Thursday, 12 December 2013

Poetry in Advertising

By now you’ll have seen enough Christmas adverts to make you stick a fork in your eye. Maybe there’s one in particular which has you reaching for sharp objects. Maybe it’s the one with all the rhyming, windows and Big Macs.  



Moaning about Christmas adverts is picking low-hanging fruit, but there’s something particularly annoying about this one. Now, I like poetry. I think poetry can be fun. I think that it can do great and important things. So naturally I might've been annoyed that the emotional effect of poetry was being manipulated, whored out to sell me chips and coke. It turns out this is a little na├»ve, verse has been used in advertising since its inception. Rhythm, rhyme and cadence are the bread and butter of most copywriters, the basic idea being that if something rhymes then it’s easier to remember. It's been a rule from bards singing Beowulf to ‘A Mars a day helps you rest and play’. And yet while it may be an old technique, there's no denying that poetry in advertising has seen something of a rise in recent years.  



The 2009 advert for Cathedral City, for example, is pretty similar to the recent lot of McDonald’s adverts.  Just as in Cathedral City, where you’ve got a list of different people all united by a shared love of cheese, so too in McDonalds you’ve got a strong impression of social get-togetherness; shots of families, couples, old-people all sat behind glass windows. Here it’s not really the food being sold but a place for everyone to share, from children to the eldery, all of them to come together like a massive family dotted around a sparkly greenhouse. And the verse, mostly consisting of couplets, gives a solid backbone to both of these visions. It rocks back and forth, pleasingly rhyming, connecting A to B, C to D. 


Adverts are adverts. To criticise McDonalds for trying to convince me that the whole town is sat around in the warmth laughing over camera phones would be to have a go at it for trying to make me eat there. Of course it wants people to eat there. And if Cathedral City cheddar creates that sense of connection then I have no problem with it. I like cheese. I have friends who like cheese. If cheese is what brings people together then who’s to say there can’t be a poem about it. 


It isn’t the poetry itself that annoys me. What irritates me is the way these adverts equate the everyday public with simple rhyme. The ‘clocking off cabbies’, those returning from ‘pantomime clapping’, the poetry of their lives is meant to come across as simple, no-thrills, down to earth. Now you might argue that it succeeds, that it gets past the snobby aura a lot of poetry entails and gives us the ‘language really used by men’. And I’d agree with you in part, but I’d also argue that it can come across as massively patronising. It reduces the targeted audience to dumbed-down, unassuming rhyme. 


The line from McDonalds, ‘And behind all this glass, made of fire-blasted sand/ is a door you’ll adore when it’s pushed by your hand’, is the most tenuously put-together line ever, and it’s designed to be like that. It’s childish, it’s silly, but so what? Poetry in adverts are supposed to be cheesy, you might say. They're supposed to be easy to understand. If you want to see proper poems go read a book. Yet in the same year as the Cathedral City advert, Waitrose also used a poem. But this time there was no simple verse, for this upper-market chain it was John Keats that sold the wares.


 

The use of Keats can be seen as cynical for a range of reasons, but it’s the connection between an upper-middle-class supermarket and classic poetry which really stands out.  It seems to say that there’s one type of poetry for one market and one for another. It makes it painfully clear that there’re demographics to aim for, and that Keats rests more easily in one than another. No doubt it’s a view that makes sense from a marketing perspective, but I believe it’s a view that circumscribes poetry around class barriers and stereotypes both audiences and literature. 

I’m not arguing that all adverts need a resident romantic poet, nor that there is anything inherently wrong with playful verse. What annoyed me in the McDonalds advert, and what i'm arguing against, is the view that poetry needs to be associated with social demographics, that the lines between these groups can be so lazily drawn, and that the type of verse you experience should come down to how much you can spend on a hot meal. 



Monday, 25 November 2013

The Bodybuilders


I sat in the back where the leather seat dipped, the stick of it pulling a creak from my jeans as I jostled for higher ground.  

-           I’m being sucked into a fucking Rabbit-hole, Jim. 

But Jim didn’t turn around, he just kept staring down the white lines that came towards the car one after the other. The music was loud, too loud for a rescue mission and with the rate we were bounding down the motorway, well over the limit, I was certain we’d get the police on us in no time.

-           You’ll kill the both of us.
-           As long as I keep the lines in the middle we won’t hit a thing. 

Jim’s shoulders loomed over the top of his head-rest. With the music playing he’d slump down before bumping his head up again in rhythm. His neck was tense, the veins standing out on the surface. 

-           Was it upper body today?
-           Core, man. Core.

Yesterday was leg day, like the week before, the month before when we’d grouped around the squat cage and Teddy had showed us three sets of 575. We’d measured him later but there wasn’t any need, he’d clearly overtaken the two of us. Jim and I took some pictures of him in front of the mirrors, the oilcan we kept by the front desk soon brought out and I sprayed a good load on Teddy’s pecks, bigger than an 8-year-old’s head. When he was oiled he flexed his arms, he flexed his shoulders.

-           Watch this. Take a picture of this.

Teddy lifted up the rack. The weights thudded onto the rubber floor and he shook it as if he were a wet umbrella.  He let out a laugh, fed through clenched teeth. 

-           Ugh. Yeah.

After showers we’d had a smoke in the changing room. Teddy let his towel fall to the floor, put his foot up on the bench and lunged a good lunge. Jim looked like he was about to do the same. He moved to stand. He stretched his calves. Jim had always been competitive, but I sat where I was. I was big, I was toned, my ass could open a beer bottle but I kept my competition tucked away. When Teddy lunged liked that, hands on hips and a cigarette in his mouth, a look of pure envy would flash over Jim’s face. I caught him looking down at his calf muscles, lifting his heel so that the muscles bulged from his legs before sadly letting his heel touch the ground once more. 

-           You see me pound it? 
-           You smashed it, man. Wrecked it.

Jim had started going to the gym later than Teddy and I. He’d joined up after his girlfriend got him a discount voucher. She wanted him to lose a few pounds, a bit on the sides and a bit on the belly, but something had clearly opened inside him and he’d jumped head-first into a strict regime of boiled chicken and twenty eggs a day. He’d grown so fast that he’d gone from M to XL in two months flat. Maybe that pace was part of what made him so jealous of Teddy, who stood before him as some constantly rising benchmark. Every session he would watch the weights Teddy lifted, write the numbers in a little notebook. As I sat there in the changing room with Teddy’s right leg raised on the bench and a look of pure contentment in the way he swivelled his upper body to-and-fro, I could feel Jim’s green-eyed envy pouring out to drown us all. 

-           You should be in magazines, Ted. You should be on TV.

In truth, Teddy was long past steroids, somewhere far beyond that at the point where he’d try whatever he could get his hands on. Rumours had it that some Quaker website had told him it was whale oil that did the trick. He’d shoot up in the toilet after eating two bananas, chuck the needle and the skins straight into the bin and finish with a high-protein bar. He did this every time, he did this right before he told us about the ad he’d found in craigslist for ‘fit guys who want to get a start in the adult film industry’. He’d forwarded it to all of us. He said he’d applied as a joke but he’d accidently forwarded his response as well and there was quite a detailed cover letter. 

-           They want a piece, they want the pie. 

So we had a routine, and we’d turn up every evening and the rows of skinny little runners would turn and glance at the three of us there. We all wore vest tops. We all looked good. We grunted and groaned, gritted our teeth and threw the dumbbells to the ground. Teddy roared as he gripped the barbell and pushed it hard against gravity’s will. With a heave he admitted that he hadn’t heard from the adult-film people. He sneered and said it wasn’t important, but his voice wavered and later I watched the corners of his eyes grow wet, his face turn to a thousand folds as he lifted the bar above his head with the faintest of tears on his cheek. After we showered he didn’t lunge, he didn’t speak. He sat and looked down at the tiles of the floor. We told him it would be okay, that just because he hadn’t heard back didn’t mean he wasn’t qualified to be naked on film. 

-           They’re just intimidated. They’re just scared of the beast.

Jim came in the next evening with a box for Teddy, wrapped up with a little green bow. It was something to cheer him up, he said. Teddy snorted but took it in his hands all the same. He pulled at the little green bow and the box folded delicately open. Inside was a snake, coiled up, its little tongue lapping out at the air. Jim said he wanted to get him something tough, and a snake was as tough as it got. Teddy grinned, he liked the gift, he took it home. He’d feed it mice and the snake would swallow them whole. 

-           It slithers and hisses. You can’t take it for walks.
-           Everybody needs someone to love. 

From then on things got better and better for Teddy. He got a tattoo of a snake on his right bicep. He showed it to Jim the next day, showed him how it would twist and swell each time he flexed his arm. Sometimes Jim would go over to Teddy’s flat to feed his pet if he was out of town, sometimes they would go out drinking without me. It seemed there was new brotherhood between the two of them, Jim’s jealousy all sweated out, and although I felt a little excluded it made me happy to see them slap each other’s backs with genuine feeling.

-           Come on, man. Don’t give up. Don’t you dare give up. 

But the words of encouragement stopped when the gym announced it was looking for a new face. There was going to be a competition, a big one, one to be in all the posters across the whole chain. The three of us went for it. All three of us got into the finals, and when the judge finally shook Teddy’s oiled hand that green look of envy, the one I’d seen so many times before, glinted back across Jim’s eyes. Later he watched from behind the cameras when Teddy’s gigantic frame was lit with flash after flash, all the muscles on his body piled together with a fake skyline draped behind. In the photographer’s studio it seemed that Teddy was expanding outwards, stretching out over the tops of buildings in bursts of lightning that bulged and shook his skin across the city. Teddy said to us that when he’d found out he was going to be in advertisements he’d felt a tension released that he’d never really known was there. Something that had clung to him for as long he could remember. 

-           Stand like a man. 
-           Like this?
-           Yeah. Yeah, just like that. Don’t move an inch.

And so Teddy’s body was the size of a building, 50 feet tall, hung from the roof. But the day they stuck up the advert was the last day we saw him. A whole week passed and he didn’t turn up to one workout. He didn’t come for core, upper-body, not even legs. I found it hard to concentrate without the sight of him there. I did the weights, I went through the motions, but it didn’t feel the same. I couldn’t focus. After one workout I’d had some drinks with Jim, a few more drinks after that. We talked about protein, we talked about TV, we talked about our friend and where he could have possibly gone. By 3am, after we’d tried his phone for the fifteenth time, I got it into my mind that we should go to his flat, that we should go there as soon as we could. So Jim drove and I sat in the back, slipping down a hole in the seat.   

-           His phone’s ringing. I can hear it ringing.

A white light shone beneath the crack of Teddy’s door. We’d knocked and rung, but there wasn’t any response. With a few steps back and few steps forward I made short work of the lock, splintered the door in half, pushed it in and Jim followed close behind. Jim stuck to my back as we rounded the corner to the kitchen. 

-           Teddy? Teddy, are you there?

There on the living room table was a pile of men’s health magazines and an open glass case. There were boxes of protein supplements, rows of jars with a light brown liquid inside. The walls were covered with porn, with pictures of famous athletes cut from magazines. The naked men showed their bodies, mouths open in ecstasy. The athletes posed on plinths, gold medals around their necks. Their smiles spread from ear to ear and with outstretched hands they beckoned us in. 

-           Come stand beside us. Come rise towards the marble men. 

There was a bang, a thud against the wall. We stood and followed the source of it, out of the living room, along the corridor. There in the hall was a door we hadn’t noticed before. A white door. Jim’s hand pointed to the handle. His finger shook and he looked me in the eye. Before I had a chance to open the door he spoke to me in a soft voice, a voice I’d never heard on him before. He asked me if I thought he was strong and I looked at him there, his neck so tense, his body so broad. 

-           You look strong, Jim. As strong as stone.

And I pulled the door. And my hand reached out for the wall. If I did not hold it then I knew that I would fall straight to the floor. Behind the door was a small broom cupboard. There were brooms, two brooms, but only their tops could be seen behind the heaving mass that pressed against the walls. 

The scaled body had been so stretched that there was neither sight of head or tail. The belly spread out over the floor, bloated and full, and that which lay nestled inside the snake was unmoving. I closed my eyes. I closed them tight, but I could still see the muscles rippling back and forth beneath the skin.   

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Video Game Music

You’re sat on the top deck of the bus with your raincoat on, and you’ve unbuttoned the front to get to your phone, tucked in your pocket, and you’ve plugged in your headphones and you’ve sat back to look out the window at all the chicken shops moving past. You’re listening to your music and your mind wanders. You’re five years old again sat in the back of your parent’s car, pretending there’s a giant running alongside the horizon, jumping over sheep and pylons and hills, all of it in time to the music.

And you wait for the moment the doors open and you set your foot down on Turnpike Lane at exactly the same time the beat or chord change or start or end of the song comes. Suddenly you’re starring in your own film that would look SO GOOD if you could ever make this into a film, but it’s better than a film because you’re actually there moving around, passing through the barriers, standing on the escalator, each advertisement for face-cream passing you in time to the beat and if there was an explosion now it wouldn’t be like watching it on a screen. You’d be Thor, you’d be Tarantino. You’d have involvement, immersion. Christ, you’d be the actor and the camera all rolled into one.

If you play games, and you should play games, maybe you’ve played Hotline Miami. It’s intoxicating, it’s extremely violent, but the game is actually much smarter than it lets on. It’s clever in the way it riles you up one moment then undermines those feeling the next. You’ll spend minutes improvising some adrenaline-fuelled murda-tactic, the game's music constantly edging you on, and then the second you’re done, when only corpses remain, the music stops and you have to retrace your bloody path back out of the building in silence. It feels hollow, like eating a Big Mac. And although a lot can and has been said about the game’s treatment of violence, it’s the music which leaves the biggest impression. 


Because what a soundtrack. It’s genuinely good. Not just good in the let's-go-see-a-full-orchestra-perform-the-halo-theme kinda thing, which is really cinematic and everything, but this is better than cinema, better than film. It’s the moment you step onto Turnpike Lane station with something loud and fast in your ears and the rhythm is your rhythm, your steps are the steps of the song. You’re not going to start dancing but it’s the same psychological neck-of-the-woods. 


Rhythm is such an important part of Hotline Miami; the rhythm of dying then trying again and again until you’ve finished the level, so it’s no coincidence that the music has such a strong beat. The rhythm is imposed on your environment, and it gets your imagination all fired up. How you clean out the building is your decision, if you go left you’ll fight in one room, go right and you fight in another. One way is a dog, the other a guy with a shotgun. So although the music stays the same, it feels different each time because of the choices you make. Each time you play the game the music helps make a new flow of events, a new narrative. You might not be deciding between Count Vronsky and Count Karenina, but on some level you’re making your own story.

Or maybe you’ve played another game, something on the opposite end of the violence spectrum, something like Proteus. This is a game where your sole objective is to wander around a pixelated island. You explore the land through four different seasons and that’s pretty much it. You look at the trees, you chase a group of chickens, you wait for night to fall. Beneath this derivative description again lies a well-designed and affecting experience, and again what really lies at the root of these things is the music. 



Here the music of the game isn’t imposed on the environment, instead it’s the environment which imposes itself on the music. Different things have different sounds, so if it rains or if you decide to follow a frog for a while, the music will change to reflect that. Sure the result might be a sort-of chiptune Peter and the Wolf that ends up sounding somewhere between the music of the spheres and a stoned teenager twinkling on a casio keyboard, but it does an amazing job of making you feel immersed in the game. You make decisions, you choose to chase some flies or stand still and watch the sunset. Your movements in the game shape the experience you have, only now the soundtrack changes as well.  



The landscape in Proteus is procedurally generated, which means that it’s different each time you play. With the choice of movement and the element of procedural chance, it seems like there may be a near infinite combination of experiences, a Borgesian library of Babel where all combinations of letters exist to create every possible story. But there are still limitations. There are always limitations. Music needs rules or it becomes noise. Playing Proteus gives you a sense of being able to shape how the whole piece plays out, but it is still a sense. There is still direction. The different seasons each have their own rhythm, and you pass from one season to the other, led towards a circle of glowing lights, just as springs leads to summer, as day leads to night.

This agency; the connection between your choices and the music you hear, the idea of composing your own story, there is always a level where this is an illusion. When you're walking through Turnpike Lane you create a narrative, and listening to different music or seeing different sights will push you towards different narratives, yet the stories you make still have limitations, they are still being led. Proteus leads you to the next season. Hotline Miami leads you to silence after everyone is dead. On the bus you reach your work, and on the underground you walk along tunnels, channelled along a single path that directs you up, past the screens advertising face-cream and through the barriers, out into the world again. 

Monday, 11 November 2013

The Buildings


The steel beam lowered in for the worker to grip, his hands the first around the hard edges pulled close to his chest. The twelve of them at his side with their gloves along the length, all the faces turned to scowls at the unwieldy broadness dropping inch by inch until it met its place down by their feet, teetered against the empty space below.
            They fed the beam straight into the frame until it lay by the one lowered in the hour before, to the one where the worker now knelt, the flame of his torch flickering an unsteady light against a pair of shallow cheeks. They untied the chains and waved up for the crane. One step to either side and they feared the harnesses wouldn’t do much for them, not with the welding tools strapped across their chests. One wrong step and they would fall down past the forty eight floors to an ugly end.

Walking along the river with the sun going down, so nice on the warm summer evenings with the towers spread out like that, like arms going out and around the city, so comforting, so close. The phone in his hand,
‘I’ll be back before it gets too late,’
sent and up and out and she’ll read it on the sofa probably, feet up, or in the foot-spa with the water quivered, vibrating like it does.
The interview set to start in under an hour. The first time the artist had wanted to talk in a decade and it was all up in the public consciousness, the painted buildings, the knighthood, and as he lingered along the river he watched the new towers half-built and the blue boards around the edges with the pictures; computer made impressions, young couples sat on the benches not yet made. They didn’t seem to fit, their clothes too colourful and he looked up over the board, glanced at the building going up and the men still working. A shower of sparks up near the top; couldn’t be safe, but beautiful in the way it seemed like a river of fire, something he’d only seen in films.
He looked at the skeleton of the building, the levels rising one after the other and a thought came about all the ceilings stacked up. If the ceilings came first, came from the ground, and the walls were put in after to contain them, anchor them down. Without the walls the floors would continue to rise, out and away, into the sky with the redness spread out and the clouds turned to sheets. What would be left then? All the people with their hands in the air, the escalators left stranded, lift shafts stubbed out. He looked at the building with the river of fire coming from the top and he snorted a little, but only against the roof of his mouth, lips closed.
Hardly an art critic, more current affairs, hardly an art critic but they’d sent him anyway. His new editor, younger than himself, had said it would be a feature, enough pages for photographs. The artist had chosen the time, the place. There was an hour to kill so he’d walked along the river to his flat, the complex nearby to where he was then with the river below and a bridge running over, the sun going down so that it fell to the towers on the opposite shore. No message from Ann yet, with her feet set to soak and the TV on. Her feet still so small and so beautiful and that time last winter when they’d lain in bed with the snow falling, the window wide and the snow seen falling, so close under sheets and her foot in his hand, the skin above the heel, his fingers pressed softly and the moan that came from her, so slight and so thin, slipped out with silk around his neck. 
A dizziness bloomed there and he worried about the dreams that had been going on for the past nights, the past week. It was hard to say for sure. He’d had them as a child and when they came then it was always at the onset of a fever. There was no fever now but it was hard to sleep.
 “I’m just waiting near the building.”
“Is it cold?” she asked with her voice soft on the line.
“It’s not too cold, still quite warm. Warm enough.”
“I was watching TV,” she told him.
“Anything good?” he asked.
“Nothing you’d miss.”
There were noises there, behind the familiar tones which came out from the cold screen against his ear. He asked her if she had eaten and she told him she had. He thought he heard a laugh but he might’ve been wrong. There was the TV in the background and the sounds of the building site coming into his other ear, the men high above working and the noise of their tools cracking into the newly built walls. It sounded like dogs, the hammers on the stone, barking dogs but hard to be sure.
“I’ll come back as soon as I’m finished,” he reassured her.
“That’s sweet but there’s no need to rush.”
“I know, but I’ll be back soon.”
“I might be asleep when you get back.”
“It won’t be late.”
The sound of the TV buzzed a man’s voice, too faint to clearly hear. “I’m feeling a bit tired, I may be asleep.”
“It won’t be late.”
He leant his weight against a railing and felt for the packet of cigarettes in his pocket. A delicate headache with the smoke gone up. She knew he loved her, she wouldn’t forget.
The dreams were not really there when he slept, more in that hour when the light outside had sunk away, before the lights of the room were switched on, when the things in his bedroom were hard to see, when they could disappear at any moment. The TV, the window, the doorway, all of them at any second flickering out of view. Then it happened that he didn’t understand the sizes of things, as if his whole vision was smaller than the thing he was looking at. It gave him a headache as he thought of it then and he looked at the laces on his shoes, neat and tied, until his headache went away.    
That morning he’d looked at the artist’s paintings, a coffee-table sized book he’d got from his editor. Pages of pictures of tall buildings, one after the other, each time he turned over they rose up, seemed like photographs but the artist had painted them all. Impressive, this city which he’d lived, metaphorically lived, for the past decade, one he’d invented completely from the ground up. There were streets, alleys, highways, all lined with the buildings so detailed and the shapes of trees arranged in rows along the pavements, perfectly spaced. There was a constant haze, the sun a faint smudge hung behind curtains of smog, but always there, on every page. The Idiot Sun, the book was called. He guessed that was why, and he moved for an hour along those streets, the heat of the morning coming over him as he stared into the windows and brushed against the doorways. He turned from one street into another, across the pages from end to end, but not one person did he meet on his way.
It was different before. The early paintings were all portraits. The artist would have friends sit for him, contemporaries. These were what had given him the first big prizes. He’d been so disarming in his studies, so sincere. They were beautiful in the way the eyes would be, like looking at the real thing. He’d liked those when he was young, Ann as well. When they were younger he’d bought her a print by the artist, one of a woman gazing straight out to the viewer with this look on her face, looking like she was staring into the sea, at least that’s what he’d made of it. She’d hung it in their bedroom, so much had she liked it, and after they’d made love and after he’d finished he’d lain and looked at this woman’s face with her eyes so dark and her skin so clear. But the artist’s style had changed. The people of his portraits had become buildings, now that was all they were, pages of buildings, rows of streets. That’s all there was.

The woman behind the desk had her eyes pinned on him the moment he walked through the door.
            “If you go to the top floor, you’ll find him there.”
So he smiled politely and moved to look towards the room behind. He could feel the woman’s gaze on the back of his head as he walked into what he guessed was the corridor to the lift, the walls lined with pale frames containing blank spaces, completely white, and he took a second to see what was there. They’d caught his eye, with five minutes still on his watch, five minutes to kill he didn’t have to rush.
As he moved closer to one of the pale frames he could vaguely see what was there in that space. It seemed nothing but white, a white rectangle in a pale white frame, but as he walked forward he could make out the details of what seemed to be a mountain; a light grey peak coated with snow that stretched far up towards the top of the painting. A curious effect, a few feet for it to go from nothing to this. Invisible at a distance, the lines of the painting were very faint and the image could only be seen when examined closely. At the bottom lay what seemed to be a wooden cabin surrounded by the outlines of trees. He looked towards the cabin, through the small window set into the wall.
It was impressive, the detail, unseen before, and moving to the next painting he again peered at the white expanse. This time the sight that came to his eyes was of an interior, seemingly a room of someone’s house, three figures he thought. The walls of the room were ornate, with curving pillars, a high ceiling. There was a window in the centre of the room although he wasn’t able to make out what could be seen through it. Of the figures one seemed to be sleeping, or at least lying down on some form of sofa, while the other two seemed to be engaged in a sexual act. His eyes widened as he took in the scene. One of the figures was lying atop the other, the thinness of its waist leading up to the curves of its chest. The figure’s head was turned away from him, but he could see the figure beneath grasp the buttocks of the one above, the fingers pressed into the skin and the slight shade that lay beneath. The other figure was lying peacefully; separate from the others, its body looking up towards the ceiling of the room. He took a few steps backward, his soles softly pattered on the marble floor, and with the steps he took the image faded into a pale blankness. The woman at the desk was looking at him still and from that distance her eyes seemed like small dark stones.
The electric light of the lift cast its dimness as he rose; a glass window in front for him to see the whole city spread out, the streetlights running out far below into orange spider legs. Ann had once come with him to the top of the Gherkin and he’d waited there for ages for her to say something. She’d stood there looking so beautiful and she never said a single word. He’d bought her flowers and she held them in her arms with the colours all against her.
            It was wrong to hate her.
The artist was sat on a brown leather sofa. His arms outstretched, his eyes half closed. Motioning for him to take a seat opposite the journalist sat with his recorder out and rested it squat on the glass table between them. It was clear to him then that the artist had been drinking. The smell came over heavily, it wasn’t like he was sat that far away, but the strength of it stung, whiskey he guessed, Islay he hoped.
“Would you like a drink?”
The bottle was poured before the journalist had uttered a peep.
They talked for about half an hour, about the book of paintings that he’d looked at that morning, about the tower-blocks the artist had painted. The artist spoke slowly; the words coming out like a piece of string tied one end to each of them, slack in the middle. The journalist told the artist about the print he’d bought all those years ago, the one he’d hung on the bedroom wall. He smiled as he remembered, about how the eyes were so real and the look on the woman’s face. How she looked out to sea, searching the waves as they rose and fell, creases unending and he’d looked at the print as he lay there in bed with Ann turned to sleep, her thigh against his, the warmth bleeding in and he looked at the woman with her face so clear, her eyes so dark, with the snow falling outside, down past the window.
Why had he stopped painting portraits?
He was offered another drink and he smiled and tilted his glass so that what little was left pooled into the side. The artist poured the bottle and the journalist watched his hands, older than his own, the fingers wrinkled into rows of lines that forked and met. So deep those groves that he felt like he was wilting into the nightmares he’d had, in the dark of his bedroom with the sizes unsure and he blinked his eyes and he stared down at his shoelaces, not missed by the artist who asked if he was okay, if he was fine. Maybe a fever was coming, his head wasn’t warm but it was hard to be sure. He told him he was a national treasure, that’s what people had said. He asked him how it felt.
“It’s a compliment, I guess.”
“Well it must be nice.”
“If people want to say these things about me then it’s their business,” the artist said calmly, his voice like thin bamboo and a cough rising in his throat until it echoed out across the space of the flat. “If they want to say nice things then I can hardly complain.” The artist smiled and drank at his glass.
“It’s good whiskey,” the journalist said.
“Finest there is.”
He himself breathed and drank, the glass hard against his bottom lip.
“Why did you stop painting portraits?”
The artist shrugged and told him that they were hard to make. He would make them if he still could.
“I couldn’t get people right.”
The artist coughed again. He craned his neck to one side, then to the other.
“Do you ever go to the coast?” he asked.
“Sometimes.”
“There was a time when I had this girlfriend. We hadn’t known each other long but she knew about my paintings, she was a friend of a friend,” the artist rubbed the area around his left eye with the knuckles from his left hand, “we went to this place on the coast. I used to go there when I was a boy. The place had changed so much.”
The artist leant further back against the sofa, his face sagging below the cone of light from the halogen bulb above them.
 “They’d put up all these new towers, all of them there. I used to have this little place to stay with a great view of the sea, but with all the building work you couldn’t catch a glimpse of it. And that was fine and all; I didn’t have much I could do about it. But I watched the people there do their building work and I felt calmer looking at those walls and ceilings than I did looking at my girlfriend. When you look at a building you’re more honest with yourself. It’s exterior from top to bottom.”
The artist rose and passed over to a pile of canvases stacked up against the wall, he took a second to sift through them before removing a small frame. The artist showed him the picture of his old girlfriend. She looked a lot like the woman in the print him and Ann used to have on their old bedroom wall. Certainly from a distance it would be easy to mistake it for the one in his memory. The painting was framed in the same way, the light was similar too, but this woman’s eyes were not so dark, were not so deep. The shape of her face was rigid in the way the harsh angles rose broadly from her chin to her cheeks, closer perhaps to scaffolding in the way it fixed resolutely to the boarders of the canvas.
“That was the last portrait I painted.”
 Staring at the picture of the woman the journalist pictured her blue eyes becoming a reflection of the sky, two glass windows pulled open to reveal a corridor lit by lights which hung from the ceiling in ornate casings.
“Do you know where she is now?”
The artist shrugged. “We didn’t know each other for long.”
Looking through the woman’s open eyes the journalist felt as if he was moving step by step along rows of doors with pale wooden frames. He tried his hand but each door was locked, each one barred. The journalist looked at the woman’s face, thought about it hung up on his bedroom wall instead of the print he’d had with Ann when they’d first lived together. He sat on the side of the bed with her sleeping by his side, her feet so soft, seen by him, caught by the gaze of the woman forever framed above, her feet so soft and the skin so close to him that he couldn’t begin to know how to grip it.
The artist asked if he wanted to get some air, he said he was looking a little green, and so finishing what was in his glass the journalist stood and followed him up and away. They walked to a set of elevator doors in one of the walls of the flat. The metal doors opened and they stepped inside. Soon they were on the roof where the air was still warm, warm enough and it seemed so open and so fresh for him there with the whole city down below them like that. Out here he could see how old the artist truly was, his hair blown by the faint wind so that it seemed light across his scalp. The wind blew soft but it came steady over the two men, the white strands of the artist’s hair seeming like smoke that clung unsteady to his scalp. By now the artist was starting to stumble, his legs weak and unsure and the journalist placed his hand under his arm for support, the bone hard and clear through the material of the jacket. The artist turned back, the waft of booze that came from his lips made the journalist wince and he almost dropped the old man as they turned to the edge of the roof.
Below was the city, the blocks that spread in clusters like limbs, the lights dotted unevenly and the roads far below like vessels of blood, the red lights of cars moving little by little, forward and out in small steel bubbles and he thought of the foot-spa, Ann’s feet sunken in the quivering water, her toes a mirage. He remembered the other man, the other man who had touched those feet; how she’d let his fingers, younger than his own, run their path from the tip to the heel. He thought of her blue eyes becoming a reflection of the sky, two glass windows pulled open to reveal a corridor lit by lights which hung from the ceiling in ornate casings. He imagined her eyes open, and he passed through their entrances. He moved step by step past the rows of doors with pale wooden frames, the carpet reaching along to the metal shutters as he waited there patiently for the lift to come. Encased in steel he rose with the floors passing one by one until he reached the top where, with tentative steps, he could peer from the edge and see the whole city spread out, the forms of towers stood there like ghosts and the sun above a faint mark in the haze.
He held her in his arms, she’d been honest and it was her after-all who had come to him. He’d held her and he’d kissed her forehead and she was so sorry and he knew, he knew.
 He travelled back down through the building, he’d looked at every archway, every corridor, he searched desperately, frantic to find her there but all was empty, no sound no echo.
“The city you’ve painted. It’s just walls and glass?”
 “No. I wouldn’t say that. Ah, there’s stairs and shafts, streets and pavements. There’re empty rooms but that doesn’t mean people don’t live in them.”
The artist had undone his fly and had pulled out his penis, before the journalist could say a word, before he could raise his hands and politely protest a stream of liquid shot out and away from the edge of the roof. The artist put his finger to his lips and made a gesture that said it was all okay, that it was something he did. The journalist watched it flow. The distance was impressive, maybe only the height, and the journalist felt sorry for the people below upset by the sudden rain. A river of fire, a shower of sparks.
“It’s more heartfelt. More sincere.”

On the way out he stopped once more at the corridor, the receptionist looking at him through the archway which hung over their heads. She had her hand ready at the button to open the doors, but he let her wait. He took his time and stared again at the white pictures which lined the walls. The mountain with its snow covered peak, it must have been made with the finest of pencils. Such delicate lines and he traced the path from the cabin into the forest. He took a step back and it vanished from view. He moved towards the picture of the room, peering at the ornate walls with their arches and curves coming out of the blank canvas, the bodies on the floor, the hands grasping the other from beneath; on its knees with the soles of two small feet open to the air, the toes tucked tightly under the thighs of the other. The slender neck of the figure arched back, its hand desperate against its chest. A hollowness in his stomach again and he felt unsteady, the fever definitely coming, the whiskey through his veins. He looked at the figure on the sofa, only half-seen in the white space, its head looking away from the others, up towards the arches that curved from the walls to the ceiling.    
            “Who made these?” he asked, calling out weakly to the receptionist further down the corridor.
            She leaned her head to see what he was talking about. Seeing him point at the pictures on the wall she shrugged her shoulders.
            “Do you want me to let you out now?”

He walked into a flower shop near the station, the colours of the blooms bright against the light green walls and the fluorescent lights hung above in strips. He looked at a pre-prepared bunch which lay in a small bucket of water, tulips.
            “I’m on my way home.”
            “I’m going to get ready for bed.”
            “I won’t be long.”
            “How was the interview?”
            His right hand was in his jacket pocket and he wrapped his fingers around the recorder with its buttons resting snuggly.
            “It was okay,” he said.
He thought about the white hair, the skin of the artist in the night air as they’d stood on the roof of the building. The wind had come over them and he was afraid that at any moment it could lift the man he’d supported by the arm and carry him away.
He could hear the TV on in the background still, someone laughing, an audience probably, probably. He could walk for a while longer, the night was still warm, there was no need to rush. His wife yawned and made a pleasant hum.
            “I’m just so sleepy, and it’s an early start for me tomorrow.”
            “Ah yes.”
            “I’ve just brushed my teeth. I’ll be asleep when you get back.”
            “I won’t be long.”
            “I’ll probably be asleep.”
            “I’ll try not to wake you.”
He paid for the tulips and held them tightly in the palm of his hand as he walked across the road to the entrance of the station. He would leave them for her in a vase of water. He would leave them for her so that when she woke and walked into the kitchen she would see them there and knew he had thought about her. 
He thought again about the floors of the building all rising up into the dark, the walls torn down and the ceilings left to float. What would be left then? The rooms all open.
The time they looked over the city together and had walked down by the river, they’d sat on a bench and hadn’t said a word to each other. She’s held the flowers, the colours all against her.
He felt his forehead, warmer now, and as he sat on the train he looked through the book, The Idiot Sun, with its pages of buildings rising out of the white haze. He walked through those streets, his feet tracing their way forward against the pavement, looking up at the rows of windows hung above his head. The towers rose higher than he could see. Their true size unsure to him, and he felt soon unable to grasp the wooden frames of the doorways, the glass planes of the windows which all looked out to him there stood alone in the road.
And he sat in the seat with the train rocking gently left and right.
And his eyes felt heavy looking at the pictures of buildings that the people had built.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Thoughts on Felina

<i>Breaking Bad</i> Review: Series Finale "Felina" (Episode 5.16)

Since watching the final episode of Breaking Bad I’ve been left feeling a little odd.

I enjoyed it, really enjoyed it, but I’ve had to check several times whether I actually did enjoy it, whether or not I simply willed myself into liking it. After the final credits rolled I was left with a strange sense of numb completion, with the episode somehow managing to be both satisfying, seemingly neat, yet at the same time cold and uncertain. Sure, there were moments of definite catharsis; Jesse’s revenge on Todd, Jesse’s escape in the car, basically all the Jesse parts, but overall the episode was of a very different tone to most of the series.  

The first thing to say is that throughout the episode Walter White acts like a ghost.  He drifts through Albuquerque, he lurks in the dark of the Schwartz’s home, he appears in his estranged wife’s kitchen and watches his son through two sets of windows. Returning from New Hampshire, Walt seems to move and act like a shadow, removed from the action yet able to ventriloquise previous voices. He speaks as Heisenberg for the Schwartz household, as the naive dilettante in his fake-business pitch to Lydia. His own voice when we hear it is calm, affirming that what he did, he did for himself. It’s a clear psychological end-point on his journey, yet it’s spoken as if outside the story, already in the past tense as he concludes: “I liked it. I was good at it. I was alive.”    

Alongside this ghost-like characterisation is an emphasis on machinery. Walt’s final violent showdown doesn't funnel rage but rather a looping mechanism which continues to click back and forth even after all the main players have died or left. When Walt himself finally dies he does so touching the empty apparatus of his previous career as if it were a lover. These moments are in turn brutal and tender, yet at the same time mechanical and inhuman.

And this is why I think the ending excelled.

The seemingly neat conclusions visited over the hour hide a cavern of uncertainty and moral ambiguity. We’re given precise, almost perfunctory moments of resolution; meeting Skyler, watching Walt Junior for a final time, saving Jesse, and yet these moments refuse to reboil the tensions which have bubbled over again and again during the five seasons. There are the outlines of resolution, shapes of closure, but it seems to be an act of shadows; well-made rooms for narrative full-stops, but empty, stripped of all furniture.      

‘Ozymandias’ was the climax. The death of Hank, the family knife-fight, they were the moments of definite human climax. Felina’s genius was in showing an inhuman climax; an episode where all the structures of resolution were present and correct, but what those moments contain is only the ghosts of former passions already dead.  

In the end Walt dies with a smile on his face, surrounded by scientific equipment, and the idea of that is both deeply comforting and icily distant.  


Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Back in the UK

Hey all,

I'm back in the UK. Now that I no longer have to negotiate the Great Firewall I'll be able to put more stuff up here.

I'm currently writing for a residency at the Victoria and Albert Museum with LIFT. We're keeping regular video diaries of the bits and pieces we've been playing with, which you can check out here.




Thursday, 28 February 2013




Hello. Sorry for having fallen off the edge of the planet, been up to things in China.

Two little updates from the past months.

First, the lovely people at The Cadaverine went and published my story, 'Two Buckets'. Read it here.

And secondly, I have a show on in Dublin at the moment. If you happen to be around then get yourself a ticket. It's called Tongues of Fire and details are here.

I'll also have a new story up soon. Huzzah!

TM