So yeah, you’ve probably noticed that I have spent the last couple of days frantically updating the content on this page after it went quiet back in June 2017.
The reason for this was a bit of really great news that found me earlier this month, when Indigo Dreams Publishing got in touch and told me that I was among the winners of this year’s First Pamphlet Competition!
This Friday the news was announced on the website of the Poetry Society, and while this was a brilliant feeling, they also linked to my WordPress account, which I swiftly realised had not been updated in over 3 years…
Cut to 2 days of frantic recovery later and this WordPress is now up to date with the essays, poems and occasional short-story I managed to knock out over that time. I plan to be more disciplined about using this going forward as a means to share my work.
Starting with the brilliant news that my first pamphlet, ‘Hymn to the Smoke’, will be published by Indigo Dreams next year.
Thank you so much to everyone who has helped, supported and critiqued by work to bring me to this point – I am hugely excited to think where this journey may take me next!
I’ve been thinking about water of late. Specifically, about the use of water and water-based metaphors in two poetry pamphlets published last year, and which I have been meaning to record my thoughts about for ages: ‘She Too Is A Sailor’ by Antonia Jade King; and ‘While I Yet Live’ by Gboyega Odubanjo. Why did the images I encountered in both of these poets strike me as deeply as they did, and why do I find myself returning to them now with a particular need and urgency? Apart from the fact that the days are getting longer and hotter, and being able to take a mouthful of clean water is itself becoming more of a luxury by the day.
In Antonia’s case, on re-reading her I realise that the actual use she makes of nautical metaphor is more sparing than I remember. Its most striking use is in the poem that lends a line to the title of the pamphlet, ‘conversations with my mother about love’, where it holds connotations of abandonment, the unknown, of an intimacy turned fearful:
‘My mum asks me why I politicise love. I tell her that love without politics feels fragile. That I am always fearful of uncharted water, maybe this is because my father is a sailor.’
It’s worth noting that ‘conversations’ has also been revised extensively, and reading it alongside another, longer version shows just how much control has been exercised in creating the mood of the pamphlet version, the tone of which hovers, even more pointedly, somewhere between the straightforward and the guarded. On the one hand, the sentences are unadorned, frank, providing straightforward replies to straightforward questions, yet they also shiver with an underlying tension: ‘calm waters and love make me nervous’. In a series of four prose paragraphs, the lines create a space that is, at once, both reflective and suspenseful, both measured and charged, as of a power being held in check. We are on the lookout for a lurking danger just as much as the persona who is checking the horizon when they aren’t ‘fighting a storm’. Love and its promises are at once enticing and repellent, in the same way that the ocean is an attractive force and also the place where ‘I saw my mother drown… with a sailor’.
There is one other significant use of water: in ‘maya and her protest are going furniture shopping’, there is a reference to the poet Maya Angelou as someone whose art provided solace in the face of outrage after the assassination of Malcolm X, allowing her to be ‘a fire extinguisher to a burning town’. The line put me in mind of another poem not in the collection, ‘On Loving a Burning Building’, a poem that is tonally and structurally very reminiscent of ‘conversations with my mother about love’ where once again there is an ambivalence about the sheer intensity and turbulence of relationships: ‘the heat from a burning building can still keep you warm and cook your food if you let it. The trick is to not stand too close to the fire’. One wonders if, in foregrounding water as her element in the title of this pamphlet, Antonia is embracing the symbolic potency of its dousing, cooling properties, its consoling powers in the face of horror, while also allowing its disturbing, oceanic vastness to resonate.
In Gboyega’s case, mentions of water and oceans also carry connotations of a vast, enticing but potentially hostile unknown. In ‘Poem (With Drums)’, imagining an ‘earlier poem’ where ‘i am a boat and you are an ocean’, imagined bodies of water form a parallel with the world of cultural references which are growing steadily in the persona’s attention, sweeping in everything from sitcoms to Skepta’s performances at the BRIT Awards – complete with dipped audio and that notorious caller’s complaint. As the persona remarks, ‘not understanding a prayer is no reason not to say amen’, and water’s religious and sacramental associations are also explored with intoxicating brio. The title of one poem, ‘JOHN 19:28’, refers to the moment when Christ on the Cross calls for water, saying “I thirst”, and in several poems both ecstatic religious experiences and moments of celebratory release are accompanied, vividly, by sweat.
‘Swimming’, the final poem of the collection, explicitly enacts the dangers of venturing into this element without even a boat. As the persona pushes out deeper, the choppy lines of the poem lend a growing desperation to the voice:
‘… there’s water in throat
and there’s water
i stroke and there’s water
The end of the collection, where the water ‘sings’ and the persona keeps up their stroke even while they may still be drowning, is as chilling as it is hopeful. Additionally, what draws the persona into the water, the promise of a ‘new world’, also cannot but carry a sonic reminder of that other New World, the Americas, and the horrifying route taken there through the transatlantic slave trade. Both these pamphlets, Antonia’s containing some sharp explorations of growing up as a mixed-race woman in Devon, are intensely embodied; they emerge from the lived reality of being a person of colour in contemporary Britain, and the quotidian experience of injustice this often involves.
In the tradition of black speculative art and fiction known as ‘Afrofuturism’ water is a rich and weighted symbol. Given its associations with both life and death, as both the element essential to sustaining life and as the resting-place of staggering numbers of black bodies lost to the Middle Passage, water often comes to stand for both the erasure of black history and the emergence of something entirely new. The saxophonist Kamasi Washington evokes these themes vividly in the cover of his 2018 album ‘Heaven and Earth’, where the figure of Washington hovers over a vast body of still water that extends to the horizon, joining with a clear blue sky, his musician’s body serving as the axis between them. In the 2009 Kenyan short film Pumzi the protagonist, Asha, searches for a source of fresh water outside her enclosed, water-scarce society, and so comes to be a locus of hope for a better, more abundant future.
I have no idea to what degree, if any, Gboyega considers his poetry to be ‘Afrofuturist’; Antonia once told me in conversation that she would identify at least partially with such a categorisation. But whatever the conscious aesthetic choices these poets have made, I’m still struck by their use of water, and the way that it keeps drawing me back to both of their pamphlets as these times roll on and I ask of my reading what it can teach me about moving from one crisis to the next. For Antonia, the answer seems to be that we learn to trust those calm waters, and those few human ‘anchors’ who might offer us a chance of being grounded, of belonging and trust. For Gboyega, we are already out in mid-water, maybe even in dire danger, but in the end we keep swimming. For me, both are necessary lessons right now.
This isn’t officially a ‘review’ of either of these books, though I should hope it has been made clear that both of them are brilliant pieces of work and you should go out and buy them immediately. At a time when history increasingly feels like islands of calm between atrocities, when we all feel like we are struggling to keep our heads above water, the need for poets like Antonia and Gboyega is felt all the more keenly. In these collections, as in still pool, we can see reflected storms large and small, griefs both historical and personal, and as much as their depths might unsettle us they are also the things which nourish us. They are water for those who thirst.
‘She Too Is A Sailor’ and ‘While I Yet Live’ are published by Bad Betty Press
Just occasionally, something goes wrong in such a way that you get an opportunity to have a bit of fun with it.
On Tuesday afternoon I was privileged to be a part of an awareness-raising event for a great cause, Safe and Equal, which campaigns for essential material and legal protections for front-line workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a member of Poetry on the Picket Line I was able to participate by sending in a pre-recorded poem, which would then form part of a ‘set’ consisting of contributions from other performers. I was excited as all hell, even more so when I found that I was apparently going to be the first act, warming up for Joe Solo, Mark Coverdale and Chip Hamer – which in my book is some seriously fine company!
Then something happened to the sound.
I’m not entirely sure what it was, but about two-thirds of the way through my single poem, ‘An ideal response’, the audio began looping, and soon I was being accompanied by myself, from a few lines previously, now being read simultaneously with the live recording so that I was trapped in some kind of bizarre audio-prison of my own voice, lines of the original poem chopped up and bounced around like tennis balls in a recording booth, and continuing even into the first few seconds of Joe’s performance before one of the organisers was able to fix the glitch and return the sound to normal.
Thankfully none of my ghost-lines intruded on the actual substance of Joe’s set, and Mark and Chip were both mercifully unaccompanied. But listening on the spot at the time not only did I find it hilarious, I even thought that it might be fun to try and capture just a sliver of the real-time experience of listening to the weird Dada-esque churn that my poem ended up briefly becoming.
So that’s what I did. Hope it’s as much of a laugh to read as it was to write/listen to, and please remember to donate to check out all the ways you can support Safe and Equal at their campaign website here.
Enjoy, and solidarity!
Swim with the possibility of all the places we can take this carnival next, with a voice that hails the death of the old sun and its all-scorching heaviness in the flood before / beans
into an upturned dance-craze of earth / and dignity with a voice / carnival / we claim the right to an ordinary / death / with the flood before / all this / with the beans / of earth
/carrying / this carnival next / we claim the right / hails of an ordinary life / and its all-scorching heaviness / in the flood before / beans into an upturned dance-craze /
I’m Joe Solo / just the carnival / Poetry on the Picket Line / claim the / carnival / right /old sun / is coming / eh / in the flood before / beans
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: ‘as a gender critical feminist my sincere belief that sex is immutable and the sole determinant of whether or not someone is a man or a woman (and yes, those are the only two options), and which therefore effectively means that trans people are not the genders they claim to be, might be one that you disagree with, but that does not mean it has no validity. Indeed, it is protected as a legitimate philosophical belief under sections 4 and 10 of the Equality Act 2010, and therefore it is unlawful to discriminate against me on the basis of that belief.’
As of yesterday that is now, legally speaking, not true.
An Employment Tribunal, sitting in the case of Forstater v Centre for Global Development (click here for the judgment in full)was called upon this year to determine a test case on precisely this issue. The Claimant, Maya Forstater, alleged discrimination over Tweets by her which covered, among other things, proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act which would make it easier for trans people to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate. Many of her comments on the proposed reforms echoed the basic points I set out in that opening paragraph, often in vociferous terms. The CGD, having found the Tweets to be transphobic, eventually declined to renew her contract with them on that basis. The Tribunal therefore had to decide whether the Claimant’s ‘gender critical’ views were, in fact, a ‘philosophical belief’ which would be protected by the Equality Act.
In reaching this decision, the Tribunal had to apply what are known as the ‘Grainger Criteria’ (named for the case of Grainger PLC v Nicholson, the 2010 judgment in which the criteria are enumerated), a series of five tests which the belief in question must satisfy if it is to be protected by law:
The belief must be genuinely held;
It must be a belief, as opposed to ‘an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information’;
It must be a belief pertaining to ‘a weighty and substantial aspect’ of human life and behaviour;
It must attain ‘acertain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance’; and
It must be ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’, that is to say it must not be incompatible with human dignity or in conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
Most beliefs, no matter how whacky, probably wouldn’t encounter that many problems in meeting tests 1-3, and the ‘gender critical’ ideas of the Claimaint in this case were no exception. Even those, like me, who find these ideas noxious would still not dispute that, apparently, they are genuinely held by their advocates as beliefs, rather than opinions (though admittedly some of the legal niceties around this distinction can sound a bit head-scratching). And unquestionably, they relate to a ‘weighty and substantial aspect’ of human life – indeed, it is precisely their weightiness and substantiality that gets people like me so invested in them, and in protecting the rights of trans folk.
You might expect, if you were just glancing over these tests, that ‘gender critical’ feminism might have been tripped up by the 4th test, at least if your own ideas of ‘cogency, seriousness’ or ‘cohesion’ would rule out anything approaching the junk-science and cod-philosophy which buttresses much of its thought. You might, therefore, be surprised to learn that the Tribunal did find it passed this test as well, though it did so while noting that, in the Judge’s words, the 4th test represents a ‘very modest threshold’, meaning only that the belief must be basically intelligible on its face. What we are to make of the Judge’s own observation that ‘a ‘scientific’ belief may not be based on very good science’, and that the Claimant’s belief passed this test ‘even though there is significant scientific evidence that it is wrong’, I leave to you.
But – and I’m pretty willing to bet you spotted where this was going from the moment you saw it – things came unstuck for our Claimant on test 5. The entire basis of the Claimant’s ‘gender critical’ views was that trans people – even those who have Gender Recognition Certificates and so are, ‘for all purposes’, the gender with which they identify – are not, and can never be, what they say they are. She might, in the interests of courtesy or to move courtroom proceedings along, have used the correct pronouns to address trans people, but also made it very clear that she would happily misgender or deadname someone if she felt it proper to do so (to quote one of her own statements, ‘There is no general legal compulsion for people not to believe their own eyes’). This would, necessarily, mean that a fundamental characteristic of her belief would involve disregarding the rights of others not to be distressed or demeaned, or forced to identify as a gender which is not their own. On this point, building on the previous judgments of both domestic courts and the European Court of Human Rights, the judgment of the Tribunal is unequivocal.
‘I conclude… that the Claimant is an absolutist in her view of sex and it is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. The approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society.’
And yes, that does mean that, legally speaking, ‘gender critical feminism’ now gets to sit at the same table with white supremacists and religiously-motivated terrorists. It might be a belief; it might be sincerely and fiercely held; but nobody owes you any consideration of it as a legitimate point of view in a liberal democracy based on human rights and fundamental decency.
Transphobes, and indeed bigots of all stripes, are fond of trying to claim some bogus legitimacy by arguing that, even if many people consider their ideas to be reprehensible, they are at least deserving of respect and consideration for the fact of having a belief, even a controversial one. It’s a variation on the logic of internet trolls from my teenage years who tried to jiu-jitsu sanctimonious lefties like myself by saying something like “If you’re so tolerant, then shouldn’t you tolerate my intolerance?”.
This was always nonsense, and could be picked apart in seconds even by someone who had yet to read anything from Karl Popper or James Baldwin on how there could be no companionable disagreement with people whose beliefs rested on a foundation of denying the basic rights of others. The Judgment in Forstater is, in many ways, the legal elaboration of precisely this point. Notably, it did not restrict the Claimant’s ability to advocate against reform of the Gender Recognition Act or even to argue for the exclusion of trans people from certain spaces – the Judge stated as much explicitly. It does, however, prevent her from doing so on the basis that trans people are, in some way, not the gender with which they identify.
Of course, that knocks a major plank out of the case for blanket trans exclusion of the type which many ‘gender critical’ advocates present. Sure, there might be individual cases where, in the interests of safety or cohesion, particular trans people might still not be able to access some spaces. But trying to argue that certain spaces should only be available for certain kinds of women, specifically cis women, is immediately much more problematic, and less appealing to the wider public, than the superficially respectable position that it’s okay to exclude trans women from certain spaces wholesale because they aren’t really women. This judgment, with the way its reasoning is set out, could delegitimize that entire strand of argument at one fell swoop. Which, one suspects, is the reason why this has been, and will continue to be, the cause of much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the part of the ‘gender critical’ community.
So there we have it – a first instance case, and so subject to appeal if the Claimant feels like going the distance, but still an important guiding step on the legitimacy of ‘gender critical’ feminism (or, depending on your proclivities, garden-variety transphobia decked out in faux-academic regalia) as a belief worthy of legal protection, as well as an important (re)statement of principle on the rights and dignities of trans people in law. It is, in an otherwise pretty grim end-of-year, quite a nice Christmas present for all my trans and non-binary colleagues, siblings and allies, and a fat lump of coal in the stockings of transphobes up and down the land.
More of that in the New Year, one hopes.
Happy Holidays everyone.
EDIT: this piece was amended on 19/12/2019 to correct ‘Employment Appeals Tribunal’ to ‘Employment Tribunal’, and qualify the reference to ‘precedent’.
Been a while since I uploaded a new poem, hasn’t it? Better do something about that.
I will only say going in that some of this poem is true. I will leave it to you to work out which bits exactly. And as ever, comments and criticism are welcome.
Charles Mingus Summons Jones
In 1957 Charles Mingus determined to make a jazz album with the greatest possible quotient of Jones.
He assembled for the task the best Jonses on offer: Thad Jones (trumpet); Jimmy Jones (piano); Eddie Jones (bass); Elvin Jones (trombone); Jo Jones (drums); and Jonesey Jones (sax).
Jonesey (real name, Frank Foster) had been booked at short notice to round out the brass – on the way to the studio he had asked Mingus why his real name couldn’t appear on the record, but stopped when he felt those long fingers close on his shoulders and heard Mingus whisper that, goddamnit, if Cassius Clay could be Muhammad Ali then he would be goddamn Jonesey Jones.
Jonesey did not ask out loud: who the hell is Cassius Clay?
Mingus insisted that for that day they would play at Jones Studios, Great Jones Street, Jonesville.
Quincy Jones, hired to conduct, nodded, and for a moment believed he was there and not in New York City, before he set about bringing to life ‘Jones, Jones, Jones, Jones, Jones and Jones’ for Jones Records – it was understood that nobody from Period Records needed to know about this.
Quincy took the band through take after take of ‘Jumpin’ for Jones’, ‘Mad Jones’, ‘Jones Song’ and ‘Cat Meets Jones’, sometimes casting nervous glances at Mingus, who feathered those long fingers in thin air, as if casting spells.
Martha Jones floated in and out with coffee, or occasionally scotch.
Mingus became more agitated as the session went on, as some of the players hit bum notes, asked for breaks, muttered low among themselves about how the room was getting hotter and some of the lights were flickering.
Mingus brought the hammer down: “Malcolm Little didn’t have to put up with this shit when he became Malcolm X!” he roared as his long fingers raked his hair, “The stars have aligned for this album and god-fucking-damnit ya’ll are here till the goddamn fucking album is done!”
The Joneses played.
The Joneses thought, though none of them said: who the hell is Malcolm Little?
The studio carried on getting hotter; sweat fell; steam rose from the cymbal-heads; the bass strings glowed like filament bulbs.
The Jonses looked to Charles Mingus and saw his eyes widen behind his shades, his long fingers clench and un-clench – they knew they would not hear a thing from him but for faster, louder, hotter and higher as the paint started peeling off the walls and the floor creaked and got ready to burst.
They knew that Charles Mingus had a fever and the only prescription was more Jones.
The fire crews were on the scene in an hour, but even by then there was little to save.
When asked, the survivors described a sound they initially thought was the band leader blowing out his horn.
Then, they said, there had been only light and the sound of time ripping open to let something else – something unspeakable – in.
Hunkered down at the epicentre, surrounded by shadows of blast waves and the charred remains of the mixing desk, Charles Mingus unwound his long limbs and grinned.
His afro was combed with the white of space-time.
His eyes behind his shades were grenades.
The policeman asked what happened tonight, and Charles Mingus lifted a long finger to begin tracing among the ashes: J-O-N-E….
This year I spent my Easter break in Paris, at a time when the final season of Game of Thrones was airing but had yet to actually conclude. For context, I hadn’t been keeping up with GoT for some time, having ploughed through Seasons 1-3 on DVD a while back and then got distracted. But in any event, my social media feed was abuzz with both people avidly discussing what had taken place and another group of people feverishly reminding everyone not to spoil the many twists and turns that either had, or were about to, overtake the audience.
In response to this I wrote a poem called ‘Spoilers’, which I debuted over that weekend at Paris Spoken Word, a mostly anglophone open mic event. I told the audience to consider the title to be its own content warning, affording them an opportunity to jam their fingers in their ears if they so wished, but when I began with the lines,
“How moving is the death of Arya Stark on her sister’s one remaining arm….”
there were still yelps of horror from a few people on the front row. Hopefully though, by the end of the poem they were assured that I hadn’t actually spoiled anything because (spoiler alert) I made that plot point up. But the visceral reaction it provoked from some in the audience (and hopefully the amused relief that followed) was still something that continues to fascinate me.
I was actually somewhat relieved to find that, having read the reviews and plot-summaries for the season finale, that gag is now actually permanently re-useable, since it resembles the actual culmination of those characters’ arcs not even a little bit. And no, I haven’t actually done any catching up with the show by watching it yet, but I must say there is a curious thrill to nevertheless knowing how it worked out. In addition to which I am now impervious to having it spoiled for me since, you might say… that which is read cannot die.
*Pause for laughter. Hello? Is this thing on?*
I have not actually done any in-depth research on when exactly consumers of art and literature began to place particular importance on not knowing the details of the plot before they read it for themselves, but I know enough from a glancing overview to suspect it’s a pretty recent phenomenon. In performances of Ancient Greek drama it was taken for granted that everyone in the audience knew the plot already, and even if only a fragment of the overall corpus has reached us across history it’s still safe to say that, given the number of re-workings of mythical subject matter and responses to the work of preceding dramatists one finds in the canon now, this wasn’t a literary tradition that placed a very high premium on ‘originality’ as we would understand it, or on the novelty of hearing a plot for the first time.
Likewise, in the work of Early Modern dramatists, like Shakespeare, you actually have many instances of a Prologue marching onto the stage and straight-up telling you the plot from the get-go! You know from the first minute or so of the action that, say, the ‘star-crossed lovers’ will be dead by the play’s end, and that this will resolve the strife between their warring families. Which rather suggests that, to this audience, knowing the major points of the plot from the outset presented no real obstacle to the enjoyment of the play – indeed, some of the more educated theatregoers may have known already that the play borrowed material from prior sources. It’s how you remix and re-present that material that makes it interesting, and is a measure of your skill as a playwright, director, actor and so on.
Oh, incidentally, spoiler alert for Romeo and Juliet, I suppose.
My guess is that our increased demand, as a reading public, for original and event-filled plots in our literature stems from the advent of the epistolary or episodic novels which began to be published in Europe around the mid-to-late eighteenth century. It changes the landscape when you have a growing market of literary consumers and now a key component of keeping your audience invested (both literally and figuratively) was keeping them buying the periodicals where you were published every week or month, to see what happens next. By 1884, with serial fiction now a big earner for the likes of Dickens and Thackeray, the novelist Henry James was remarking in ‘The Art of Fiction’ how an ordinary reader might treat the twists and turns of the plot as a key criterion of a ‘good’ novel: ‘it means being full of incident and movement, so that we shall wish to jump ahead, to see who was the mysterious stranger, and if the stolen will was ever found, and shall not be distracted from this pleasure by any tiresome analysis or ‘description’’.
It might be apparent from the tone that James wasn’t entirely satisfied with this as a description either of good literature or of a good approach to reading. I’m not sure I am either. But why, and how might we approach the text more productively?
Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, first performed in 1966, plays hilariously with this idea as it follows two minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet while they, mostly, wait offstage for their cues, alternately trying to kill time and also figure out just what the hell has actually brought them to this strange theatrical limbo-space to begin with. And yet despite their complete bafflement they are, nevertheless, kept going if only to see what happens next. They are condemned, as Guildenstern (or possibly Rosencrantz?) puts it ‘to be kept intrigued without ever quite being enlightened.’
Neither Roz nor Guil ever gain any real insight into what propels them through the action of the play – well, both plays, really – because (spoiler alert) they are fictional inventions and when the action ends they simply blink into non-existence, presumably to repeat the cycle all over again during the next performance, if there is one. This ‘fine persecution’, as they play calls it, isn’t just a description for two characters in a drama, Stoppard seems to suggest – it’s life. We’re pulled along by intrigue, by an interest in the movement of the action and curiosity about what might happen next, but ultimately we never get an answer. There is no final enlightenment.
Perhaps that’s one reason why the precise details of the plot come to assume such a high premium over time. It’s no secret that the world we live in can be, frequently, distressing and chaotic, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that we therefore seek in our fiction a sense of closure and coherence that we struggle to find in our workaday experience of the world. And yet, as the work of Stoppard and others seems to hint at, this might also leave us unprepared for those times when the sheer absurdity of our situation leaves us high and dry and we might need to develop a new approach.
Moreover, I would argue, fetishizing the ‘plot’ in this way can actually become a substitute for real, granular engagement with the text. If I tell you that James Joyce’s novel Ulysses tracks two characters across Dublin for one day in 1904, and that it ends (spoiler alert) with them coming home, drinking hot cocoa, taking a piss, going to bed, and then the wife of one of the protagonists menstruates into a chamber-pot, has a heavily implied orgasm and the novel ends…. then congratulations, you now know the plot. But it would be a stretch to say that you therefore ‘know’ the text, insofar as any text as gloriously slippery and multifaceted as Ulysses can be ‘known’ at all. You certainly haven’t read the book. You haven’t dived deeply into its actual lyrical texture to grapple with the shifting meanings and sensations there. If anything, I might have afforded you an excellent excuse not to do so at all – why would you need to read it, after all, if you already know how it ends?
Italo Calvino wrote in an essay for the New York Review of Books in 1986 that those works we call ‘the classics’ are ‘the books of which we usually hear people say: “I am rereading”.’ Art, he suggests, is not a commodity to be used once and then discarded, but a living and organic thing to which we will keep returning because every engagement with it yields up fresh discoveries. My proposal, then, is to liberate ourselves from the neurotic dread of having art ‘spoiled’, and to relish instead the opportunity to play, to interrogate and to reinvent that comes from true critical engagement.
I am inviting you, reader, to forget about knowing or not knowing the plot and take part with me in the far more interesting discussion of what happens after Daenerys Targaryen takes the Iron Throne and begins her reign of insanity and bloodshed, thereby completing the cycle set in motion by King Aegon and cementing George R.R. Martin’s ultimately bleak and cynical assessment of the movement of history and the corrupting influence of absolute power.
It took Michaela Wooding a while to recognise, that October morning at Wood Green Crown Court, that she was the only one still alive.
In truth, she hadn’t minded much when she turned up, slightly early, and breezed through the neo-Gothic façade strangely without its security guards. After the metal detectors had wailed her through she was swallowed inside, her footsteps crisp and sharp in the hush. The quiet of an empty court, first thing in the morning, was something she had come to relish.
When she called the lift, it let out a single long, low note coming down, and the four-flight staircase hummed like a belfry. She felt the hair on her arms prick up deliciously. In another ten minutes she would call her clerks. There was no sense rushing things. The Robing Room door, unlocked by the three-button lock of the kind that she thought belonged more in a pre-War prep school than a modern court building, clunked open as she took the handle, heavy in her hand as history, and pushed her way in.
The Robing Room was quiet too. She had always thought that other counsel were curiously slapdash about timekeeping. It got worse with age as habits formed and reputations ossified among the QCs and celebrity briefs. The first hours of the day belonged to juniors, like her.
Her eye swept over the banks of cubicles, still littered with weeks-old lever-arch files, still draped in discarded robes and wigs, the same mess day after day. It was also the seniors, she thought, who never cleaned up after themselves.
She was almost disappointed, at the end of the rows, to see a silhouette bent over a desk, just framed in the weak early-morning light. They were muttering something in the gloomy corner,
“Hello, good morning… can I speak to John Mitting…”
Michaela turned away and found a free spot. She would sign herself in at the free computer terminal once the figure had finished their call. She checked herself in the mirror; buttoned on her court collar; set her bands and wig in place. It wasn’t really necessary, of course, to be in full costume this early on, but she liked the ritual of suiting-up. She savoured the long flutter of the robe on her shoulders.
As she reached for her phone to call the clerks, a swift double-knock made her look up sharply. The noise had come from a dark corner, where a sign was just visible on a door to the ladies’ loos. A shape, square-shouldered and short-necked, moved through the door with a soft grunt and vanished. Probably the cleaner, Michaela thought, or at least she hoped – the shape’s blackness could well have been robes, and she couldn’t be entirely sure of its gender from the glimpse she had of it. Her jaw tightened. She was learning rapidly that there were few spaces to which the seniors, and especially the male seniors, did not feel themselves entitled.
As she picked up her notebook and got back to work the silhouette was still there, growling into their unlit phone.
“Hello, good morning… can I speak to John Mitting…”
Michaela rolled her eyes. It was clear that nothing would move quickly this morning. Not really looking at the silhouette, already forgetting the shadows behind her, she blew past him and signed herself in, then turned smartly and left the room.
She did not hear the shuffle and groan as something re-entered the ladies’ loos, and the words floated out over the table,
“Hello, good morning… can I speak to John Mitting…”
Outside Court 4 her pre-conference ritual was almost balletic: one seat in the middle for her; to her left, phone charger; to her right, her phone. Each of them double-clunked on the metal frames as she flipped her notebook open and typed. She knew she was expecting a man with a single charge – GBH with intent, a fight that had broken out late one night after chucking-out time somewhere in town. The notes from the scene disclosed no knife. There were rich prospects for a case with a hole that size in the main body of evidence. She might even get a decent trial out of it – better for the bank-balance than the mentions practice she had scraped out since her secondment finished. But nothing was settled till the client was here with the fullest instructions she could get from him.
As the clock pulled on towards quarter-to-ten, she busied herself with attendance notes, always prepared well ahead of time so that she could shoot off quickly once things were done. You could write these things out of a kit sometimes, she thought, as she spelt out her main points to the Judge.
No other defendants passed her in that time. No other counsel. Just the hint of an usher sliding round the main door, glimpsed from the corner of her eye and acknowledged with only a wave and a name – “Simmings, 10-o-clock, GBH.” – as she carried on with her work. She barely even noticed the smell that trailed, faint as plague, from the closing door, or the same square-shouldered shape she had glimpsed upstairs.
When Simmings appeared, quite suddenly, as she looked up, it did throw her briefly off track. She gasped, but recovered immediately and got to her feet.
“Good morning Mr. Simmings, I’m Michaela, thank you for being here in good time…”
If he growled a response then she didn’t hear it. She was already falling into the introductory patter she had smoothed to perfection since pupillage. She shook his hand vigorously, taking little notice of how piercingly cold his palm was. His grip was a flash of stiff strength, like a door that had stuck fast some years before. Neither this, nor his sunken cheeks, nor his colourless lips were enough to put her off-stride now. She had seen clients in worse shape before.
She sat him down opposite her and began to go through the itinerary. Her chambers-issued Complaint Form, standard-issue since the GDPR, was under his nose in a heartbeat. She handed him the pen to sign it with only the ghost of eye-contact. She heard about how he and the complainant had gone down the pub one night – nothing too intimate, just what you do with a mate sometimes, yeah? – how the beer had flowed, how the conversation swished round for a bit on this and that, on football (maybe? She always tuned out for these bits) and things had got a bit heated. How come closing-time things were hotter still, how they’d both rambled out into the night as their voices were rising to screaming pitch. How yes, he had come with a knife (noted immediately, got to go guilty) and he’d just seen the other guy square up in the moonlight. How he moved a lot quicker than he ever thought he could move.
Was she hearing the sound of the night being slit open? She tapped away, taking everything down. Same story, day after day…
“…. And I got him.”
Simmings shifted. He raised his elbow with a soft-boned snap – Michaela thought, horribly, of a wishbone being pulled around a Sunday dinner – and exposed a flank, pointing with his free hand. His shirt was the colour of cigarette ash.
“I took it and got him under the ribs. Right here. Got him good and deep, first time.”
Michaela took a breath, and got back to the well-worn track of advice for clearly guilty clients.
“Right. Well obviously that changes what I think you should do. I mean, if you’re saying you used the knife then….”
“But he got it off me,” Simmings went on, “when I went in close, he got it off me. Turned the fucking thing round in my hands…”
Michaela found her eyes drawn to the paws with which Simmings gesticulated. To that little finger of the right hand, hooked inwards, which at first she had put down to arthritis. She saw how a map of long cuts, old but yet somehow not scarified, charted a course down the inside of the palm. She could feel herself being borne along, the coldness of some deep current reaching up through her feet.
“… and I’m just too fucking surprised, y’know, to do anything like, and just like that, soon as he got it – he went for it.”
“Right. And he tried to attack you with….”
Was Simmings chuckling? The sound, like an overflowing gutter smacking down its contents from some great height, made it shiver as it struck her ears.
“Yeah, you could say something like that.”
The thing called Simmings lifted his free, good hand, and drew back a fold of shirt from his clavicle.
Michaela realised she had been trying as hard as she could not to focus too much on what she could see of Simmings – on his sea-grey skin, on his loosened meat, on whatever slick, sightless mass was taking up the space where his eyes should be. Since the moment he sat down and brought with him a faint smell of wet earth and no sound of breath, Michaela had focussed her energy on not being fully aware of him.
Now, as he showed her the crimson vent at the base of his throat, for the first time, she saw him whole, in horrifying clarity.
The rest of the conference passed in a daze. Michaela had all but wrestled her voice into something like the old script that she used whenever a client was being uncooperative. She staggered on, as she would for one hopeless case like any other, where you advised them that they ought to plead guilty and simply accept whatever sentence came, taking full advantage, of course, of their maximum credit for pleading early. Simmings had simply repeated his instructions, hissing for emphasis,
“… I went for him. I got him. But he got me. And I want to have my side of it heard.”
By the time she approached the usher, staring at the carpet, to report that the defendant was ready to go on, Michaela had almost convinced herself that this was just one more thing she would get better at as she handled more trials. The usher, after all, had waved her through. So long as she didn’t listen too closely to the flutter of ragged vocal chords, and entered quietly with her head still down, ignoring the click and shift of moving bodies, she could make this feel something like normalcy. She slid into place on the back bench, conscious of the black robes either side of her, not trying too hard to see what was filling them.
No sense, she thought, as the arguments whispered around her like the fall of sand, no sense whatsoever in making a fuss. More experienced counsel, no doubt, got this all the time. The same cases, day after day.
Days might have passed in that courtroom. Whenever she looked to the sliver of skylight for some clue about the time of day she found the view was unchanged. The same pale light, stuck in some limbo between sunrise and sunset, crept in and was swamped by the fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling. Even as words were being spoken, they dissolved in the air. Nothing changed, or made shapes in the long silence. In court, time lay on everything like a shroud.
Michaela was struck, if anything, by how familiar this routine was. Those feelings she still had before she got to her feet, the tremoring give-and-take between boredom and anxiety, were the twin forces that hauled on her. Somewhere deep down there were grim stirrings of what was really happening here, but on the surface she was still paddling, still re-running Simmings’ case in her head (same story, same story). She found herself worrying what she might say when her turn came to stand up and speak. Her mouth was as cool and dry as a cave.
She wondered if the dead could sweat – if their flesh ever felt the cold running down the inside of their court collars. With a shudder, she realised she envied them.
Once or twice, on her peripheries, she glimpsed the other counsel, their robes disguising every move they might make. She never looked longer than a second or two.
When she heard her own name, and got to her feet, the words that reached her were barely audible at all. They coursed through the air like muscle under skin, felt before they were heard. She swallowed, and settled her attention on the Judge’s bench.
“Ms…. Wooding? I’m very sorry, you have been sitting there patiently….”
She could tell what was coming. In her chest, something shrieked.
“…. But it seems we have run out of time for today’s proceedings. We will need to call you back again….”
The words fell through her like stones through deep water. She felt the whole courtroom grind around her, a wheel that would be years in turning. She knew, with a stony certainty, that nothing would be resolved if she came back tomorrow. Or the day after that, or the day after that. She and her case and her client and her life would be lost in the court, another shape in a robe on a permanent round. The adjournment would never end.
Just out of sight, the shape on her right, whatever creature was now her opponent, gave off a low rasp, as if it were coughing. Or laughing. She started, stammered,
“Your Honour, if I may, I think we can be quick….”
“These matters cannot be rushed, Ms. Wooding.”
“…. But I really do think, if we expedite things….”
Did the shapes around her turn towards her? She felt the voice press on her temples, her throat,
“We can make no exceptions, Ms. Wooding.”
“With Your Honour’s leave!”
Her last words had been loud. Higher and louder than she had intended. The silence parted for a moment, then closed back in.
“This is simply the situation in which we find ourselves” the thing in the Judge’s robes intoned, “and we do not help anything by being unreasonable….”
It was as if, with her final cry, she had let go the last space where the waters could flood in and fill her up. There could now be no appeal. She sat back down. Around her, the piles of lever-arch files could have been as fixed as obelisks. The shapes on the bench whispered, and it went through her as if she were already falling away. She looked down at her hands, and searched for the first signs of grey.
She tried to believe that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. She had her instructions. She would return. Simmings would have his side of it heard. She would tell his story to the court in just the way she was trained to. Same story. Day after day.
UPDATE: a version of this poem was published in the Morning Star newspaper on 30/08/2018, as part of the ‘Poetry on the Picket Line’ column.
Those of you paying attention to the streets around Petty France this last week will have probably seen that United Voices of the World the union, representing the interests of mostly precarious and migrant workers in sectors like cleaning and maintenance, have been getting up to some stuff. Specifically, they have been coordinating strike action among the cleaning staff of both the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Ministry of Justice, in a campaign for a London Living Wage, sick pay and equality of conditions with in-house staff.
They are an awesome organisation doing brave and necessary things, and you can donate to their strike fund here. Another awesome organisation is Poetry on the Picket Line, with whom I have been privileged to be acting this week as we brought our solidarity and support to this vital cause (also while we’re here, special shout-out to Chip Hamer – Happy Birthday man, hope to be on a picket with you again soon). And so, inspired by this week’s events, here is a new piece of work in a vein that I don’t usually mine, but which might do well provided I remember to comport myself with appropriate humility.
Comments and criticism welcome as ever, and ‘hasta la victoria siempre’.
Sister Juana para lxs limpiadorxs
Sister Juana walks quietly to service on irregular mornings –
less often than she would like, but her job doesn’t always allow her to get away.
She is squeezed off the Tube with the rest, and then curves
away down side alleys, like a night wind
on those routes that will take her faster and unobserved.
She remembers as she walks that the holes in her shoes
are portals to the barefoot and the blessed.
There will never be a day when her tears or her sweat
are widely reported to heal the sick.
She takes her place with the choristers behind the banners, and mindful
of each intonation she proclaims “En solidaridad
con mis compañeros”, calling upon the Spanish she had held to through her lunch-breaks
so she could pray in the proper spirit
with all the communion of those still struggling
against mere respectability.
She raises her hands as she rolls her worship home
with a voice that holds, “En el Nombre de Libertad, y Dignidad,
Originally I intended to submit these poems to the Emma Press on the general theme of their next anthology, ‘Night Stories’. Then I found out, by the time I had written them, that the submissions were all for prose pieces, particularly short-stories. The deadline for that call is 3rd August, and I’d heartily recommend getting work to them if that tickles your fancy (I’m working on stuff of my own as we speak) but that does still leave me with three new poems on a highly specific brief, probably not up for publication any time soon.
And then I thought “hey, it has been a while since I last uploaded some work, hasn’t it?”
For your consumption and criticism, which as ever is welcome.
With Closed Eyes
Cover the eyes to warm the night behind them, as the dream takes shape in palms of light which stretch across the blue expanse, sharper than stars.
Behind them, as the dream takes shape, the pain makes known how crowded is the blue expanse. Sharper than stars they stud the temples, striking home.
The pain – makes known how crowded is this warmth of skull, humming with selves. They stud the temples, striking home that nothing lives in grief like love.
The warmth of skull, humming with selves in palms of light which stretch across that nothing. Lives in grief like love. Cover the eyes to warm the night.
The night at the bottom of the glass
as a sphere in two-dimensional space
as an eye as singularity
as the antimatter counterpart to an O’Keefe rose in deep white
as a living body of liquid black suspending those thin rivulets – the traffic-lights from outside the blood the bed and all its complexities
as HAL 9000 sculpted whole from only the space between the stars
as the promise of brilliance forever deferred
as a house as a well of homelessness
as one part of this contemplative hoop human and holy obscurity
into each other
“And finally… the cave” after Richard Rodriguez in interview for ‘On Being’, 08.09.2014
And how it must have come to those whose shoulders bore the sun as they scrambled up the mountain sides in search of a drop of some singular truth.
Who knew that hostile demons gnashed the rocks in the likeness of hot, deceptive wind.
Who braved the danger of blind forest and all its brutality, all its venom and claw, for only a scrap
of contemplative shade. How it must have been
a sweetness to them: this black sigh breathing relief through yellow leaves that now became a green embrace;
this sheer mercy of twilight; this shelter that lay in prophetic caves
where the lifegiving promise had living shape as a solitary fire; where the plain
and never-failing, quenching truth lay all around them in a pool of ever-widening moonlight.
There’s a particularly funny moment in Jon Ronson’s, Them: Adventures with Extremists, published in 2001. Ronson has joined the journalist ‘Big’ Jim Tucker, a crusader against the shadowy trans-national group of power brokers known as the Bilderberg Group, on a trip to a five-star hotel in Portugal where his subject’s ‘research’ has apparently uncovered the latest meeting place of the men (and some women) who secretly run the world. By the pool, Jim takes the opportunity to do some sleuthing with a young waitress:
‘‘Ma’am,’ said Jim…. ‘I’m a little confused, I tried to book a room here for Thursday and they told me that the whole hotel had been closed down for some big meeting. Must be a pretty damn big important meeting if you ask me…’ The waitress shrugged. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. She smiled slightly and left us. Jim got out his notepad. He wrote notes and then read them out to me:
Tension filled the air inside the posh Caesar Park resort on Monday. At the poolside bar, the pretty barmaid’s face filled with tension when asked to speculate on the big important meeting taking place from Thursday. She shrugged her shoulders and feigned ignorance but the tension in her face spoke volumes.’’
I do have something of a perverse fascination with conspiracy theories and theorists, representing as they do the pinnacle of apparently rational people believing highly implausible, not to say incoherent, things. Given the times we are now living in, where the last two years alone have introduced us to ‘alternative facts’ and the notion of having ‘had enough’ of experts, know-alls and other representatives of the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’, the applications of this should be pretty apparent. Faced with multiplying real-world problems, an overactive persecution complex and a politicised preference for fantasy over fact, we now know too well where our public sphere can end up. Understanding how conspiracy narratives function, and how they can be contended with, will play a very big part in trying to steer all societies in the direction of sanity.
By this stage, most of us are probably pretty familiar, if only second or third hand, with the common features of your average conspiracy theory: their malignant growth from certain core human psychological traits such as the intentional fallacy; the cavalier attitude to evidence; the leaps in logic referred to by YouTuber Ian Danskin (AKA Innuendo Studios) as ‘[theories] supported by theories’.
This is not going to be the place where I set out to conduct a piece-by-piece discussion of these features: a large number of good books on the subject, including my personal recommendation of Suspicious Minds by Rob Brotherton, can do that far more effectively. There is material enough out there to let you catch up pretty quickly on everything from the relatively innocuous (see eg. James Shapiro on the ‘authorship question’ of the works of Shakespeare in Contested Will, or Steven Poole on the apparent resurgence of ‘Flat Earth’-ism) to the profoundly alarming (see Lisa Jardine on anti-science scepticism around Climate Change in a now almost-quaint episode of ‘Thought for the Day’ from 2011).
No, what interests me is how, when you treat conspiratorial narratives as a particular mode of discourse, indeed as a genre with recurring tropes and textual features, then you start to see a way into understanding its appeal at an emotional as well as cognitive level, and also (potentially) a way to disrupt that narrative. A number of years ago I was provided with a text (conveniently available online in its entirety) which, though it claimed to be a work of, I think, cultural anthropology or comparative religion, very swiftly revealed itself to be the kind of feverish dark fantasy that makes such rich pickings for both the conspiracy buff and the literary critic.
I say ‘I think’ because it’s honestly quite difficult to tell what area of ‘research’ exactly you are embarking upon by the time the author is citing the Necronomicon as an authoritative source and setting out his thesis on how Jewish people from Eastern Europe are pre-disposed to facility with money for reasons of geography (yeah, the anti-Semitism gets pretty poisonous before you even reach the Holocaust denial of the later chapters). But however incoherent its pretences to sober non-fictional analysis might be, as an example of the ‘conspiracy romance’ genre it is second to none.
I say ‘romance’ with a small ‘r’ to evoke the Medieval genres generally more famous for their depicitions of questing heroes and knight errants, because that is precisely how the author presents his own ‘quest’ to the reader:
‘If it is earthly treasure you seek, then throw this book away…. I certainly could not have you as my Grail companion. The territory is dangerous, and hideous monsters await the unwary. This quest is only for the bravest of souls, only for those whose hearts are pledged to Ariadne, the Queen of Heaven, with whom you must drink the cup…. But if you hold in your hand a book of verse, come, mount up. You and I shall see adventure you cannot imagine: becoming drunken with wine at wayside taverns; sleeping in the corn fields at night with only a white stone for a pillow and the stars for a blanket; doing good deeds, righting wrongs and feeding the poor. And then, together, we shall drink from the holy challis, blessing and thanking God for this cup and its revelation of things hidden from mortal men.’
Even when you know that what you are, in fact, holding is a work of arrant nonsense, it’s difficult not to be swept up in the sense of adventure with which this passage is saturated. Like pretty much any good conspiracy yarn it allows the reader to identify as a courageous crusader for truth, a pilgrim on the road to wisdom, a knight waging lonely war against the menacing forces behind all of society’s ills. And to be sure, there is a romance to the idea of the lone warrior on the side of righteousness questing to purify a corrupted world. As Lisa Jardine put it earlier,
‘Faced with an uncertain future and declining prosperity, without religion for reassurance, what could be more comforting than to join a select band searching for the Holy Grail?’
Modern purveyors of conspiracy, especially on the political right, have proven to be very effective at adapting our modern tales of heroic knights on a Grail quest to their political ends. If you’re convinced that you are, in some way, Rowdy Roddy Piper popping his sunglasses on and heading out to chew bubblegum and kick ass, or Neo taking the red pill, then you can draw meaning and a sense of purpose from your quest. But that only works as long as you take the narrative absolutely seriously. The moment you begin to read the narrative critically, not only spotting the intellectual holes but also picking up on some of the latent absurdities in the language and presentation, the whole thing quickly begins to lose its mystique.
It’s the reason why the Ronson excerpt I quoted earlier strikes such a rich comic note: the level of projection and hasty generalisation is obvious to everyone except the conspiracy theorist, the only one who is not a good enough critical reader to see the limitations of the narrative he is working in (or indeed to find a suitable synonym for ‘tension’). The effects of generic collision are also the source of the laughs in some of my favourite Mitchell & Webb sketches, where the sheer loopiness of the theories becomes hilariously obvious simply as a result of taking the romances and troubleshooting the dull minutiae of what it would look like to actually implement them. The ‘assassination’ of Princess Diana, for example:
‘WEBB: … it’s so simple, no messing around with poison-tipped umbrellas or snipers, we just get a chauffeur drunk –
MITCHELL: Slightly drunk.
WEBB: – and assume that he’ll crash the car…. what we’re organising here my friends is a watertight hit. ’
It’s both quite easy and very entertaining to parody the eccentricities of conspiracy narratives like this, but ultimately if the last few years of an ascendant post-truth political moment have revealed anything it’s that laughter is also not enough. Many of us have been laughing for decades, and by and large it’s just made David Icke, Alex Jones and company more determined – being ridiculed is something conspiracists expect, after all. It can also look distinctly like complacency when much of the resentment and sense of grievance on which these narratives feed does stem from real and pressing social problems of alienation, declining living standards, unaccountable and unrepresentative politics and a hollowed-out civic life.
One of the ironies here is that, as I and a number of my colleagues will attest, there really is a fight to be waged for a good cause, for many good causes, whether on behalf of our environment, our neighbourhoods, our brothers and sisters in marginalised communities, and we could really use the zeal of a dedicated Grail knight in waging those campaigns. And grappling with the issues behind these problems, even when they are daunting in their scale and complexity and the cause is bedevilled by setbacks, is something that can bring you a sense of meaning, along with doing some practical good. Our future may depend on convincing the existing coterie of Grail knights that the Romance of Conspiracy is far less compelling, and ultimately less noble, than the romance of this daily struggle for a better world.