He used to hire people to write ballads, mimicking what working class people were thinking, but only to flog to them. He had a really capitalist mindset, trying to appeal to working class people in an exploitative way.
Do you have an idea of how many were written?
Loads loads loads. If you were a traveller and walked past a printer’s house they’d say, “Right, I can tell you’re new in town, come in here. You can earn twenty shillings a week to churn out ballads.” The circulation was insane. Some of them would say “a woman in ‘blank’ street” and the printer would just fill in the name of a street in his area. These ballads were reproduced everywhere and people would think they were specific to their neighbourhood when they absolutely weren’t. There’s a story about a guy who was being hanged, and the hack went to the hanging, wrote down the details, ran to the printing house, printed off a few hundred ballads, came back and had them to sell by the time the man was dead.
Your background isn’t in traditional academia. Is that a benefit in some ways?
Yes, especially with the Lancashire dialect stuff, which I find the richest part. I can’t come at it from an academic perspective because I’m too invested. I just have to sing it, I have to be the vessel through which more people can hear it. There are academics that I talk to, but they’ve only dabbled, used bits and pieces. I’m fully ballad girl, the end.
How does performance factor into your work? Have you done research on how they were sung?
The vocals are the glitzy, charismatic part. If I was just going to give a talk about ballads and not sing any, then I really don’t see the point at all. I like to sing a cappella because it’s got heart that way. If you were a miner or a weaver, you weren’t going to have an instrument lying around. Maybe an English concertina if you’re lucky. It’s like when you get drunk and you sing at the pub and don’t have an instrument to hand. I like the spontaneity, you can just burst into it. Anyone can sing these songs, so it’s only right for me to sing them in a very simple way where you can fully listen to the words. The tune isn’t important: they weren’t printed with them. You can put any tune you want to these songs. Often when I read a ballad I get the tune in my head by the fourth verse and then by the fifth I can sing it fine. It’s really strange how it comes at you, like it was there already.
Do audiences outside Lancashire react differently to your work?
I think they’re moved in a strange way. It freaked me out at first because I was just singing a song in my accent and doing a clog dance. I didn’t know what the big deal was. It stands for something that is almost dead in most people’s minds, and then you’re reviving it straight in their face.
As you weren’t raised with traditional folk music, has your work changed your relationship to the area you grew up in?
Yes, I’ve totally romanticised Rochdale, and if you ever go to Rochdale it’s horrible. Reading about the history of an area makes you more mature. It’s way bigger than you and it’ll continue to go on after you’ve left, so all you can really do is try to understand it and give it a platform. I’m just an interpreter, maybe helping people find something again.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Eight. Photograph by Liz Seabrook.
When they can’t think of anything else to say, adults tend to ask children what they’d like to do when they grow up. Children will then duly respond to this—perhaps the most important question of their lives—as if they’d been asked to name their favourite type of biscuit. Although valuable as a thought-encouraging exercise, you’d surely get as much prognostic accuracy by cross-examining a bit of wood.
Even discounting that children only know about fifteen occupations, in truth most careers are determined by chance as much as premeditation. After years of false starts and sidesteps, many discover that they’re not really following a career path at all; instead, the path becomes evident only when they look back at the way they came. Among this meandering congregation, which includes me and probably you too, is Rachel Parris.
A comedian, actor, musician and improviser, Rachel’s work blends together so many different disciplines that the only way to properly describe what she does is to throw syllables together until you get some unwieldy portmanteau. “I wish there was a word that included everything I do but there isn’t,” she says. “I had the same problem when I wrote my Twitter profile. What do you put? I’m not famous enough for a cryptic comedy answer. I need people to be able to know who I am!”
This sort of confusion started early. After studying music at Oxford and taking a postgraduate course in acting, Rachel was unsure what exactly it was she wanted to pursue seriously. What do you do when you’re interested in several different fields at the same time, and you’re good at them too? She learned that playing piano at improvisational comedy gigs was more fun than attending insufferably sincere singer-songwriter nights, and that writing and performing funny songs was better still. “Comedy was the first thing that said yes to me,” she reflects. “It was the first thing that just worked straight away.”
In the years since, Rachel has built an unsurprisingly diverse career. In her solo work she performs sharp, perceptive comedy songs buoyed by her likeable stand-up. She’s also a member of several popular improv groups including Austentatious, the exceptional Regency-era troupe that improvises imaginary Jane Austen novels. This variety reflects her disparate talents but also her pragmatism and hard work. “For me the only way forward was to try new things. You add enough of them together and that makes a career,” she says.
“Comedians are fond of this idea of being pro. They ask, ‘Are you pro? Are you pro?’ which means, ‘Do you have a day job or are you full-time?’ as if it’s a really clear distinction. But sometimes you have to piece six different jobs together.”
Out of those many different jobs, the one on Rachel’s mind as she sits with me at her dining table is her solo musical comedy show. If there is an added pressure to this feat, it seems to come from her passion for the form rather than the absence of collaborators. “I want to write actual songs with interesting chord structures and melodies that will stick in your head,” she states. “It has to be a song for a reason. It can’t just be something you could say. Otherwise why not just say it?” In her effort to avoid being a modern Flanders and Swann (“I’m willing to get paralysed if I have to, though, don’t get me wrong”), she pushes herself to experiment with different musical forms: “As a pianist, piano-led ballads are a gift, but I once made myself write a sexy R&B number too. It was about ankles.”
Rachel is zealous on the subject of songwriting. “I love music and am a musician, and I realised that for a while I was ignoring that. I was doing funny little joke songs, with two chords,” she says. “That was fine and people would laugh, but now I don’t see why not try to make it a good song too. Having a less well-written song musically doesn’t makes the joke any funnier, it’s just that you can get away with it. And I don’t want to get away with it.”
Even when deployed ambitiously, craft can only take you so far. When you can make anything about anything, you usually end up not making very much at all. If Rachel has picked up any lessons from the unexpected cult success of Austentatious, she believes it’s that self-imposed restrictions can be creatively rewarding.
“I’m putting together my next show at the moment,” she explains. “It’s about entering your thirties. When I was little, if I’d drawn a picture about being this age there would have been a husband and a kid and a house and a car, so I’m writing songs about what it is to be this age and not have any of those things. It’s nice to have some parameters to be controlled by, otherwise you’re just sitting there, looking around the room for something funny. I quite enjoy the challenge of saying, ‘No, I’m writing a song from the point of view of my ovaries, and that’s what it’s going to be.’”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Eight. Photograph by Liz Seabrook.
With apologies to Ben Matthew, my bicycle is probably my best friend. It’s rare for me to arrive at any engagement without a pannier awkwardly wedged under an arm, yet I prefer to use it for pleasure over purpose, regularly spending weekends cycling up and down my local canal like I’m conducting a haphazard topographical survey.
Last year, I arranged to undertake a solo bike ride from Glasgow to Inverness. The journey, my route map promised, would carry me through ancient pine forests, open heather moorland and two national parks. I would traverse a mountain range, cross divine Victorian bridges, visit Rob Roy’s grave and see the millennia-old Fortingall Yew. In the weeks leading up to my departure I was barely present in my daily life. It was as if I was already in the Highlands; I’d get to sleep by imagining I was in my sleeping bag, under a sky ablush with stars.
An afternoon, an evening, a can of Irn-Bru and a fistful of sweets into my adventure, I realised something was awry. I was being eaten alive. Despite the relatively low top speed of the Highland midge, outrunning them had ceased to be an option. A cloud of winged creatures hung around me like a cartoon bad mood, my flesh a siren song for their plodding, fevered hunger. The holiday wasn’t going well. With the last of the day sinking beneath Loch Venachar, I had scant minutes to arrange canvas, poles, pegs and guy ropes in the vague configuration of a tent. When I finally made it inside my refuge, arrhythmic insectile drumming announcing my success on the flysheet, I looked through the mesh triangle and wondered what had brought me there. A sensible person might have told me that camping next to a loch at the height of summer was a mistake. But there was no one to say anything.
As my body released a torturous rush of histamine in a misguided attempt to be helpful, I realised that I was telling myself that I was having a good time rather than actually having one. The truth is there’s no such thing as travelling alone: you always end up taking yourself along too. Even as I pedalled through some of the most dazzling landscapes I’d ever seen, my thoughts, unbridled from the demands of work, daily activities and other people, were free to tumble into fathomless depths. Strenuous physical exertion and solitude conspired to exhume everything I’d wrapped in bin liners and buried under the patio of my mind. As an enthusiastic amateur, I had trained my body to cycle from morning until night. Spending a week stuck inside my own head was another matter.
When you experience solitude alongside ordinary interactions you’re able to appreciate both states more keenly: getting away for ten minutes to buy milk can be like a cooling breeze on a sweltering afternoon. This only works, however, when isolation exists in isolation. As the spectacular trudge of my first day had neared its conclusion, I felt overwhelmed by the likelihood of a whole week without talking to anyone outside the hospitality industry. Between travel companions the difficult parts of a journey become something you share: an in-joke, an elaborate story you tell later, a secret. What joy could I find in flat tyres, midge onslaughts or disappointing pies? When faced alone, they were just hassles. That night I lay in my besieged tent in the dark, listening to the insects hum. I felt guilty. Why did I need another person in my life to be happy? Why didn’t things feel the same by myself? I’ve been fiercely independent since my mid-teens, and yet the idea of cycling hundreds of miles across mountains daunted me less than the prospect of doing it without anyone to make terrible puns with.
There wasn’t a triumphant breakthrough coming. Loneliness is like a heavy coat that you’re unable to take off ; the sight of Ben Macdui or a dotterel or the Glen Ogle viaduct could only be so helpful. I struggled on. The good and the bad rode along with me, bulging panniers on either side of my emotional bike rack. I learned to live on small comforts: a wave from a man on a tractor, a barmaid in Pitlochry who told me about her brother, the cerulean signposts of the National Cycle Network informing me someone had been there before me. I realised—and there was plenty of time to reflect upon this—that all I could do was give myself over to the experience wholeheartedly, regardless of how I felt inside.
So that’s what I did. I swam in every loch I saw, cycled in torrential rain, flew down mountains; ditched my bike to bound up hillocks, yelled from summits, sang to the birds, recited mountain poetry to nonplussed sheep, awoke to see a deer idling outside my tent, ordered four side dishes in an incongruous Australian theme restaurant, camped in a field of heather, camped on the side of a hill, camped anywhere the midges wouldn’t get me, drank Glenfiddich as the sun went down, stood waist deep in Loch Moy and read Nan Shepherd, stumbled across a Bronze Age cairn and walked among the passage graves and thought about the still living and the long dead. And then it was over. On my final night I wriggled out of my tent to sleep under the stars, even though it was overcast and I couldn’t see them.
Rather than being a break from my regular life, the trip became that life in microcosm: trying to make the good things outweigh the bad ones, offsetting struggles with wonders, yearning to connect. I love spending time alone, but I understood as clearly as I ever had that I don’t want to be alone, because life is best when shared with other people: family, friends, maybe even someone who’d be willing to occasionally spend a week swimming in lochs and enduring the bombardments of the Highland midge. I haven’t met them yet.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Six.
It’s odd when you think about it. Once a year, like something from a nature documentary, nearly every comedy performer in Britain moves to Edinburgh. Subsisting on a diet of square sausage and anxiety, thousands of stand-ups, improvisers and character comedians spend close to a month in the city, performing their shows or trying to persuade evanescent strangers to attend those shows. Even among the other performing arts that comprise the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, such industry-wide temporary migration is unique. For a handful of weeks, an entire art form exists in one place, just down the road from the Forth Bridge and its infinite paint job.
One of the many such performers who will decamp to the Royal Mile this year is Alison Thea-Skot, an energetic, admirably game comedian who has been playing the Fringe on and off since 2007. In her upcoming show, Some Like It Thea-Skot, she showcases a range of charmingly unhinged characters, from coal-jawed diva Bibi Babalicious to the newly single head of ‘The Heartbreak Club’ who propositions audience members while crying and attempting to mount them.
Shortly after she had completed her first full preview, I sat down with Alison to talk about the process of developing an Edinburgh show.
How do you get ready for the Fringe?
I gig different characters for ten-or twenty-minute sets all year round and start collating them into an hour. A month and a half before Edinburgh I don’t trust anything that I’ve got. There are bits that are brand new that don’t work and bits that I’ve replaced entirely.
In your show you involve a single audience member repeatedly. How do you decide who to go for?
It’s like casting. You’re choosing someone to come into your show with you. I think that’s what draws me to it as a construct. I love having a script, but I want every performance to be slightly different, and the person you choose determines the tone. Fairly quickly you decipher who you think will be open, who looks like they’re having fun already, but isn’t going to come up on stage and fight you. It’s not about picking on someone, but embracing them into the show and helping turn the whole room.
In the quick changes between different characters, how do you manage to wrangle costumes and props?
Oh, God, I’ve got too many props! I love that step in developing my show, though. How do I make it flow so there isn’t an awkward pause while I try to find some Doritos? I’m torn between finishing with a prop and putting it neatly away in a box so you can put the lid on and walk straight out at the end, and having everything everywhere. I did a set the other night and left the stage covered in grapes and it was terrific.
Other than the grapes, there’s a lot of food in your show. Are all of your profits going to fund crisps? Surely the crisp budget is untenable!
Every show I’ve done has always had some kind of food in it. The finale of my last one was me singing the Edith Piaf song Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien while gargling jelly that had a wig on it. For every show I had to make an entire jelly. I’d be up really late at night making endless jelly, cursing, “Why! Why!” This year I thought maybe I’d try to not write food into the show, and yet nearly every character has some.
What does food add, other than being inherently funny because it gets everywhere?
I’ve always been attracted to food and mess. I’m not sure why. Why would I be attracted to that? It makes me laugh. Being messy from the very start is a great way to get the audience to a certain level quickly. It’s like rounding up all your audience members and saying: “Right, I’m going over here and you’re coming with me.” They’re instantly in a silly, strange place, and the whole room can lift. I love that feeling because the audience is suddenly up for anything. The show can live or die on that, of course, but that kind of excites me. There’s something wonderful about a bit of chaos, the sense that everything might spiral out of control at any moment.
I think certain comedy works best when it feels like the final week of a panto.
Yes, I’ve never thought of it that way. I’ve done a lot of panto, actually. I’ve been Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk, Dick in Dick Whittington. That was interesting, having 500 children shouting “Dick!” at you every night for six weeks. I have real respect for the art of panto. There’s such a tradition to it. I loved being principal boy as well, because it’s something you don’t really see out of pantomime.
Was there lots of thigh slapping?
Loads! You can’t perform that kind of stuff without completely committing. It’s a mad world with people in wigs and a guy in a chicken suit but your character’s journey still has to be real. We had a massive snake appear on stage at the end and we all had to be terrified of it. I want little kids to be worried that I might fall off a beanstalk and die. I want that to be real for them. There’s really something to be said for giving work everything you can. Otherwise why are you doing it?
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Six . Photograph by Liz Seabrook.
We’ve just met. Hello. Hi. We share first names and tentative smiles, a handshake or a nod or the offer of a sausage roll. Like most first encounters there is awkwardness and goodwill in equal measure. A spirit of friendly endeavour. And then something happens.
There’s a question you’d like to ask. I can feel it forming in your mind. There was a word I pronounced oddly, or you noticed a sing-song quality to my voice. Maybe you wait until it’s socially appropriate. Maybe you dive right in. Either way, inevitably: “Where do you come from?”
I’ve heard this roughly once a fortnight for the past dozen years, but it’s an innocent query, and it’d be rude to not oblige. Here’s the answer I’d give to a geography teacher: I was born in Scotland, lived in a Forthside naval base until I was five, moved to Pontypridd, remained there for a decade, then lived in England, then Scotland, moved to London for university and forgot to leave. A decade vanished and here I am, eyeing the finger food and smiling politely. Hi. Hello.
So much early movement untethered my voice from its natural sense of place. All five-year-olds are basically incomprehensible, but I was particularly so, my Scottish accent so thick that teachers and classmates could barely understand me. When my preschool burr finally slipped away, it was replaced not with a Welsh accent but some confused amalgam that persists to this day. There’s something in me that’s essentially unsettled, and this uncertainty has spilled out into the way I speak.
An accent is something you carry around in your throat, an unwitting passenger in life. It can be scrubbed away with effort, but is the clearest biological indication of upbringing. You can only have an accent if you’re from somewhere. So what does that make me? Where do I come from?
Despite living in Pontypridd for my most formative years, I didn’t belong. I defined myself in opposition to Wales: its homogeneity, its questionable approach to vowels, its misplaced pride in Tom Jones, its marrow-deep rugby obsession. For an indoor kid with spaghetti wrists rugby was a weekly ordeal, and seemingly the only sport in existence. If the trite observation about it being the national religion was true, then I was an atheist, dragged to church in ill-fitting clothes.
My real home, I asserted, was Scotland, a country I had little ongoing connection with beyond a quenchless thirst for Irn-Bru and Glaswegian indiepop. There’s a term that articulates this feeling: hiraeth. It doesn’t have a direct English translation, but means “a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.” An etymologist would relish pointing out at this juncture that hiraeth is a Welsh word.
Since skipping Glamorgan at sixteen for a bedsit and bad poetry, my teenage friendships left to atrophy, I’ve told people that I’m barred from the country. There are pictures of me, I used to allege, stuck in the windows of the tollbooths that parenthesise the Severn Bridge. I started believing my own ruse, ignoring the hiraeth mutating inside me. I made London home and joined a community, but something was missing. Almost every new friend had also fled a small town of some description, but they didn’t recite elaborate analogies about being in exile.
Wary of nationalism, I’d also spurned any notion of tradition, culture or heritage that I might call my own. As I got on with the glacial business of forging a meaningful, happy life, some abstract part of me ached and I didn’t know how to stop it.
Until, that is, I read about a man jumping off a ferry.
. . .
On 9th October 2011, the rugby player Manu Tuilagi—possibly inebriated, definitely stupid—decided it would be a good idea to fling himself from a passenger ferry into the busy Waitemata Harbour and swim to a nearby pier. The ill-advised leap came as the denouement to England’s disastrous Rugby World Cup campaign, where dismay over their early exit had been compounded by reports of ill-discipline, drunken nights out and casual bouts of dwarf-tossing.
This baffling conduct passed me by until I skimmed a news story on Tuilagi and his overly symbolic tumble. As my long-held suspicions about rugby’s inherent boorishness were being confirmed, I caught an offhand mention of the contrast Wales provided to England’s indignities. My interest piqued, I delved deeper. Wales weren’t tossing dwarves; they were too busy having weekly choir practice instead. Article after article spoke reverently of their work ethic, commitment to training and support of one another. The men I read about seemed a world away from the swaggering clods of the frigid rugby pitches of my youth, those athletically unfearful boys who made life difficult because I spoke funny.
I’d certainly changed since leaving the country—I could now poach an egg—and I wondered if rugby had too. With the careful optimism of the frequently disappointed, I sat down a few days later to watch Wales’ semi-final, my bare feet padding across rock. And then it happened. I got it.
Rugby, I realised, is about the collective struggle to accomplish a shared goal. It’s a metaphor for socialism. No wonder the Welsh adore it. Co-operation is built into its genetic code: to take part in a scrum eight players bind together, sharing the weight of their difficult task. There are players who never even touch the ball: their job is solely to hold up or protect their teammates. Most pleasingly for someone who spent juvenile P. E. lessons dreading the changing rooms, it’s specifically designed so all shapes and sizes can play: if you’re tall you can be a lock, if you’re short you can be a scrum-half, if you’re heavier you can be a prop. No matter who you are, if you want to play there’s a role for you, like a choir that induces cauliflower ears. Within eighty minutes I’d converted to the national religion; I didn’t just enjoy rugby, I believed in it, struck sentimental by its egalitarian beauty.
. . .
It’s hardly worth mentioning that Wales lost. It didn’t matter. They were ferocious, indefatigable, large-hearted. They played as if rugby was all that mattered. It was only polite to reciprocate. I’ve followed them ardently ever since. Watching now inspires an unfamiliar sensation in my chest, huddling between the lungs: unembarrassed pride. Instead of viewing national identity as a tool used to exclude others and promote insularity, I appreciate it’s also a way to acknowledge history, both collective and individual, good and bad. It doesn’t negate the factors that made me yearn to leave in the first place, but I finally understand Pontypridd’s role in my life.
On the whims of circumstance I grew up in Wales—that underdog of a country, weird and funny and soulful—and it shaped me more than I knew. I’d been wrong for almost my entire life. The values it cherishes are my values. Its struggles are my struggles. When the television cameras cut to an excitable crowd dressed like daffodils and sheep, I don’t recognise myself, but that doesn’t make the feeling of affinity any less valid.
Wales belongs to me as well. Its history is mine. Its culture is mine. The coalfields and the valleys are mine. The Mabinogion is mine. Aneurin Bevan is mine. The Labour movement is mine. The miners’ strike is mine. The post-industrial hardships are mine. Even Tom Jones is mine, for whatever that’s worth.
Most importantly, rugby is mine. It always has been. My grandfather passed away a few years ago, and I can’t watch a game without thinking of how he’d run up and down the length of his sofa, shouting at the television in exultation or despair. I catch myself doing it now too, and in those moments I feel connected to him, to that lost place of my past. When Wales play rugby—and, heavens, when they play they’re magnificent—I remember every bit of him. I don’t have an accent, but I have that.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Five.
It was clear that we weren’t all going to make it. Something had gone wrong on our way to settle a new land, and now the aircraft was plummeting towards the ocean and our near-certain deaths. We were carrying too much weight: unless someone was abandoned to the frigid waters below we would all surely perish. There was the scientist, the farmer, the doctor, the teacher, the builder, and me: the comedian. We each had to make the case, Mrs Thomas said, for why we would should be allowed to live. What useful skills did we have? What could we oﬀer humanity? What made us more valuable than our fellow passengers?
In turn each of us addressed the rest of the class. I cajoled and persuaded. I told jokes. I was warm and optimistic. I ran down my opponents while appearing magnanimous. I didn’t believe a word I said, and I was brilliant. An eleven-year-old farmer was tossed into an unforgiving sea. Surviving that hypothetical disaster—when I clearly should have been thrown to an icy death—remains my proudest achievement. I’m acutely aware, however, that adults would be harder to convince.
If society crumbles, what help can I provide? I bake a mean clafoutis and saw Never Been Kissed twice in the cinema. That’s about it. I can’t even fix my bicycle. To be honest, I don’t really know how the internet works. If it stopped functioning tomorrow I’d have no idea how to rebuild it, let alone an oven, dentist’s chair or steamship. I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, trying to think of a good tweet.
In an eﬀort to develop some usefulness for the cruel future that hopefully doesn’t await, I decided to learn how to make fire without conventional aids. A turning point in the history of mankind, fire is seen by many early civilisations as being akin to magic, a miracle to be stolen from gods. It seemed like a good place to start.
Out of the many possible fire-starting methods, from friction to neglecting a chip pan in a public information film, harnessing the sun’s rays appealed most. It provides the hardy mien of outdoorsmanship without having to endlessly rub sticks together. The principle is both simple and proven: using a lens, sunlight can be focused onto a patch of tinder to start a fire. As I considered a magnifying glass cheating, I turned to a survival guide for inspiration. I was immediately drawn to the idea of ice, which seemed to repudiate nature itself. Surely no one was going to use me as sacrificial human ballast if I could make fire with just water and my own marvellousness.
The guide recommended using ice from a nearby creek, which seemed ambitious given that it was August and I live within Zone 2 of the London Underground network. I froze a bowl of water instead, occasionally shaking it to avoid air bubbles, and ended up with something that looked like an oversized melting contact lens. With the assistance of an oven glove, I held my bespoke loupe proudly above the kindling, excited for the coming inferno. And then I dropped it. My dreams skidded across the patio in discrete, liquescent shards.
Commonly known as The Walkie-Talkie—as all London buildings above a certain height are now required by law to be named after random objects—20 Fenchurch Street recently became famous when it melted parts of a car. Like a 37-storey block of ice being held by an equally large oven glove, its concave shape and bank of flat windows concentrated sunlight onto a parcel of street below, creating a temperature high enough to melt black plastic and cook the eggs of waggish reporters.
Taking this as encouragement rather than a dire portent about ill-conceived city planning, I placed a large mirror on the side of my house, angling it towards the garden. By this point, unfortunately, the sun had given up on waiting for me: instead of a sunbeam the mirror just reflected an overcast sky that mocked my audacity and threatened rain. I needed a new approach, or a very old one: it was time to rub sticks together.
I enjoy my garden. Between its three fences I’ve planted flowers that haven’t grown and vegetables that have, hosted barbecues where I’ve drunk too much, read books, written things, kissed people. For much of the year it is a reliable source of mint and thyme, and there’s a tree at the back that I’m convinced is the largest oak in my electoral ward. Of the many hours I’ve lost there, the least enjoyable is almost certainly the one I spent rubbing a stick against a bit of wood with an aching hand and a dimming sense of hope.
The hand drill method doesn’t in fact involve a hand drill. Instead, you roll a spindle against a fire board until the friction creates an ember. It is both the earliest and most challenging of all fire-starting techniques. Scholars of mythology have diﬀerent theories for why the theft of fire was such a pervasive global myth, but after my long, futile struggle I completely understood why fire would be seen as celestial. My frustration was compounded by a guilty feeling that I was failing a key tenet of self-suﬃciency. In my inability to measure up to my ancestors, I was less of an adult, less of a man, less of a human being.
I told myself I wouldn’t stop until I’d started a fire, and believed this right until the moment I gave up.
a nine-volt battery and steel wool
There is a person whose job is to dredge Twitter for any mention of batteries. I know this because I once made a joke about their growing obsolescence and within minutes had a response from a battery company pointing out that size Ds are useful in flashlights. I felt strangely contrite, as if I had in some way besmirched the good reputation of batteries.
I feel even worse now. Holding the battery terminals near the steel wool created immediate dots of flame that danced up and down the filament. The sparks disappeared in moments, but with enough patience I knew I would be able to get a fire going. Sure enough, ten minutes of careful guidance led to a small but persistent fire.
After a day marinating in failure it was almost too easy. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Given my trials I’d been hoping for some exultant moment of triumph, but in the end it was about as diﬃcult as if I’d used a box of matches. Did it count? Was it cheating? Had I learned anything? What had I been trying to accomplish, anyway?
I sat by the fire, ignoring the warmth of the afternoon. The fire crackled on, oblivious to me. Perhaps I’d been missing the lesson that was to hand. I was never going to be a person who could create flames with just my bare hands, but maybe that was okay. I hadn’t been a scientist, farmer, doctor, teacher, or builder either and I’d still talked my way out of the death that surely belonged to me. If the apocalypse comes, I’ll muddle through that as well. And my clafoutis really is excellent. I just need to figure out how to make it on an open fire instead of in an oven and I’ll be set.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Three.
The tyranny of popcorn is largely due to good timing. Evidence of its consumption dates back to 4,700 BC Peru, but the snack’s most significant development came in 1893 with Charles Cretors’ invention of the mobile popcorn popper, three years before the first permanent cinemas. As popcorn was already popular at the fairs and carnivals that showed the earliest films, its subsequent availability outside the first movie theatres meant that popcorn and cinema-going would become inextricably linked. Thanks to serendipity and the efforts of one innovative confectioner, a fad in snack food became forever associated with the major art form of the twentieth century. It’s as if we associated sculpture with Cheestrings, or literature with Push Pops.
Given that I’ve spent much of my professional life writing about film, the information that I don’t like popcorn tends to surprise people, which is further testament to the hold that exploded maize has upon our cinema-going psyche. Popcorn has the field largely to itself, its chief alternatives being sallow, lugubrious hot dogs and financially ruinous bags of pick ’n’ mix. In the hope of discovering an acceptable replacement, I headed to my local cinema with an array of potential usurpers concealed within my rucksack’s Tupperware-filled innards.
I decided to forsake the usual candidates and contemplate the previously unthinkable. If chocolate-covered raisins haven’t dislodged popcorn in a century they’re not going to start now.
half a roast chicken
Even when it has arrived pre-heated in a foil bag from a supermarket, there’s something about holding a roast fowl in your hands that makes you feel like you should be wearing ermine and initiating the Reformation. There’s a ghastly splendour in such a primal display of eating, and the first full bite of chicken breast was divine. Unfortunately the pleasure waned as the thrill of Tudor gluttony was replaced with greasy fingers, bones that needed disposing of and a smell that I felt certain was seeping out of the theatre and into the waiting nostrils of the underpaid workers in the lobby. Disappointed and paranoid, I hid the chicken in the bottom of my bag where its scent lingered accusingly for the rest of the feature.
pide with hummus
In the dark of a cinema, a loaf of bread can seem limitless. I spent a whole act or more of the film tearing off strips of pide and baptising them with hummus, almost forgetting that I had several other foods still to try. When I finally looked down at my lap during a particularly dull section of the particularly dull movie, I realised I’d eaten nearly half of the loaf by myself. The lesson is that pide is delicious but dangerous, much like a cake that tries to mug you.
a bowl of cereal
I don’t have any proof for this beyond my own unreliable ears, but I believe that the act of eating popcorn is louder than the act of eating cereal. Nevertheless, once you emancipate yourself from the bonds of conventional movie snacking you become aware of every rustle, crunch and squelch you produce, which makes cereal consumption a distinct trial. Did you know, for instance, that milk makes a sound when poured into a bowl of cereal, and that this sound will seem deafening when occurring during a scene of dialogue? I was already feeling bad enough about the tenacious poultry smell without the bane of noisy milk. For all of cereal’s difficulties, however, eating it in a cinema is actually a treat. It briefly made me feel like I was a youthful, pyjama-clad version of myself sitting in front of Saturday morning cartoons, rather than the one sitting in a nearly-empty cinema on a weekday afternoon watching something tedious and ultraviolent. If only a bowl of cereal didn’t require quite so much assembling.
It’s difficult to understand that eating jelly in the dark is an acquired skill until you discover your own inability to acquire that skill. I had underestimated how tough the substance is to eat when it isn’t sitting captive in a bowl next to melting ice cream. At my first attempt, a sizeable rhombus of jelly slid from my plate and bounced off my foot. Later, after the film had mercifully ended, I tried to locate the gelatinous lump using the glow of my mobile phone screen, but to no avail. It may be there still. The surviving jelly was excellent, but I’m not sure if it’s worth the danger of getting barred from my local cinema. Without films in my life, I’d probably have to take up swing dancing or join a street gang.
Multitudinous, tiny, comprised mostly of sugar and carried in plastic tubes with apertures ideal for pouring into your hand, cake decorations would seem perfectly designed for movie snacking. A pick ‘n’ mix to be found in almost any kitchen. Sadly, though, eating cake decorations is much like exposing yourself to radiation: you can only do it in small doses, after which you begin to feel sick. The only actual variety the decorations offered was the different ways in which they disappointed: the silver dragée were too hard, the confetti dots too flavourless, the writing icing gel too sugary. With the film almost over and hundreds and thousands of hundreds-and-thousands left uneaten, I placed another unsatisfying sugar butterfly into my mouth and thought wistfully about Tangfastics.
Like talking to myself in public or having day-long baths, eating jam on its own is something I’ve always assumed I would do if it were socially acceptable. In the chintzy casino in my head, I’d placed all of my imaginary money on it being the superior cinema snack. Jam is possibly the best thing you can put in a jar, and certainly the second best thing you can spread on toast. Just after I had my first spoonful, however, something happened: I didn’t really want to eat jam any more. Possibly it was because I was consuming the foodstuff by itself. Possibly it was because I’d already eaten half of a loaf of pide, a bowl of cereal, masses of cake decorations, a plate of jelly and half of a roast chicken. It’s hard to say. My stomach was filled with what I could only assume was disenchantment. In a pained effort to recover some dignity on jam’s behalf, I tore off a chunk of pide and dipped it into the jar. The transformation was instant. With its fruity sweetness balanced by the bread’s elegantly obliging accompaniment, the jam tasted exactly as it was meant to: like a summer morning where the world seems alive with possibility. Society was right. It didn’t matter that the film was terrible or that I felt unwell. I had a jar of jam, and everything was going to be okay.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Two.
“Thus was I at once basking in an intense sun, regaling myself with luxurious fruit, reading my favourite Disraeli,” Lady Charlotte Bertie wrote in her journal, sixteen years of age. “Or immersing myself in a thousand wayward fancies and meditations (for I was away from the noisy din and bustle of life and merriment, in solitude, which I love) listening to distant melancholy bells.” Journals, the precocious teen then observed, are “a future clue to past events.” She was right: while Lady Charlotte would write in her journal every day over 69 years and 10,000 pages, stopping only when her eyesight failed, that early entry is an adumbration to the extraordinary life that would follow. Her circumstances would transform as her surname changed from Bertie to Guest to Schreiber, but she would continue to be happiest with the world kept at a remove, lost in her own thoughts, with nothing for company except her own quicksilver mind.
Unless you’re particularly well-versed in medieval Welsh literature or 18th-century English ceramics, it’s likely that the preceding paragraph is the first time you’ve heard of Lady Charlotte. Despite being one of the most brilliant individuals of her age, her reputation languishes in relative obscurity, in part because of her gender, in part because of the specificity of her pursuits. Within the scope afforded to her as a woman living in Victorian Wales, Lady Charlotte made significant contributions to a range of fields, but as none of her interests are remotely glamorous to us today, her legacy has unfairly dimmed.
Born to the aristocracy in 1812, Lady Charlotte had the opportunity to become educated to a degree then unavailable to women whose fathers weren’t the ninth Earl of Lindsey. To credit her undoubted privilege entirely for her accomplishments, however, is to dismiss her preternatural intelligence and curiosity. A lonely, unhappy, restless child, the young Lady Charlotte indulged her “mania” for the arts by penning reams of theatrical criticism, while learning Italian, French, Latin, Greek, Persian, Arabic and Hebrew (teaching herself the latter three). “I have been brought up alone, and never have associated with children or young persons of my own age, nor had I anyone to share my early joys and griefs,” the sixteen-year-old also wrote in her journal. “When anything annoys or delights me I am accustomed to brood over it in the inmost escapes of my own bosom.”
Desperate to get away from her hated step-father—a drunkard Reverend prone to violence and ecclesiastical sabotage—but dismayed by the prospect of marrying the 67-year-old politician her family had arranged for her, Lady Charlotte first made the acquaintance of Benjamin Disraeli, whose writing she’d long been enamoured with. Callously, he would write to his sister to ask, “By the bye, would you like Lady for a sister-in-law, very clever, £25000 and domestic?” before stating, “While I may commit many follies in life, I never intend to marry for ‘love’.” Dodging a bullet shaped like a future prime minister, she put aside her initial ambivalence and married Welsh industrialist John Guest, a wealthy middle-aged ironmonger eyeing a career in politics.
It was while raising their ten children, born over thirteen years, and working as the Dowlais Iron Company’s translator and accountant that Lady Charlotte completed what would become the defining achievement of her life: the first translation of The Mabinogion into English and modern Welsh. A collection of eleven prose stories written in the 14th century, some dating in oral tradition as far back as the Iron Age, The Mabinogion is one of the true masterpieces of medieval literature. It is a mythological, subversive version of pre-Christian history, filled with rousing tales of misfortune, love, transmogrification, magic and betrayal; kings are turned into boars and women turned into owls; chatty severed heads make for good travelling companions and enchanted cauldrons revive the dead at terrible cost. Created without the assistance of spellbound objects, Lady Charlotte’s translation was a more prosaic act of resurrection. As an Englishwoman madly in love with Wales, her painstaking eight-year endeavour was undertaken with the desire to see the country properly recognised as the cradle of European Romance. Then largely unknown outside of antiquarians, the work’s publication at the height of the Romantic revival established the significance of Welsh mythology within European literature.
Beyond popularising the Mabinogion for an international audience, Lady Charlotte’s translation also affected Welsh notions about identity, coinciding with a period of self-reflection within the country. In her introduction, she elucidates how the legends recorded in the stories influenced the early settlement of Wales, pointing out the number of mountains, lakes, fords, crags and other topographical features named in commemoration of its events and characters.
She notes with regret how the connections between topography and myth were often lost as the relevant words dropped from colloquial language: “Proceeding backwards in time, we find these romances, their ornaments falling away at each step.” In bringing ancient ties back to public attention, Lady Charlotte contributed to a national sense of shared cultural heritage that still endures.
Almost as striking as the Mabinogion itself—with its warring dragons, golden bowls that rob people of speech and mice sentenced to death, not to mention the plague of men who can’t be killed due to their superhuman hearing—is how many other activities Lady Charlotte pursued while producing the multi-volume work. In one journal entry, she writes, “Today I worked hard at the translation of Peredur. I had the pleasure of giving birth to my fifth child and third boy today.” Beyond the raising of her ten children, she founded schools in Dowlais to educate working-class boys and girls, created a range of programmes for the company’s workforce, promoted the sale of embroidery on behalf of Turkish refugees, helped her husband become Merthyr Tydfil’s first MP, and saw her responsibilities at the ironworks increase as his health declined. When John Guest finally died, she took over the running of the business entirely—then the largest ironworks or manufacturing company in the world.
Lady Charlotte, for all her advantages of birth and ability, was still a woman in Victorian Britain: unable to vote, usually pregnant, her life defined in relation to her husband and children. After completing her translation of the Mabinogion, she renounced scholarship entirely. “And now that my dear seven babies are growing up and require so much of my time and attention, it is quite right that I should have done with authorship… I am sure, if a woman is to do her duty as a wife and mother, that the less she meddles with pen and ink the better.” While she also noted in her journal her desire to become eminent at anything she turned her hand to (“I cannot endure anything in a second grade”), her sense of social obligation and devotion to her family restricted what those things could be.
Lady Charlotte sought ways to be productive within the limits of her circumstances. When she married for a second time to an academic called Charles Schreiber, she gave up her successful stewardship of the ironworks and spent most of her remaining years travelling Europe with him, collecting china, board games, playing cards and fans. Inevitably, she excelled at this too: her collection of 18th-century English china was considered one of the world’s best.
Lady Charlotte’s self-definition as a wife, mother and member of the nobility makes it possible to undervalue her contributions to the arts and the people of South Wales. While it could be argued that her breadth of pursuits reflects the aimlessness of privilege, her struggle to reconcile her exceptional intelligence with her aristocratic 19th-century outlook lends her both complexity and a certain melancholy. In some respects, her aristocratic upbringing has denied her due credit, the apparent ease of her endeavours belying her voracious mind and industrious attitude; nearly blind, approaching death, she spent her remaining days knitting woollen comforters for cabmen just so she could have something useful to do.
Consequently, Lady Charlotte’s memory has diminished. Her translation of the Mabinogion was eventually superseded, while her journals, edited by family members and published under their names, were bowdlerised and are little read today. Even the 1,800 pieces of china she gave to the V&A Museum were donated under her husband’s name rather than her own. From our contemporary vantage point we can see how she was inhibited by her status, but it is worth reflecting upon the ways she shone within it, wholeheartedly embracing whatever turns her life took. Writing in her journal shortly after taking charge of the Dowlais ironworks, she declared: “I am iron now.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-One. Illustrations by Hsiao-Ron Cheng.
She called it the Whimsy Horn. If, at any point during Nadia Kamil’s debut stand-up show Wide Open Beavers! the proceedings were in danger of getting too political, the horn would go off and a jingle would announce that it was “whimsy time.” To redress the tonal balance, Nadia would then pretend to be a sexually adventurous unicorn, called Unicorn, from “the Meadow of Sparkles.” The joke, of course, was that Unicorn’s material was just as dialectical as everything else in the show, but she had put a shiny cone on her head, fashioned from an old gift bag. “You don’t undermine the seriousness of the stuff you’re discussing by being silly about it,” Nadia says. If she had a business card—comedians tend not to—then this sentiment would probably be printed on it.
Nadia’s impassioned embrace of both the political and the whimsical is evident throughout her comedy. Recently, she has been repurposing traditionally problematic art forms, writing and filming a rap song promoting smear tests, as well as performing a feminist burlesque—a sublime routine where she removes items of clothing to reveal statements like, “100% of rapes are caused by the rapist,” and, “Pubes are normal,” while staying fully dressed. The act culminates in the triumphant unveiling of her degree certificate, festooned with nipple tassels.
If Nadia’s work is serious and silly, fervent and fanciful, it’s because she’s all of these things herself. “Lots of comedians have a persona when they perform, but I guess mine is really me,” she says. “It’s not even especially exaggerated: it’s just me. It’s almost embarrassing. But I think if your comedy is about what matters to you then people feel more connected to the material.”
After years as part of absurdist double-act The Behemoth, as well as acting in sitcoms, writing for radio and working with sketch groups and esoteric comedy collectives, Wide Open Beavers! was Nadia’s first show as a solo performer. With its mix of traditional stand-up, dancing, songs and audience participation, the show reflects her magpie creativity: outside of comedy, Nadia is part of a four-person close-singing group, produces bespoke postcard short stories, and makes and sells her own jewellery, socks and other crafts (“I sell everything too cheaply, really, but it’s difficult to be a socialist and a businessperson.”). When we speak, she’s even mid-way through reading a hundred books to co-judge a Welsh literary prize.
Wide Open Beavers! was one of the most political shows performed at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, with an emphasis on structural inequality and feminist issues, and yet one of its most personal, too. “It wasn’t a conscious decision to make it about feminism, it was more that I wanted to talk about the things that occupy my mind, and what I deal with a lot of the time is misogyny. My response when I’m faced with adversity is: how can I make something funny about this?” Talking with someone whose interests are as diverse as Nadia’s means that conversation wends around everything from Japanese hosiery to grunting in tennis, but what she returns to again and again is the question of what comedy can do and mean.
“Context really matters,” she asserts. “When you go and see a famous, be-suited, rich, middle-class stand-up doing misogynistic jokes and bits about disabled people, the context is that it’s coming from privilege, from a rich, white man mocking those ‘beneath him’ for profit. It would be different if you saw the same material from somebody else, like Jerry Sadowitz. He’s playing an unlikeable character, so his horrible material makes sense in context because there’s nothing aspirational about him. Nobody goes, ‘Oh, I want to be that guy.’ You’re laughing at his character; he’s not laughing at you.”
The side-effect of presenting material that’s personally and ideologically expressive is an internal pressure to get it right. Given her on-stage confidence, it’s surprising to hear Nadia talk about trepidation. “Doing a show by myself for the first time was a really huge deal for me,” she confesses. “I used to have this big block in my head, saying, ‘Why are you doing this job?’” She came to realise that part of the problem was being a female comedian in a world where the idea of women in comedy is repeatedly challenged by hack journalists. “As a woman, I was always questioning my right to be doing comedy. I felt that if I wasn’t brilliant it was going to ruin it for other women, which is a ridiculous thing to put on yourself. It makes things so hard. I had to let go of that and just do what I wanted to do.”
Nadia fiercely defends the notion that comedy is more than just a vehicle for jokes. “Comedy can be so intricate and detailed and structured, and an audience that pays attention and listens makes that material exist. I hate the idea of stand-up as a background to a Friday night. You want to be a comedian who engages people, and similarly you want to have an audience who engages with you, who aren’t going to be there yelling, ‘Tell us a dick joke!’ I mean, not that I haven’t got plenty of dick jokes.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty. Photograph by Toby Coulson.
I suppose I’m a criminal now. After years of cautious adherence to this country’s judicial system, I have stepped outside the law and committed a theft. A few weeks ago, at work, I visited the stationery cupboard and left with a dozen pads of post-it notes. I’d only needed one, but they came as a pack and I didn’t have the time to separate them. As I walked away, the pads stowed confidently under my arm, no one seemed to care, or even notice. It was the perfect crime.
My office-supply misdemeanour sprung from the desire to structure my life through to-do lists. As I’ve lost every notebook I’ve ever owned, a pad of disposable paper was ideal, but left me with the issue of eleven superfluous pads. Traditionally, post-its aren’t used for much beyond memos and passive-aggressive messages left in fridges, which meant I had to get creative to dispose of my purloined stationery loot.
I’ve started leaving a pad in my food cupboard, updating it through the week. Then, I’ll wander my local supermarket with the top post-it stuck to my basket for easy reference. I was insufferably pleased with myself for developing this technique until I asked around and discovered it was common practice. Crestfallen, I felt like Captain Scott, reaching the South Pole to find that Roald Amundsen had beaten him to it, a Norwegian flag where he’d expected virgin snow.
Using post-it notes to clean computer keyboards is an old trick now categorised as a ‘life hack’ by websites obsessed with that sort of thing. The idea is to swish the sticky strip under the keys to collect lurking crumbs and lint. When I tried this, it became clear that whoever came up with the concept had never met my keyboard, which stores several bagels’ worth of crumbs. After minutes of fruitless cleaning, I abandoned the post-its and jimmied up each key individually, using cotton buds as tiny, inefficient mops. Somewhere on the internet this is probably called a life hack too, but it could be more accurately described as a bit of a pain.
I’ve always been suspicious of people who use proper bookmarks. This is because I mostly read either in long, slothful stretches, or in fevered gasps at bus stops and whilst friends use pub toilets—situations that don’t call for cumbersome reading aids. Quite unreasonably, I believe that the marking of one’s place in a book should be the province of old train tickets, receipts, and other flotsam recovered from coat pockets. The post-it note improves upon such detritus: intrinsically impermanent, its low-tack adhesive makes it as unlikely to fall from your book as it is to last longer than a week.
It began when, in a moment of uncertainty, I wrote down Pete Holmes’ quote DO THINGS AND FEEL HAPPINESS as a message to myself. Since then I’ve filled an entire pad with my favourite sentences. I’m loath to call them ‘inspirational,’ but that’s mostly what they are. Essentially I’ve created a Page-A-Day calendar but with my own scrawled handwriting instead of frolicsome cats or Dilbert. Stationed next to my computer, where I inevitably need it most, I unveil one whenever I feel low. From the encouraging (“YOU CAN MAKE ANYTHING BY WRITING”) to the sage (“SCAN NOT A FRIEND WITH A MICROSCOPIC GLASS”) to the obtusely aphoristic (“YOU CAN’T UN-RING A BELL”), they feel as personal and meaningful to me as the clichés on fridge magnets feel the opposite.
“Hey guys,” said the toaster, “I’ve become sentient!” It followed this with a smiley face, because it liked emoticons. Despite its lack of opposable thumbs, or any digits for that matter, it had somehow managed to write on a post-it note. My housemates were nonplussed by the astonishing development. A day passed and a second message appeared: “Ask me about life as a toaster!” It had thoughtfully provided a pen and some post-its for the task. My housemate Ben acquiesced: “Please get better at toasting both sides of a piece of bread. What’s your favourite colour?” The answer was orange. Their correspondence continued cheerfully until Ben went on holiday. He eventually returned, as housemates do, but the moment had passed. The toaster’s brief experiment with sentience was over.
makeshift facial hair
As the surfaces of my house became accustomed to the sticky embrace of pressure-sensitive adhesive, there was one frontier remaining: my own visage. One night, with midnight disappearing behind me, I made a beard using the final pad. Whilst it was pleasingly fulsome, something wasn’t right. Staring at my face in a mirror, I became acutely aware that there was a void in my life, one that I was attempting to fill with post-it notes. I’d already tried cycling, gardening, single malt whisky, Twitter and elaborate sandwiches, and now I had half a pad of post-its stuck to my chin. What was wrong with me? The bearded face in the mirror just stared back. Seeking comfort, I picked up another pad, peeling off the top note to reveal the one underneath. “CORDUROY IS, IN ESSENCE, A RIDGED FORM OF VELVET,” the note said, and it was right.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Nineteen.
It begins—as my fantasies so often do—on an island in the South Pacific. For reasons best left to the imagination, I’ve been gifted a substantial amount of money, the sort of fortune that only comes from being the heir of a despot or besting a dragon. Bestowed with ludicrous wealth, I procure an uninhabited isle where the only possible visitors will arrive via shipwreck. It’s at this point that I start calling pet shops. I have a dream, and it’s this: to fill an island with every variety of black-and-white animal in existence, like a non-allegorical Noah’s ark but better, because I don’t have to learn carpentry or grow a beard.
In this monochrome paradise I picture skunks, pandas, lemurs, blackneck goats, magpies and springer spaniels living side by side, somewhat puzzled but relatively content. There are tapirs and zebras frolicking merrily by a lagoon, separated from their natural predators by an ocean and the colour yellow, while a group of penguins look out past the palm fronds, wondering if they’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. A badger, rescued from the cruelties of a Conservative government, gnaws happily on a cottonwood borer beetle in his hastily-dug sett. In a nearby field cows graze in the sunshine, oblivious to what’s going on. A few guinea pigs run here and there, absolutely freaking out.
There are undoubtedly better ways to spend a vast sum of money than my magnificent, deranged plan, but I can think of little that would give me greater delight than waking up, meandering around my own private islet, before having a spot of lunch and getting mauled by a white tiger in the afternoon.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Nineteen.
We’re so accustomed to hyperbole that it can be difficult to recognise the truth in grand statements. When Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the surface of the moon in the July of 1969, he described it as being a giant leap for mankind. He wasn’t exaggerating: of all of the things that took place during the terrible, wondrous, noisy twentieth century, humanity’s audacious first stride into the universe is the one most likely to be remembered a thousand years from now. Yet as significant as the first moon landing was, its importance can be equally illuminated by remembering an event that was happening at the exact same moment.
During the 21 hours that Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent on the Sea of Tranquillity, Apollo 11’s third crew member Michael Collins remained in the Command Module, Columbia, as it orbited the moon awaiting their return. Left behind whilst his colleagues made history, Collins checked his instruments, spoke to NASA every now and then, and stared out at a place where he himself would never set foot. Every 47 minutes his orbit would take him around the moon’s dark side, a quarter of a million miles from his home, and completely out of contact with anyone at all. Upon Columbia’s first return from radio silence, Mission Control observed, “Not since Adam has any human known such solitude.”
In interviews, Collins is ambivalent on his feelings while in isolation, but during one of those stretches on the dark side of the moon he wrote in his diary: “I am alone, now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it.”
The idea of Collins’ long, long wait resonates because it reinforces our feelings about exploration, and explains a little about why we romanticise it. Man has always venerated explorers, not only because they take risks to further human knowledge, but also because we live vicariously through them.
For the explorers, the prize for their boldness isn’t just in the objects or knowledge that they bring back, nor any rewards or celebration for their trials, but rather the opportunity to see something that no one has ever seen before. The notion is an enchanting one, and is amongst the reasons why people have climbed mountains, crossed oceans and boarded rocket ships.
Exploration is a collective triumph, of course. While Armstrong and Aldrin were bouncing around on the moon and Collins was pensively orbiting it, hundreds of scientists and engineers were assisting them back home. But the crew of Apollo 11 were the ones who put themselves in danger. Like anything difficult or traumatic, the further we get away from it, the harder the risks are to appreciate: Apollo 1 didn’t even leave the ground, its crewmen burning alive in their spacesuits, and it was rumoured for years that cosmonauts had been sent to space and died in the period before Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight.
Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins left Earth in the knowledge that there was a speech already drafted for the President to read in the event of their deaths, and yet they went anyway. Even if they were merely part of the machine of scientific discovery, they were still the frail humans who took that step into the unknown.
Armstrong differentiated between his small step as a man and mankind’s giant leap, but it’s through the former that we experience the latter. Discovery is a shared human endeavour, yes, but individuals become the focal point because that’s how we understand the world. The explorers themselves exist as a symbol in which we invest our hope and pride, which is why the thought of Collins’ lonesome 21 hours speaks to us.
Like Armstrong and Aldrin, Collins travelled to somewhere never before reached by man, but wasn’t able to experience it; he climbed a mountain and was unable to look out at the summit. More so than his crewmates, he embodies the loneliness of discovery. Without a tangible moment of achievement, he allows us to appreciate the personal sacrifices that exploration demands of its pursuers. Reaching a new shore or ascending a new peak is just one moment: what comes before is frequently hardship, boredom and life-threatening danger. To reach somewhere new is to be alone, and there’s something both inspiring and heart-rending about that. While it’s true that no human had known such solitude as Michael Collins, his solitude is in itself its own kind of discovery.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Seventeen.
There’s a curious plethora of chicken shops in London named after US cities and states, as if the right name will make their customers forget that they’re sitting in a takeaway in Croydon, desolate. Too poor to buy a plane ticket, I decided to tour America exclusively through the medium of London’s fried chicken restaurants, cycling from one to another. A slightly remorseful but avowed enthusiast of fast food, the prospect of sampling the capital’s finest fried chicken excited me, despite the 45 miles I had to cycle and sheer volume of poultry that lay in my path. After all, how often do you get to visit an entire country in an afternoon?
Tennessee Fried Chicken, 502 Kingsland Road, Dalston
As I ride towards Dalston I’m struck by how hungry I am; in the queue of lunchtime diners I briefly consider the ferociously-cheap meal deal, but remind myself that marathon runners don’t start off sprinting.
I read once that taste tests are usually rigged, as most people prefer the first version of something they try. Sure enough, my food is delicious. I understand why my fellow customers have chosen to dine at Tennessee Fried Chicken out of the many anonymous chicken shops that dot Kingsland Road. The chicken is tender, the breadcrumbs spicy and floury. The grease soaks through the wrapping onto my notebook. I sit in the yard of a nearby church and wish I’d bought the meal deal after all.
Chicago Fried Chicken, 138 Fortess Road, Tufnell Park
Approaching Chicago Fried Chicken, my stomach affects a sensation halfway between a yowl and a lurch. I ignore the feeling.
Inside, the server fiddles with his phone, pretending I don’t exist. Stubbornly refusing to draw attention to myself, I act as if I’m perusing my options. Eventually he asks me what I want, not looking up.
The chicken here is smaller and comes in a burger box. A few doors down is an establishment that describes itself as a literary café, bustling with young, earnest, bearded people who are reading, chatting and typing on laptops. As I lean against my bike and eat my unsatisfying chicken, I start to wonder if I’ve gone wrong somewhere in my life.
3. texas (first attempt)
Dollar Fried Chicken, 320 Kennington Lane, Vauxhall
After a long journey that takes me south of the river to Vauxhall, a place half suburb, half industrial estate, I find that Dallas Fried Chicken has become a Dollar Fried Chicken. It’s difficult to properly articulate the effect this revelation has on my fraying state of mind: the cruel pain of cycling through an entire city only to discover that the ‘Texan’ chicken shop I’d been heading towards had decided to change its name.
The adjustment is baffling: the word ‘dollar’ is still suggestively American, but hardly connotes fried chicken. Are the owners trying to imply that their chicken is good value (only a dollar) or that it tastes expensive (worth lots of dollars)? The man behind the counter just shrugs when I try to engage him in conversation. Despondent, I order a chicken burger. I eat it in view of the animals of Vauxhall City Farm. The horses whinny, indifferent to my plight.
Hollywood Fried Chicken, 10 Lillie Road, Fulham
Hollywood Fried Chicken sits on a strange little street near Earl’s Court that seems incongruous in its proximity to Chelsea.
On the way to the shop I think I see the actor Tim Robbins, but it’s just a random person. (Here in my grease-fingerprinted notebook I’ve written: “Are chicken hallucinations a thing? Google when home.”) I wonder if any movie stars own property in Chelsea, and whether they’ve ever passed Hollywood Fried Chicken and been tempted to check it out. The chicken is mostly bone and gristle; I try to think of a devastating metaphor about the Hollywood experience but my brain is too clogged with grease.
Kansas Chicken and Ribs, 102 High Street, Hornsey
The journey from Earl’s Court to Hornsey takes in most of the city. It’s roughly the same distance as my earlier north-to-south transit but feels longer due to fatigue, over-eating and the onslaught of rush hour traffic. I console myself by thinking of the great explorers who first charted North America. Am I really so different from Lewis and Clarke?
I go inside and ask the man for the smallest piece of chicken he has. He looks at me apprehensively but accedes to my request. I’ve lost all ability to analyse the food I’m eating and can’t distinguish what makes Kansas’ fried chicken any better or worse than anywhere else’s. My hunger may never return again, I fear: I’m more chicken now than man.
6. texas (second attempt)
Texas Fried Chicken, 405 Fore Street, Edmonton
Dismayed by my earlier failure to visit Dallas, I add a final destination to my journey: Texas Fried Chicken. My final quarry sits at the edge of a shopping park opposite over-sized outlets of ASDA and Argos.
When I enter Texas Fried Chicken the man at the counter looks at me like I’m a normal person, like I’m not the sort of person who would spend a day cycling around London eating endless chicken. Glassy-eyed and with fingers that won’t stop feeling greasy, I order a meal deal. I sit by the window and watch the customers trickle in and out.
It’s the evening and my body is filled with chicken and regret. I’m not sure if I’ve discovered anything new in the name of science, except that it’s impossible to visit six fried chicken restaurants in one day and not feel unwell, and you probably knew that already. I finish my meal, wipe my hands with another insufficiently-cleansing napkin, and head home for a bowl of Weetabix and a good cry.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Sixteen.
Andrew is seven years old and looks suspiciously like a grown woman. An aspiring stand-up comedian, he is eager to talk about history—if somewhat confused by the subject—ambivalent about his stepfather Colin and obsessed with Doctor Who.
An awkward, highly-endearing figure, Andrew also happens to be the first character ever devised by comedian Cariad Lloyd. “I was pushed into comedy, really,” she explains. She was at the start of an acting career when a friend suggested that Cariad try writing a comic monologue. “It took a long time to convince me. My friends were all doing comedy shows at Edinburgh and I went up with a very serious play about burning, this thing on people who died in fires. It was an amazing play but we had six people in the audience.”
Then, Cariad borrowed a late 80s Doctor Who jumper and her mother’s knee-high socks to perform Andrew at a few gigs. He was soon followed by other characters, creating a loose revue of monologues. “That’s how I tricked my brain: ‘It’s still acting, guys!’”
Cariad grew into her new career path slowly. “You meet some people who are obsessed,” she says, “and I never thought I was that person until I admitted to myself that all I do is watch comedy, talk about comedy, write comedy. I realised, oh, I guess I am in that gang now.”
She gigged solidly until her debut Edinburgh Fringe show found her nominated for best newcomer. Cariad has barely stopped since, filling her schedule with a second Edinburgh show, an upcoming BBC sketch show based on her characters, and frequent appearances as a member of Regency-parody comedy troupe Austentatious, who perform improvised, imaginary Jane Austen novels. (A surprise hit with Austen fan clubs: “We ended up on the cover of Jane Austen magazine. We didn’t even know there was a Jane Austen magazine.”)
Andrew is emblematic of Cariad’s characters: joyfully silly and random yet performed with obvious affection. “They’re like real people to me, which sounds mental, but it’s how they are in my head,” Cariad says. “So when people criticise them or say things about them it’s like someone talking about a friend. You want to say, ‘Well, you don’t really know them, you just saw them on a bad day.’”
From ASDA worker and femme fatale Kitty Romford to cult member Judith (who just does the admin), her characters work so well because even though they’re still clearly Cariad in a French jumper or a ball gown or dressed like a Moomin, they share her zestful sensibility. “You turn a bit of yourself up really loud and put a costume on it and call it something else. Each character I perform is a version of me, but I do a voice and go, ‘It’s not me! It’s not me!’”
Cariad also teaches improvisation to comedians and newcomers alike, and she is zealous about its benefits. “You see people whose ideas in their daily life are blocked, and then there’s this world where everything they say I’m going to say yes. That’s a really addictive thing—a place where you’re accepted.”
Disappointingly, improvisation still doesn’t have the reputation that it does in America. “I think it scares some people. They don’t know what to expect,” she says. “Also, there’s a lot of bad improv out there, but it’d be like if you’ve only seen one film and it was terrible so you think you don’t like films.”
Watching Austentatious perform their improvised show, you realise the gulf between bad improv and the work of professionals: as funny as anything written and rehearsed, their shows are emboldened not only by their playfulness but the sense that the performers are all in it together. Cariad agrees: “Bad improv is about people trying to outdo each other and being the funniest, and it should be about supporting each other. My job is to make you look amazing.”
Things are more complicated, of course, when the demands of collaboration and Cariad’s vividly personal characters collide. In filming the pilot of her BBC sketch show, she discovered it wasn’t always possible to walk a middle ground. On Andrew, for instance, she says, “At one point the producers said they were thinking about having him wear a hoodie. I told them I wouldn’t perform the sketch unless he wore the Doctor Who jumper. I’ve been really amazed by the things I’ll compromise on and the things I won’t. I wasn’t compromising the jumper. It’s who Andrew is. It’s the key to him.’”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Sixteen. Photograph by Trent McMinn.
For the daytime drunks of East London, a visit to St Leonard’s Church’s drop-in centre in early 2012 was an opportunity to court bewilderment. Rather than styrofoam tea and practical advice, many took the wrong door and found instead Serafina Steer playing the harp as she recorded her new album, The Moths Are Real, with producer Jarvis Cocker bunched up on one of the pews. Serafina braved the inebriated interlopers and biting cold for the sense of performance the church provided, only stymied by retakes provoked by the endless traffic outside. On one song, you can still make out a bus brake just before the first chorus.
A harp has been Serafina’s muse for over twenty years. “I don’t know if that’s because I like the harp,” she says, “or it likes me.” Her music is as gorgeous as it is adventurous, the delicate beauty of her harp finding itself perfectly at home amongst elements of electronica and her complex lyrical content.
One of the best-kept secrets in music, Serafina’s work is finally starting to receive the appreciation it deserves: the album she recorded in the cold, noisy church—the wonderful, searching The Moths Are Real—promises a real breakthrough. A long-time admirer of her work, Cocker agreed to try out recording together. “We worked solidly for two days. When I came back my housemates said I looked like I was on drugs. It was intense.”
It helps to have the attention garnered by having a producer who’s famous to the point of becoming a national treasure, but there’s more to Serafina’s ascent than that. While her songwriting is as strong as ever, it’s as if her self-assurance as an artist has quietly ripened into a mature confidence of her own voice. “You have to take a leap of faith,” Serafina agrees. “If you don’t feel like a very presentable performer, and you’ve been slogging away for years, at some point you have to hold your head up high and say, well, either people like it or they don’t. I had this mantra of being like a mighty river.”
Even her album cover has featured a photograph of her for the first time, however reluctantly. Serafina breathes deeply at the mention of it, as if reminded of old battles. “That wasn’t my idea. But I thought that if I’m trying not to hide away, then I don’t really have an excuse. Things hinge on me as well as the music. I had to say, ‘I might not be a cover girl, but I’m here anyway.’”
Several photo shoots followed, trailed by disagreements questioning everything from the photographs themselves to the way she should present herself. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s the end of my confident phase then!’ The thing that I liked about the cover in the end is that I knew that we’d taken the photograph in about half an hour and there was no make up or faffing or lights. That is how I look.”
At the heart of Serafina’s songwriting is emotional openness, articulate and finely-detailed, which many have misread as autobiography. She observes: “Not to be boring about it, but if you’re a female singer-songwriter you find yourself open to a slightly patronising interpretation of your lyrics, as if it’s just splurged out of your diary and you have no idea how to construct a concept. You think, ‘Did fucking Pink Floyd get this? Do you think I’m an idiot?’” Instead, The Moths Are Real is proof of her broad influences, inspired by the work of Jorge Luis Borges and about topics as varied as alien abduction and the pleasures of getting lost in music—not to mention its title track, a response piece to sexist sea ballads.
The possessor of a warm, generous laugh, the mixture of directness and intelligence that colours Serafina’s music is present in conversation with her. It requires a certain kind of courage to proffer yourself artistically and emotionally, but the result is the sense that she is coming into her own. This isn’t simply Serafina’s moment commercially, but also in terms of artistic authority.
“I remember when I was given the mastered CD, just some demo copy with my name on,” Serafina says. “I was walking back home along the river and I felt really emotional. There are so many times when you think something amazing is going to happen and it doesn’t. I suddenly realised that I’d been terrified for six months, but I had this thing with just my name on it, not anyone else.”
In issue 14, we featured the designs of four trashy genre paperbacks that never existed. Their inventor, Jason Ward, describes his winding journey through the throwaway fiction of the 20th century.
The idea for An Imaginary Library grew out of a conversation about the covers of old books. There are scores of long-forgotten genre novels that feature incredible art on their covers, often of a much higher level than the writing within.
Books that once cost 3’6 have artwork that you’d gladly have on your wall: the spare, chilling design of 70s “airport” horror novels, the alien landscapes and abstract imagery of 1950s science fiction, and the lurid sexiness of hardboiled detective novels. Dismissed at the time as populist and disposable, their existence provided an opportunity for talented artists to sell their work, and for some truly awful ones to prosper as well.
But instead of highlighting books that already existed, we decided to invent some of our own.
I wanted all of the text to be completely original and yet seem authentic; my intention was for the books to feel as if you might actually find them in a second-hand bookshop.
The internet was useful, but it was rare to find examples of back covers, which are as fascinating in their own way as the front covers, loaded with hyperbolic quotes from long-defunct publications. My favourite was from The Green Odyssey by Philip Jose Farmer, described as a “Wonderful, lusty and roistering adventure…!”
Wanting to see the books properly, I spent several long afternoons joyfully searching real secondhand bookshops, the kind where the owners have non-ironic beards and the books are kept in bins.
What I found most striking during my research was how many conventions there were for each genre, like the endless blurbs of detective novels and their tendency to be re-released again and again under completely unrelated titles. As if to compound the sense of disposability, hardboiled covers were pretty much interchangeable, usually with a scantily-clad woman either seducing or being threatened.
Even though the books themselves were churned out, they were created in a very specific way and with very specific language: it’s a given that a science fiction publisher would be called something different to a horror publisher, for example, but even the types of names of the authors (often pseudonymous) were different. Everything about them was designed solely to sell more copies, and yet from that naked pursuit of commerce some great art was made, wonderful, lusty and roistering.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Fourteen.
The relationship had become like a favourite jumper; it was wearing thin at the elbows and didn’t really fit any more, but neither of us had the heart to throw it out. Four years of Saturday nights and Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings had built up a level of comfortableness which was wonderful until we realised we’d somehow become friends who shared a bed. “Look how superior we are to other couples,” we’d think. “We don’t fight anymore!”
When we finally did gather the courage to give up, it was the bike I turned to for comfort. I’d spend evenings and weekends going up and down the river, as far and as fast as I could. I knew that I was trying to escape from things that I was carrying along with me, but that didn’t matter, just as it didn’t matter that I knew we were doing the right thing by breaking up. I had no plans and no one to see, so I’d ride until I ended up in a different county or until the river started to turn back on itself. I was trying to not think or feel, attempting to replace emotion with the thrum in my legs and a breathless void in my chest.
My bike—brand new, thanks to a government scheme—was better at being a bike than I was at being a person. It had a suspension fork and disc brakes and didn’t lie awake at night wondering if it had made a mistake. Despite the bike’s comfort and technological superiority to my old one, the main reason I bought it was because of a single phrase on its online blurb which said it was “most at home on the canal towpath.” It was marketing patter, of course, but that was alright. I’d found my soulmate, and it had 21 gears and quick release wheels.
There wasn’t anything special about the day I crashed. Maybe if we’d still been together we would have met up with friends, or gone for a walk, but instead it was just me and the bike and as much distance as I could put behind me. I saw the torn-up concrete as it came towards the front wheel, and in the instant between the realisation and the crash I understood that it was inevitable, that every furious pedal had brought me to that moment.
The bike went to the left and I went to the right. Neither myself nor the bicycle broke, but my right leg and arm were nastily grazed—skin replaced by blood, grit and a small island of plasma just above my elbow. The feelings which I’d been racing from came flooding back, and joining them was fear that someone would come by and see me, maybe even try to help.
The idea that someone would see me so thoroughly felled was embarrassing, but a little comforting in its horribleness. I was consciously aware that the moment was a low. It was difficult to imagine that I could feel any worse, which at least meant things might get easier: a long trudge uphill to somewhere better.
After I’d wallowed for a sufficient amount of time I got back up, righted the bicycle and headed towards home. I was only able to use one arm effectively, and was about an hour away, but I was moving again. I stopped off at a supermarket to buy medical supplies and gin, both of which seemed necessary. For the first time in a few years the cashier asked me for proof of age. I offered my right arm, and she seemed satisfied by the response. Once I was home my flatmates cleaned up the wound, and the three of us drank until everything seemed better.
The injuries were painful for a while, and faded one by one. The body can be overly symbolic sometimes. All that’s left of that day is a patch of disturbed skin near my elbow that looks like a dark pink thumbprint. It doesn’t hurt anymore, and when I look at it now it’s hard to remember a time when it did. But it’s still there, regardless: a part of me.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twelve .
Laura Veirs has butterfly wings and a guitar in her hands. Half-way through a song, she’s interrupted by an excited child, killing the sound with a careless knock of the amp. “Watch out,” she warns gently as a technician fixes the situation, “our equipment is made of lava.”
At her gig in the crowded basement of the Museum of Childhood, parents politely jostle to catch a glimpse of her, forgetting themselves and singing along madly. Their children are more concerned with the mass of bubbles unfurling above their heads, giddily raising their sticky hands trying to catch one. From the youngest baby to the oldest grandparent, everyone is happy, and everyone is wearing the most excellent jumpers. It is like heaven.
Laura Veirs is eight albums into a prolific career that began when she abandoned a life as a Mandarin-speaking geologist in favour of forming a punk band, which she then forsook for the literary, wistful folk for which she is now known. Her songs have a tendency to cuckoo their way into the listener’s brain: beautiful with hints of darkness. Unashamedly adult, her music is marked by its ornate lyricism. But even considering the left turns made earlier in her career, it is still a small surprise that one of the brightest, most grown-up of modern songwriters has released an album of folk songs for children, Tumble Bee.
The idea came from the birth of her own child, Tennessee, and from the many sleepless nights that she shared with her husband and long-time producer, Tucker Martine. “We were so tired,” she says. “It was really exhausting. I wanted to do something creative that didn’t involve writing songs. I knew I didn’t have enough in my well to create a great album of new material.”
Instead, the pair combed through the history of folk music to find the right songs. “It was like a history project. We found some old folk songs that we hadn’t heard before.” Wary of the cloying nature of most children’s songs, they had strict criteria for what they wanted to include. “There’s a fine line. You can easily make something that’s dumbed down. We wanted something that would have heart, and hold the attention of the parents, and also be historical. We were going for things that were up-tempo and melodic and also lyrically appropriate enough for kids.”
Considering the love children have for repetition, Laura wanted to make an album that had enough depth to stand up to endless replaying. Some songs have more meaning than is immediately apparent. “We did one song called All the Pretty Little Horses and it’s a lullaby. From my research I saw that it was written by a slave woman who was singing it to her master’s children because she couldn’t take care of her own. It’s such a heartbreaking story and when you hear the lyrics and the melody in that context it puts it in a completely different light. But a child doesn’t know any better. They’re just hearing a song about horses with a beautiful melody that’s soothing.
“There are a few songs that aren’t quite meant for children, but those are the ones with the darker lyrics. We were freaked out, wondering if I could really sing about lambs being dead in the field with bees and butterflies pecking out their eyes. But that’s one of our oldest folk songs. These songs teach about life and death through the medium of art. I think that’s important, to not let everything be completely watered down.”
Like all of Laura’s music, Tumble Bee was written and recorded in the converted garage at the back of her house. “It’s kind of like a little cabin,” she says. “It’s very secluded. I don’t have the internet back there and it’s a saving grace to not be checking facebook all the time.” If anything, she’s found the experience of motherhood useful to her productivity. “My window for song writing is half as long, but I feel like it has just made me more focused: this is my time to write, this is my time to be with my son, and I have to be as present and in the moment with both tasks as I can. It’s hard for me to quit sometimes. I’ll be writing and then I realise the babysitter is leaving in five minutes, and I have to switch out of that mode and go into the mothering mode. It’s a struggle to find enough time to do my art. But it’s my own choice. I’m choosing my hours and I want to spend time with him while he’s small.”
While the reality must surely have its share of stresses, Laura’s life can’t help but sound idyllic, splitting her time between recording music and her toddling child, two halves of her life that occasionally overlap: “He asks me to improvise songs all the time. He’ll shout out names of people he loves and I have to make up a song on the spot.” Living in the achingly creative northwestern city of Portland, Oregon, Laura’s a friend and neighbour with everyone from the Decemberists to Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and gets to collaborate frequently. “It’s really nice to be able to call someone up and say, ‘Come around and record something, and let’s get tacos afterward!’”
After an understandably long period without playing live, Laura is starting to tour again. Considering Tumble Bee has a primary audience for whom a standard gig would be far past their bedtime, this raises some issues. The solution she found was to do matinees for the children and regular gigs in the evenings. She says, “It’s a challenge to figure out how to pull it off in a way that’s fun for the kids and for us and for the parents too.”
Hence the bubbles and butterfly wings: “Funny outfits are the key! Things to keep their attention visually. They really go crazy for the bubbles. It’s like crack for them. We have to turn it off after a while or they just obsess over it. We try to balance letting them have a release and some fun and also trying to get them to pick up something from the music.” Laura appreciates the unpredictability of it all, though, “There’s just more chaos, you know. My shows with adults are organised and seated, a little bit formal and not too loose.” She smiles. “In a way it feels more like my old days at punk shows.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Nine. Photographs by Fiona Essex.
It can be a daunting prospect, getting to know someone. Cousins and birthmarks and old relationships and the songs they like and the movies they hate and the places they like to go to think. It’s exhausting. Then all of a sudden the relationship ends and it’s like you’ve learnt a language to a country you’re never going to visit again. What use do I have from knowing that one person’s favourite colour, or what their childhood fears were, or how they like their tea?
All that said, my favourite thing about you is how little I know you. I have no idea how you like your tea, and it’s glorious. As long as I don’t think about it too closely, the idea of learning about you is exhilarating. You make the idea of travelling down that familiar road seem somehow new. There’s so much to discover, but it feels like an adventure rather than a chore. You’re all potential and promise: every new detail is exotic and striking, every piece of family history an unearthed relic, every anecdote some glamorous story.
There are things about you that I do know. I was scared of you at first. You seemed so self-possessed. I’d find myself withering under your gaze, like you could see straight through me. To be honest, you seemed cold. It was as if you’d already decided that I had nothing of interest to offer. My fear became a self-fulfilling prophecy: everything I said would collapse out of my mouth and die.
I’m not sure how things changed, but somewhere along the way they did. It was like a sea-change. I discovered I could make you laugh. Your eyes crease up and you forget yourself for a second. It’s really rather lovely. I like that you’re pretty awkward. You’re probably more awkward than me, actually. I’ve realised that what I was scared of was actually bluster. It’s exciting-like knowing a secret. I feel I’ve seen something in you that most people would miss, something tender and thoughtful.
Of course, I’m aware that getting to know you properly will turn you into a regular person, filled with all the contradictions and complexities that will bring understanding but take away enchantment. It’s not a bad thing. Really knowing a person either replaces the giddiness with something deeper, or replaces it with nothing at all. If it turns out to be the latter, well, I’m okay with it.
It’s worth the risk. For now, I just enjoy you being in my life. I get excited when I see your name in my inbox, or when you enter a room. There’s a sense of possibility that courses through our every conversation like an electric current. Who’s to say what will happen next? Maybe we’ll get talking one random evening, the hours passing unrecognised as we finish a bottle of wine together and end up wandering the streets like teenagers, feeling ten feet tall. Anything seems possible. It’s not that I’m expecting anything to happen between us, but what’s quietly thrilling is knowing that it might.
Another thing I know about you is that you’re reading this right now. Of that I’m pretty certain. I hope the idea of that gives you pause and makes you wonder if I’m writing about you. And then, gosh, just for a second, just for a moment or two, I hope that you find yourself hoping that this is about you. Because let me tell you, oh splendid, maddening person, it is. Hi.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Eight.
The bicycle is so logical and efficient that that you don’t notice how perfectly it functions until something goes wrong. It seems strange to think of a time when its success wasn’t inevitable, yet in the 1800s human-powered vehicles—velocipedes—came in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes. There was the Penny Farthing with its massive front wheel and a tendency to kill the rider in ‘headers’. There were Boneshakers, constructed from wrought-iron and about as comfortable as they sound. There were steam velocipedes, because they were Victorians and they had to get steam involved somehow. There were velocipedes with three wheels, or with six, or with space to carry your goodly spouse. Queen Victoria rode around in an especially-made quadrocycle called the Royal Salvo. For sixty years, fad after fad took the vehicles in hugely popular new directions, becoming the must-have items for the early adopter.
Then it all stopped. The safety bicycle was created in 1885, and its sensibly-sized-and-numbered wheels prevailed. It had achieved perfection, and bicycles have been largely the same for a century. The demise of the Penny Farthing and the Boneshaker seems inevitable in retrospect. Of course the wheels should be the same size. Of course the tyres shouldn’t be made out of iron. Of course the rider’s feet shouldn’t be several feet off the ground. But who knows what velocipedes would look like now if people had continued to develop them? The history of transport is littered with vehicles that came close to being dominant but faded away, supplanted by something faster, safer, or cheaper. You can see it with the steam car, or the electric car, or even the Amphicar, the part-car, part-boat vehicle that became a fad in 1960s America despite being created by an ex-Nazi war criminal inspired by the SS’s Schwimmwagen.
To look at them now is to look at an alternate history. They were vehicles that people saved up to buy, hoping to be part of something new. The life’s work of talented designers and engineers, they were created in the spirit of invention. Now they sit in museums, robbed of the noble purpose of their creation: to take people to where they want to go. What’s sad isn’t that the vehicles didn’t survive, but that what led to their creation was so quickly forgotten: the inspiration, the hard work, the hope. They are failures, undoubtedly, but they are beautiful failures.
The Victorians believed that science could accomplish anything, and their hubris was coupled with a rigid sense of duty. It was this public-spiritedness, along with cholera outbreaks and increasing space issues, that led Sir Richard Broun in 1849 towards one grand objective: a place to store all of London’s dead, forever. On Broun’s insisting, Parliament set up the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company. They built the largest cemetery in the world in Brookwood, Surrey, and a special line, the London Necropolis Railway, to carry funeral trains there from Waterloo.
The Necropolis train held up to 48 coffins and their funeral parties, and was split into two sections, one for Anglicans and another for non-conformists. The train was divided into first, second and third class travel, with conditions extending from the mourners to the storage of the coffins. The groups each had their own platform and part of the cemetery (the Anglicans got the sunny bit). The occasional carriage filled with drunk mourners aside, there was a dignity to the Necropolis train. A final train journey has the sombreness and pomp that a good funeral needs, and it’s quite beautiful, in its way.
In the end, the Necropolis train was a victim of the very progress that had once made it necessary. The invention of the automobile made a funeral train unwieldy and inefficient in comparison, while the 32 cemeteries that opened in London during the line’s first twenty years removed the need for a sprawling necropolis away in the country.
The number of trains run fell and fell over the ensuing century until, one night during the Blitz, the London station and the train itself were destroyed in a bombing raid, forcing the closure of the line. After the war ended no one saw the value in rebuilding it: the Victorian idealism of the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company was dead, unmourned.
Buckminster Fuller has a resumé full of things that would be the life’s work of someone else. He invented the geodesic dome. He developed a cheap, energy-efficient house that could be constructed from kits. He created a new type of world map that was less distorted. He experimented with a sleep cycle where he would sleep for two hours a day. Bucky, as he called himself, was not just ahead of his time, he seemed to operate on another plane entirely.
The downside of being on your own plane of thinking is that often your work will be too different to be accepted. One of Fuller’s more notable failures in this regard was his Dymaxion Car.
Designed in 1933, the Dymaxion was a fast, efficient three-wheeled car that held eleven passengers and was twenty feet long. With its teardrop shape, two front wheels and a single rear one working like a rudder, the car was meant to mimic the movements of fish. Fuller had anticipated that one day the car would also be able to fly, once the appropriate alloys and engines had been invented.
Deeply concerned about the earth’s finite resources, Bucky was one of the first environmentalists, dedicated to inexpensive, efficient housing and transport. What Fuller most wanted was for the world to be sustainable and to do more with less. He called it emphemeralisation, and was a model of it. He had hoped the car design and other inventions under the Dymaxion umbrella would be the first phase of a social revolution.
It wasn’t to be. Like so many of his conceptions, the Dymaxion Car never reached fruition: the prototype crashed on its way to the Chicago World’s Fair, killing the driver and two passengers. The press blamed the car’s steering, Fuller blamed another vehicle, and the investors fled. Eventually Bucky moved on too: there would be other ideas.
The life of the dirigible has been eclipsed by its death. While there were worse disasters before it, and most countries had already given up on airships as a viable method of transportation, the crashing of the Hindenburg has become one of the key images of the twentieth century. To watch the newsreel footage along with the sound of radio announcer Herbert Morrison breaking down in tears is still a surprisingly emotional experience, with a power that surpasses the whimsy and adventure with which the dirigible was first conceived.
The hot air balloon became a craze in the summer of 1783, and the skies of European cities were dotted with craft. Its development was dominated by the French and British: the French were engineers and scientists, while the British were lone adventurers seeking fame and fortune. More comfortable and less turbulent than contemporary aeroplanes, by the 1930s dirigibles looked like they might become the primary form of air travel. The British planned for a vast air network throughout the empire, Count Von Zeppelin’s eponymous craft was popular and widespread, and the Empire State Building was built with a dirigible mast optimistically attached. It couldn’t last. The reason that the dirigible failed is simple: for all its glamour and advantages, the aeroplane was more efficient, economical and safe.
It’s sad that the dirigible has been overshadowed by its demise, because it was the most romantic of vehicles. Henri Giffard invented the steam-powered version, and wrote in his journal during his first trip, “How marvellous to be free of all that which makes you cling to the ground!” He and his peers believed flying would allow them to have thoughts that no-one had thought. They hoped it would make them better people. Long before the infamous crashes, its use in wars or the rise of the Nazi-sponsored Zeppelins, there was the concept that you could step onto some rickety craft and be carried up into the clouds, floating.
It was May 27th, 1930, and the former British naval ship, the Ready, sat off Nonsuch Island, Bermuda, awaiting the maiden voyage of the Bathysphere. Its two-man crew were also its creators: the naturalist William Beebe and the engineer Otis Barton. They climbed into the cold, dark sphere, and a 400-pound door was bolted behind them.
A curator at the Bronx Zoo, acclaimed ecological author and friend of Theodore Roosevelt, Beebe was a household name, his stormy relationships with ichthyologists gaining similar attention as his theories on pheasant evolution. Frustrated by the inadequacy of dredging, he hoped to explore the ocean in an advanced diving bell. He was accosted by Otis Barton, a wealthy young engineer with dreams of deep-sea exploration and plans for a spherical craft. Beebe let Barton pay for the bathysphere’s construction, and a few years later they were sitting in their invention, from which they could not escape, as it was lowered into the black Atlantic.
Four summers and around thirty journeys passed. The pair fought seasickness and a leaking craft to dive half a mile down, further than anyone had before. They saw strange new species, and the natural habitats of fish that had only ever been found dead in nets. Beebe would boast that only dead men had sunk deeper. It was deep enough that they were the first people to observe the disappearing frequencies of sunlight, in an ocean that turned violet before their eyes.
After four years and with the Great Depression rendering further use difficult, Beebe moved back to the safer and cheaper helmet diving and the Bathysphere went into storage. Other people used the technology they pioneered, but none quite captured the imagination in the same way. Something was lost: the idea of being alone, deep beneath the sea, risking death in the name of discovery. It would be almost forty years before another group of explorers made people feel the same way. They would have crew cuts, and one of them was called Neil.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Seven.
When do you become an adult? Legally it’s 18, of course, but it used to be 21, so that takes some of the fun out of it. If it’s already changed once, then what’s to stop it changing again in the future? I remember turning 18 and not feeling any different at all. It’s hard not to see how arbitrary it is.
Instead, we turn to milestones in our lives. The first time you vote, or have sex, or get drunk, or get drunk and then have sex. I remember all of these moments in my life, how they happened and how they felt. I remember what they meant to me then and know what they mean to me now. And on reflection I’m not sure if any of them made me feel the way I did when I bought my first toaster.
I was 16 and living alone in a bedsit in Carlisle. I knew no one else in the city and my nearest parent was miles away. The reasons for this are as hazy and complicated now as they were then, but it meant one thing: I was free.
Living by yourself when you’re 16 is a glorious and bizarre experience. You’re young enough to appreciate the transgressive joy of parental absence, while being old enough to actually do something with it. Mostly I just sat around and read, or worked on my abysmal writing. I tried to go for a walk every time it rained, and would venture outside just after the sun rose and before people started heading to work. The world was lonely and mine.
Retrospectively, it was all pretty grim. I was on a minuscule allowance and was resolutely unemployable, so I had no money and lots of time on my hands. There was no internet connection so I would have to copy internet pages onto a floppy disk at college and read them later at home. I once spent four days eating only nutella, unable to afford anything else. I became afraid of people. My bedsit was above the communal kitchen, and I would lie on my floor trying to listen for signs of life, only going down when I could be sure that I wouldn’t see a neighbour, even if it meant burning the dinner I’d left cooking in the oven.
It’s difficult to describe those days without them sounding depressing, but at the time it felt anything but. There was a feeling I could do anything I wanted to. I learnt how to be alone, and how to enjoy it. One evening I went by myself to the cinema, then came out and sauntered to a different one to see a second film. It was one of my favourite ever nights. I discovered how to live independently, even though it meant combing my hair with a fork. Everything I did that year I did terribly, but I was free to do it.
All of this leads to that wonderful day in my life, the one where I woke up and fancied some toast. Because the bedsit didn’t have its own toaster, I decided to go and get my own. I chose the one I wanted from the catalogue, headed down to the shopping centre, paid for it and headed back home. I had learnt that I was in control of my own life, and that I was responsible with finding the things that would make me happy. In time that would be a satisfying job, creative fulfilment, friendship and love, but for then it was just a nicely-buttered bit of toast. I ate about ten slices that day, and each one was divine. I was an adult.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Seven.
Someone is heckling Isy Suttie from inside her head. She’s found herself imagining the worst ahead of performing her new stand-up show at the Edinburgh Festival. Politely but firmly, she responds, “I’m talking as Isy now: stop it please. Stop eating chips in my show.” This isn’t to say that a lot of chip-eating happens in Isy’s shows. “No,” she admits, “It doesn’t. But for some reason this morning I was imagining being heckled. I don’t know why I have to think it through in my head with every show.”
It seems unlikely that anyone non-imaginary would want to heckle her. Isy melted hearts when she joined Peep Show as Dobby, IT geek and only-chance-for-happiness for sadsack Mark, played by David Mitchell. Unlike many comics who feel overwhelmed by their best-known on-screen personas, Dobby is a comfortable fit with Isy’s stand-up. “She isn’t that far from what I’m like in real life, so hopefully people who like the show would like what I do live.” Isy radiates a warmth that carries through to her stand-up shows, and their disarming mix of musical numbers and bittersweet character comedy.
When she is finished rebutting the hecklers, Isy’s new show will see her playing Pearl and Dave, a couple who connect online and then discover that real life is far more awkward. Isy plays both parts, singing songs to dramatise their emails and webcam conversations, while narrating the story as herself. Her portrayals of the ill-fated pair are silly yet sad, touching on the regret that comes from a lifetime of diminished expectations. The show sounds typical of Isy’s comedy, which is defined by a clear-eyed but humane positivity. The characters she creates on stage are often wilfully deluded but the portrayals are fundamentally sensitive and without malice.
There’s a difference this time, though. Isy’s mother isn’t making so much of an appearance. “I feel like maybe I ought to start writing my own material rather than using my mother,” she says. That, one can’t help thinking, would be a shame. Along with swathes of her own diaries, a mainstay of Isy’s comedy is the portrayal of her hometown of Matlock. Her mother’s letters bring to life the town’s dodgy dealing, nosy neighbours and the heroin addicts who come round to borrow rolls of tin foil. She has always been a compulsive letter-writer, but Isy looks forward to her letters with more than just a daughterly interest. “I’m definitely always looking for comedy in her letters. I read them thinking, ‘I don’t care about Aunty Barbara, give me the funny!’” To Isy’s relief, her mother doesn’t mind, “She does it too. She’ll tell me a story about the vicar or something and then she’ll say ‘Do you think you can use that?’ It’s quite sweet. It’s like I’ve got a free writer.”
Isy’s comedy is all about the little things that make people happy or unhappy. She wants to move the audience, she says, not make them laugh at knob gags. “There’s a lot of comedy in people’s complexity and flaws. If you can tap into something that everyone identifies with, like you’re feeling unconfident on your first day of work or you’re hurt because a neighbour has said something about your rockery, you can make the whole audience feel that too.” She’s aware that big television stand-up isn’t always prepared for her softer, more subtle comedy. “If it’s Saturday night and people are in eating their eggs and chips, they don’t necessarily want to be thinking ‘The neighbour said something about the rockery, oh yeah, I’m really moved!’“
While other comedians are ambitiously chasing exposure on television, she seems in no hurry. “I feel like if I did more stand-up on telly or a big tour, I could do bigger venues and then it might move to something else, but I don’t mind really. I’ve never been someone who rings my agent and says, ‘Why am I not on that?’ I’d rather get my head down and work and wait, and if stuff comes to me I’ll feel more ready to do it.”
Her more relaxed approach comes with its own rewards. The freedom from single-minded ambition has given her the chance to explore different things. She played a serial killer in the musical Gutted and she’s now learning Welsh—“I could hold a conversation with a 7-year old, especially a 7-year-old farmer, because I know a lot of animals and numbers.” Isy is content to do what she loves. “I feel really happy. I was working at Oddbins until the beginning of 2008, and when I left it felt like a real leap of faith. I got Peep Show straight away, so I still can’t believe I’m not dealing with people’s wine that hasn’t got there.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Seven. Photograph by Christoph Ferstad.
It was a new millennium and my mother was covered in blood. As usual, it was entirely my fault. I should explain:
My best Christmas—aside from the year I was given a puppet of Ernie from Sesame Street—was undoubtedly the one when my parents got me a video camera, somewhere in the middle of my long teenage malaise. I dropped hints for months until finally, wonderfully, they conceded. It was a family camcorder that made everything look like the nightmares of an alcoholic VCR but I was in raptures anyway. Oh, the Cinema I would create! That first night I made an emotional drama starring a bottle of deodorant who comes home to find his wife in bed with a school portrait of my friend Stephen. To this day it remains inarguably the finest on-screen depiction of the relationship travails of deodorant. Orson Welles’ first film was Citizen Kane, by the way.
Finding actual human beings to act was tricky, but I was resourceful. I started making films where I played all the roles, one featuring the strangest fight scene you’ll ever see. Better still was when I persuaded a friend to lend me a bag of attic-perfumed Action Men. As a teenager without access to actors, scripts or any intellectual nuance whatsoever, I fell back on the quality that had sustained me through boyhood: violence, and lashings of it. So Action Man chased Dr X around my kitchen until finally he managed to kill him in our deep fat fryer, and an earnest adaptation of A View From the Bridge (starring Dr X as Eddie Carbone and a kitchen counter as Red Hook, Brooklyn) concluded abruptly when I got bored after the second scene and ended the whole thing in a gory shoot-out. These were dangerous times to be around me and inanimate. My films were improving, marginally, but they lacked something human. For that I would need blood.
Blood was the ultimate prop. Anyone could get a newspaper or some food for a character to handle, but blood wasn’t so easy to come by, unless your actors were very Method. It was a sign you’d come prepared, that you were making a proper movie. It made you unpredictable. If the characters can bleed, then anything can happen to them. My only problem was that I knew nothing about making fake blood. I’d used tomato ketchup in my wayward Arthur Miller adaptation, but ketchup could only ever look like itself. I looked online and found a wealth of recipes, but they all disagreed with each other. Overwhelmed with possibility, I turned to the person who had taken me to see Jurassic Park when I was five and thus started this whole mess: my mother.
Being a person that has the co-ordination of a crayon, I had never taken to cooking, and had barely stepped foot in the kitchen except to pillage the fridge or create bizarre Action Man snuff films. It was a relief to have my mother there leading proceedings, and she was unexpectedly game. I think it surprised her as much as it did me. She has a problem-solving brain, which must have been some of the appeal. We would create batch after batch, having long debates about the correct viscosity, and how an arterial wound differed from a graze. For surely the only time in history, the Internet had provided unreliable information, and we were required to improvise, discovering that adding dashes of green and blue dye to red would create a deeper, more realistic hue. Golden syrup made a solid base, but flour had to be added to thicken the blood. I was grateful years later for this discovery of flour’s thickening properties, which has helped me immeasurably in my non-blood cooking. In a sense it was my first cinematic collaboration.
Our quest for the perfect batch overtook us somewhat, and for a long time it was rare to enter the kitchen without a vat of blood on standby. We filled a season’s worth of jam jars with our middling attempts, having to borrow more from my grandmother when we ran out. They stacked up against the kitchen window, and it was endlessly sweet to look through them at our blood-tinted garden. It took a long time to learn that there is no Holy Grail, no one way to create good fake blood. You need different recipes for different uses: a syrup-blend looks great on a corpse, but there’s no way it’ll spurt out realistically. You’re better off dying washing-up liquid and hoping for the best.
The problem with having vats of blood around, of course, is that you feel impelled to use them, and so my films would inevitably feature people cutting themselves randomly on things and bleeding profusely. It was almost a relief when we ran out and the final jars went back to my grandmother. Creating good-looking blood is one of the many skills I possess that I’ll never really need but I’m glad it’s there, lolling uselessly somewhere between quadratic equations and the ability to remove the pin bones of salmon.
To this day my mother looks back at that period with a mixture of pride and bemusement, but they remain some of my fondest memories with her. She knew it was ridiculous but helped me anyway. I think she liked that her own skills could actively help me do the thing I was most passionate about. It was a rare opportunity, one that wouldn’t quite come again. Film-making was my joyous, blossoming world, but for a few weeks we could share it together. She supported me emotionally and practically, and that’s given me strength as I’ve made my way through the uncertain path of a creative life. Occasionally I’ll see a pool of blood in a movie and think of her, and that’s a very lovely thing.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Six.