Mushrooms at Dusk

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She found the quality of light at this time of year awfully confusing. Dull grey in the morning, silver streams of mist that lick the sky like butter from your fingers. The twilight haze of three o’clock, where the amber lamps come out like fireflies and shadows gather ominously across the sky. Maybe a wisp of some foreign wind, darkling in the fade towards four, where she’d be sitting at her window, wondering. It was the time of year to tend to the garden, pile up the heaps of leaves, clusters of rotting pinecones and acorns that clotted in the soil. The earth was hardening for winter, and soon the frost would come, eating into the grass like a glittering poison. She’d see it as she dressed in 7am sunlight, the whitish mist making crystals at her window. Everything still and beautiful.

It was a luxury, to be home now. She waited for the seasons to change, right at the hinge between autumn and winter, before she made her journey. Asleep on the train, dreaming of being small again, so small in the bubble of childish memory. She could smell the peanut crunch of M&Ms, the sparkling particles of someone’s perfume. Soon, soon she’d be home. The place grew tighter every year, as she grew fatter on the milk of new years and their offerings of plastic joys and flattened dreams. She stood in the kitchen, watching the steam swirl out of her first cup of tea. No new mugs, of course. Later, she would press her face to the window and her breath would fog a dewy canvas, and with one finger she’d draw pentagrams, like she always used to. There’d be the rubbery squeak of skin on glass.

No-one was at home now, just her in the wide archives of the house. In the dusty shelves that made her sneeze, and the picture postcards, she imagined a thousand phantoms. They were pretty phantoms, ornamented with the smiles of children and the pinkish sheen of memory. They did not speak to her, but she was somewhat comforted by their silence. What counted was the presence, the ghosted sigh of a skin-prick or coldness. She would wait till her parents got home and read books, in that nook between the banister and the cabinet on the landing. Imagining herself as Jo in Little Women, taking great bites out of Braeburn apples, lines of prose flying before her eyes. She did not fit there as well as she did as a child. The wood cut into her arm as she read the strange poems covered in gold-frosted dust. Somebody had been spraying glitter in the study, making Christmas decorations. That was a long time ago.

***

Morning came like a murmuring of starlings, and slipped away again just as quickly. Her body was heavy, her limbs tree-trunks of aching muscle. She felt she had been away again, and the new hours were another return. She worked them over in her mind, pondering the way their shapes formed with her hunger and sleepiness. Moulding, slowly. At the window she stood and yawned. Some machine was whirring away, making her coffee. The smell dissipated through the room with its warm opulence, stirring her brain to life. Yes. She peered closely into the garden, staring at strange dark shapes which clumped in the fronds of long grass. Most peculiar. Later she would investigate. She ate her breakfast of burnt toast with the radio humming in the background, speaking of a war somewhere, and then advertisements for hair salons and special restaurants. Onto her toast she spooned pools of blackberry jam that looked like crushed rubies, and the soury sweetness bit at her tongue between her teeth. She chewed loudly and grinning, the wine-coloured juice staining her lips. Afterwards, she left everything on the table: the crumbs peppering the wood like a pixie’s debris.

It was almost enough just to be here, out of the shouting sirens, the madness of the city. Home, she supposed. She sat at her laptop, fingers clicking ruthlessly at the keys. She was writing a message to someone, a sad story about why she would no longer remember them. She would keep it saved, locked deep in her computer’s hard-drive, and then one day send it. When she had the person’s address. When the time was right; which it wasn’t just yet.

Everything stretched out like the languid yawn of a giant, just a long morning and the gape of afternoon, uncertain evening. The sheerness of time was narcotic, rendering tiny signals that pulsated in her brain. She was at once sleepy and electrified. She rushed up the stairs to check something in her room, but her phone was dead and all that was there were her clothes strewn across the carpet. She messed around looking for things to read. She highlighted her favourite words in the dictionary. It was a big dictionary, and a whole hour shed away like the flake of skin that layers the top of a scar. She remembered only a handful of this vocabulary: sapphire, salience, stardust, Saprotrophic. She was cleaning the window with lemon vinegar, making sweeping lanes in the film of dirt. A thin moon peered out of the weary sky like a wink. Saprotrophic…she had forgotten something. Ah…the mysterious clumps in the garden! Of course, they were mushrooms, only mushrooms…

She pulled on her mother’s wellies and trod out into the garden, up the concrete steps. The air was very still; mournful, even. It smelled of wood-smoke, and somewhere she could hear the crackling snaps of burning tinder. Plumes of it rose against the blueish dusk in dark arabesques. She sighed contentedly. The clumps were even more abundant than she’d thought; the whole garden was teeming with their shadowy figures. She knelt down to inspect some. She thought of the honey fungus they’d found out in a forest once, clinging prettily to a rotting stump. In the sunset glistenings that glazed the silhouetted trees, she had thought she could almost see fairies, fluttering above the mushrooms. They were lovely mushrooms, with their smooth peachy caps. Her friend had said they were edible; but you could not be sure with wild ones, so they left them alone, like a living relic, noting their path. The toadstools she saw now in the garden were a putrid brownish colour, etched with black lines and little white spots. They were ugly in a kind of otherworldly way. Ethereal, even.

Her knees were going numb from bending so she stood up and did a lap of the garden to get her circulation back. She was recalling things. The party where a boy brought out a sandwich bag of suspicious-looking vegetables, frying them on somebody’s pan. She’d stood in the doorway of the kitchen, her mind full of cheap red wine, watching the way the little things unfurled in the buttery oil, their spindly stalks stretched out like tentacles, their heads jiggling like jellyfish. As they started to sizzle and wilt, they let out a curious, bitter smell. The boy had shared them among his friends and then they had disappeared for most of the night. Later, one of them was hanging upside down in a tree at the village park, and he was reciting streams of Byron’s poetry. Sometimes, she still heard his voice, even now, reverberating through the dark.

The cold was coming out of its slumber and creeping into her bones. She stood still, wrapping her cardigan tight around her. She crouched down again and dug her nails into the earth. A weird feeling gripped her, a feeling tinged with homesickness. She pulled nothing out of the ground, no trace of seed or root. She stood up again. The quietness made her feel smaller than ever, but her mind was huge and overbearing, stretching itself across the matter of the garden. It all glared in her vision like the close-up shots of a dream. She wished some sound would break the silence. A bird-cry, even. But the little creatures were so quick with their wings that they made no noise as they flew between branches. She was trembling now, remembering everything.

The fungus at her feet now looked like the severed heads of something. She had to breathe.

If only a car would start in the drive, or a plane fly overhead…something, something!

They say that magic makes you happier. And she thought there was a thing she could do, before going inside again to the womblike comforts of heat and sleep. She brushed through the grass with her wellied feet, and stood in the centre of one of the fairy rings. It was a near perfect circle. She stared first at the mushroomy clumps at her feet, then up at the sky. It bore the dramatic flashes of an expressionist painting: great bolts of violet wounded the blue, and rivulets of yellow broke away from the horizon, approaching amber and spiralling, spiralling. Then she found again the moon. Brighter now, it was a sharp crescent, the fold of an eyelid. She waited, waited. Her body was cold and her skin prickled like coral on a sea-washed rock.

The clouds began to gather, slowly at first then fast like an army.

You could smell it in the air, the sourish dampness that held as a breath.

She closed her eyes and the rain came. She felt the initial sprinkles that bounced off her skin, the cries of birds as they darted into the hawthorns for shelter. Drizzles of silver slashing the landscape. A downpour of water and chilly air. She stuck her tongue out for the cold shock and the sharp taste. The crescendo sound of it showering louder, coming down thick and heavy from the west in globules fat as teardrops. She opened her eyes and her hair streamed down her face like seaweed, clinging to the marble of her skin. She felt it surge within her, the waterfall sounds of this injured nature. A grumble of thunder. Something stirring in her chest, a rush in her pulse. Almost like someone was watching her, a million things flashing around her. Her laughter was lost in the cavernous sound of the rainstorm, another echo pirouetting through the chambers of memory. And as she stood there, the fungus and mushrooms soaked up their nectar, before crumpling to a wasted doom. The rain had poured through and through her, and she felt hollow and purged as a mermaid tossed from the sea to a tomb. And she was the still point in the tempest around her, her body soft and sad with its sickness. This was it; home was just this, wild and true, the beatific glow of a hullabaloo.

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Mould

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It was a moon-scape she saw, peering into the mug in her mother’s study. Yes, a moon-scape with little lumps of perilous blue and grey, seeping into one another. Or maybe it was another kind of space terrain: she imagined the ground of Pluto, with its eye-like holes and fissures. She gave it a shake, and watched the particles break up and drift away, flotsam on some unreal ocean. A polluted ocean; maybe the earth’s oceans in a hundred years’ time. They told her in school that the world was filling up with waste and one day everything would melt away, like those paintings of dissolving clocks she saw when her mother took her to the museum. You could already tell it was happening, her teacher had said, the way that it gets so warm these days. The mildness of winter. It wasn’t right.

Well, the moon wasn’t right either that night. No; she could not stop thinking about what she saw in that mug. Another world, was it? She wished she could go back and count the dots, knowing that if she did she could start to chart this new universe, and in knowing it better she could sleep. She could enter its landscapes, drift across it with the powers she had in her dreams. Her mother put a sachet of lavender under her pillow and she could smell it through the cotton, soft and sweet…but it was not enough distraction. She needed to know what she had seen. But her mother might hear her and send her back to bed. It had to be worth a try. Sucking in her breath, she tip-toed back into the study, closing the door quietly behind her and flicking on the light. It was an energy-saver bulb, that took ages to properly glow. So she stood in the dull orange light, watching the wall till it got brighter. Then she would pick up the mug and see. Then she would know again.

Finally it was bright enough and so she went to pick up the mug…but this time, oh how the smell caught her! It was sharp and evil like the stench of seaweed, only worse, like the most rotten thing in the world, slowly fermenting. Yes, she smelt it and was knocked backwards almost. But it was fascinating. She let her nostrils quiver and sniff deeper as she held the mug to her nose. The she looked into it again and saw how the dunes and lumps had mushroomed and the blue was turning greenish, or maybe that was just the duller light. Still, these were definite changes. And she was thinking of the clumps of toadstools she’d seen in the school playground, while they were out measuring soil quality and watching the teacher bending in the grass with a thermometer. They were big brown flat things, ugly and intriguing, and she knew that some of them were poisonous, and some of them if you poked them let out a puff of steam. She wished she could touch these mushrooms but the thought of putting her finger in the mug was repulsing. It was kind of like a horror movie, she thought, where they showed you somebody’s festering wound, only it never looked quite real. Still, you would not like to touch it, it was just sort of funny to look at. No, she would not touch it; instead she shook it again, and this time the dunes did not dissolve, but she could see little fissures rippling across them. Her stomach turned over as if emptying something, and she felt a surge in her gullet. She put the mug down and breathed in deeply, trying to rid herself of the awful smell that clung to her like a disease.

She wondered what it was that these microbes loved so much about her mother’s tea. She considered if they’d accept her into their colony. Like them, she was partial to a glass of milk, but maybe not tea, unless it was laden with sugar. She wondered how they’d order themselves, scattered about as they were like that. Bulbous, growing over each other. It would be a ruthless economy. She sat down on the comfy office chair and span around slowly. The queasiness was leaving. She liked how all the objects rushed around her, melting into long white and orange lines. She stifled a giggle; she must not wake her mother up. She whispered stories to the mug. Telling them about the boy she wrote a letter to once in class and the time she left her homework on a bus. Soon she would say goodbye to her mother. She knew that it could not be long before she was ready to join them. They would be like ants, or the tiny people in Gulliver’s Travels – Lilliputions – running all over her body. Only, they were so small you could not see them. You could just imagine them, growing and multiplying, all over her skin.

They made the moon rocky and bumpy, like that boy whose skin was cratered with pimples. She had seen on television once two fat ladies in white coats scrubbing away green things from the corners of a bathtub. She and her mother didn’t have a bathtub, but sometimes she saw things come out of the plughole in the shower. Great streams of wiry hair that poked out, or smeared themselves upon the porcelain. Once a huge spider. She heard its legs patter and she screamed, and her mother tried to lift it out with a gardening trowel. Sometimes there were little black seeds all over the bath, and the first time she thought maybe a plant had vomited up all its babies (in class that morning she had been drawing diagrams of sepals and stigmas and filaments and seed-pellets), but then her mother told her it was just exfoliating beads from some lotion she had. She tried the lotion and it made her skin burn, but it was not unpleasant; kind of like the scratch of dry sand. It left a pinkish blotch on her legs. She was wondering if the moon was like that: all pastures of dry sand. Were there lakes or ponds or waves? Trees, even? In the mug she could not see any trees, and the only waves were from when she rippled the sticky liquid with the swirl of her wrist. She thought maybe if she lived there she’d have to invent some more things, to keep her interested. There would be a gift shop, for one thing. You could buy t-shirts with maps of the land on them, with close-up details of the blue-green growths and the tea-stains that ringed the china walls. It was like a whole continent splayed out, with all the countries slotted together, their landmasses enveloping each other. A strange thing.

She would take the mug into school on Monday, for show-and-tell. It was the right thing to do. Everybody else would bring in their cinema tickets, their remote-controlled helicopters, Pokemon cards, a book they had read over the weekend. And they would talk about themselves, nattering away about this thing that had brought them  their childish joy. Then she would take to the stage, like the prime minister on the telly, clasping her precious mug, and she would tell them how she had found the moon. At first they would laugh, she recognised that, but then they would realise how clever she was. How amazing was her discovery. She giggled just thinking about it. But I must let it rest, she reflected. After all, she needed to let her colony expand, for the spores to pile up higher upon one another until they were spilling over the edges of the mug. She wanted her colony to be huge and impressive. I mustn’t let them escape. She took a postcard from the wall – it was a painting of a lemon and a teacup by Francis Cadell – and she placed it over the mug. The moon was safe, and its surface would continue to bubble and grow in their new warmth and darkness. So she tip-toed back to bed and lay awake, her mind floating around this wondrous space. Each star was a point of contact, a possibility.

And she spoke to the stars, even as she jumped between them, as you jump between chairs and tables and sofas when you play ‘The Floor is Lava’. Each one told her a story, and she basked in the glow of all those words weaving a tapestry around her. Soon she could slip into sleep, soon, soon, soon…she closed her eyes to a new darkness, felt the warmth of the space beneath the sheets. The smell of mould dissipated from her brain, and now there was only silence, the scent of lavender, wafting in delicate waves…

When tomorrow arrived, it was Monday, so she got dressed for school and went downstairs. To her horror, she saw the mug up-ended on the draining board. What on earth…? Mummy? Her mother came down to boil the kettle and make her porridge, but was startled to see her daughter crying so early in the morning. What is it, darling? She was already late for work, and starving. She threw her handbag on the table and brushed down her jacket. What is it? she repeated. The child was pointing at something next to the sink. Mummy! she wailed, you’ve killed the moon! 

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Punk, Politics and the Personal: In Praise of the Manic Street Preachers


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One of my earliest memories is being at my dad’s old flat and messing with the hi-fi player to get attention. It would’ve been around about 1998, the year the Manic Street Preachers released their album, This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours. Maybe my dad and my brother were watching rugby on T.V or something, and I’d read all the books I’d brought with me. Well anyway, I thought of a keen plan to wind them up. I turned on the hi-fi and skipped to my dad’s favourite song (at least, his favourite song that wasn’t anything by U2!) and let it play. Loudly. And then I put it on repeat. And then I stopped letting it play out; I just played the first bar or so then pressed repeat and played it again, as if it were on a loop, inducing hypnosis. Incidentally, those first few notes are inscribed into my memory. The song was ‘You Stole the Sun from My Heart’.

Since then, I’ve drifted through life with the Manics not far from my consciousness. When I was about fourteen, I discovered some of the darker tracks from The Holy Bible online and basically that was me sorted for emotional outlet. What better lyrics do you need as an existentially-frustrated teenager than: ‘self-worth scatters, self-esteem’s a bore’? However, it’s only this summer that I’ve come to properly listen to the album in full. By pure coincidence, it just so happens that this year marks the 20th anniversary of The Holy Bible’s release. I was one year old when it came out. Funny, how it still rasps with fresh energy, all these years later when a whole new generation are beginning to appreciate it. It has songs about capital punishment, anorexia, the Holocaust, prostitution, aching nostalgia, suicide and (metaphorical) political sex scandals. At times it can be painful to listen to, with its throbbing, angry bass-lines, and packed-in lyrics which scream razor-sharp poetry: ‘Your idols speak so much of the abyss / Yet your morals only run as deep as the surface’ (‘IfwhiteAmericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart’). James Dean Bradfield is a master at the smashing (in the literal sense of smashing), punkish guitar rhythms and sailing solos that almost make your brain hurt. At the same time as being able to throw out all those lines, a million a minute. It’s brilliant. I can only imagine how amazing it must’ve felt, back then, to go out and buy this brand new album and listen to it on a Walkman and feel, more than ever, electric and alive. And angry at everything.

The Holy Bible is now considered an early 1990s classic, to be filed alongside the (considerably cheerier) offerings of 90s Britpop; for example, Oasis’s Definitely Maybe (1994) and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995), and the holy bible of grunge, Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991). While the rest of British music was penning the likes of ‘Live Forever’, ‘Rock and Roll Star’ and ‘Park Life’ – drunk anthems for the boozy masses (and still we love them, if only in secret) – the Manics were deconstructing contemporary society (class, political injustice, historical trauma) and existential crisis through the spike-edged modes of punk, pessimism and fury.

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Moreover, as its title suggests, The Holy Bible is more than just an album: it’s also a text. A network of references and quotes, provocative enough to set you on a trail of philosophical and literary discovery. The voracious listener is able to devour even more information by following up the sources scattered over its songs, learning at the same time as participating in this performance of knowledge. Camus, Foucault, Plath and others haunt this album, through direct references but also aesthetics. There’s Plath’s visceral emphasis on the body and its various contortions and distortions, its ruptures and vulnerabilities: ‘a tiny animal curled into a quarter circle’ (‘Die in the Summertime’). The title of track ‘Archives of Pain’ pays homage a chapter in David Macey’s 1993 biography of French philosopher Michel Foucault (who wrote Discipline and Punish), and the song itself considers changing societal values with regards to punishment, although it is ambiguous as to whether the song advocates a return to capital punishment, or a refusal of the glorification of serial killers. Lyrics such as ‘prisons must bring their pain’ and ‘the centre of humanity is cruelty’ offer a bleak, Lord of the Flies rendering of humankind’s essential lust for destruction, its need for revenge. While Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards collaborated on its lyrics, Richey seems to claim it as a ‘pro-capital punishment song’  (see Harris 2004), while Nicky told music magazine Melody Maker: ‘everyone gets a self destructive urge to kill, but I don’t particularly like the glorification of it. The song isn’t a right-wing statement, it’s just against this fascination with people who kill’ (cited in Power 2010). The ethical ambiguity of this song adds to its disturbing quality, its fury that cannot quite be pinned down.

The album also crackles with various audio samples, a ghost chamber of voices which include a fragment from an interview with the mother of a victim of Peter Sutcliffe (the 1946 so-called ‘Yorkshire Ripper’):

I wonder who you think you are
You damn well think you’re God or something
God give life, God taketh it away, not you
I think you are the Devil itself

And when you hear it, you’re chilled to the bone, before being thrown into the savage world of ‘Archives of Pain’. There’s also a quote from the author J. G. Ballard talking about his controversial novel Crash (1973), which flashes in as a soundbite on ‘Mausoleum’: ‘I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, force it to look in the mirror’. Mausoleum is a song inspired by a visit to Auschwitz, to the barren landscapes where concentration camps once existed, but still linger. The chorus is simply:

No birds – no birds
The sky is swollen black
No birds – no birds
Holy mass of dead insect

It’s painful and bare, so that listening to it, you imagine a dark carcass of a sky, heavy with the traumatic void of its past. The ‘dead insect’ which serves not only as an image of the barren remainders of death, but also perhaps as a reference to those swarms of people who were so brutally dehumanised during World War Two. And Ballard’s quote captures everything about The Holy Bible: it’s visceral, it forces you to confront the shadows of your own self, and of humanity. It provokes an abject reaction, through its images of self-harm, dismemberment, corrupt sex and violence. At the same time, it ‘obliterates your meaning’ (‘Mausoleum’); it shatters all attempts to make sense of the traumatic events it references. The conventional linear progression of melody and song and perhaps even narrative in an album is broken up with intertexts and ghosts, and perhaps that’s why it still lives on today. Unlike, perhaps, an Oasis album, which is nostalgically evocative of more simpler, hopeful times, it doesn’t feel in the least bit dated. Its endless trail of references add shadow and depth to its meaning.

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But perhaps, listening to it now, you feel that it’s haunted most by Richey Edwards himself, the band’s fourth member who penned (Nicky Wire has claim to the other quarter) 75% of the lyrics. Following bouts of depression, self-harm and an eating disorder, Richie disappeared one morning in January 1995, just before he and James were due to visit the U.S. on a promotional tour. In February, his car was found abandoned at a service station near the Severn Bridge. Since then, almost twenty years on, still no evidence or trace of Edwards has been found. Even though he was pronounced officially ‘presumed dead’ a few years ago, the aporia of his disappearance remains. Of course, this allows fans to string mythological tales about his reappearances around the world. The lack of closure is perhaps what is most distressing: the not-knowing, the sense that at any time he could come back into his friend’s and family’s lives. Listening to The Holy Bible, Richey’s personal suffering is of course inscribed in every line, even though most of the lyrics reach a universal, almost transcendental pain at times: ‘I’ve long since moved to a higher plateau’ (‘4st. 7lbs’). And then you hear him when listening to the Manics’ later albums, which are still full of Richey’s presence/non-presence in the band: ‘You keep giving me your free air miles / What would I give just for one of your smiles’ (‘Nobody Loved You’), and ‘As holy as the soil that buries your skin / As holy as the love we’ll never give / As holy as the time that drifted away / I love you so will you please come home’ (‘As Holy as the Soil (That Buries Your Skin)’).  Richey’s bandmates even dug out his old notebooks, with permission from his family, to use as the lyrics for their 2009 album, Journal for Plague Lovers. Maybe the most painfully intimate Richey track is the final song on this album, ‘William’s Last Words’. Arranged by Wire, it features soft guitar strokes and his crooning, deep voice singing about voyeurism over lines of loss and death that almost sound a melancholy joy:

Isn’t it lovely, when the dawn brings the dew?
I’ll be watching over you
Isn’t it lovely, when the dawn brings the dew
I’ll be watching over you

It ends with the bittersweet lines: ‘I’d love to go to sleep and wake up happy, / Wake up happy’. It’s a stripped-back Manics; it’s simple but stays with you, innocent and chilling, like the blood-spattered Jenny Saville artwork that adorns Journal’s cover:

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In this album we also see again that familiar combination of theory and fiery politics, as the opening track references Noam Chomsky’s book, Rethinking Camelot: JFK, The Vietnam War, and US Political Culture (1993):

Riderless horses on Chomsky’s Camelot
Bruises on my hands from digging my nails out
A series of images, against you and me
Trespass your torment if you are what you want to be

The sense of our powerlessness to media and mediated disaster is captured here in just a few frenzied lines. ‘A series of images’: the sense of personal and political conflict flashes past us in handfuls of words, just like the way that war plays out through the flickering light of our television screens. Chomsky’s book documented a critique of Kennedy’s foreign policy in Vietnam, and these themes of military funerals, fallen soldiers, geo-political conflicts and human sacrifice in war are all invoked in a handful of words, powerfully delivered as ever by Bradfield. We might think also of ‘Kevin Carter’, the trumpet-tinged single from Everything Must Go (1996) which documents the story of ‘Bang Bang Club’ and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, Kevin Carter, who famously suffered from the haunting scenes of all the killings and suffering he had witnessed (and indeed photographed) and eventually committed suicide. The Manics, not just with their military-inspired outfits, are consistently attuned to themes of war and death.

The mysterious story of Richey and the Manics is of course seductive, and perhaps part of the enshrinement of pain that goes with their mythology, but they are also an incredibly uplifting band. They kick the listener into political engagement, which is refreshing in a time of political apathy (or the complete neglect of politics in most pop and rock music, with the exception, perhaps, of Muse’s Matt Bellamy and his crazy conspiracy theories). Songs like ‘The Masses Against the Classes’ and ‘Design for Life’ are songs about working-class experience and class politics in the post-Thatcher era. Of course, being from Blackwood, an ex-mining town in Wales, the Manics are all familiar with the catastrophic effects of deindustrialisation upon communities. Seeing the life and soul of a town being lain to waste after the rich won the class-wars of the miners’ strikes. Their eleventh studio album, Rewind the Film, closes with the song ’30-Year War’, which references the Battle of Orgreave, the Hillsborough disaster, coverups at the BBC (and oh how there are many – from Savile to Scottish Independence) and has the refrain, ‘the old-boy network won the war again’. It’s depressing, but realistic in our time of austerity. Has much has really changed from the Thatcherite legacies of the early 1990s, when the Manics came into being? Arguably, with the rise of UKIP and a weakening Labour party, the ‘working-class’ opposition to neoliberalism faces an even deeper well of apathy.

Source: walesoline.co.uk
Source: walesoline.co.uk

On the subject of far right politics, funnily enough last year the far-right English Defence League (EDL)  tried to appropriate the Manics’ 1998 hit ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ for promoting a demonstration in Birmingham. The song features the pretty much crystal clear lyrics: ‘So if I can shoot rabbits / Then I can shoot fascists’. As well as a lesson in irony, it is probably a reflection on the EDL’s stupidity as much as anything else to choose a song inspired by an anti-fascist slogan used during the Spanish Civil War. The Manics have always been associated with political controversy, from Nicky Wire’s sharpish (‘remember, all men should castrate themselves’) quotes to the band’s iconography (famously, a 1994 performance on Top of the Pops featured Bradfield wearing a ‘terrorist style’ balaclava, albeit with his name scrawled across it playfully like a name sewn onto a school jumper), but in this case, the EDL’s appropriate was too ridiculous and they had to sue.

***

This autumn, the Manics announced that they were finally ready to do a Holy Bible anniversary tour. Although my dad and I jumped on Ticketmaster at 9am, we were unable to grab any tickets for the elusive Barrowlands date, which apparently sold out in two minutes.  I’m really gutted (especially as it would have been a welcome reward for finishing uni coursework), as I can’t really imagine a gig that would have quite the same emotional resonance. Nevertheless, the fact that they’re now touring the album means they’re playing it more in general across various forms of media, which is always a great thing. I must admit, it was very satisfying to see James, Nicky and Sean performing ‘Revol’ on Later…With Jools Holland. When Jools interviewed them about the song they were going to play from the Holy Bible, Nicky sort of giggles and says it’s about dictators engaged in metaphorical sex games, some clever idea of Richey’s. There’s an irony that he’s certainly aware of. How commercialised music’s become, how such a song just doesn’t have its place in today’s music world. It’s telling that the two songs chosen to broadcast on the evening show were the poppier (but no less the better!) offerings from their new album, Futurology (2014). The new album is bold, flamboyantly European and even features that rare delight of Nicky singing on the chorus of a leading single, ‘Futurology’. It’s bold – maybe even bombastic – but the boldness is put into relief by the acoustic introspection and self-deprecation that characterised their previous album, Rewind the Film. They just keep reinventing themselves, and that’s the best thing about the Manics: they don’t do paltry repetitions, or parodies of their former selves. Their lyrics stick with you and gather new meanings as each album throws your deepest assumptions into question.

Artwork from 'La Tristesse Durera' (Gold Against the Soul)
Artwork from ‘La Tristesse Durera’ (Gold Against the Soul)

You could argue that the Manics have the paradoxical personality of a child: that strange urge to both disappear and gain all the attention in the world. To ‘walk in the snow and not leave a footprint’ (‘4st. 7lbs’) but also pen the extroverted Krautrock of ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’, which throws itself into electronic music but also the increasingly frenzied political debates surrounding Europe in Britain right now. And like the child that I once was, trying to break my dad’s CD player by endlessly repeating one of their most successful songs, they go for attention. Their confidence isn’t the laddish arrogance of their Britpop bedfellows, but the endearing ambition and glam aesthetic of their early years and the strong direction that characterises most of their career (maybe Lifeblood was a slip-up, but I think it deserves more than straight dismissal…). It’s an oft-forgotten fact that the Manics’ single ‘The Masses Against the Classes’, was the first British chart No. 1 in the new millennium. It’s a single that begins with Chomsky: ‘The primary role of the government is to protect property from the majority and so it remains’ and ends with Camus: ‘A slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown’. Maybe this vicious cycle of capitalist desire and inequality will continue through the millennium, but by god let’s hope there’s still artists like the Manics around to do all they can to critique it. And if that’s not enough for you, then the fact that Nicky Wire went to the Brit Awards wearing an ‘I Love Hoovering’ t-shirt (and the man seriously does love housework) really should. What could be cooler than a Situationist statement which isn’t for once pure hipster irony?

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basically Nicky Wire is amazing & makes me want to wear leopard print again

***

Harris, John, 2004. ‘The commitments’ in The Guardian, Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2004/nov/21/popandrock [Accessed 7.11.14].

NME, 2013. ‘Manic Street Preachers take legal action against the English Defence League’ , Available at: http://www.nme.com/news/manic-street-preachers/71397 [Accessed 7.11.14].

Power, Martin, 2010. Manic Street Preachers: Nailed to History (London: Omnibus Press).

Oranges for Bonfire Night

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(from a Creative Writing Society freewrite with the prompts ‘fireworks’ and ‘oranges’)

She remembers the days when she and her brother popped over to the neighbour’s house for Bonfire Night. She’d climb over the garden wall, wearing her wellies and her dad’s itchy jumper that came down to her knees and a hat her mother had pulled over her fringe. They’d play with the children next-door because they were good friends and the same age, more or less. Even though it was pitch dark in the November night, they’d dance around the garden, shrieking and playing tig or hide and seek while they waited for the fireworks to be set up. They were cheap fireworks, bought from the local store, which ordered them from some chemistry enthusiast in the city. This was, of course, before The Internet.

She can’t remember his name, the man next-door; the dad who told the kids off for laughing too loud and who’d sneak off for fags in the greenhouse while his wife did the washing up. She remembers the blur of his bearded face. His yell as he stepped back from the firework he’d just set up. She remembers the mum better; the mum used to bring out steaming mugs of soup and carrier bags loaded with oranges. She remembers standing in the cold bright air, peeling with the stubs of her fingernails the rind that came away like thick flakes of skin. Biting into the soft flesh as a flame-coloured Comet rippled above her. The sour sting of the juice squirting in her eye; the sweetness seeping over her tongue. Stickiness on her fingers. She’d toss most of it away, into the rhubarb patch. She wanted to save her appetite for the chocolate log and lollypops that awaited them inside.

There’d be the rockets, soaring and screeching in her ears like banshees, sizzling in her belly. The wheeeEEeeeee like electricity. She hated them, but they were a thrill. She’d look up to catch them but they’d be gone already. Then there were the pretty ones. She read their names off the cardboard box, discarded on the porch: Crosettes, Dragons’ Eggs, Ice Fountains and Blossoms. She watched them go off with the other children, trying to identify each one as if they were flowers in a biology textbook. Only, they were always too quick; their beauty dazzled her vision and then evaporated. There were the ones that overflowed like ocean spray, showering and spitting flickers of white and silver, like a jeweller soldering a giant diamond. Rainbows would spread out across the smooth sky, raining colours across the tall trees at the back of the garden. Her favourite was the Catherine Wheel. It took ages to set up, but it was magical. It spiralled like a wild thing from the pole of the washing-line, sparks flying around it with the craziness of broken machinery, or hypnosis. She adored the Catherine Wheels. They made her feel strange and unreal, as if she were looking into an abyss.

After all the fireworks were gone, the children were doled out sparklers, which they were only allowed to use with gloves. The sparklers let them write their names in the air, as if they were inscribing their thin identities into the vast constellations of the night sky, the atoms of the air around them. She misses how back then in the country you could always see the stars and the sky achieved a proper dark. In the city where she lives now the sky is always a murky brown, the colour of Coca Cola or dirty rivers.

She used to hate how eventually they’d have to go inside. She used to want to stay out in the garden forever, sucking in the lovely coldness of November night. She hated how the sparklers had to be chucked into water buckets, where they’d snuff out with a quick hiss. The adults would always check that they hadn’t burned their little fingers. She remembers the faint char marks that stained her gloves. Remainders. She found those gloves, only a few months ago, when she’d gone home to help clear the house. They were in that same yellow jacket she used to wear, and even just touching the plasticky fabric brought back glimmers of firework enchantments. But the gloves were full of holes, the stitches became undone in her hands. Everything was to be given away, sold or donated to charity, after her mother died and now that the house was to be sold as her father left for business in America.

He’d phone her from new places and his voice would crackle over the phone like a fading sparkler. She closes her eyes and still she smells the warm soup, the tickle of gunpowder.

And oranges. She remembers the oranges. She never liked oranges.

Memories from MSN

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Few things define the noughties more than MSN Messenger. The spinning pair of green and blue icons, surrounded by butterflies. The friendly window which popped up every time you logged onto the family computer after school, to ‘do some homework’. Forget Facebook, MSN was basically the main communication channel for my generation growing up, and I feel like its recent closure deserves some elegising. Yes, incase you hadn’t heard, MSN (rebranded since 2005 as Windows Live Messenger), is no longer with us. Microsoft forced its clients to give up the nostalgic platform and merge with Skype.

I remember getting my first email address, when the world of social media as we know it was still in its infancy. My cousin helped me set up my first hotmail account, and I was delighted to find that I could call it anything I wanted. I could express my (proto-manic-pixie) weirdness with some cool and random name I made up. I opted for ‘strawberry_bonfire’, an email address which incidentally I still often use (although not for LinkedIn or job applications…). It felt like a rite of passage, typing in my home address for some anonymous computer to process and setting up a password and making an email signature. People could now contact me. I was contactable. I’d have my own inbox. More importantly, I could set up a Neopets account! And an MSN account!

There was something unique about MSN’s interface which sets it apart from the likes of Facebook messenger, or Snapchat. I suppose the emphasis on conversation is key here. Each conversation opened out into a window of its own, although you could group your chats in ‘tabs’ for ease of moving between conversations. There was of course, the odd awkward moment when you accidentally sent someone a message reply that was intended for another person. Gossiping via MSN was a tricky business, which required organisation and attention.

Everything was a beautiful network of colours and messed-up symbols. It took a good five minutes to work out who was who when you looked at your contacts list, especially if your friends had recently updated their names. There was a whole sequence of tildas, dashes and asterisks to sift through before you could pinpoint your pal’s pseudonym or elaborately embellished screen name. I suppose that’s another reason why (not so) secretly I still prefer MySpace and MSN to Facebook…there’s that element of individuality that you don’t really get in the highly structured systems of more contemporary social media platforms. Sure, they’re probably more resistant to coding bugs because of their relative standardisation, but I miss the quirkiness of an amateur’s attempts at html on a MySpace theme, or a smear or rainbow lettering constituting someone’s MSN name. You came to know people not by their boring old real name and photograph (as on Facebook), but by some random avatar and distinctive font. That one friend you recognised when they popped up saying ‘hi’ by their enduring use of cyan-coloured Comic Sans or violet Monotype Corsiva as much as their name. There’s a nice sense of cosiness that comes with this, of online personalities being fabricated, selves being formed in the endless conversations that would eat into hours of an evening. Back then, we were too young to go to the pub, too remote in the country to find something ‘real’ and useful to do like join a sports club or an art class. Even if we did do extra stuff, MSN filled in the rest of our time, extended our social lives.

Then there was the personal message. This could range from ‘ugh doing maths homework’, to ‘Amy You Are My One <3’ and the ambiguous ‘=/’ which would result in a barrage of people asking ‘what’s up?’, only for the person to reply, ‘nothing’. Your personal message also revealed what you were listening to, if you had your iTunes hooked up. This of course stopped you listening to hideously embarrassing music (in theory) and listening to what you thought would impress other people. It was also a good indicator of people’s moods. God knows I wouldn’t start a conversation with someone if they were listening to Secondhand Serenade or Hawthorne Heights…

Then there was the ‘nudge’ function which was brought in later on. The bane of your existence if you were trying to coordinate MSN with homework or downloading or streaming YouTube videos (basically, my ancient computer would crash every time I received a nudge), the nudge would make your screen shake and force you to pay attention to the nudger’s conversation. Luckily you could only send a restricted number within a certain period of time. There was a time when MSN conversations were very precious, back in the pre-Broadband days when you dreaded that fateful phrase from your mother, ‘I’m going to unplug the internet because I need to use the phone’. You had waited so long for that bloody diallup connection to ring through and now you had to hastily sign off with a quick ‘g2g xxx’. To be fair, a lot of conversations basically went like this:

Person A: Hey x
Person B: Helloooooo

Person A: Howz u?
Person B: nb, u?
Person A: gd thanks
Person B: wubu2?
Person A: just hw and stuff, u?
Person B: yeh same

Person B: g2g, byeeeee xxx

Nevertheless, a lot of us had our first breakups, friend fallouts and heart-to-heart confessions over MSN. That, I guess, is where a lot of the nostalgia comes from. Staying up into the small hours on a Friday night having a moan about life to someone, or helping them through something they were going through. You could send them helpful web articles or songs to cheer them up (it might take 2 hours for the song to arrive though), or a funny picture (memes were growing popular). Emoticons back then weren’t the loathsome ‘emoji’ phenomenon they are now (god I sound like an old woman) – they were generally small and unobtrusive (unlike Apple updating your iPad and putting in an emoji keyboard without telling you…) and often served as a welcome substitute from =] or ‘lol’ being added to the end of every message. And then if you were going on holiday you could put the little tropical island or plane symbol in your personal message, and people would know that you were now an exotic thing talking to them from the imaginary world of some hotel abroad (with dodgy WiFi connections).

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emoticons! all the emoticons!

MSN was in some ways an endlessly frustrating service, but in a way that’s what made it so good. The game of how to talk to someone you fancied without making yourself look like a stalker (wait at least ten minutes before talking to them after they’ve signed in), of working out whether your matter was urgent enough to disturb someone whose status was ‘Busy’. There was always that weirdo online at 4am who you sometimes wanted to speak to and ask what the hell was up with their sleeping pattern. Then there were the endless difficulties with connection that left you kicking the desk underneath your computer and wishing you had one of those newfangled Macbooks or something (I guess this is where the ease of the latest messaging services comes in). I kept a notepad next to my keyboard for a while and it was amazing the amount of doodling I could do in the time I spent waiting for MSN to load; sometimes it was as bad as waiting for a 3GB installation of the Sims!

Source: Urban Dictionary

Yes, MSN was great for killing time. If you had friends round, chances were you’d end up on MSN, talking to (berating, more like) SmarterChild. SmarterChild was an instant messaging chatbot, a robot who replied to your message with a complex(ish) formula of responses. You’d send it (him?) lewd messages and he’d scold you for being inappropriate. You could ask him a question about your homework and he’d do his best to look up some (mostly irrelevant) answer. He’d do your times tables, and give you dictionary definitions. If you were in a bad moon, you could take it out on SmartChild. Talking to SmarterChild felt that you were outsmarting all those academic people who were worrying about the effects of inhuman interaction on us children. We were outsmarting the robots here.

There’s a lot of talk nowadays about the dangers of the Internet for young people. Schoolchildren are supposed to be educated about staying safe online, about not talking to strangers or giving out personal information. I don’t really remember getting much (if any) education on this at school, other than, ‘don’t give anyone your phone number’. Remember that familiar acronym which haunted every MSN conversation you had with a stranger: ASL? Standing for ‘Age, Sex, Location’, it was (is?), as Urban Dictionary puts it, ‘what stupid people say on chats to learn who you are and where you live so they can come to your house with a chainsaw and kill you.’ Most of the time I would reply ’99, Cat, the moon’, and then block them, but then that’s just me…I always felt MSN was totally safe. It was so easy to block people (the satisfaction of seeing their little icon turn red!) or appear offline so they couldn’t start a conversation with you. The fact that it was a separate console and not embedded within your browser felt more private somehow, and less like your every word was being tracked with cookies, or sucked into the black hole of some governmental data archive. Facebook exposes a lot more information about you than MSN ever did. All you’d get from the average person’s MSN profile was some kooky screen name, a jumble of symbols and song lyrics and maybe a blurry/’arty’ webcam shot of the side of their face.

One of the earliest academics to properly study the effects of online communication on people’s identities was Sherry Turkle. Her book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995) looked at how people interact via MUDs (role playing games and forums on the the internet), through which they communicated in fictional worlds. I suppose the fantasy-scape of something like Dungeons and Dragons is an example here, but someone with more expertise in what is evolving into online cos-play would surely be able to list many more. Well in this book, Turkle basically argued that such online interactions, which involved the play of masks and multiple identities, were allowing people to develop a postmodern mode of knowledge – they came to see reality itself as a play of surface signifiers, a swirling universe of simulations. Think Baudrillard here, only, Baudrillard getting serious research application (not just armchair academia or The Matrix). Identity becomes a game, a game in which you have some control; as Turkle points out, “One player says, ‘You are what you pretend to be…you are what you play.’”. Simulations basically infect out reality, and allow us to enjoy it like a game, playing out the selves we have created online.

Scene from Chatroom

There are of course, many film and literary representations of the dangers of forging online identities: the thriller Chatroom (2010) stages chatrooms as anonymous hotel rooms, in which teenagers encourage each other to do increasingly disturbing actions in reality, culminating in the most psychopathic character trying to manipulate someone to commit suicide. Jeanette Winterson’s The Power.Book (2000), named after an old Mac computer, delves into the fantasy realm enabled by the Internet, with its chimerical portrayal of a dialogue between two selves (whose names and identities shift). For Winterson, the computer functions as a way of exploring the multiplicity of narratives, the instantaneity of their communication and transformation. Her chapters have names like ‘New Document’ and ‘Search’. Whether she creates a credible Internet Romance (could this be a genre? The Guardian (2000) reviewed it as ‘a virtuoso trip into virtual reality’ ) or a gimmicky spin on vaguely plausible computer jargon is up to the reader. Still, it does link in to Turkle’s ideas about how the Internet has fabricated a postmodern reality of play and possibility.

I’m not sure exactly how much scope MSN offered for that sort of thing. Often, we just used it to chat to our friends as we would in real life. We’d have ‘group convos’ which contained as much shouting (CAPITALS), annoying nudges and confusing dialogue as such a conversation would play out in real life. Sure, maybe we’d open up a bit more online, with the safety of the computer interface. We could tell our secrets to complete strangers, who wouldn’t know our real name and so couldn’t track us down later via Facebook to wreck our lives. We could just block them. So maybe there was a bit of identity ‘play’ there, but mostly it was just an extension of the interactions we had in the park, on the bus, in the playground. It wasn’t a simulated, enclosed environment in the same way a chatroom online is; it wasn’t a specific ‘zone’ – it was a console that you opened up, a kind of tool as opposed to a virtual reality. That’s how it felt to me anyway.

Throughout my teens, Piczo, MySpace and Bebo would come and go, fading into the recesses of an Internet shadow-world that secretly archives every scrap of your self that was once uploaded online. But MSN was faithful, erasing every conversation into the imaginary ether, so that only you could read over previous conversations (if you had ‘chat logs’ switched on; but they certainly weren’t searchable online in the same way your dreadful Piczo account was). MSN was the gateway for many friendships, a forum to vent frustration and a place to play chess with a stranger from America who added you because his cousin knew your friend or something. A place where you got a pleasant kick from signing on and seeing the ghost message of someone who’d tried to talk to you when you were offline. You felt that important. A place of horrific fonts: ‘яσ¢кιи ιи нєανєи, 2кαιι7’ and fondly irritating screennames (my own include ‘Whatsername’ (yes, a riff on Green Day’s American Idiot – I was a twelve-year-old-wannabe-goff) and Maria Magickk (I promise you, I knew people with worse ‘scene’ names than that; also, I thought the double k was a clever reference to the ‘kk’ which everyone substituted for ‘okay’ on MSN. Oh dear.). Now that MSN has been shut down for good in its final resting place and we all have to migrate to Skype (never!), I guess all that’s left for us Generation Y people is the WhatsApps and Snapchats and other gimmicky chat applications that smartphones have brought us. Conversation these days is less about talking and more about sending emoticons and stupid pictures (bah humbug!). For the rest of us, there’s always the excellent nostalgia trip that is the MSN Memories Twitter account: https://twitter.com/MSNmesenger (enjoy).

the dreaded Troubleshoot message

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Kellaway, Kate, 2000. ‘She’s got the power’ in The Guardian. Available at: <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/aug/27/fiction.jeanettewinterson> [Accessed 3.11.14].

Nakata, Hideo, 2010. Chatroom [DVD].

Neopets(!) www.neopets.com [just cause you have to try it]

Turkle, Sherry, 1995. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster).

Winterson, Jeanette, 2000. The Power.Book (London: Vintage).