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.
Knowledge in everyday life so often arrives wearing the garments of the pub bore, the explainer who behaves as if they somehow own the facts they know, who doesn’t share information so much as wields it. Overwhelmed by the prospect of laborious detail, it is always a pleasure to find the kind of enthusiasm that doesn’t belittle but instead sweeps you up and carries you along with it, whether you’d expected it to or not. It is this welcoming, irresistible zeal that Sarah Vowell carries when writing about presidential murder.
Assassination Vacation finds the author – a lifelong enthusiast on the subject of America’s callow years – as she takes a ramble across the country to visit increasingly tangential sites associated with the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley, the 16th, 20th and 25th U.S. presidents. The idea of a person travelling hundreds of miles just to view fragments of Lincoln’s skull or McKinley’s bloodstained pyjamas sounds morbid but she writes with such humour, scholarship and passion that you can’t help but get excited in her presence. As her friends accompany her on her various trips Vowell talks about them as if they have the patience of saints, but her joy in esoteric historical tourism is so infectious that it’s easy to understand why they’ve tagged along. To continued amusement, she just can’t help gush about gunshot wounds and Lincoln’s fourteen funerals and the endless two and a half months it took Garfield to finally succumb.“When I’m around strangers, I turn into a conversational Mount St. Helens”, she writes. “I’m dormant, dormant, quiet, quiet, old-guy loners build log cabins on the slopes of my silence and then, boom, it’s 1980. Once I erupt, they’ll be wiping my verbal ashes off their windshields as far away as North Dakota”.
In the world of high-concept travelogues you can usually tell when someone’s faking, but it’s obvious that she would be doing all of this even if she wasn’t writing a book about it. What prevents Assassination Vacation from turning into grisly historical true crime is its curious, discursive nature, as the always wry Vowell becomes fascinated by a 19th century vegetarian biblical sex cult and the spread of neoclassical Doric columns through Washington D.C.’s legislative architecture. She possesses that elusive quality that only the best writers have: whatever she’s interested in, you become interested in it too.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Eight.
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.
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.
One of the hardest parts of growing up takes place years after the actual growing up. It comes when you revisit a person or place that was instrumental in your youth and find that they, or it, became something entirely different in your absence. You felt as if you had invented this person, imagined this street in your own head, only to see they had almost nothing to do with you at all. You thought you were the protagonist of a story, but you were just there.
There is much heartbreak to be found in Jonathan Lethem’s partially-autobiographical The Fortress of Solitude, which depicts the upbringing of two boys in the ragged, pre-gentrified Brooklyn of the 1970s, but it is the sombre recognition of this fact which is the saddest thing about it. After 300 pages breathlessly detailing the minutiae of graffiti, street games, soul music, silver age comic books and the birth of hip-hop, not to mention drug abuse, poverty, damaged, damaging parents and above all the societal challenges of race, the story leaps 18 years into the future to discover its heroes set down radically different paths, abstracted from one another. After making us care deeply about the residents of Boerum Hill, Lethem captures the sensation, depressing and strangely embarrassing, of seeing someone for the first time in decades and finding they’ve been swallowed whole by a thing you escaped.
Until that juncture though, there is youth: giddy, anxious, fleeting. In being so specific and expansive about a time and place, the author captures something universal not just about being young, but about how it feels to remember being young. While Lethem later introduces one significant, superhero-inspired element of magical realism, his writing is at its most evocative when articulating the vivid-yet-hazy quality of memory. During one gorgeous passage, he describes a game of stickball on an endless day in late August, the sort of game – “One kid’s mom yelled for half an hour and even then nobody else paid attention, nobody went inside” – that inspires nostalgia as it’s happening, the sort of game that will eventually expand in the act of recollection to encompass all similar recollections of that period. Like any miraculous thing it seems to last forever until, all of a sudden, it’s become the past. “Summer on Dean Street had lasted one day and that day was over, it was dark out, had been for hours.”
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Six
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?
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.
Some negative qualities are sexier than others. Literature groans under the weight of moody, narcissistic and casually cruel characters that readers can’t help but forgive as they’re so damned charming. We tolerate rogues, scoundrels and other assorted miscreants because they’re the most fun to read about, even if they’re going to eventually break our hearts. In non-fiction we even allow ourselves to become infatuated with tiresomely-hip misanthropes, as if being cynical is the same thing as being interesting. Despite our repeated misplacing of affections, though, the one type of character we have trouble warming to is the unsympathetic curmudgeon. The crank. The grouser. The sourpuss. The Jonathan Franzen.
It’s reductive to look too intently for evidence of autobiography in a 576-page novel that’s about everything from marriage to gentrification to the Iraq War, but of the four main characters in Freedom, it initially seemed as if the closest thing to an author surrogate was Robert Katz, Franzen’s portrait of an indie musician suddenly finding himself uncomfortably popular after decades toiling in commercial obscurity. As time has passed, however, and the novelist has become an online symbol of musty, irritable Ludditism for his tendency to fume about social media and make carelessly needling remarks, it’s become apparent that a better candidate is Robert’s college roommate Walter Berglund: a conscientious man deeply concerned about the environment, clinging to values incompatible with the modern world.
Over the course of Freedom, its narrative leapfrogging from character to character to document a span of decades, Walter’s passion curdles into a sore-headed rage which culminates in a televised rant indistinguishable from a breakdown. Like Franzen, Walter has important points to make about overpopulation, overdevelopment and the avian genocide perpetrated by domestic housecats, but he consistently gets in his own way. Even though he’s right, he’s so much of a prig that people resent his warnings. Franzen’s gift for plotting and the lyricism of his words are rightfully praised, but his greatest asset is his compassion for his characters and ability to make readers feel the same. The tiny miracle he performs is that you still care for Walter. He becomes a curmudgeon but remains thoughtful and sincere, capable of kindness and grace. The same is also true of Jonathan Franzen.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Five
Due to a clerical error at the job centre you have been employed as the new Father Christmas. There is little on your CV to suggest that you would be the appropriate candidate to become the personification of Christmas, but perhaps they were swayed by your stated willingness to relocate, you think, or maybe you impressed someone with details of the winter you spent as a teenager working shifts in an Argos stockroom. In any case, at least it’s better than more admin work.
On the sleigh ride towards your first day at the job, you rub your mittens together and ponder the reasons why you’d traditionally be unsuitable for the gig. This, you remind yourself, is called imposter syndrome. Why shouldn’t you be the presiding spirit of Yuletide? The season holds many lessons, and one of the better ones is that Christmas can be anything you want it to be. Apparently that concept now includes your newfound career as festive gift-bringer. You enter the workshop with your head held high, until you realise you have a foot or two on your tallest colleague and that you might seem rude for the act.
The elves are unexpectedly spry given that they are each hundreds of years old, but you are disappointed to learn that their pay has barely risen over that time. This wage stagnation is despite the growing complexity of their work, as wooden toys have been supplanted by all manner of complicated electronic devices. One of your first acts is to encourage the elves to unionise, and although this is admittedly inspired by procrastination – much of your job involves reading thousands of letters and attempting not to nod off – it definitely feels like the right thing to do.
After months of diligent reindeer upkeep, the big day arrives. When you were younger and more sceptical you would occasionally ask your mother how Father Christmas was able to deliver presents to everyone across the world in a single night. She would always give the same gnomic, classic-mum response: time zones. It turns out that she was right. You have far longer than you were anticipating to complete your task, but it is still the most hectic night of your life. There is a certain thrill however in being so busy that you don’t have a moment to think about what you’re doing. You are all determination and instinct, or, more accurately, determination, instinct and an increasing quantity of mince pies.
Barring a few overenthusiastic canines the night is a success, and before you know it your sleigh is gliding onto the roof of your final house. As you swing your legs into the flue of the chimney you reflect on how excited everyone is going to be in a couple of hours. For some reason you’ve been thinking about Christmas more than usual this year. Your new job is partially responsible, but you’ve also been taken with the idea that everyone just needs Christmas a little more at the moment. It isn’t the presents or the food or the parties or the days off work: it’s about having the opportunity to be kind. A friend once told you that she liked Christmas because it was simple and tender, and you believe that’s exactly what we all need right now.
The first thing you notice on exiting the fireplace is that a plate hasn’t been left out for you. While you’ve certainly had more than enough mince pies at this point, it seems a shame that the reindeer don’t have one last carrot to share. At this moment you realise that the room’s furnishings look familiar. This should be unsurprising: it’s your house. You reach into your sack and find that there is one final present. It is red and green and gold, and is bedecked with enough ribbons that you could probably start your own haberdashery if the Father Christmas work eventually dries up. The writing on the tag says “Merry Christmas!”, and in smaller letters underneath this, “Thank you”. As you chuckle to yourself – you’ve gotten very good at chuckling lately – you place the present under the tree. You don’t even need to open it to know what’s inside. The present is, of course, the one thing you’ve always wanted.
What did the elves give you for Christmas?
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.
Not for the first Tuesday in your life, you are making circuits of the park in search of an acceptable bench. Your criteria is modest but complicated: the bench must be empty, it can’t have any rainwater on the slats, it mustn’t be too close to the road or a bin or the entrance or the playground or those noisy office workers, and it should provide a decent view of the sloping green that would have entertained your lunch break if only it hadn’t rained earlier. It is not too much to ask for, you think.
The sandwich in your bag provides a sense of purpose that has otherwise eluded you all day, and soon you find a decent bench. As you unwrap tinfoil with one hand you attempt to hold your book with the other. You haven’t read enough for the pages to be evenly distributed, however, and the unread mass pulls the book out from your fingers, whereupon it falls to the ground with a wet thump. Suppressing a sigh, you tuck your head between your knees and look beneath the bench.
Apparently your book has made a friend, as another book sits beside it. You retrieve both items and turn your attention to the interloper. There is little to go on: no dust jacket, no credited author, no blurb, no indication of when it was published or even by whom. You briefly wonder if it’s a prop or a fake book from a furniture store when you locate the title page. The book, it says, is called Life and How to Live it.
With your curiosity piqued and your sandwich liberated from its aluminium prison, you decide to read the first paragraph. To your astonishment, it describes the exact circumstances of your birth. The opening chapter, in fact, covers the period up until your first day of nursery school. The book shakes in your hands as you skim ahead. It reads like a biography but includes details held only by you – sharp, fleeting embarrassments that no-one else would remember and that you can’t forget.
The years sprint by, a blur of anxiety, laughter and inclement weather, until you reach a passage in which you enter a park at lunchtime and look for a bench. As a gasp gets no further than your throat, you slam the book shut like a demonic spirit is about to escape from it.
Maybe this is apt: you have no idea how the book came into existence but feel certain that you weren’t meant to read it. Even your vague awareness of how far through you are seems like life-warping information to possess. How many more chapters are there? How does it end? You push the thought away but others take its place. What if you were to read ahead? Not the whole thing, perhaps, but it might be comforting to see what’s just around the corner, or to find out whether you will get to where you want to go. You scrape a thumb across the breadth of your life, your sandwich forgotten and already starting to stale.
What is the title of the book’s current chapter, and what do you do next?
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Four.
It’s surely not a coincidence that our most ebullient rituals occur during the bleakest days of the year. As winter batters its fists upon the windows, tradition is a friendly face at the door, a comforting visitor to help us ignore the darkness outside. Without even noticing, Christmas rites accumulate naturally around us. We listen to the same songs every year as we put lights on the tree, make the same biscuits we always make, watch the same Christmas specials that we could recite by heart. For the satisfaction they bring, we observe these events as closely as if they had been ordained.
Here’s a ritual of mine, then: every December I listen to a different audiobook of A Christmas Carol. An unabridged reading takes around three hours, so I’m able to get through it over a couple of crisp, lonely walks. In keeping with the oral tradition that fomented literature, A Christmas Carol is not a story you’re meant to read, but rather one you’re meant to have read to you. Dickens himself did this for 127 audiences during his lifetime, including his final public reading.
Like a bicycle or the zip on a jacket, we take A Christmas Carol for granted because it works perfectly. Possessing the quality of a fable, the story unfolds with such pleasurable inevitability that it’s difficult to imagine someone actually sat down and toiled over its nouns and verbs, that Ebenezer Scrooge and his misery didn’t always exist somewhere. Not wasting a moment, its elegant narrative works like a machine: there’s a reason why two centuries later we’re still telling the story to ourselves, not just through adaptations but versions starring everyone from Bugs Bunny to Fred Flintstone.
Despite the Bob Cratchit in my head bearing a striking resemblance to Kermit the Frog, however, I am helplessly, joyfully drawn to the original text. I love how its opening line – “Marley was dead: to begin with” – manages to be spooky and witty at the same time. I love that it’s written with a noble purpose and yet Dickens can’t resist showing off how clever he is. Most of all, I love the meaning of the tradition in my life. Every year, wandering the same city as Scrooge once did, I’m provided with a reminder that change is achievable, and that it is always possible to be one’s best, most compassionate self.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Four
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.
A throwaway joke in the 2009 film Star Trek may be one of the most sublime questions ever posed in science fiction. Exiled to a remote Starfleet outpost, Scotty meets a version of Spock who has travelled decades back in time. On realising that his visitor is from the future, he asks: “Do they still have sandwiches there?”
What this illustrates so elegantly is the divide between what human life is like now and how we imagine the future to be. For much of the world, sandwiches are the base unit of lunch, so why would there come a time when people didn’t enjoy them? It’s reasonable to assume that technological advances will render parts of our daily lives unrecognisable, but we won’t suddenly stop being us.
Along with the sandwiches, the other item that tends to go missing in these future visions is a sense of humour. At a certain point, it appears that our species becomes awfully po-faced. The consistent repudiation of this notion by Iain Banks is ones of the things that makes his Culture novels so engaging. The books, written pseudonymously under the name Iain M. Banks, depict an anarchist utopian civilisation called the Culture – a post-human society in which its thirty trillion citizens are free to pursue their enlightened, hedonistic lives however they wish. As the post-scarcity Culture is wholly stable, the stories usually involve characters meeting other groups that don’t share the same outlook, leading to dazzling, thrilling, heady sci-fi. The real draw, however, is Banks’s dry Scottish wit: it’s difficult to resist a world in which spaceships have names like Passing By And Thought I’d Drop In, Frank Exchange of Views and I Blame Your Mother.
For years I mostly stuck to the author’s M-less efforts, but I needn’t have been afraid. I became a convert after gulping down The Player of Games, which focuses on the Culture’s finest game player as he attempts to topple a brutal empire built around a complicated board game where one’s societal rank is determined by proficiency. Like the rest of Banks’s work, The Player of Games bristles with daring invention, but what I appreciated most was the idea that even a thousand years from now, as part of a pan-humanoid civilisation capable of changing genetic make-up on a whim, we would still enjoy board games and give ships names like Of Course I Still Love You.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Three
John Cleese is being harassed in a pub. The comedian – post-Fawlty Towers, pre-long descent into bitterness – has asked an age-old question: “What’s the BBC ever given us for 58 quid?” The answer comes from thirty of the corporation’s biggest stars, Bob Geldof and a golden retriever, as they list everything from drama to children’s television to natural history documentaries. The famous 1986 advert is a useful example of why the BBC is undervalued for its progressive programming. Its position as the world’s oldest and largest broadcaster can provide it with tremendous muscle, as their recent Olympics coverage attests, but this begets a reputation for being monolithic.
It would be unsurprising if one discovered that the word “institution” was invented in 1922 to describe the BBC. The corporation is a cornerstone of national life, with extensive divisions in television, radio and news, and a history that runs parallel with that of broadcasting, It’s telling that journalists have long employed the nickname ‘Auntie Beeb’: matronly and often infuriating, but a member of the family nonetheless. The dictum from its first general manager John Reith was that the BBC was to “inform, educate and entertain” but this utopian (and patrician) goal isn’t necessarily best achieved by venturing to the medium’s outer reaches. Before it was even called the Home Service, the original name of Radio 4 was the National Programme, and this gets to the root of the problem: it’s hard to create something bold when you’re trying to appeal to an entire county at the same time.
Innovation is often the preserve of outside voices, rather than an city-sized cruise ship of a broadcaster established under a royal charter. Its younger, scrappy rival Channel 4 is traditionally seen as the home for Britain’s daring television: on Christmas Day they broadcast the alternative to the Queen’s speech, rather than the fusty genuine article. Channel 4 was explicitly created to demonstrate experimentation and creativity (a remit they have fulfilled admirably, despite a long-standing tendency to confuse controversy with innovation), but it has never had a monopoly on challenging viewers through its content and form. By virtue of its gargantuan proportions and without the need to gain a certain audience size in order to attract advertisers, the BBC often possesses as a freer hand than its competitors to be audacious.
With this in mind, we’ve gathered five examples of the BBC’s most progressive output. This is a personal view rather a definitive ranking: it would be equally possible to populate this list with Cathy Come Home, Q5, Pennies from Heaven, Life on Earth and Pandora’s Box. Or with Magical Mystery Tour, The Year of the Sex Olympics, That Was the Week That Was, The Young Ones and Castaway 2000. Or with The Royle Family, Mathematics: introduction, Monty Python’s Flying Circus…
The War Game (1965)
The BBC doesn’t deserves all of the credit it might get for commissioning The War Game, as it didn’t actually screen the drama on television for 20 years. Peter Watkins’ documentary-style depiction of a nuclear attack on Britain, produced for the pioneering television play anthology The Wednesday Play, was withdrawn by the corporation after they realised the potency of what they’d created. In a statement in 1965, they said: “When the television service undertook the making of a film on this subject, it recognised the risk that the film might turn out to be unsuitable for general showing. In the event, the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” Allegedly fearing mass suicides, they suppressed the film from a wider audience. Despite winning an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, it only received limited public screenings.
When The War Game did eventually make it onto television to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, it had been superseded by the thematically-similar docudrama Threads, but two decades later the film was no less horrifying. The War Game is part of a rich tradition of British television horror that runs from Nigel Kneale plays such as The Quatermass Experiment and The Stone Tape to terrifying public information films about substations, tractors and broken glass, but its lingering power comes from its pressing message. If nuclear war had broken out in 1965, this is what it would have looked like. It’s what nuclear war would look like today, too.
The history of British television is the history of watching people use telephones. Entertainment programmes from Swap Shop to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to Richard & Judy have thrived on the inherent suspense in watching a TV presenter talk to a real person who is away from any producers or guiding influences. It is television at its least polished and most dangerous: usually the results are mundane, but things go wrong just enough that there’s always the possibility that everything might leap off the rails. This dramatic tension was employed to disconcerting effect in the mockumentary Ghostwatch, which uses the technique both as a source of scares and as an unconscious way to vouch for the truth of what it’s depicting.
If you happened to be flicking through channels on 31st October, 1990 and missed the start, there’s a chance that you might have been taken in by Ghostwatch, at least for a little while. The one-off drama presents itself as a live programme about a haunted house in Northolt, cutting between the house itself and a BBC studio which becomes an unwitting target for the poltergeist. The programme’s uncanny reproduction of live broadcasting caused some viewers to believe they were watching the real thing. Due to the controversy caused, it has never been repeated on British television, which made it even more potent in the time before physical media and the internet. For years Ghostwatch festered in the minds of those who saw it, and it is still genuinely distressing decades later. Where Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds radio play used fictional characters throughout, this is unsettling because it uses actual BBC presenters Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Craig Charles and the late Mike Smith as themselves. The programme it pertains to be is close enough to the formulaic that if you squint it’s almost possible to believe.
Blue Jam (1997)
From the very first line, radio programme Blue Jam lets its audience know what they’re in for: “When you sick so sad you cry, and in crying, cry a whole leopard from your eye. Sad mammal.” Before the world lost him to the snail’s pace of film-making, Blue Jam was devised by Chris Morris after the draining experience of creating news parody Brass Eye, which had drawn the hysterical attentions of MPs, the ITC and crowing tabloids. By design, the programme was under the radar, broadcast on Radio 1 at one in the morning. Morris originally lobbied for it to be on at 3 a.m., explaining to a journalist afterwards: “I thought that was about the latest time of day that could be late without being early. It’s a sort of – really it’s an autumnal, middle of the night show. You need to be as far from light as possible.”
Blue Jam feels like a fever dream, as stretches of ambient downbeat music are alternated with some of the most disturbing, surreal things ever said on national radio; Morris himself described it the effect as “spooky-woozy.” That it also manages to be hilarious – and surprisingly moving in the case of its desolate monologues about a confused, deeply depressed man – is an achievement. After three series, it eventually transitioned to television for the Channel 4 programme Jam, but the latter couldn’t manage to be as experimental, thrilling and bleak as the show that spawned it. Something was lost: the false sense of security it lures you into, as you start enjoying the music and forget what exactly it is you’re listening to. That’s when Morris gets you.
Marion and Geoff (2000)
When he isn’t trying to sell us Crunchy Nut Cornflakes or Fairy Liquid, Rob Brydon is one of the most innovative comedians working on television today. Best known for his warm portrayal of Uncle Bryn in Gavin and Stacey, Brydon is unsung for his commitment to unusual comic forms: the dark anthology series Human Remains with Julia Davis, his Larry Sanders-like satire of comedy panel shows Annually Retentive (which was simultaneously an actual panel show), his vocal contribution as the eponymous film-maker in the stock footage-mining Directors Commentary, and alongside Steve Coogan as bickering versions of themselves in Michael Winterbottom’s improvised sitcom The Trip. Some of these worked better than others, but they all were linked by a shared vision of presenting comedy on television by less traditional means.
The high-water mark of Brydon’s career remains his breakout role in Marion and Geoff, which he also co-wrote. Brydon plays the only on-screen character: Keith Barret, a divorced taxi driver struggling to put his life back together after his wife Marion leaves him for her colleague. The programme is constructed from recordings of Barret filming himself in his car, something he does for reasons that are never quite explained. A good man in denial of his ghastly situation, living with unwavering optimism and offbeat good humour, Barret is a successor to the lonely monologists of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, but the use of his car-bound camera anticipates a later culture of relentless self-documentation. The simplicity of the format is what allows Marion and Geoff to be so casually devastating: it doesn’t need big scenes involving lots of characters because it can show a man hugging a pair of stuffed toys in a car and make you cry.
All Aboard! The Canal Trip (2015)
If you want to really learn something about a person you should describe the concept of All Aboard! The Canal Trip to them and see how they react. Filmed in real time, The Canal Trip is a two-hour documentary of a narrowboat inching its way from Bath Top Lock to the Dundas Aqueduct. The camera barely moves, there is no voiceover and no narrative to speak of, and occasionally visual information about the canal’s history will appear on screen. There is clearly little room for equivocation: either this is intriguing or the most tedious-sounding programme ever made. There has perhaps never been an exclamation mark as potentially mocking as the one that appears in the title.
The Canal Trip‘s concept isn’t native to the BBC – it is inspired by the work of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, who have drawn huge audiences by showing exhaustive footage of nine-hour train journeys, tidal currents, salmon fishing and a jumper being knitted over twelve hours – but in a culture that exists in fast forward it can only be daring. The programme appeared as the centrepiece of 2015’s BBC Four Goes Slow series, and its popularity led to a Christmas Eve sequel depicting a sleigh ride and another showing a bus journey in the Yorkshire Dales. It is boring, but that’s also the point: once you adjust to its unusual rhythm, The Canal Trip has a hypnotic quality that can inspire a profound sort of beauty. It allows space for your mind to wander, casting you an active participant in the experience. If approached in the right mood, the programme can make you think more about canals than any sensible documentary possibly could.
Originally published on White Noise.
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.
Noah Ward owns a suspicious number of books for someone who can’t read. In his defence, he is seven months old and only recently got around to learning how to laugh. How can one be expected to read, Noah might argue (if he were capable of speech or standing without assistance), if one is unable to laugh at the words?
My dashing young nephew is unaware of the commitment I have made to his future, which is probably for the best as that commitment is to thoroughly indoctrinate him. The nefarious plan is simple: for every special occasion in Noah’s life I will give him a book. Birthdays, Christmases, rainy bank holidays, bouts of chickenpox. Maybe even Whitsun if he’s lucky. If all goes well he’ll eventually be able to swim in his collection like a miserly Scottish mallard. I’m aware that it’s likely he’ll love this at first and then hate it, but hopefully he’ll eventually come back to it again. If he doesn’t then at least Dumfries’ charity shops will remain well stocked.
I knew instinctively what the first book would be: Letters to Anyone and Everyone by Toon Tellegen. The Dutch writer and poet has written more than 300 animal stories across a quarter of a century, and it’s surely a crime that his work is virtually unknown here. Letters to Anyone and Everyone covers all manner of peculiar correspondence: an elephant writing to a snail (“May I invite you to dance with me on top of your house? Just a few steps?”), a sparrow writing to a crow (“I think you squawk beautifully. Sadly, but that’s what makes it so beautiful”), a squirrel writing to a letter (“It feels very strange to be writing to you, because you get bigger as I write”), a mole writing to himself (“Dear Mole, Yours sincerely, The Mole”). Funny, whimsical and surreal, Tellegen’s stories reveal themselves to be full of great longing and melancholy. They are striking in their simplicity: there is only one forest, one river, one ocean, one oak tree.
I chose the book not just because it contains the precise kind of magic common to the finest children’s literature, but because it depicts a world that venerates cakes and letters and dancing and kind gestures. A world where it’s okay to be sad, and okay to be happy, too. A world that Noah might seek for himself one day, when he is older and finally masters compound sentences and waving.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Two
I was waiting for a train, desperately trying to think of something that wasn’t terrible. My phone – that usual bulwark against darkness and commuting – stayed in my pocket: by any measure we’re living through a tumultuous year, but at that moment the news seemed so unrelentingly grim that I couldn’t even check twitter without getting depressed and teary. I wanted to imagine something, anything, that had some delight in it, that wasn’t defined by hatred or uncertainty. Just one good thing.
As the train pulled up to the platform, it came to me: I started thinking about how much I enjoyed it when I poured water from the washing up bowl into the sink, and the bowl floated around like a boat. It was small and silly, but I felt better for the mental image. It reminded me that even when times were difficult, my days were still dotted with moments that brought me pleasure. Although their slightness made them easy to overlook, that was also the very thing that made them special. For a brief interlude, instead of fretting about what was happening in the world, I was overwhelmed by thoughts of green ink, independent bookshops, David Attenborough, kissing under streetlamps, and the way sunblock smells precisely like summer.
I knew that I didn’t want to let it go. I could either forget about these fragments or try to share them. By the time I arrived at my destination I’d decided to opt for the latter. There was only one meaningful home for this, of course: if Oh Comely stands for anything, it’s that there is joy in liking things. Since then I have tweeted every day at 13:00, and will continue to do so until someone changes the account password and confiscates my mouse and keyboard.
In writing these notes, the greatest pleasure – other than honing my own wonder-noticing skills – has been relinquishing the space to friends, family, readers, members of the Oh Comely team, or anyone else with a good suggestion. What’s encouraging about it is that the same seemingly idiosyncratic concepts keep coming up: I like the idea that there are all of these splendid things in our lives that feel incredibly specific, but are actually universal. In a country that has felt alarmingly divided of late, it’s cheering to know that at least we all enjoy remembering that we’ve made a cup of tea, and finding that it’s now at the perfect temperature.
I’m fairly certain that I’m the only person to have ever been excited by Deuce Bigalow 2: European Gigolo. A decade ago, in the provincial cinema of my provincial youth, I walked past a poster for the rightly maligned comedy and spotted something incredible. Lurking in the middle of the credits block was the name of its screenwriter: Jason Ward. It just so happened to be my name too. Through some glorious quirk of the universe I shared my appellation with the man behind a movie Roger Ebert called “aggressively bad, as if it wants to cause suffering to the audience”. It almost goes without saying that this was the highpoint of my young life.
I shamelessly dined out on the story of my Hollywood doppelgänger until I became a freelance writer. Besides myself and the wayward film-maker, I quickly discovered that there were many other Jason Wards who also made their living from writing. There was the Jason Ward who edits a popular Star Wars news site; the Jason Ward who writes speculative historical fiction; the Jason Ward who contributes to Thai travel magazines; the Jason Ward who self-publishes terrible sex advice books; the Jason Ward who writes spy thrillers mostly about how stressful airports are. The internet is lousy with us: by my best estimate there are about 15 Jason Wards currently working as writers, without even factoring in the prop comedian, wedding DJ or Canadian ice hockey player who also share the name.
It took me longer than it should have to realise this was going to be a problem. As a freelancer, your livelihood depends not just on the quality of your work but on people knowing who you are, or at least being able to find you. This is most important at the outset of a career, when your e-mail appearing in someone’s inbox is probably the first time they’ve heard of you. If a freelance writer with an unexceptional name hasn’t yet written for any significant publications, then an editor’s rudimentary internet search is unlikely to turn up much that will vouch for them.
This painful, retrospectively obvious fact – that success in a freelance writing career depends on factors beyond the actual writing – wasn’t evident until I won mentoring sessions as a reward for coming second in a critics’ competition (truly the journalistic equivalent of Monopoly’s ‘second prize in a beauty contest’ card). Moments after shaking my hand, my new mentor pulled out his laptop, opened his search engine and typed in my name. Nothing. He clicked the second page. And then the third. It wasn’t until the fourth page of results that he finally found me. “If you really want to make a go of this,” he said, as the white-hot embarrassment seared itself on my brain forever, “then you can’t be behind a racehorse trainer on Google. You have to take it seriously.”
Up until that point, taking it seriously had meant the effort I put into my work. For some foolish reason I believed that to promote oneself was gauche and inessential. If you build it, they will come, right? The truth, though, is that they won’t come if they don’t know you’re out there, and they especially won’t come if they’re liable to confuse you with the author of What He Really Desires: Finally a book where men can learn about women’s sexual desires (sic).
The mentoring session felt like a trip to a particularly righteous dentist, but only an outsider was able to see what I could not. The way I could respect his insight was by accepting the uncomfortable feedback rather than grasping for excuses. Even if I’d been the only Jason Ward in the world, I was still being lazy. My problem wasn’t having a relatively common name but the way I was presenting myself. The onus was on me to take initiative: I ditched the flimsy publishing platform I’d been using for free, bought a simple, searchable address, and spent time learning SEO and building a proper website of my own. Looking beyond my site, I made tweaks elsewhere: I streamlined my online presence, realising that business networking sites such as LinkedIn had brought me little but years of spam. It wasn’t about selling myself at every juncture, but giving thought to the experience a potential client might have after receiving a pitch from me, or reading something of mine that they liked. I needed to make things as easy as I could for them. My Twitter bio still contained a joke, but at least it was clear what I did and who I was.
These actions didn’t propel me to giddy freelancing stardom, of course. There are still many other writers, most of whom aren’t even called Jason Ward. There is even the film journalist called Jason Wood who regularly contributes to the same publications as me. (I wrote 54 entries for the book Movie Star Chronicles: three of them are mistakenly credited to him.) And I’m still only on the second page of Google results for ‘Jason Ward’. It’s a start, though: if you type in ‘Jason Ward writer’ sometime, the first thing you’ll see is my website. A small accomplishment, yes, but enough small accomplishments make a career. Take that, Jason Wards.
Published in IPSE Magazine Issue 56.
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.
I knew she was dead. It’s the first line of the book. The ninth, tenth and eleventh words. I’ve seen the stone slab in Edinburgh, run my fingers over its dates. We were born in different centuries. We’ve never even been alive at the same time. How, then, to explain my disappointment as I failed to run into Nan Shepherd in the Cairngorms?
Nan would appreciate the discombobulation, I suspect. Even upon its release, her non-fiction work The Living Mountain had stepped out of time. Written during World War II, Nan kept the manuscript in a drawer for three decades before publishing it. “Now, an old woman, I begin tidying out my possessions and reading it again” she wrote in 1977, “I realise that the tale of my traffic with a mountain is as valid today as it was then.”
This sentiment remains true. Although Nan was an influential early modernist writer and mountain poet, not to mention a lecturer of English for 41 years, it is The Living Mountain that I return to again and again. A lyrical meditation on hill walking in the Cairngorms, the book documents the full breadth of life on the mountain range: its plateaus and recesses, its water and snow, the light, the air, the plants and animals. It is dizzying, one of the most vivid books I have read about a physical landscape. The pages seem to thrum as you hold them.
Whether emotional or geographical, the greatest power of the written word is its capacity to make the reader experience a place where they have not stepped. When I was finally able to visit the Cairngorms properly on a long, lonesome cycle trip, it felt as if I had already been there. It was just as she had described it. This should have been unsurprising: as she observed when the book made its first leap in time, thirty years in the life of a mountain is nothing. The only thing missing was Nan herself, but that isn’t quite right. As I explored the hills that had once brought her such joy, all those years ago – “How crisp, how bright a world!” – I often thought of a passage where she describes the pleasure of walking in the winter snow, and seeing the tracks of different birds and animals that had gone before her: “One is companioned, though not in time.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-One.
Growing up with a sibling is like winning a prize at a village fête tombola that you didn’t actually enter: hopefully you’ll get something decent, but there’s a fair chance you’ll end up with a tin of pineapple chunks instead. Through an essentially random process, you’re assigned someone who is supposed to be one of the closest people to you, with whom you’ll share not just genetic material but a household, a family, and your youth. Who knows whether or not you’ll actually like each other?
The stultifying proximity of childhoods and adolescences can accordingly make a sibling one of the most complicated relationships in one’s life. This can be a source of comfort and joy, but also mutual agony: there’s no-one like a sister or brother to transform you into the 14-year-old version of yourself. At its best, this means silliness, solidarity and a sense of playful competition. At its worst, you both revert to your worst incarnations, and misery blossoms. Making a sibling relationship work can be hard enough, therefore, without adding public scrutiny, duelling careers, Oscar ceremonies and Adolf Hitler into the mix, as shown by the contentious and compelling lives of two sets of famous sisters: Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, and the Mitfords.
Given that the Golden Age movie star Olivia de Havilland is 99 years old and still alive, it could be argued that the publication of her last will and testament in her high school newspaper was somewhat premature. She was, at least, nothing if not generous: “I bequeath to my sister the ability to win boys’ hearts,” Olivia wrote, “which she does not have at present.”
Her sister Joan was accustomed to such barbs. Born fifteen months apart, the siblings fought viciously for their entire childhood: they would taunt each other, pull out one another’s hair, and whenever it came time for Olivia to pass down her old clothes, she would rip them to bits first. By the age of 9, Joan had already plotted out her sister’s murder, aiming to “plug Olivia between the eyes.” As adulthood approached the physical quarrels fell away but the enmity between the sisters remained, a situation which wasn’t helped by them both deciding to become actresses, or from their mother barring Joan from using the family name because Olivia was already doing so.
What was perhaps the apogee of their feud took place on 26th February 1942 at the 14th Academy Awards. Seated at the same table, Joan and Olivia were both nominated for best actress. The winner was Joan, who later recalled her sister’s response in her memoir: “ ‘Get up there!’ she whispered commandingly. Now what had I done? All the animus we’d felt towards each other as children, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery. My paralysis was total. I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair. I felt age 4, being confronted by my older sister.” Olivia resisted one last hair pull, but when she finally won her own Oscar five years later, she refrained from shaking her sister’s hand. “Our relations have been strained for some time – I couldn’t change my attitude,” she told a reporter. “Maybe she didn’t see me,” Joan told another.
The exact history of Olivia and Joan’s fractious relationship is difficult to establish because their version of events often diverged wildly. Joan, easily aggrieved since youth, was more willing to discuss the matter publicly and keen to portray herself as the victim. The reality was probably a little more nuanced: they were two equally competitive, unsentimental and talented sisters whose early animosity carried over as they pursued the same career. Although they’d never be able to admit it, they were as bad, and as good, as one another. Their relationship sputtered on until 1975 when a row over their dying mother caused them to stop speaking for good, and they never managed to reconcile before Joan’s own death in 2013. The timing might have given her a certain grim pleasure, as in a 1978 interview she said: “I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did, and if I die first, she’ll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it.”
“Please not the Nazi one, please not the Nazi one, please not the Nazi one,” I whispered to an internet quiz that probably wasn’t listening to me. Years after I’d exhausted the biographies and the memoirs and the published letters, bored curiosity had driven me to seek out a question that I wasn’t sure I wanted the answer to: exactly which Mitford sister was I?
The question is fraught with peril: even though there were six Mitford sisters, you still have a 33% chance of picking a fascist. Half a century on from their famous and infamous heyday, Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica (known as Decca) and Deborah continue to intrigue, charm and repel, precisely because of the yawning differences between them. While they all grew up in the same eccentric aristocratic family, their lives a tangle of nicknames and secret languages, they ultimately took disparate paths.
This can be best illustrated by the political abyss that divided Decca and Unity: in her youth, Unity carved swastikas into the windowpanes of their home, and for each one Decca countered with a hammer and sickle. Later, Decca eloped with a cousin and fled to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, while Unity moved to Germany to become one of Hitler’s closest friends. Even later still, on the day World War II started Unity shot herself in the head with a pistol given to her by Hitler; although she survived to live for another nine years, the doctors couldn’t remove the bullet and the brain damage was debilitating. Decca, meanwhile, emigrated to America to become a crusading investigative journalist and civil rights activist. Living a principled but irreverent life that would have baffled her sister, she counted Maya Angelou among her closest friends and in her late seventies starting a cowbell-and-kazoo orchestra called Decca and the Dectones.
It wasn’t just Decca and Unity who stood out: at every turn, the Mitford sisters went their own way. In the “fascist branch” of the family, Diana married Oswald Mosley at Joseph Goebbels’ home, with Hitler serving as guest of honour (he gave them a picture of himself as a present, as he was a terrible wedding guest and person.) Nancy, an incisive comic writer best known for her semi-autobiographical classics The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, spied on her sisters for MI5 during the war, and later left a feckless husband in England for a philandering lover in Paris. Deborah became the Duchess of Devonshire and was happy to spend most of her time writing about and restoring the stately home Chatsworth. Pamela was conspicuous by being inconspicuous: she is portrayed as the unassuming, quiet one by virtue of having lived a relatively normal life, give or take an atomic physicist husband and a forty-year relationship with a Swiss-Italian horsewoman.
There are many reasons why the “Mitford industry” (as Decca called it) has endured, outliving all six sisters, but fundamental to its appeal is the idea that these women were incredibly different yet still tied together. While their contrasting fortunes reflected the chaos of their disintegrating aristocratic class, they also demonstrated that a family can tolerate individualism, and is indeed more vibrant because of it. Even though there were massive schisms and their lives were frequently tragic, none of the Mitfords could be described as a black sheep. Instead, they were a family of black sheep, each fiercely determining what was right for them. They were undoubtedly aided in this by their privilege, and at least a good third of them were wrong and mad, but their fortitude inspires nonetheless. As I waited for the results of the online quiz – which I definitely didn’t cheat on to get Decca – I was reminded that regardless of which Mitford sister I turned out to be, we all have the freedom to be the people we want.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty.
“Half of the people who come here hate it,” says a barmaid that I can’t see. I think she’s shrugging. “The other half love it. We had some old ladies in the other night; they were having the time of their lives.” She takes away my empty beaker and leaves me to my futile attempt to clean my glasses. Like the rest of me they’re covered in a fine dew: my fingers stick and unstick at the ends of the transparent rain poncho I’m wearing. I return to the installation through two sets of strip curtains – the heavy plastic kind you’d probably get at an abattoir, if abattoirs happened to play David Bowie on their sound systems and served shots of whisky mixed with Buckfast.
At first the sensation is nearly overwhelming. It’s a little like entering a bedroom where a teenage boy has recently used too much deodorant. Every breath draws in a lungful of close, perfumed vapour. The visibility has plummeted, too: in the blue haze it’s difficult to make out anything except vague people shapes, chatting and laughing and occasionally trying to take pictures of themselves. The best way to describe it is not to say that it is pleasant or unpleasant, but rather that it is novel.
As I reflect on the experience between woozy gulps, I realise that it’s exactly what I would expect being inside a cloud of alcohol to feel like.
I’m standing in the middle of Alcoholic Architecture, the latest venture from experimental food designers Bompas & Parr. Situated in London’s Borough Market, the installation is a breathable cocktail: a room filled to 140% humidity with a gin and tonic vapour that’s absorbed through mucous membranes (the lungs and eyeballs.) Each visit, separated into 50-minute blocks, is calibrated to offer the rough equivalent of one large drink. While alcohol inhalation in different forms has become more popular in recent years, the basic principle isn’t new: excluding informal Nordic traditions of pouring vodka onto coals, the technology has existed since at least 1954, when it was employed as a way to treat the accumulation of fluid in the lungs known as a pulmonary edema.
Bompas & Parr’s excitable press release describes their cloud bar as “an alcoholic weather system for your tongue where meteorology and mixology collide against a canvas of monastic mayhem,” a statement both deeply silly and essentially accurate. From its fake stained glass windows to the drinks menu constructed entirely from monk-brewed beverages, the bar takes inspiration from its location opposite the country’s earliest Gothic cathedral; upon visiting the bathroom I’m even greeted by the vision of a monk, shimmering in the toilet bowl and reciting a bawdy poem. Beyond the cloud-of-booze bit, the impression given is that of a fancy dress party held by a particularly enthusiastic friend. The result is oddly endearing, although that might just be the alcohol I’m absorbing through my eyes.
As the 80s synthpop gives way to medieval chanting Sam Bompas emerges out of the miasma and we escape to the alcohol-free air of a nearby pub. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t seem to boast a leucistic albino python or pitcher-glass-made-out-of-an-actual-human-skull. Much like the cloud he has devised, Bompas is just like you’d imagine: a natural showman, energetic, passionate and given to floridity. It’s hard not to be at least somewhat charmed by a man who talks breezily about having “a skull guy”, claims to employ an in-house medium and is planning to found a major national food museum. If he’s a tiny bit ridiculous – and he is – it’s in the best way, borne from a genuine earnestness about creating memorable experiences.
“The most important thing for me is that people have stories to tell about themselves,” he says of the installation’s mission. “In a world where everyone’s increasingly online and dominated by devices the entire time, it’s nice to provide a visceral experience.” Even though Bompas extols the way that humidity enhances taste perception, using as an example the difference between eating fish and chips at the seaside against enduring a meal on an aeroplane, the actual physical sensation of inhaling a G&T seems to be almost beside the point. “It’s all about the interaction between people,” he states. “We’re not saying that this is how you’re going to ingest alcohol for the rest of your life, because it’s not, but for one evening it’s quite fun. It can lead to a lot of different unexpected interactions. Barriers break down in that room.”
This social objective seems to be the key difference between Bompas & Parr and other groups exploring the possibilities of alcohol inhalation, who instead place their emphasis on the consumption itself. For Vaportini, a company that produces a low-tech home inhalation kit – basically a tea light in a pint glass with a sphere on top, plus a straw to suck out the vapour – the benefit touted is that the alcohol bypasses the digestive tract and so the calorie intake is reduced, while they also allege that the possibility of a hangover is lessened. The downside of a device capable of rapid intoxication, of course, is that its misuse poses a higher potential risk of overdose. While skipping the digestive tract is a boon to the calorie conscious, it also precludes a horrible, tremendously important process: vomiting, the body’s primary defence against being poisoned. Unlike the controlled hypoallergenic environment of Alcoholic Architecture, where patrons are limited to a single daily visit, and which was created after five years of consultation with medics and toxicologists, deciding to inhale alcohol at home demands an extra level of caution and personal responsibility.
Facing the same issues but on the other end of the technological spectrum, Le Whaf positions itself as being at the forefront of modernist cuisine. Invented by the founder of respiratory biopharmaceutical company Pulmatrix, the futuristic carafe forgoes tea lights in favour of ultrasound waves that vibrate liquid and transform it into micro droplets. Earlier this year the device was adopted by Ardbeg, who have released their own version called the Haar after the cold sea fog familiar to the whisky-distilling residents of Islay. Rather than trying to circumnavigate the rocky shoals of alcohol consumption, the Haar sells itself as the opportunity to appreciate the subtleties of a complex drink. Despite their differences however, Le Whaf and the cheap-and-cheerful Vaportini still have more in common with each other than with the Southwark pop-up that boasts an ostentatious neon sign reading Breathe responsibly and bar staff uniforms that combine, according to the giddy-on-vapourised-gin press release, “the flair of the continental waiter with the ecclesiastical swagger of a dandified cleric.”
When I ask Sam Bompas for his opinion on home versions of alcoholic inhalation, he seems notably indifferent: “Vaportini is interesting for about two minutes. Maybe five. We’re trying to give people something that can be a seminal point in their night.” It’s evident that Alcoholic Architecture’s competition isn’t personal inhalation devices or even the local bars such as the one we’re standing in, but instead experiential, immersive entertainment like the productions of Secret Cinema and the theatre company Punchdrunk. The value it offers has less to do with ingesting alcohol than that of a curated experience that can be shared with others, both in person and, inevitably, online. “Without having to be on a yacht with magnums of champagne, it allows decadence in a tasteful and fun way,” Bompas claims. “I like the idea that you can have an exciting adventure as part of a night out, even though you’re actually just getting pissed.”
Unlike e-cigarettes, which have seen their global popularity explode, it seems improbable that inhaling alcohol will ever pose a serious threat to the regular, boring consumption method that involves a bottle, a glass and some liquid. The reason vaping has become increasingly commonplace is not that it’s healthier than smoking but that it’s healthier and it replicates the same fundamental pleasure: holding a small object in your hand and breathing in what it produces. This claim can’t be made for alcohol inhalation, regardless of whether you use a tea light and a glass straw or if you put on a poncho in a basement in South London. It just isn’t the same as a good drink.
Despite the cloud bar’s failure to measure up to the simple, glorious effectiveness of liquid alcohol, there’s still a distinct enjoyment to be found in experiencing something new. After finishing my conversation with Sam Bompas I go back to Alcoholic Architecture to wait out the rest of the session. He was right: for one evening at least, it’s quite fun. As stickiness returns to the exposed parts of my body, I breathe some gin and watch a group of shapes move around the room, trying to find enough light to take a selfie.
Published in Hot Rum Cow Issue 9.
from: Jason Ward | oh comely <email@example.com>
to: Liz | oh comely <firstname.lastname@example.org>
date: 13 August 2015 at 12:10
subject: FOR LB’S EYES ONLY
I’ve been thinking. If we’re going to create an issue about secrets then we’d surely be
remiss if we didn’t attempt to keep a secret from the Oh Comely team. I’ve come up
with a concept for a testing feature that I think has the potential to be rather excellent.
I’m happy to give you the details, but I like the idea that even you won’t know what I’m
up to until the piece is finished. This would require placing some trust in me, of course,
but what’s a secret without trust?
The only thing I’d ask is for the relevant scrap of paper on the planning board to read
ANONYMOUS TWO-SPREAD FEATURE ABOUT NOTHING IN PARTICULAR PLEASE
GO ON WITH YOUR LIVES THERE IS DEFINITELY NOTHING TO SEE HERE HEY YOU’RE
BEING SUSPICIOUS. If anyone questions this, the correct response is to produce
the most unconvincing laugh possible and change the subject immediately to the
weather, or to flat-out deny that there’s anything on the board at all. At that point it
might be useful to jump out of the nearest window, but I’ll leave that to your discretion.
What do you think? Is this a good idea?
She said yes, and I stumbled into the dark.
Summer almost over and too early to have lunch, I found myself travelling through an undiscovered country, located somewhere deep within the continent of freelance magazine journalism. I had pitched without a pitch, lobbied for free rein to craft a feature without the careful process of refinement that precedes the commissioning of any sensible piece of journalism. With a single hasty email I’d achieved the dream of every writer: I had requested carte blanche and actually been given it. I had asked for the moon and there it was, bobbing around in my back garden tied to some string. I was, without question, going to mess this one up.
For an ideal reading experience, try to imagine that you have commissioned this very article and are now trying not to quietly panic. If I was more diabolical, this would be the juncture where I’d inconspicuously transition into that short story meaning to write about a reverse werewolf (he’s a normal wolf, you see, but once a month he turns into a human). Alas, I am of average diabolism: if I’m late to a social engagement, I will tell the person I’m heading towards that I’m almost there when I’m definitely nowhere near, but will feel guilty about it afterwards.
The idea I had was this: I would attempt to destabilise Oh Comely by forming my own secret society within the magazine’s editorial team. This society would exist in the shadows as its numbers expanded, operating covertly until it reached the point when everyone in the team had become a member. At this point I would expand its reach nationwide and make my first strides towards inevitable world domination. Or I would
write up the feature and email it in.
As I typed, “How do I create a secret society?” and, “Oh, also: what is a secret society?” into my search engine, I started to suspect that I wasn’t the devious mastermind I’d always assumed myself to be. Tin foil hat-sporting sections of the internet disputed what the essential distinguishing attributes of a secret society were, but they broadly seemed to agree that they involve two elements: how you get in, and what you do
when you are in.
It is the deliberate obscurity of the answers to these questions that explains the enduring appeal of secret societies. In the same way that people usually think something is valuable if it’s a secret, an organisation becomes more attractive if the passage of entry is difficult and the rewards of admission are unclear. A secret society intimates (but doesn’t promise) that it knows something everyone else doesn’t, that in figurative or literal terms it possesses the Forgotten Wisdom of the Ancients. They are first and foremost a triumph of marketing. What do they do in Yale University’s Skull and Bones? It doesn’t matter: they’re called Skull and Bones.
If I was to create a secret society that would become rapidly corrupt with power, I needed a strong name. The secret assassin cult who tormented India for 600 years were called Thuggee. The secret revolutionary groups from nineteenth-century Italy were called the Carbonari. The medieval German philosophical sect were called the Rosicrucians. An effective name for a secret society has to be mysterious, but with perverse menace creeping around its edges too: the Bavarian Illuminati’s name was potent enough to inspire conspiracy theories for centuries to come. On reflection, Skull and Bones somewhat over-eggs the secret pudding: it is malevolent enough to become ludicrous, the sort of name an enthusiastic child might give to a gang whose membership totals themselves and a younger sibling.
I found the middle ground I was searching for a short while later when I was copied in on a passive-aggressive email from a housemate. The message touted a “friendly reminder” about the cleaning rota. Are there any two words in the English language more ominous when put together than “friendly reminder”? It was perfect. With a name that good I didn’t even need my own remote island retreat to lure people in.
In spite of my excellent name, however, I didn’t have the luxury of waiting for potential followers to come to me. But what invitation would be fittingly enigmatic? I knew the home addresses of almost all of my Oh Comely colleagues: how difficult would it be to leave a scrawled handwritten note under their back door, or to move a few flower pots around in the shape of a puzzling, inexplicable symbol? As I pondered the logistics of rigging a paving slab to play a cryptic recording, I came to the realisation that the actions involved in setting up a secret society are not dissimilar to those of a well-prepared stalker. I was happy to become a tyrant, but I refused to end up as a creep.
To avoid becoming someone fated to cut eyeholes into newspapers, I briefly dropped any notion of secrecy whatsoever. At a small extracurricular get-together, I asked three members of the team if they’d like to join my new secret society. I don’t need to explain why I won’t provide their names here, but thankfully all three enthusiastically said yes. One of them—to protect her identity let’s call her “Siz Leabrook”—even came up with a uniform. By a splendid coincidence, all four of us in the Friendly Reminders had recently obtained tie-dyed t-shirts following a workshop run by the magazine. While I figured we would need to invest in masks at some point, or at least some special capes for rituals, we had an essential sartorial item. We were ready to begin.
My imagination was starting to get the better of me. It usually does. I had visions of persuading my colleagues to meet under railway bridges at midnight, devising elaborate handshakes, maybe even coaxing them into joining an insurgent second secret society which would actually contain all of the same members as the first but no one would know because we’d all be wearing hoods. Oh, the hoods: there would be hoods upon hoods upon hoods. Where was I going to find the time to make all of these hoods? I needed to learn how to knit, to begin with.
Unfortunately for the sake of my yarn-wrangling proficiency, this is not the point in the story where the Friendly Reminders takes great and terrible flight. This is the point in the story when the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is accused of having sex with a dead pig.
David Cameron’s act of porcine perversion, it was claimed, had been undertaken at Oxford University as part of an initiation rite to join the Piers Gaveston Society, a decadent men-only dining club that was inherently a secret society with better refreshments. It isn’t for me to comment on how likely this allegation is, but whether it actually happened or not is almost beside the point: the reason it has taken root in the public’s imagination is because on some deep, fundamental level it rings true. The sort of person who would be cold and ambitious enough to want to join a restricted, aristocratic secret society is also the sort of person who would be willing to receive fellatio from a fallen hog in order to do so. He just seems like the type, doesn’t he?
In other words, by forming my own secret society I was at risk of falling into bed with the past, present and future associates of the Piers Gaveston Society, the Bullingdon Club and any number of similar groups that wallow in privilege and keep their doors closed to all but the richest and most obnoxious of rich, obnoxious men. What if the Friendly Reminders succeeded beyond my wildest dreams? Sure, its initiation rites currently consisted of me asking, “I’m forming a secret society. Would you like to join?”, but how long before I was sourcing animal parts from black market butchers and forcing future political leaders to get intimate with them? Just how far could this thing go? It had been a fun, silly little idea that came to me one morning, cackling in the shower, and now I was going to usher in another Conservative prime minister. My mother was going to have a fit.
A long shadow fell over me. Defeat lumbered in my direction. I sat in my room and thought about how the secret societies I’d explored had also been created by people sitting in rooms too. They were no different from me; they had just come to different conclusions in other places and times. Looking out at my back garden I watched the moon, bobbing away at the end of its string. It was a friendly reminder: I could make
anything I wanted. I had carte blanche, after all.
So, anyway, yes. Let’s try again. The idea I have is this: I’m forming a secret society. Would you like to join?
If you are interested in becoming a part of this secret society, which will be mentioned only here, now, in this one article, and never again, you have my solemn vow that you will never be forced to do anything horrible against your will, such as have sex with a dead animal or join the Conservative party. If you’d like, you can make yourself a tie-dyed t-shirt at some point, but that’s more like a secular version of the Hajj: as long as you get around to it eventually you’ll be fine. We have no aims at all. We’re not going to do a thing. But you’re allowed to join us anyway. All you have to do is speak a couple of words aloud, right now. I’ll do it too. It’s easy, just say: “I AM READY TO BE SWEPT OFF MY FEET.”
Did you say it? Alright then. Welcome to the Friendly Reminders. I’ll start knitting some hoods.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Eight.
It’s 10.30 pm on 11th February 1963 and John Lennon is stripped naked to the waist. After ten frenzied hours recording their debut album, The Beatles are completely out of studio time, but they need one more song. After Lennon has had a cup of warm milk to soothe his throat, they go for broke.
Deciding to record their cover of Twist and Shout, “an out-and-out screamer,” they only have a single shot before Lennon’s voice gives way and they’re made to leave the building. The result is seismic. “Nothing of this intensity had ever been recorded in a British pop studio,” notes Ian McDonald in his book Revolution in the Head. As the song fades out after 155 blistering seconds, Paul McCartney yells “Hey!” in delight. It is the only reasonable reaction to hearing Twist and Shout.
The account relayed above is one of countless stories that make Revolution in the Head an outstanding biography of The Beatles, but the book is also an insightful social history of post-war Britain and a peerless work of pop criticism and musical scholarship. MacDonald studies each Beatles recording in chronological order, prising apart every element of their production. The reading experience was genuinely one of the most extraordinary of my life, as I read each entry while listening to the relevant song again and again, hearing the music in a way I never had before. Somehow Revolution in the Head made me love The Beatles more than I already did, and what’s more, now I know that the band once had a major argument because Yoko Ono took one of George Harrison’s chocolate digestives without asking.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Seven.
What do we talk about when we talk about alcohol? Discussion on the subject tends to focus on a few distinct areas: the ways alcohol has developed, where and how it is made (and by whom), and what it is like to consume. Alcohol as history, alcohol as an industry, alcohol as a drink. There is notably less attention paid to another factor, one that can be just as illuminating as its creation or composition. Between the cask and the glass, a part of the journey is missing from the conversation. The answer isn’t at the bottom of a bottle: it is the bottle.
By thinking about alcohol in terms of a discrete unit – something that is sold, bought and owned – we can reflect upon our relationship with it. As drinking habits evolve, so too does the way we interact with the vessels that contain the substance. What’s crucial is that aside from periodic cosmetic updates, the bottles themselves never really change, even as everything else does around them. This applies in particular to spirits: wine has long been a volumetric jumble, where bottle sizes lurch from the 187.5ml Piccolo to the 30l Melchizedek – four-foot-tall behemoths that have an unfortunate tendency to explode from the pressure of all the inordinately expensive champagne they hold.
In contrast, spirits have existed in a two-tier system for as long as the industry has been established internationally, a steadfastness unsurprising in a drink that can take decades to produce. This set-up currently comprises the global standards – 35cl, 50cl and the regular 70 or 75cl, depending on whether you live in the EU after 1990 or not – and 5cl miniatures. While the ubiquitous 70cl is considered the regular, ‘true’ bottle size, its weird and diminutive cousin is the more compelling. Like the Post Office Railway that ran alongside the regular London Underground for 76 years without anyone really noticing, miniatures have had a quiet parallel existence to full bottles since they were devised, noticeable only to those who were paying attention.
The invention of the alcoholic miniature pre-dates not only the hotel minibar that is now one of its natural habitats, but glass bottles as well. Miniatures were a necessity of early 18th-century sea trade. Spirits, often combined with bitters, sugar and water, had become the American drink of choice, as the raw materials weren’t available to produce wine or beer and neither drink travelled well.
With customers understandably wary of purchasing an entire barrel of liquor, modest ceramic vessels would be used by salesmen as testers. Such containers were standard at the time: bottles that did exist were large, made from stoneware and only used for storage. This practice continued until 1846, when John Dewar Sr. opened a wine and spirits shop in Perth and sold bottles of his ‘White Label’ whisky blend. The concept of glass bottles for spirits was subsequently popularised over the following half a century as the blend became the market leader globally.
Even with their own conversion to glass, it wasn’t until the 1930s that miniatures became desirable objects in their own right. Despite the timely demise of American Prohibition in 1933, high import duties and the Great Depression rendered spirits like whisky and brandy unaffordable to virtually every stratum of society. It was in this troubled environment that miniatures prospered: they avoided tax because they were classed as samples, while their reduced volume made them a more attainable option over full bottles. Accordingly, ingenious European spirit producers shipped miniatures to the US in huge quantities, ensuring that bottles were packaged identically down to the labels.
Sharing the fate of Shirley Temple, big band music and tommy guns hidden in violin cases, the 1930s would prove to be the high watermark for the miniature. Diminished but persevering, in later decades it trudged on with a role that had much in common with its original mission. Even after the worldwide economic downturn abated, a full bottle of spirits remained an expensive investment without knowing what you were tasting. Devoid of the inquisitive, increasingly well-informed drinking culture we enjoy today, this was also an era before pub shelves creaked under the weight of dozens of half-empty spirit bottles. With interesting single malts considered elusive or near mythical, pub choices were woefully limited: a gin, a rum, a blended Scotch, a creeping sense of malaise. The solution was, and remains, a good miniature: a satisfying single drink in itself, or a reasonably priced taster for a possible future purchase. While miniatures were living out their functional, unsexy purpose as tiny, alcohol-filled trial balloons, however, another trend had begun.
Watching an episode of ‘Antiques Roadshow’ bored and depressed on a Sunday evening will verify that absolutely anything can be considered collectable, but certain objects lend themselves to the hobby better than others. It is therefore not a surprise to learn that affordable, space-efficient versions of spirit bottles, differentiated in all sorts of highly specific ways, became items that would be fervently stockpiled for personal collections.
Miniature collecting has been a popular, if idiosyncratic, pursuit ever since the bottles themselves were designed to directly imitate their towering brethren, and for collectors it’s this distinction that is key: a true miniature is defined as any bottle for which an accompanying full-sized version exists. While gimmick bottles of the kind popular in Scotland’s tourist shops have their own kitsch allure, what rules them out of consideration is their unspecified, unreliable contents. “Who knows what the whisky is inside?” muses Laurie Drake, Vice Chairman of the UK Mini Bottle Club. “It’s probably just a grotty old Bell’s. I need to have a name on my label so I know what I’m collecting.” In addition, the miniature must also have a sealed cap and contain at least some of the original liquid, although losing a portion to evaporation (surely the angels’ second share) is a known potential hazard. Originally this would be battled by coating the top of the neck with nail varnish, but now the miniature collector’s best friend is a clear paraffin tape used in laboratories and called Parafilm.
While Drake is particularly invested in miniature collecting – his wife literally wrote the book on the subject – his experience is representative of the community he helps run. A collector of such bottles for over 20 years, he boasts a dedicated whisky room in his house, and it’s the effect the room has upon visitors that for him is part of the appeal. He notes that the vast majority of the Mini Bottle Club collects whiskies, and many specialise further still – Drake amassed more than 2,500 different distillery malts before whittling his collection down to just Famous Grouse. Rather than hoarding good leads, the members of the club help each other out, letting their peers know when new bottlings are available: “The idea isn’t that I want to have more whiskies than you,” says Drake. “It’s not a competition, or trying to outdo anyone, it’s just collecting for your own personal gratification. It’s a satisfying process, and to us they look nice on the wall. To other people they probably don’t.”
This spirit of cooperation among collectors isn’t just goodwill but an awareness that they’re part of an endangered species. The Mini Bottle Club persists in its cause, holding regular auctions and annual meetings, but the existing members are ageing and new ones are rare: from a peak in the 1990s of around 400 members, roughly a quarter remain. The news is brighter abroad, where collecting has grown unexpectedly popular. Beyond American collectors, who are more accepting of figural miniatures, there is a thriving scene in Asia, particularly in areas long exposed to Western alcohol such as Hong Kong. This is of little consolation to British collectors, where a free fall in popularity is symptomatic of an overall decline in collecting as a pastime. Like many of his fellow members, Drake started off in his youth by collecting matchboxes, cigarette cards and football programmes, quaint diversions that are almost unimaginable for a teenager today. “Young people are more interested in their computers and tablets. They’re not into collecting anymore. Most of our members are overseas now, and in the UK it seems to be dying out. It’s a shame. The best days, I think, are over.”
It isn’t just in the realm of collecting that miniatures are beleaguered. The cost of producing a miniature isn’t far off the cost of making a full-sized version, yet the final product is sold for a significantly lower price, which means they struggle to remain a sustainable revenue option for distributors. Additionally, the growing reluctance of alcohol makers to produce new miniatures is exacerbated by waning consumer demand: miniatures are ultimately an expensive way to buy an already expensive product.
Miniatures continue to have a place within drinking culture, as gifts for Christmas or Burns Night, or trusty accomplices for interminable train or plane journeys, but otherwise their presence is dimming. In a certain sense, they have become a victim of alcohol’s success: their traditional use as a sampling method is under threat as pub choice is increasingly varied, not to mention cocktail bars, dedicated whisky shops and other venues where one can try interesting spirits without having to sell a kidney on the black market. Why buy a selection of miniatures when for the same price you can get a full bottle of a drink that you’ve read about, or attend a tasting run by someone knowledgeable and passionate? Even South Carolina, the unlikely centre of the miniature alcohol world, is no longer safe; until the state’s constitution was amended in 2005, it remained the only place in America where it was legally required for all restaurants, hotels and bars to serve spirits from miniature bottles. Inevitably, the law change resulted in confused bartenders racing to learn how to free pour measures, and customers disappointed that their regular drinks were suddenly much weaker.
If the miniature’s long history demonstrates anything, it’s that the bottles have an odd tendency to find a purpose. One such use now is to be a historical experience. Whisky is organic, so even though it doesn’t age once it’s been bottled, different bottlings of single malts will inevitably vary over time. “With miniatures, people who are dedicated can follow the whole progress of a specific drink,” suggests Dominic Roskrow, former editor of Whisky Magazine and author of several books on the subject. “I’m a forward-thinking person so I’m not very interested in history lessons, but I can understand the appeal of that. It’s like driving an old Triumph Herald from the 1960s: a step back into an experience.”
While miniatures have been supplanted by tastings, the general increase in interest has also created attendant opportunities for the enterprising. Roskrow cites the marketing strategy of The Last Drop, the incredibly exclusive 50-year-old scotch blend that can cost thousands of pounds and comes with its own miniature: “The idea is that you taste the whisky using the miniature and decide if you want to open the big bottle or keep it as an investment.” This canny move from the blend’s distillers has been met by an equally canny response from buyers, many of whom have sold their miniatures online. “They’ll make a considerable amount of money doing that because it’s the only way some people will ever get to taste the drink,” he explains. In the more sane area of the price spectrum, miniatures are also being used as an extension of tastings. Roskrow himself co-runs an online whisky-tasting club – an opt-in service where members buy bespoke sets of different miniatures decanted from full-size bottles, like a cereal variety pack with tasting notes.
Even as miniatures are buffeted by inexorable change within the alcohol industry, it seems unlikely that they will ever entirely disappear, if only for the simple reason that sometimes circumstances dictate the need for a small amount of liquor in a discreet receptacle.
As Apollo 8 returned from the first ever orbit of the Moon in 1968, for example, its three-man crew were told of a surprise Christmas present from NASA: three Coronet VSQ California Grape Brandy miniatures. In a prudent yet spoilsport move, mission commander Frank Borman told his fellow astronauts they would have to wait until they got home (40 years later his crewmate Jim Lovell sold his still unopened bottle for $17,925). This was a sensible decision, and almost certainly the wrong one: if there was ever an appropriate time to drink a miniature, it would surely be travelling home from the Moon on Christmas Day, with such a long way still to go.
Are you a bit of a know-it-all? Do you dream of a room full of people hanging on your every word? Does your spine tingle at the prospect of wielding a red biro in one hand, a pint of bitter in the other? Yes? Then running a pub quiz could be for you. Jason Ward reveals what it takes to set up this greatest of British boozer institutions…
Discover a niche
Given their ingenious union of passionate interests with drinking, the growing popularity of specialised pub quizzes is unsurprising. While a quiz can be a great way to fundraise, the best ones can also be creative projects in their own right.
The first step is deciding the topic. Standing out from the crowd helps: when Simon Williams and Lee-Jay Bannister set up their You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat quiz ten years ago, film quizzes were a rarity. “It’s weird to think that in 2005 no one else was doing this,” Simon recalls. “Nowadays there are quite a few others, mostly run by cinemas.”
Paul Guided Missile, who runs the Rough Trade Shops Pop Quiz, chose pop music after his friend bought the Lexington pub and corralled him into action. “She set up a deal with Rough Trade Shops whereby shop vouchers would make up the main part of the prize. It was a great endorsement but confusing at first as people thought the quiz was going to be all about Sun Ra and Azalia Snail.”
Find a good pub
It’s difficult to walk down a street in Britain without eventually finding yourself outside a pub, but choosing the right quiz venue is crucial. Patience is advised once you do strike gold: “The Old Queen’s Head receives hundreds of requests,” says Stephen D’Arcy, Head of Promotion at the Columbo Group, which owns the pub. “We do get back to enquiries, but there can be a delay due to the number of submissions.”
To give yourself the best chance, then, it’s important to be prepared. Stephen outlines what a venue looks for: “We ask promoters to give us a proposal in as much detail as possible, including an ideal date and time, the amount of people they’re expecting and history of past events. We then review it, decide if it’s a good fit and where it could go in our schedule. There are no rules per se: if we like the sound of the event and have faith in it we’re happy to try it out.”
Write your own questions
“What mighty contests rise from trivial things,” Alexander Pope once said on the side of a box of Trivial Pursuit. Just because a quiz is meant to be fun doesn’t mean that it won’t get incredibly competitive. “Many of the people who come to our quiz are serious film geeks, they know their stuff”, says Simon. To avoid potential embarrassment, it’s best to have devised the question yourself.
“You need to be able to defend your answer if someone has an issue with it. There’s nothing worse than someone pointing out a quizmaster’s error and them saying they didn’t write it.” For a specialised quiz, it’s useful to be knowledgeable about your particular area: “For a film quiz host, knowing a lot about movies helps. If someone thinks you’ve made a mistake, it’s good to be able to explain to them the film they’re actually thinking about.”
Be friendly with the bar staff
Pubs increasingly rely on outside entertainment to attract custom, which means their staff can be faced with a different event every evening. Like staying over at a friend’s house as a child, you have to remember your manners. “It’s important to have a good relationship with anyone you’re relying on to help you do your job,” Paul says.
Aside from being cordial, staff also need the detail of what’s going to happen. Stephen explains what information they need to be provided with: “They must be aware of the event schedule, tech specs as well as more logistical information like ticket prices, sales, door list and number of attendees.” Paul adds one further item: “The pub staff get a copy of the photo round from me, to have a look at if they ever get a spare minute behind the bar.”
Vary the difficulty
Simon believes the key to a good quiz is making sure that everyone can enjoy it: “We’re not there to make people feel that they don’t know anything. Above all it should be entertaining – this isn’t an exam. Even if people score very low we want them to have fun, and we have plenty of regular teams who might not score so well but keep coming back.”
This means creating the right mix of questions, including everything from what Paul calls “giveaways” (“The Beatles were from which UK city?”) to those which will be hard for some teams and easy for others depending on their age and tastes. “Sometimes I’ll throw in a really obscure indie or prog rock question, which people can barely believe is in the quiz and only one person will know the answer to. You can’t get away with many of those, but it’s nice to have one here and there.” Simon suggests one way to level the playing field is having something like an observation round: “Everyone has a fair shot at getting full marks for that one.”
It’s always going to be a challenge to run a quiz in a time when attendees have the entirety of collected human knowledge potentially sitting in their pocket. Along with generally keeping order, Paul thinks one sign of a good quizmaster is having the authority to enforce a no phones rule.
Clarity about what constitutes a correct answer is important too: “You have to know how to deal with the inevitable enquiries, such as if someone’s put down ‘Alex Franz Ferdinand’ instead of ‘Alex Kapranos.’” One way to avoid this, says Simon, is for the host to mark the answer sheets instead of the teams themselves: “It needs to be consistent otherwise it’s not fair.”
Make it fun
“Our quiz is like a little show but I’ve been to some that are essentially just admin,” Paul says. He stresses that he avoids gimmicks, but endeavours to create an enjoyable atmosphere. “I use soundbeds, jingles, catchphrases and have a live music round at the end where I play pop hits on a Casio keyboard. One quiz I played ‘For Those About to Rock’ by AC/DC and used party poppers as the cannons. A couple of years ago, when the Chilean miners were rescued, I played ‘You Raise Me Up’ and hoisted up a model of a miner in a rescue capsule, hand-painted by my missus. It’s important to be entertaining, to make it a spectacle.”
Simon agrees: “I’m confident we’re the slickest-looking quiz out there. We push ourselves to create more and more fancy ways to present questions and clips. We also show the answers up on the screen which is sometimes as much fun as the questions. A big screen is the only way a quiz dedicated to movies should be shown.”
Movie junkets are tough. You wait around in a hotel, before being given minutes in front of a famous director or actor who’s been answering the same questions for hours. Jason Ward asks filmmaker Carol Morley, Artificial Eye PR Jake Garriock and Little White Lies journalist Adam Woodward how to make the best of them…
Arrive early and don’t overrun
Unless an interviewee lives in the city where the press activities are happening, a PR usually only has a small window with them. “Typically we get one day to do everything,” explains Jake Garriock, Publicity Executive at Artificial Eye. “If we have a big star that can mean something like 40 interviews or more, plus a premiere or TV appearance.” As much as you’re emotionally invested in your own interview, bear in mind that you’re also just one part of a crucial promotional day. This means being punctual and not taking up more time than agreed.
Get used to waiting around
That said, of the thousands of press junket interviews that take place every year, roughly three actually start on time. Everything from photoshoots to overlong lunches conspire against optimistic scheduling, so remain patient, friendly and pragmatic in the face of inevitable delay. “I’ve made a habit of taking a book,” says Adam Woodward, Deputy Editor of Little White Lies.
Be prepared to have less time than expected
The consequence of delays is that PRs sometimes slash interview lengths to fit everyone in, so your prearranged 20 minutes can suddenly become 15. Adam recommends buckling down and getting on with it: “Work with the time you’ve been given, and try not to interrupt the interviewee for the sake of squeezing in all your prepared questions.” Carol Morley, director of Dreams of a Life and upcoming film The Falling, suggests making your time count by focusing on what “ interests [you] the most.”
You’ve researched your interviewee to death: watched their early shorts, read articles they wrote years ago, listened to podcasts they’ve popped up on. You’d win a themed pub quiz single-handedly. But as you walk into their hotel suite you’re a stranger.
Interviewees can benefit from a gentle reminder of who they’re talking to, says Carol. “Even though I have it on a sheet, I can get mixed up and I like to know.” That way they can tailor their answers depending on whether you’re writing for a highbrow journal, a website for professional filmmakers or a teen magazine, say.
Engage with your interviewee
Along with enthusiasm, Carol believes what’s most conducive to a good interview is someone who really listens. “If you feel that the interviewer is just thinking of their next question, it’s not so great. It’s more stimulating if you feel you’re having a lively conversation and there’s a flow. You’re more likely to give interesting answers.”
It’s inevitable that interviewees have been asked the same things before, but Carol says this shouldn’t be a concern. “I find there are always a few questions that are the same, but on the whole the questions become an extension of the interviewer’s preoccupations and interests – which is a good thing!”
One of the biggest pleasures of arts journalism is getting to have conversations with people whose work you admire, but don’t go overboard in your praise. “Don’t suck up,” Adam says. “Directors and actors are used to getting their egos massaged. They don’t need you to add to that.” He elaborates: “I always try to strike a balance between being informal and professional – friendly, but not overly pally.”
Never forget that interviews are work for both parties and you’re a journalist doing a job, regardless of whether that star you’re interviewing was an adolescent crush or not. I’m writing this as a person who once somehow managed to interview Audrey Tautou without melting into a puddle.
Be respectful of your interviewee’s work
“Consider the fact that they might have spent years working on a project”, says Jake. For film, this means being diplomatic. “Don’t tell the interviewee if you saw the film on a screener DVD or online link,” he warns. “Unless the distributor wants to pay for loads of screenings it’s not possible for everyone attending the junket to have seen the film on the big screen.
“Directors and actors know this but it’s bad manners to discuss it during the interview. It’s going to affect their mood if you tell them you watched their film on a pixellated and watermarked online link on your bus journey into town.”
Avoid poor interview etiquette
The cardinal sin of interviewing is to request an autograph or selfie, but there are many other ways to misbehave. For a start, don’t make your interviewee physically uncomfortable. “I had two people come along once, from the same place,” Carol remembers. “I had one either side and they were both leaning in quite close and I felt pinned down and trapped. It felt more like an interrogation.”
Don’t try to rile your interviewee
A storm is brewing around someone newsworthy for professional or personal reasons, and suddenly you’ve been granted 20 minutes alone in a room with them. The understandable temptation is to poke the bear and see what happens. Jake says he’s never asked an interviewer to not ask specific questions, but has occasionally advised if a person isn’t keen to talk about something.
He points out the futility in a confrontational approach: “It’s worth remembering that the ‘hot topic’ around someone is going to be raised by every single person attending the junket, and they’re going to have a stock answer for that controversial question. The interesting material comes when the interviewee is relaxed and engaged, not provoked.” This doesn’t mean avoiding hard questions, but avoiding deliberately hostile ones.
Be wary of roundtable interviews
For those who haven’t had the displeasure: a roundtable is essentially competitive interviewing, where up to a dozen journalists sit with an interviewee, firing off questions whenever they can. Roundtables are a weird, stressful balancing act that no-one enjoys – “Never! Don’t make me!” is Carol’s response when I ask if she’s done one – but there’s an art to succeeding at them.
It’s helpful to make some rough calculations beforehand: if there are six of you and you’ve got 15 minutes, you might reasonably expect to ask three questions, depending on how long the interviewee’s answers are. Don’t be afraid of asking follow-up questions but try not to hog the conversation either. As Adam says, “Be courteous towards the other journalists, but assertive.”
“There‘s a puffin in the back garden!” I announced to my housemates, my Pocket Guide to British Birds held triumphantly aloft. The puffin turned out to be a blue tit, but before my feint was uncovered, I felt the book had bestowed me with an unmistakeable air of avian authority. I first purchased a copy to contribute to Oh Comely‘s staff Secret Santa, getting my own after realising it was actually rather lovely—accessible, informative, and with simple-yet-beautiful illustrations. My hand was forced after reading Jonathan Franzen‘s memoir The Discomfort Zone, which contained a moving chapter on what birdwatching had brought to his life. Surely, I reasoned, the only thing keeping me from writing The Corrections was the ability to tell the difference between a willow warbler and a chiffchaff. Almost inevitably, the guide then sat unread on my shame shelf for most of the year until an especially crisp morning inspired me to take it out into the garden. I‘m hoping that a daily skim will help me imbibe some of its information, much in the same way that I hope a fondness for pain au chocolat will one day make me fluent in French.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Four.
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.
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.
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.
Death is pretty inconceivable. An eternal, yawning nothingness is something that we are incapable of comprehending. And yet, when death comes—and it will—we can at least be relieved that it won’t feel as bad as a hangover, because nothing feels as bad as a hangover. Fatal illnesses and limbs dropping off and getting elbowed in the swimsuit area are preferable to that distinct misery where your brain has swelled in the night and is now rubbing against your own skull.
This is why people clutch at any random solution that hangover-accruing old wives claim will help. Once you’ve been sick through your nose, the idea of having a raw egg yolk for breakfast doesn’t seem quite so insane.
The cost of testing these hangover cures has been substantial, not just to my liver, bank balance, and flatmate’s liquor collection, but to my personal life. What follows isn’t just a collection of unscientifically-tested cures, but a document of what made them necessary: the ill-advised texts, the arguments over nothing, the hasty apologies.
Research on possible cures to test didn’t go much further than asking everyone I knew what their preferred elixir was. The answer I received most was some kind of sugary drink, with each person asserting their own drink’s superiority, as if the very idea of drinking Coca-Cola over Lucozade was ludicrous.
As I’m allegedly Scottish, I had my own drink to champion: Irn-Bru. While its sugar content and fizziness probably differs little from its competitors, there’s something comforting about its girder-originated orange, something that says everything will be okay. Drinking it makes you feel like you’ve just come from swimming with your dad, rather than the reality of being slumped over the living room table holding the can to your forehead because maybe that will somehow help.
8/10. Good. If nothing else, the opportunity to feel like a tramp is not to be missed.
a greasy spoon fry-up
My foolish heart keeps telling me there must be some specific combination of fried foods that will stave off cerebrum horribilis, but I’ve yet to find it. I dragged myself to the nearest café and ordered the largest breakfast on the menu, hoping to block out the pain. Alas, the toast was cold, the bacon tasted like licking a dinner lady, and a reservoir of grease slowly coagulated near my woeful fried egg. Not great. Also not great: the mocking, omnipresent televisions, showing endless images of footballers running around fields like they weren’t close to death.
Even if the food had been edible the breakfast would have remained unloved and uneaten: my appetite had been less-than-truthful. There’s little more disappointing than realising that the thing you think you want isn’t actually what you want at all.
5/10. Keep reminding yourself: opening that extra bottle of wine seemed like a good idea at the time, too.
The more paranoid parts of my being are convinced that the concept of the prairie oyster is secretly an international, decades-long ruse created with the sole purpose of one day making me eat a raw egg yolk. If that is the case, then all I can say is that you’ve been successful, and I hope you’re all feeling ashamed of yourselves.
If egg is delicious when fried, scrambled, poached and boiled, or even when eaten raw in cake mix, logic suggests that it might also be delicious when consumed with Worcestershire sauce and pepper, even if one is hungover. That logic is wrong. The egg yolk slid down the glass into my mouth, where it sat for a second before sliding back down again. This happened three times in a row, and then I was sick. If that was the intention, then it worked.
2/10. Eating an egg yolk to cure a hangover is like stabbing yourself in the thigh to cure a cold.
sleeping it off
Some fights aren’t fair. This hangover cure has the significant advantage that you don’t need to get out of bed to do it. Not only that, but it requires little more than going back to sleep, which is all you want to do when hungover anyway. But what initially seems like an easy win doesn’t quite work out that way.
The problem with sleeping off a hangover is that the sleeping bit is scuppered by the hangover bit. While curling up into a ball like a sorrowful hedgehog is a natural inclination, actually drifting off again is troublesome. When sleep does come, fleetingly, it is thin and dreamless. For much of the time you’re just lying there, experiencing your hangover in decreasing segments. This is marginally better than staring at a wall, but it’s hard to shake the conviction that you’re stewing in your own misery, waiting for it to end.
6/10: Hangovers end, but sleeping in doesn’t hasten or ease the problem. Maybe it’s better to just face the day.
hair of the dog
The traditional hair of the dog is a Bloody Mary. I’ll happily try to swallow an egg yolk, but everyone has their limits, and mine lie with tomato juice. I’d rather have the hangover, thank you. Lacking a traditional hair of the dog, I conceived of an alternative: get in a jacuzzi with my flatmates and drink prosecco until everything was good again. Essentially the plan was to enact a hip-hop video. (It helped that my landlord had inexplicably installed a jacuzzi in our pokey shared flat.)
Self-conscious and craving bed, we blearily pulled on our swimsuits and slipped into the water. Shyness was soon replaced with glee and it didn’t even matter that our bodies were distended husks. We felt wonderful. Perhaps it was due to the abundance of bubbles. A hangover is a terrible weight—it makes sense that the solution is to make oneself as light as possible.
9/10: It’s impossible to stress this enough: a truly effective salve for a hangover is to get into a jacuzzi and drink prosecco with lovely people .
Anyone suggesting that the best hangover cure is exercise should be forced to exercise whilst hungover. As I pedalled along the canal, just before the hatred subsided, a thought occurred to me: how many murders had been committed by those who’d just exercised while hungover? It wouldn’t be surprising if the answer had been all of them. They could hardly be blamed.
For the first half an hour of the ride my defining emotion was obsidian black misanthropy. I hated my bike. I hated the canal. I hated the smiling families. I hated the other cyclists. I hated the cormorants. My legs didn’t work properly and the world was bright and unpleasant. Change came not with an epiphany but with steady, undramatic progress. With no greater task than ensuring the bike didn’t careen into the water, I was free to enjoy myself. Bit by bit, colour returned to the world. It felt good to be moving. It almost felt good to be alive.
1/10 until it became 7/10. Let’s split the difference and say 4/10.
curling up on a sofa with a dvd box-set and someone warm
Here’s an idea: perhaps hangovers can’t be cured. People have overindulged in alcohol since people became people, and still no one has come up with a satisfactory answer. Maybe it’s time to put away the egg yolks. The human race has endured thousands of years of great-turned-horrible nights and horrible-turned-great nights; thousands of years of inappropriate advances and advances that should have come sooner; thousands of years of waking up next to someone ghastly and waking up next to someone who makes the thrum in your head not matter; all a prelude to thousands of years of awful, raging, loathsome hangovers, and there’s still no respite. Maybe it isn’t coming.
If we can’t stop hangovers, then the least we can do is try to make them bearable. The best way to do this is to do the thing that also makes the non-hungover parts of our lives bearable: spending them with the loveliest people we can find. Preferably this should be under a blanket in a dim room, three discs of the box-set still to go, another pizza in the oven, and an unlikely bliss stumbled upon. 10/10.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Nine.
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.